Monday, 12 August 2019

Guest review by Graeme Fife: BESIDE THE OCEAN OF TIME by George Mackay Brown

'Mackay Brown is a writer of haunting spell, a compelling weaver of yarns...' 

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. Great Cycling Climbs, which brings together his books on the French Alps, has just been published by Thames and Hudson. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.'

The great skua is known in the Scottish islands as a bonxie, a Shetland name of Norse origin. He flies low over the sea but think of him cruising into a higher slipstream and circling the string of rocky outcrops that make these other islands, ‘the green hills and the blue waters of Orkney’, the treeless open ground where the men and women of the small population tend the planticrus (walled vegetable patches) and haul up their boats from the chafing sea onto the noust (a scooped-out trench atop a beach, protected by a shallow wall of stones), ready for the next foray into the waters for fish. The low walls are everywhere, sign of the need to win shelter from the wind that sweeps over the low ground, the wind that tosses the bonxie as he espies the pattern of existence that has been the same and changed endlessly over the centuries here.

For these islands have played unwilling host to succeeding waves of ‘land-hungerers’ as George Mackay Brown terms them in this novel, one of a series exploring the vicissitudes and intrigue of Orcadian life. In it he traces the dwindling lines of a story which slips in an out of the strands of history of these people – particularly the abiding menace of ‘war-hunger’: the advent of the Norsemen…the days when the Oracadian men marched south to join Robert the Bruce on the field of Bannockburn against the English come, in vain, to subdue all Scotland…the final chapter of the incursions, a great onslaught of concrete and tarmac at the outset of the war against Germany, laying flat the farms and holdings of the Orkneys as a base for fighter planes to combat the waves of bombers, slashing through the skies at speeds inconceivable to the bonxie and seeing beneath them, on the raw stone, scraped clear of ploughed farmland to make way for landing strips, men and women at war but not displacing the centuries-old hard toil of harbouring the fish, culling the oats for the staple cakes, churning the goat milk to butter and cheese, cutting the peat for the fires that must never be left to die out, for when a fire goes out ‘the croft dies’.

Mackay Brown is a writer of haunting spell, a compelling weaver of yarns – how apt that the image of the woollen garments the Oracadian women knit should chime with the tales that beguiled their long winter evenings by lamplight. He is an outstanding embodiment of what he calls ‘the music of  (the) island speech’, a language that laces together Norse, English and Scots, exploring the pull of ‘the ocean of eternity, the many voiced sea’. One young woman, though, has a voice that is quite different. ‘Her speech had something of the music of breakers in a cave-mouth, or far-off horizon notes, or dolphins in the flood tide.’ She is a selkie. If you don’t know what a selkie is, what enchantment awaits you in finding out. For the selkie is part of the continuum of these island stories and Mackay Brown is a shrewd and kindly companion in the roaming through them.

At the conclusion of the novel, a woman returns there to live, to be with the man she met when she came first and they were young - he written off as an idler, a good-for-nothing and the central narrator of the stories that fill the book to bursting, like the stomachs of Burns’s haggis-feasters, ‘bent like drums’. She contemplates her future: 'I'll dig my three acres and milk my goat,' said Sophie. 'I'll settle for that. We never find what we set our hearts on. We ought to be glad of that.'

For there is no quarrelling with the wind or the winnowing storm. The choice is resignation or accommodation. The peoples of the island, prey to all manner of invasion and incursion, natural and human, are stuck, to a degree, but persist, somehow. Their wandering – their continued defiance - is expressed in the stories they tell, the plunderings of the outer reaches of the imagination where they travel in ‘dream time’ which they bring back to the fires in the crofts, the work on the creels outside the stone-built dwellings, the quiet of the times on the calm seas as they wait for fish...

‘The body laments, the body dances; from somewhere deep within, in the heart’s heart, or from beyond the furthest star, the good angel, the guardian,is playing on his pipe’.        
Beside the Ocean of Time is published by Polygon.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Two eerie tales: MR GODLEY'S PHANTOM by Mal Peet and THIN AIR by Michelle Paver, reviewed by Linda Newbery

'With both these novels, you'd better have uninterrupted time ahead before you begin.'

Linda Newbery has published widely for young readers and is now completing her second novel for adults. Her latest book is The Key to Flambards, which follows K M Peyton's classic Flambards quartet but is set in the present. 

I've admired Mal Peet's work since reading Tamar, a story of the Dutch resistance combined with a present-day mystery. Published for young adults, it won the Carnegie Medal, but is of equal interest to adults (must read it again.) Life: An Exploded Diagram, a coming-of-age novel set at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, was equally impressive. Mal Peet reminds me of Aidan Chambers in that his novels - intelligent, inventive, provocative - blur the boundary between young adult and adult fiction. At his death he had left three unpublished novels: The Murdstone Trilogy (which isn't a trilogy and wasn't intended to be); Beck, a young adult novel still in progress which was completed by Meg Rosoff; and this - a first draft with notes to himself for its revision.

It's a novella really, though generously spaced, illustrated by Ian Beck and handsomely produced in hardback (now in paperback too, with the striking cover shown below). As Daniel Hahn says in his Afterword: "It is many kinds of book rolled into one: a story about a man recovering from trauma, a historical novel, and even a police procedural." It's also a ghost story of a sort. The phantom of the title refers - partly, at least - to Mr Godley's pride and joy, his Rolls-Royce Phantom Three Sedance de Ville, with the bonnet mascot shown on the cover. It's this car that entices Martin Heath, a distinguished young war veteran suffering from what we'd now call PTSD, to take up a post as Mr Godley's chauffeur and handyman at a remote Devon mansion, Burra Hall.  

But there are other 'ghosts', too. The frail and elderly Mr Godley himself reminds Martin, horribly, of the pitiful sights he saw on entering Belsen: 'Martin had felt neither rage nor even revulsion. rather, it was like discovering that he had contracted an incurable disease; that, having inhaled the miasma of death, he could never be well again. That his heart might eat itself.' And Mr Godley in turn is haunted by his son Julian, who was killed in action less than a month before the 1918 Armistice, and of whom Martin seems to remind him.

This might sound unbearably grim, but in Mal Peet's hands it isn't - at least, not all the time. Peet has an expertly light touch that enables him to indicate horrors without ever overdoing the pathos or telling us how to react. Martin's recovery is aided by the willingness of servant girl Annie to engage in regular and vigorous sex, and there's humorous observation: Godley's laugh is "four dry, chickeny sounds" and Martin, assessing Annie's appeal on first meeting her, notes that "it was difficult to judge the attractiveness of a woman eating cabbage." There are unexpected turns, and then more, with light relief provided in the viewpoints of Detective Inspector Sheepstone and DS Panter, called in to investigate the old man's disappearance. But towards the end, reading Mr Godley's years-old journal which is presented in a plausibly crabbed and not easily legible hand, the emotional power was such that I felt I was prying into the private anguish of a real person.

The title, subtitle, and many things in the story don't yield all their meanings at once. As with all Mal Peet's work, it's a novel that will repay re-reading.

Like him, Michelle Paver first made her name by writing for young readers; she's best known for her award-winning Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series. I was gripped by Dark Matter, with its high Arctic setting, so was eager to read Thin Air, which takes us to the Himalayas in the mid 1930s in the company of an expedition attempting to reach the summit of Kangchenjunga. They're following the path of a failed attempt made thirty years previously; five mountaineers of that party were killed, as documented in a published account by leader Sir Edmund Lyell.

From the moment when narrator Dr Stephen Pearce meets the only living survivor of that expedition, the omens are unsettling. Dogged by guilt over a broken engagement and constantly needled by taunts from his brother Kits, a more accomplished climber, Stephen soon realises that he's not the only one alert to forebodings; the 'coolies' on whom the party depend for the conveying of supplies to Base Camp and on upward have many superstitions of their own, partly to do with the demands of the mountain gods but also connected to the presence of an uneasy spirit. When these 'coolies' find an old rucksack, identified as the property of a climber from Lyell's expedition whose body was never discovered, Stephen is assailed by mounting feelings of dread. His scientific background only makes his hallucinations the more worrying: "... even if I'm wildly mistaken about everything, about what I saw on the Crag and now here at the crevasse - even if  it's all simply the result of oxygen deficiency - how does that help? The idea that altitude is giving me waking nightmares, that thin air is altering my very perceptions and deceiving my own mind into betraying me ... I find that horrifying. It's a kind of possession." And the dog Cedric who's adopted the party acts as a barometer, frequently disappearing when the atmosphere darkens.

As bickering breaks out among the group and individuals suffer from frostbite and worse, we're all too aware of the dangers that must be confronted before the summit is reached. But the real horror in the story comes from the cleverly contrived realisation of the fate suffered by the owner of the rucksack - and how the truth about the Lyell expedition has been concealed.  

Michelle Paver excels at taking us with her characters into extreme conditions. I simply couldn't put this book down; it's a ghost story for which I'll willingly suspend disbelief, full of tension and thoroughly convincing on the details of terrain, the lure and terrors of the mountains, bodily frailty and survival. With both these novels, you'd better have uninterrupted time ahead before you begin.

Mr Godley's Phantom - an infection of evil is published by David Fickling Books
Thin Air - a Ghost Story is published by Orion

(Pictured: Mal Peet, and the new paperback cover for Mr Godley's Phantom, published 1st August; Michelle Paver and her latest novel, Wakenhyrst.)

Monday, 29 July 2019

THIRD ANNIVERSARY POST No.2 by guest Diane Setterfield: THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers

"There are many books that engross, enchant, delight, but in a lifetime of reading only very few books leave you with the feeling that your soul has been expanded."

Diane Setterfield is the best-selling author of The Thirteenth Tale and Bellman & Black. Her most recent novel is Once Upon a River (see our recent review here). She lives by the river in Oxford and reads a lot but never enough. 

A few decades ago, heading for the station to begin a long train journey, I realised I had nothing to read. Panic!

‘Take this,’ a friend told me, pressing into my hands a book by an author whose name I did not recognise.

The thing is, my friend is a reader who enjoys nothing better than lengthy books by male, white American writers, the kind who are now mostly dead. We all have our blind spots, and I admit that The Great American Novel is not something I particularly relish. Still, Bristol to Edinburgh is a long way, doing the journey with nothing to read was unthinkable, and even a poor book is better than none.

On the train, I opened the cover of the battered paperback and within three lines the story had reached out and dragged me under.

I remember nothing of that journey, except raising my eyes once from the page in a state of ravished bedazzlement, and seeing fields slide by as I registered that something momentous was happening to me.

There are many books that engross, enchant, delight, but in a lifetime of reading only very few leave you with the feeling that your soul has been expanded. At the end of the book I acknowledged that I might have been wrong about dead, white male American writers. Sometimes, I had to admit, such a person might be so gifted with the power of close observation, might hone a talent for writing for so many decades, that in the prime of life, at the pinnacle of their skill, they would be capable of such boundless wisdom, such mastery of construction.

The book was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, its author Carson McCullers. You are no doubt better informed than I was, and you probably know what took me so much by surprise when I later discovered it. Carson McCullers’ full name was Lula Carson McCullers. And not only was she a woman, she was just nineteen, barely out of girlhood, when she started writing this astonishing book. By 1940, when it was published, she was just 23 – and America’s new literary phenomenon.

So, what’s this amazing book about, then? Well, I could say it’s about Mick Kelly, a white teenage girl in a hard-up family who yearns for music. Or I could say it’s about Benedict Copeland, a black doctor in the deep south of the 1930’s and his one-man crusade for dignity and justice. Or I could say it’s about Jake Blount, the new man in town, and his burning desire to bring about social equality for the working man. But would this knowledge have ignited in me the irrestible urge to read it? I don’t think so.

Instead I could try and tempt you with themes. It’s about the conflict between individual desire and connection with the wider world, I might tell you. Or: it’s about loneliness. But abstract nouns rarely make me want to read a book, and you might be the same.

I could tell you that Carson McCullers uses plain words and simple sentence structures that propel you fast into the book, and that with them she achieves effects more powerful and subtle than any amount of ‘beautiful style’. If it’s writing itself that rocks your boat, it might do the trick. But maybe only geeks like me get excited about this stuff.

In the end, for me, it comes down to one thing. I could almost call him a structural device, an engine, or an idea, though he is in fact a character: the deaf mute at the heart of the book, who connects each character to the others, and is the silent receptacle for all their intense wishes and wild dreams love this book for a thousand reasons. If I could give you only one reason to read this book, it would be this: Read it for Singer. His unspeaking mystery raises the book to a level of genius beyond anything else I have ever read – or could hope to write – and it is he who draws me back, decade after decade, to watch him again and feel myself alter.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is published by Penguin in the Modern Classics series.

Monday, 22 July 2019

THIRD ANNIVERSARY POST No.1 by guest Jill Paton Walsh: SCENES FROM A CHILDHOOD by Jon Fosse, translated by Damion Searls

Photograph by Julia Hedgecoe

"What an extraordinary writer Jon Fosse is!"

Jill Paton Walsh has been a professional author since 1966.  She has written for children of many ages, from toddlers to teenagers,  has written five literary novels and more recently four detective stories with her own detective. She has also been pursuing the cast of characters in Dorothy L Sayers' famous Lord Peter Wimsey stories into their later adult lives.

She has lectured extensively about children's literature, predominantly in the United States, where her children's books have won several major prizes.  In the UK one of her adult novels, Knowledge of Angels, was a near miss for the 1994 Man Booker prize. 

She is that odd person – an Oxford graduate happily resident in Cambridge.  

My grand-daughter Catherine has grown up in Australia, so I have not seen very much of her during her childhood. She was rather sporty and talkative and not much interested in reading. Now she is in England for her gap year, and is visiting me regularly in Cambridge. Of course she has changed in many ways, but the most striking to me is that for her Heffer’s is the central sanctum of the city.

She is suddenly reading voraciously and buying books with all her spare cash.

With the excuse that she wants to know what I think of this author and that, she is controlling my own reading, concentrating on titles like Normal People by Sally Rooney, which I managed to read half way through… but at 82 I quickly found that teenaged sex was not fascinating for me.

However, she recently demanded that I read a book by a writer I must confess I had never heard of - Scenes from a Childhood  by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damian Searles, and published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

This is a collection of short stories of a strange and fragmented kind. When Catherine mentioned it to me I thought first of Schumann, and then inaccurately of Chekhov. But I was quickly very intrigued by the copy Catherine bought for me.

Jon Fosse is, as one begins to read his stories, almost impossibly artless. The scenes from childhood are raw fragments of recollection, about as coherent as fragments of china lying broken on a floor. They are not arranged, nor threaded together at all - not in any sense I at first recognised as narrated - almost literally artless. Everything is in the present tense. It is not of course particularly original to write in the present tense - nor to write a narrative imitating strains of thought - that goes back at least as far as Dorothy Richardson. I have attempted narrative in the continuous present myself, hoping to capture the immediacy of experience, and awareness of the physical context in every remembered event of one’s life.

But I have never before encountered a work of literature in which total realism, including realistic representation of the fragmented nature of recollection is being carefully employed. It is not even evident if the fragments of disconnected events are in any kind of order. It is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle with the pieces laid out helter-skelter on a table, none of them yet fitted together.

Very gradually a broken picture emerges of growing up in Norway - of family and friends, and any episode in which the narrator hurt himself and bled. That sounds harrowing, and it is - but it casts a deep light of joy on fragments of remembered moments of happiness. It is completely convincing, in the way it might be if someone were telling you what happened when they fell in the river, or broke a limb or some other traumatic or puzzling event, recalled, not understood, and recounted without any art or interpretation at all. Now and then what is remembered, is a later memory of an earlier one, still unvarnished, and unstructured.

Of course there is in a way a narrative voice; and this narrator conveys with startling and moving clarity the experience of not understanding the adult world around him.

This book ought to be depressing, so bleak and without order is the narrative; but in fact it is exhilarating to be reminded what the world is really like to innocent eyes, when the pieces don’t fit together, and understanding is not yet achieved.

Of course one result of reading the book is to feel that meaning and understanding are undercut, they are shown to be a construct. What we truly experience is not coherence…. and the fragmented pieces are mesmerising….

What an extraordinary writer Jon Fosse is! I did not expect, at my age to be offered a new view of the world, nor to find, at last, a common vision with my grand-daughter.

Scenes from a Childhood, translated by Damion Searls, is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Monday, 15 July 2019

Guest review by Julia Jarman: HOTEL DU LAC by Anita Brookner

"I loved the clear-headedness, the humour, the questions it raises..."

Photograph by Linda Newbery
Julia Jarman has written books for children of all ages. Her work includes The Time Travelling Cat series for readers of eight to twelve or thereabouts and the acclaimed picture book, Big Red Bath. She is currently trying her hand at writing for adults ‘to see if I can’.

I’ve been thinking about love lately, partly because that’s what I’m writing about at the moment, and it seemed a good idea to re-read Anita Brookner’s novel about a romantic novelist. It won the Booker Prize in 1984, controversially, with Malcolm Bradbury among others dismissing it as slight and unworthy; his word was ‘parochial’. But Linda Grant described it recently as ‘the perfect novel about romantic love and how the idea of it can shape or deform your whole identity’ and I rushed to find my copy, eager to learn.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot as one of the many pleasures of the novel is the slow revelation of what happened before spinster-appearing Edith Hope, aka romantic novelist Vanessa Wilde, arrives at the Hotel du Lac in Switzerland. She has committed a social gaffe, causing her friends – if friends they are – to dispatch her to this old-fashioned respectable establishment to re-think and possibly to mend her ways. Women’s friendship and the pressure to conform and play the game of life as lived by those friends is a sub-theme. Tweed-skirted and cardiganed, Edith is not what she seems. Edith has a lover, a married man to whom she writes long letters from exile, and at first we think he is her gaffe, but no. There is something else.

Edith’s clear-headedness is expressed in clear prose, her romantic heart in emotional sighs – there’s a lot of ‘Oh David!’ - and descriptions, sometimes lengthy but not to be ignored. They’re never just description but reveal the character and relationships of the perceiver or perceivers; when for example Edith and Mr Neville, a fellow guest, walk by the lake at sunset and turn back, ‘unwilling to witness the ritual extinction’ you know there’s something amiss. This isn’t a novel of bright colours, well only here and there; there is a lot of grey, three on page one, setting the tone, but this is not a dismal book. Things liven up.

Edith, aka Vanessa, is clear about what romantic fiction is. She is, she says, recycling the tortoise and hare myth: ‘In my books it is the mouse-like unassuming girl who gets the hero, while the scornful temptress with whom he has a stormy affair retreats baffled from the fray, never to return. The tortoise wins every time. This is a lie of course. . . In real life, it is the hare who wins. Every time. Look around you. And in any case it is my contention that Aesop was writing for the tortoise market . . . Hares don’t have time to read.’

I loved this: the clear-headedness, the humour, the questions it raises. Is Edith a tortoise or a hare? We are left wondering, but she is surely both. She is a man’s mistress after all – a hare in tortoise’s clothing? As she intimates and demonstrates in this novel, real life is much more complex than the stories she writes, but she does not write them cynically. She is not scornful of her readers, (except for one perhaps), recognising that they, like her, need romance in their lives, that they need to believe one can adore and be adored, that love can last, that longing will end in fulfillment, that there is, if only in stories, a happy ever after. Edith believes in love and hopes for it. Edith Hope? It’s a risky belief though in real life, and even more so in later life. Edith, in her late thirties, is scornful of Mrs Pusey, a septuagenarian and an avid reader of her books – she is reading one unaware the author is sitting nearby – and sees her as gross and absurd with her declaration that she is an unashamed Romantic, boasting how she was worshipped by her late husband, and still flirting while spending his money. It’s a harsh portrait, but only slightly less harsh is her depiction of Mr Neville, a declared un-Romantic. ‘Without emotional investment one can do as one pleases.’ Both are depicted as shallow and materialistic, lacking something vital, lacking love, as are the other clients. Hotel du Lack? Perhaps it is Mrs Pusey’s hypocrisy Edith despises, using romance as a cover for a love of shopping, and not her age. I hope so.

Anita Brookner said modestly of her own books they were ‘quite nice but unimportant’. But if the mere idea of romantic love ‘can shape or deform your whole identity’ then a novel exploring its power in a variety of brilliantly drawn characters and relationships, can’t be dismissed as trivial, not by me. Hotel du Lac is deceptively simple and in its own way profound. It doesn’t explore the many splendours of love but it does show with poignancy and humour the greyness of lives in whom it is missing.

Hotel du Lac is published by Penguin.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Guest review by Leslie Wilson: MILKMAN by Anna

"Milkman is great literature - it's not just the people who are negotiating power-sharing in Northern Ireland who should read it. Everyone should. It tells us just how important peace is, in Northern Ireland and everywhere else."

Leslie Wilson is the author of two novels for adults and two for young adults. Last Train from Kummersdorf was shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize and the Branford Boase Award; Saving Rafael was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and Highly Commended for the Southern Schools Book Award. Both deal with Nazi Germany. Leslie Wilson is half German, was brought up bilingual, and has spent considerable amounts of time in Germany. She is currently working on a novel for adults, set in the very early nineteenth century.

'There was food and drink. The right butter. The wrong butter. The tea of allegiance. The tea of betrayal. There were 'our shops' and 'their shops.' Placenames. What school you went to.. There was a person's appearance also, because it was believed you could tell 'their sort from over the road' from 'your sort this side of the road', by the very physical form of a person. There was choice of murals, of traditions, of newspapers, of anthems, of 'special days,' of passport...'

As a young married woman regularly visiting my husband's family in Belfast at the height of the Troubles, I could never wear my gold cross, and once, when I was packing, my husband told me not to take with me a very nice scarf I'd bought for myself, because it was green, yellow and white. Republican colours. Not only would this have annoyed the Unionist friends and relations, but it might have drawn unwelcome hostility in Protestant areas, which was a far worse prospect.

My Presbyterian mother-in-law was deeply disapproving when she found Irish cheddar in our fridge – as for butter, she might have bought Kerrygold if the alternative was no butter at all, but she'd have whipped the wrapper off and put it in the butter dish so it remained anonymous. Living in the middle-class suburb of Castlereagh, she was far removed from the embattled areas ruled by the paramilitaries, yet fear was a very real thing. If the policeman up the road, who taught my husband to drive, got a parcel in the post and didn't know who it was from, he took it down the garden to open it in case it was a bomb (how much good that would have done him, I don't know). If, at my mother-in-law's, there was a knock at the door after dark, there'd be apprehension, though she'd usually relax and say: 'It'll be Willie MacDowell.' That was the milkman, looking for his money.

There is such an ordinary milkman in this novel. 'Real Milkman' is outside the usual politics of the area – though he has been tarred and feathered by the paramilitaries. 'Real Milkman' won't have any part of the war; he sticks up for the underdogs of the Catholic community, rescuing the narrator a couple of times, and it becomes clear, after the Army shoot and wound him, that he's the focus of the erotic longings of half the middle-aged women in the area, including the narrator's mother. The man of the title, however, the probable-paramilitary, is just 'Milkman.' He delivers fear, but no milk.

The narrator (we never know her name or anyone else's) is a young woman; her habit of walking about the streets reading a book alienates her community, not because it's dangerous, but because she's become 'different', pretentious and 'haughty', as her oldest friend tells her. When 'Milkman' begins to stalk her, practically everyone (including her mother) refuses to believe that she's not his mistress. The novel charts her growing isolation, even from her 'almost-boyfriend', who is a boyfriend in any sense (she spends time with him, she spends the night at his house) except for commitment. She walks on shaky ground and 'almost-boyfriend,' though she's attached to him, and terrified by Milkman's threat that he'll put a bomb in his car, is another unstable paving slab.

The situation invades every aspect of her life, like chronic pain: 'Physically, too, it got tiring, all that distrust and push-pull, the sniper-open-fire, the countersniper return-fire, the sidestepping and twisting.. Just as with the milkman at the end of the day at home when I’d do my checking under the bed, behind the door, in the wardrobe and so on to see if he was in there, or under it, or behind it; checking curtains too, that they were firmly closed, that they weren't concealing him this side of the glass or that side of the glass, I realised things had reached the point where I was now checking to see if the community was concealing itself in those tucked-away places too.'

It's a story about Northern Ireland, or any other place of internecine conflict, but it's also a story about women, about the way they're always blamed, particularly if they don't conform. It did also make me think of the way older Protestant friends of my husband's family used to sit round saying: 'There'd never be all this trouble if they hadn't had the Civil Rights marches; that's what got it all started.' You could connect that to US complaints about Black Lives Matter. Never mind that the Catholic community in Northern Ireland had real, significant grievances, that Protestants as well as Catholics were aware of this and wanted them redressed, and that the resurgence of the IRA was due to attacks on Catholic communities and Catholics living in mixed communities ('Get out or be burned out). If you're an underdog, of whatever denomination, religion, ethnicity or gender, any protest will be seen as 'uppity' or evidence of madness, as the local feminists in 'Milkman' are seen, as the 'haughty' narrator is seen when she parades her unseemly erudition through the streets. As the suffragettes were seen, once upon a time.

That's not to say that Milkman is schematic; it's absolutely not. It's about one young woman, with a strong, compelling voice, and you want to know what becomes of her. Right from the beginning she had me hooked. And in spite of the not-naming of characters, they all walk off the page. It makes one realise that names are, after all, just labels, and it's as easy to call a young man 'almost-boyfriend' as it is to call him Sean. Its brilliance lies in its almost chatty stream of consciousness narrative style; you feel directly addressed by the narrator, confided in, drawn into her world and the repetitiousness demonstrates the ways in which our environments impact on us all - most painfully and bitterly when that environment is a traumatic one. Yet though the narrator is desperately hurt, terrified and beleaguered, she mitigates the darkness of the narrative with humour. The action takes place in '70s Belfast, yet it transcends any single situation, and powerfully demonstrates what long-term conflict does to the human psyche.

There's an episode where the members of a French class the narrator attends get angry because the teacher reads them a description of the sky. 'Why is he complicating things with fancy footwork, when all he needs to say is that the sky is blue?' The teacher gets them to go to the window and look at the sunset sky, which seriously discombobulates the narrator: 'For the first time I saw colours..blending and mixing, sliding and extending, new colours arriving, all colours combining, colours going on forever, except one which was missing, which was blue.'

You could take this as a description of the failure of so many of us to notice what's really around us, or as another case of hostility towards cultural preoccupations that seem 'haughty' to the majority, but it also describes the shut-down condition of people who live in fear, in a war situation: 'all that distrust and push-pull, the sniper-open-fire, the countersniper return-fire, the sidestepping and twisting -'

In the Northern Ireland of that day, ugly armed vehicles patrolled the roads on a regular basis, your bag was searched every time you went into a shop, there were Army checkpoints to search your vehicle. It was a state of guerilla war. Once, walking through apparently peaceful Newcastle with my husband, our young children, and a friend and his young children, we came upon a soldier in combat uniform, crouched behind a suburban hedge with a submachine gun. If you live in such a situation and you want to keep living normally, or pretend you're living normally, the imagination - 'the subversiveness of a sunset' - becomes a traitor, because it opens your eyes and life is only tolerable if you keep them at least half shut. I've seen that in refugees I've encountered, and in my own mother, who in her teens had dealt with multiple traumas from the war and the Nazi period by deciding to feel nothing at all, like the condition of numbness which gradually creeps over the narrator of Milkman.

Her world is more like my mother's experience than the middle-class world I encountered in 70s and 80s Northern Ireland; the community Anna Burns's narrator lives in is run as an almost totalitarian fascist state, with its informers (to the paramilitaries as well as to the police and the army), its deadly kangaroo courts and punishments. It's regularly invaded by the army; once they shoot all the neighbourhood dogs for giving warning when the patrols are coming; they shout sexualised abuse and threats at the women of the neighbourhood, as well as shooting both real Milkman and the eponymous Milkman of the title in the end (not a spoiler, Milkman's death comes in the first line of the novel). They shoot a lot of other people too. 'Before Milkman, they had shot a binman, two busdrivers, a road sweeper, a real milkman who was our milkman, then another person who didn't have any blue-collar or service-industry connections.. Then they played down the mistaken shootings while playing up the intended shooting.' An army media spokesperson talks about 'a job well done.'

If you don't find this believable, read about the recent Ballymurphy inquest, not much reported in a mainland obsessed with Brexit. Ten unarmed people were shot dead there in 1971, including a priest and a mother of eight children. A veteran has testified to the inquest that some of the Army were 'psychopaths' and 'out of control.' One soldier retrieved the skull of one of his victims and used it as an ash tray.

The Belfast Telegraph said recently that anyone participating in power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland ought to have read Milkman.. I read it while spending a week in Northern Ireland. We drove through the suburbs and the centre of the city, and you could tell the Catholic areas from the Protestant areas by the placards for the local elections. The only party that displayed placards everywhere was the Green Party. Other places were neatly divided into Sinn Fein or SDLP (Catholic), DUP or Official Unionist or Alliance (Protestant). There were the Protestant murals, there were the Catholic murals, one from the new IRA, proclaiming THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES. The previous week, these boys had 'accidentally' murdered Lyra McKee in Derry.

Yet much has changed since the Good Friday agreement. (It's worrying that mainland politicians seem to think that agreement is past its date stamp and can be ditched, a vexatious block to their desired Brexit.) Northern Ireland has its troubles, but it's no longer at war. This is due to years of dedicated, courageous hard work by a multitude of, ordinary people, church men and women, politicians, skilled and dogged negotiators. That work mustn't be betrayed, lest the warfare return. Milkman is great literature, and it's not just the people who are negotiating power sharing in Northern Ireland who should read it. Everyone should read it, because it tells us just how important peace is, in Northern Ireland and everywhere else.

Milkman is published by Faber.

Monday, 1 July 2019

Independent Bookseller Feature No.8 : Sam Read Bookseller of Grasmere. CREWE TRAIN by Rose Macaulay, reviewed by Will Smith

"Macaulay’s novel is a revelation - one that I’ve pressed on friends, bookshop browsers and even Grasmere’s village book group."

I work part-time for Elaine Nelson as a bookseller in the shop. Sam Read's has sold books in Grasmere since 1887. Sam Read established the shop and it passed out of the Read family in the 1950s. Since Sam's daughter Helen Read retired, there have been four owners across the decades. Elaine has owned the bookshop since 2000. We sell books of all genres for adults and children, with a specialism in books relating to the Lake District. We run monthly events, and often work with the village primary school and the village book group to spread bookish joy across Grasmere. In 2019, we'll be working to promote more events and workshops with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England via Great Place: Lakes & Dales.

I fervently believed Rose Macaulay’s 1926 novel Crewe Train would be a satire about train travel. Having often taken trains with an obligatory change at Crewe, I was rather in the mood for such a book. Reading the novel, republished by Virago Books in a beautiful new edition in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised. Despite there being no train travel to speak of and no depictions of Crewe, Macaulay’s novel is a revelation and one that I’ve subsequently pressed on friends, bookshop browsers and even Grasmere’s village book group.

At first I knew little about Rose Macaulay either. I’d been drawn to the book through a broader interest in interwar fiction and once-popular but now broadly neglected writers. Macaulay’s name came up when I was looking at winners of the Femina Vie Hereuse prize, an award which partnered with a French national literary prize and was judged by a panel of prominent female writers and critics. Other books which won the prize are much better known today, say Stella Benson’s Cold Comfort Farm, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse or E M Forster’s A Passage to India.

Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie. Denham is the daughter of a reclusive English clergyman. Mr Dobie has been widowed and decided to flee in self-imposed exile to Andorra with a seven-year old Denham, before remarrying. Years pass. Upon the clergyman’s death (he barely lasts the first few pages of the novel) twenty-one year old Denham is taken in by her Aunt Evelyn and reintroduced to English society. Denham is now a character who does what she wants and doesn’t understand why other people don’t. As a result, she’s a strong role model for us all.

On first seeing London, Denham wonders to herself why so many people live there: "Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn’t do elsewhere?"

After this, Denham’s introduction to the city’s social scene is painfully funny. Meeting Arnold Chapel, partner in her uncle’s publishing house, Denham’s conversations strive towards the practical. Her understanding of the book world is dismissive, painting some problems for Denham’s future romantic attachment to Arnold. Denham would NOT like this review, or to discover she was in a book, given her opinion that "Books were mostly dull enough, but criticisms of books were quite unreadable."

What Denham does have is a spirit of adventure. This isn’t manifest in being seen to adventure, but in living quite privately in the moment. If you’re interested in boats, secret caves, maps, motorcycling tours and feminism in the 1920s then this book is for you.

A kindly yet chilling nemesis is present throughout in the form of Denham’s Aunt Evelyn, whose continual interference in real life and through the pages of her unpublished novel wreak havoc with many lives. Our village book group spent quite a time discussing possible outcomes for Denham beyond the book’s pages, with a real divide between those who felt more or less hopeful for her. The book itself makes room for lots of comedy despite the narrative sadness in Denham’s struggles to remain one who does not "take any trouble".

Alongside Crewe Train, Virago has also republished Macaulay’s post-Second World War novel The World My Wilderness. More recently, the small independent publisher Handheld Press has reissued the cutting satire of the post-First World War One civil service, What-Not. It’s a shame that more of Macaulay’s work isn’t available. Shortly after reading Crewe Train, I tracked down a second-hand copy of Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures (Victor Gollancz, 1935) in Carlisle’s Bookends. The book is a miscellany of short essays on activities and subjects Macaulay enjoys, the very existence of which hints at her stature in the public mind of the time. Topics covered include Booksellers’ Catalogues, Hot Bath and Taking Umbrage. One such piece, on Bathing shows Macaulay describing three swims in different locations, each an immersive attachment to swimming in the outdoors. One swim is in the River Cam:

"The sun tops the pollard. I throw off blankets and night clothes and slip from the bank into the cold stream. Spreading my arms wide, I let the flow carry me…"

This is, for me, is the experience of reading Rose Macaulay.

Crewe Train is published by Virago.

Monday, 24 June 2019

Guest review by Jon Appleton: AN HONEST MAN by Ben Fergusson

"For me, the closest parallel is a Stephen Poliakoff drama. Fergusson’s novels have all that wit, elegance and attention to detail."

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor based in London.

‘The whole world had become unstable, the things that I believed, however laughable it may seem, to be permanent – my girlfriend, my friends, my family, my understanding of myself – had begun to shift. And I had the uneasy feeling that I was just old enough to see these things shifting for the first time, a snapshot of a much longer cycle, a split second in the inestimable history of my own deep time.’

It’s a moment that startles practically every eighteen-year-old, but the voice here is Ralf Dörsam’s, looking midway through his account of his summer in West Berlin, in 1989, living with his respectable parents and goofy younger brother, awaiting the results of exams that will send him to England – his mother’s birthplace – to study geology.

By now, we know he’s living through the Cold War and that the Berlin Wall will fall before his narrative ends. We know he is a parent and has married – but to whom? It’s a question that propels us through this exceptional thriller that’s as much about love as espionage.

An Honest Man is Ben Fergusson’s third novel, following the award-winning The Spring of Kasper Meier and The Other Hoffman Sister. His subject is Berlin, his adopted home, and he sets his novels at different periods of time, in the same house, Windscheidstrasse 53: a nineteenth-century apartment block which bears the scars of war but thrums with the complex, ambiguous relationships of its current inhabitants.

The story starts with Ralf idling his time away with his close group of friends – Stefan, Petra and his girlfriend Maike. It’s the kind of friendship group that thrives on shared interests – they make geeky field trips out into the forests around Berlin studying the natural world – as much as compatibility or attraction. It’s difficult to hide in such a close group, as Ralf finds when he is lured away by his fascination – and growing love – for Oz, a slightly older man, who has begun making a habit of parking his green Mercedes outside Windscheidstrasse 53, watching. Ralf wants to know why.

In Berlin in 1989 suspicion is everywhere and Ralf has form. A childish spy game for Stefan offered Ralf the chance to indulge in his one-sided obsession with his neighbour Tobias. But then Oz reveals his true intent: beneath his cover of a ‘brown-skinned newsagent’s son’, he works in surveillance. He believes that Tobias might be an agent for the East German government. Will Ralf help Oz prove Tobias’s guilt? Of course he’ll do it for love.

Once Ralf starts watching in earnest, so much else is revealed to him, including things about his own family which equip him with the power to destroy it. He gains the capacity to destroy his relationships and himself – will he go to university or stay in Berlin? Will he give up on Maike or will he choose Oz? Or will the choice be taken away from him? His life is unravelling just at the point where tensions all round – amid his own personal circle and the wider political sphere – are tightening. His own safety and security are compromised.

Beautifully done, An Honest Man is exciting, often funny, truthful and enlightening. The fact that Ralf is a geologist is no coincidence – it’s as if millions of years of seismic changes in the make-up of the earth happen to him over a period of weeks. Meticulously researched, it’s full of colour – here’s the food, clothes, TV, etc., of West and East Berlin thirty years ago. It’s a sparky flashback for fans of Deutschland 83 or 86. For me, however, the closest parallel is a Stephen Poliakoff drama. Fergusson’s novels have all that wit, elegance and attention to detail. Like Poliakoff, he celebrates maverick – or subversive or even deviant – behaviour in outwardly unassuming people.

But then, as Ralf painfully learns, once you realise your bedrock, your family, is just like everyone else’s, certainly no better, then you have to follow your heart wherever it leads. In turbulent times the pursuit of honesty might be the only way through.

An Honest Man is published by Little, Brown.

Monday, 17 June 2019

Guest review by Sara Collins: A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD by Jennifer Egan

"That rare thing: a novel of breathtaking ambition that actually achieves its aims."

Sara Collins is of Jamaican descent and worked as a lawyer for seventeen years in Cayman, before admitting that what she really wanted to do was write novels. She studied Creative Writing at Cambridge University, winning the 2015 Michael Holroyd Prize, and began to write a book inspired by the idea of 'writing a Gothic novel where the heroine looked like me'. This turned into her first novel, The Confessions of Frannie Langton (reviewed here by guest Stephanie Butland). 

A Visit from the Goon Squad stitches together thirteen stories spanning years, places and people: from 1979 to 2021; from New York to Kenya; from Sasha, a kleptomaniac who steals from people but not from stores because “their cold, inert goods didn’t tempt her", to her boss, Bennie Salazar, a record company executive who “sprinkled gold flakes into his coffee – as an aphrodisiac she suspected – and sprayed pesticide in his armpits”. The novel opens with Sasha confessing to her therapist about bringing a date home and stealing his wallet, then we meet Bennie in the next chapter: disillusioned, dissolute, scribbling a list of his most shameful memories -- lunging to kiss a Mother Superior on the mouth, being interrupted in the toilet by a woman he’s lusting after (“Kissing Mother Superior, incompetent, hairball, poppy seeds, on the can”) -- that Sasha mistakes for song titles.

Can we understand each other? From the opening therapy session, to the story told by Sasha’s pre-teen daughter entirely via Powerpoint, to the truncated text messaging of the final chapter (“if thr r children, thr mst b a fUtr, rt?”), this is the question the novel poses. It catalogues the impossibility of true connection, yet at the same time its real charm lies in offering us glimpses of the fleeting intersections of the people in Sasha’s and Bennie’s orbit (children, lovers, friends, bosses), shuffling these mere snapshots and assembling them into a full picture of their lives. Sasha and Bennie are compelling characters -- flawed, selfish and vulnerable, they are the main subjects of this extended meditation on the effect we have on each other, even if only in passing, as well as on how we create music, and on love, family, ambition, and ageing. The book is about their lives and how they come to be in the state we find them in but each story builds an equally fleshed-out sense of the secondary characters as well. We learn as much about them by how they see and speak about Sasha or Bennie as we do about Sasha and Bennie themselves.

What really sets Goon Squad apart for me is the shape-shifting quality of its prose. From powerfully lyrical (Egan describes Sasha’s urge to pilfer an unattended wallet as feeling herself “contract around the object in a single yawn of appetite”) to character conjuring (“I want my death to be an attraction, a spectacle, a mystery”) to sucker punching (“Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around). On her publisher’s website, Egan says she began the book by following her curiosity from one character and situation to the next, which is the way one ends up reading it too. That curiosity is rewarded by a feeling that one has moved through time with the characters, and therefore lived with them and learned with them as well. Reading it, one feels immersed in a world that is always changing, the dizzying experience of being held captive by that rare thing: a novel of breathtaking ambition that actually achieves its aims.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is published by Corsair.

Monday, 10 June 2019

Independent Bookseller Feature No.7: Sevenoaks Bookshop. TOMORROW, by Elisabeth Russell Taylor, reviewed by Fleur Sinclair

"...delivers a devastating blow, the memory of which will stay with me forever. But this should not be reason not to read it. On the contrary..."

Fleur Sinclair took over ownership of Sevenoaks Bookshop in November 2015. The shop celebrated its 70th birthday in 2018 and was crowned best UK Independent Bookshop for the South East region. Every inch of the shop is filled with brilliant new books for adults and children; there is a cafe; they host a wide variety of author events; a regular lunchtime book club; 
run several writers’ groups; a young readers review programme; a children’s festival; and they recently launched BOOKMARK magazine, written exclusively by children, for children, all about books. More here. 

Although it was originally published in 1991, Tomorrow reads like a modern classic from much earlier in the 20th century. In just 148 pages, it paints not only a brilliant portrait of the main character, Elisabeth Danziger, but also a vivid picture of place and time. The main setting is a hotel on Mon, a tiny island on the Danish coast, the narrative moving between the novel’s present, 1960, and before and during the Second World War.

Every summer Elisabeth spends a week in the same hotel, following the same routine, fulfilling a promise made before the outbreak of war. The week shapes the novel, each day a different chapter as we move through the present and remembrances from the past. Elisabeth has moved ghost-like through the same itinerary for so long, she has no reason to suspect this week will not be exactly the same as all the others.

Other guests are also regulars, and their characters skilfully created, with reasons for their little absurdities perfectly plausible and deftly unveiled. I love a hotel novel. There is something about behaviour played out against an implacable, impersonal backdrop that heightens character by contrast. A line from the novel, ‘…rain on holiday – so much wetter somehow, than rain at other times’ is as true of the hotel guests as is it of the weather. But this particular hotel was once a summer retreat owned by Elisabeth’s family before the war, adding extra layers of both familiarity and distance.

I have to admit that the cover of the edition published by Daunt Books in 2018 is tremendously seductive - a distant figure swimming beneath cliffs on a bright blue day. There are exquisite descriptions of nature, a love so blindingly huge as to overwhelm, but there is also tragedy in the extreme. In crisp, clean, dignified prose, Tomorrow delivers a devastating blow, the memory of which will stay with me forever. But this should not be reason not to read it. On the contrary, as time marches on and people with first hand experience of terrors faced during the Second World War are no longer with us, novels as well-written as this serve to expand our powers of empathy and shape our response to current events.

The novel begins and ends with a poem by John Henry Mackay, the opening line:

And tomorrow the sun will shine again

It is tremendously poignant, giving the perfect title for a novel shaped so much by the past; a past refusing to loosen its grip on the characters, when as readers we desperately want to release them into the sun.

Tomorrow is published by Daunt Books

Monday, 3 June 2019

Guest review by Linda Sargent: THE ORCHARDIST by Amanda Coplin

"...draws the reader in as surely as the landscape does, leaving a haunting and uplifting vision of the place and its inhabitants."

Linda Sargent is a writer who works as a publisher’s reader (David Fickling Books since 2002). She has published short stories and articles and her first novel, Paper Wings, appeared in 2010; she is also the author of Words and Wings, a training guide to creative reminiscence work, available as a free download from her website.

“I think we become desensitized to almost everything in life, especially those things that are part of our routine, that we encounter daily. The only way to shake ourselves awake and experience novelty in the everyday is to engage consistently with an art form. Art makes us see the world – right down to our smallest, most intimate experiences – with new eyes.”

So responds the author in the question and answer section at the back of this powerful and evocative first novel, one of my top choices for this year; and I’m sure it will remain there. Set, for the most part, at the turn of the twentieth century in the fertile valleys of the Pacific North-west, it centres on the life of William Talmadge. He is the orchardist of the title, arriving in the valley with his mother and sister in the late 1850’s; we follow his life as he plants and nurtures his fruit orchards of apples and apricots and establishes a home. At first, after the death of their mother, it’s just him and his sister, but one day while out gathering herbs in the forest she disappears and so, at seventeen, he is left alone, his only companionship gleaned from the native American horse-breakers, and specifically the elective mute, Clee (also bereft of family), and Caroline Middey, the healer and midwife from the nearby small town where he goes periodically to sell his fruit.

And so Talmadge (for this is how we know him by now) is, for the most part content tending his trees and expanding his acreage to include the forest and other uncultivated sections of this beautiful landscape, in some respects keeping it for and in memory of his lost sister, nurturing it in the way he is no longer able to nurture her. Until, one day two very pregnant, very young teenage girls, hungry and almost feral, arrive and begin to steal his fruit. From here on Talmadge’s life is changed and disturbed. With the girls comes violence, fear, loss and ultimately a kind of revenge; but what also comes is love and a deepening and most moving warmth between the principal characters. One that draws the reader in as surely as the landscape does, leaving a haunting and uplifting vision of the place and its inhabitants and where the stars are “so thick you could walk right into them...”

It is, overall, a story of nurturing and great humanity – and I loved it.

The Orchardist is published by Orion.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Guest review by Rachel Ward: FLESH AND BLOOD by Stephen McGann

"It feels like McGann is looking for something throughout the book ... "

Rachel Ward has written five thrillers for young adults, the first of which, Numbers, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. Her novels for adults, The Cost of Living and Dead Stock. are cosy crime stories set in and around a supermarket, published by Sandstone Press. Rachel lives in Bath where she also paints and takes photographs.
Twitter: @RachelWardbooks Facebook: Rachel Ward Art

These days I usually read crime fiction, but my love for Call the Midwife and the decency of actor Stephen McGann on Twitter led me to his non-fiction book, Flesh and Blood, in which he explores the history of the McGanns from the 1800s onwards in seven themed sections. In writing the book McGann combines three passionate interests – genealogy, which he has explored since he was 17, human drama, and an academic interest in the links between medical health and social context.

Each section, or essay really, starts with a description of the sickness or malady (‘Medicine’), then describes a period in the McGann family history (‘History’) and finishes with a more personal recollection (‘Testimony’). Sometimes the links seems a little forced, but the stories in this book are so compelling, you easily forgive him for shoe-horning them in. Among other things he covers the Great Famine in Ireland, the sinking of the Titanic, the Second World War and, more recently, Hillsborough, in each case delicately picking out the human impact of being involved in such historical events.

Running through this is his own personal story. He’s startlingly honest about the evolution of relationships within his own immediate family, and very good at describing the roles that we all come to play within our families. It’s fascinating stuff.

It feels like McGann is looking for something throughout the book. At the end, he asks himself the question, ‘Who am I?’ For him the answer is, ‘I am a single beat in the history of the family that bore me.’ He comes across as a decent, passionate soul and I recommend this for anyone interested in modern history, family matters and those interested in ‘what makes us tick’.

Flesh and Blood is published by Simon and Schuster

Monday, 20 May 2019

NINE PERFECT STRANGERS by Liane Moriarty, reviewed by Adele Geras

"... a genre that I'm very fond of: characters are thrown together and isolated somewhere beyond the reach of the outside world."

Adele Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which is Love or Nearest Offer, published by Quercus in paperback. She’s working on a historical novel for adults. She lives in Cambridge.

Liane Moriarty is an Australian writer, best known for Big Little Lies, which was a huge success on television. The book is better than the television version, in my opinion, and her earlier novel, The Husband's Secret, is also one to seek out.

Her latest novel is an example of a genre that I'm very fond of: characters are thrown together and isolated somewhere beyond the reach of the outside world. Generally speaking, all hell breaks loose. At the end, everyone has learned something. As Oscar Wilde put it: "The good end happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means."

This story is set in a very posh and very beautiful spa resort. The first character we meet is a romantic writer who's a bit of a has-been. She learns about a truly bad review of one of her books and has a screaming meltdown at the side of the road, in her parked car.

We then meet the others members of the cast; we learn about their backgrounds and what they're trying to find in this escape to Tranquillum House. There's a bereaved family, trying to avoid the anniversary of their son's (and twin brother's) suicide. There's a faded, out- of-condition Australian Rules ex-football star. There's a woman who's jealous of her ex-husband's new wife, and so on. The woman running the spa is the enigmatic Masha, and she has two attendants who deal with the visitors and take care of them. The routine of the spa is a little Draconian but all nine guests gradually get used to it. Then something happens.

I have to admit that the twist I'm not going to reveal took me aback. I was uncertain for a while about whether switching the novel into quite another mode halfway through was going to work, but in Moriarty's skilled hands, it really did. She adds things to the mix that make matters more and more tense. We reach a situation where we're unsure whether our heroes and heroines are going to get out of this particular hell, but I was guided by the humour, which is never far away, to my conclusion that they probably would.

Some critics on Amazon have said that the Epilogue ending, (in which Moriarty tells us in a kind of summing-up what's happened to each character in the time since the end of the story proper) is awful. I disagree. I liked it a lot, because I always want to know exactly that: what happens to the characters next? And then what happens after that....

The icing on the cake, and something that will resonate with any writer reading this novel, is the last paragraph of the book. I'm still smiling about it about a week later. This novel is perfect for a sun lounger. Or any visit to a spa near you.

Nine Perfect Strangers is published by Michael Joseph.

Monday, 13 May 2019

Guest review by Karen Ball: THE CAZALET CHRONICLES by Elizabeth Jane Howard

"A feat of plotting and plate spinning; it takes a particularly magnificent and often humble skill to craft a series of books on this scale."

Karen Ball is the author of The Little Book Of Sewing, published by Head of Zeus, as well as over 20 children’s and YA books. She writes one of the UK’s leading sewing blogs at Did You Make That and has contributed to The Guardian. She is a Bookseller Rising Star and runs the publishing consultancy, Speckled Pen. Karen lives in Walthamstow with her miniature schnauzer, Ella.
Twitter: @karenball
Instagram: didyoumakethat

What do The Cazalet Chronicles mean to you?

Until recently, this series of five books meant nothing to me – I didn’t know they existed. I was introduced to them by the author Sally Nicholls, after I mentioned I was researching a novel set in 1939. ‘Oh, you must read The Cazalet Chronicles!’ she told me.

‘What are those?’ I asked.

What, indeed, are The Cazalet Chronicles? Five novels set between 1937 and the 1950s, following the course of a single family. Most commonly, they’re described as saga fiction: historical, multi-generational, gentle books for old ladies, a front cover with a woman standing on a street wearing a shawl. Saga is publishing shorthand for cosy. Is that what Cazalet is?

Yes – and yet they are so much more. The delight of these books is the minutiae woven around the drama. The discomfort of a heavily pregnant body … a nice cup of tea … the tiny limp body of a breach birth … which cuts the butcher has in … how to avoid having sex … knitting … how to have sex … white, cotton gloves … sons lost in the war … hierarchies of grief … picnics and dolls…

A story that stretches across thousands of pages, The Cazalet Chronicles are the opposite of page turners in any modern sense, though they were written in the 1990s – not so very long ago. These are books to sink into, drift with, fall asleep reading on the sofa, knowing that when you wake again, you can lift the pages and start again with barely a hiccup.

They are set before and during the years of the Second World War and span three generations of the same Cazalet family. Multiple perspective. Ensemble cast. A feat of plotting and plate spinning; it takes a particularly magnificent and often humble skill to craft a series of books on this scale.

So why had I never heard of them before? How had I been allowed to overlook them? Howard’s writing occupies a particularly ‘female’ place on the literary stage – you only have to look at those watercolour covers to see which readers publishers think they need. This is a world of sandwiches and still births over war bunkers and bomber planes. The multiple narratives weave around each other, passing on the baton; a fresh loaf of bread has as much significance on the page as a death bed. There is never any authorial comment from Howard; this is life laid bare, all of it, for the reader to judge or not judge. I prefer the latter – after all, any family morality has to stretch fine as gossamer as it floats over the heads of the living and the dead.

So, a family. An invisible author. A series. And a saga. Words that, as a rule, neither critics nor judges rush to write.

‘I’ve allowed myself to lead this little life,’ says Shirley Valentine, in Willy Russell’s play. ‘When inside me there was so much more.’ Howard wrote both – the small and the momentous. I guess five books worth of artful juggling wasn’t enough for some. But oh, they are enough for me. I hope, whether small or big, I lead a long life. Long enough to re-read The Cazalet Chronicles at least twice over.

What do you say? A drop of milk in your tea?

The Cazalet Chronicles are published by Pan Books.

Monday, 6 May 2019

Guest review by Rosemary Hayes: THE SHEPHERD'S HUT by Tim Winton

"A wonderful, acutely observed, tautly-written book from a master storyteller set in a landscape he knows intimately."

Rosemary Hayes' first novel for children, Race Against Time (Penguin) won a national award. Since then she has written over forty books for children in a variety of genres but she particularly enjoys writing both contemporary and historical fiction for young adults. Forgotten Footprints and The Blue Eyed Aborigine are among her recent historical novels and The Mark, Taken, Loose Connections and Payback are stories set in the here and now. She is currently working on a fantasy trilogy for a 9+ readership.

Rosemary worked for Cambridge University Press and then for some years ran her own company, Anglia Young Books, which produced curriculum-related historical stories for primary schools. Now, as well as writing for children, she also runs creative writing courses for adults. She is Patron of Reading at Saffron Walden County High School. 
See more on her website.

The last few lines of the prologue to this book read: ‘For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. … but it wasn’t always like this. I been through fire to get here. I seen things and done things and had shit done to me you couldn’t barely credit. So be happy for me. And for fucksake don’t get in my way.’

My first reaction as I began reading this book was that it would probably be loved and hated in equal measure and, indeed, there have been a few (a very few) reviews where readers couldn’t get past the bad language of the narrator, a brutalised teenager called Jaxie Clackton, even though his language has a unique rhythm and authenticity. How else would this boy speak, after all? He’s uneducated, his mother has recently died from cancer and his drunken, abusive and sadistic father (the local butcher) beats him mercilessly. Jaxie is a school delinquent mocked by his peers, who call him ‘Horsemeat’, and he spends much of his time wandering about the deadbeat rural settlement of Monkton in Western Australia, close to the highway but backing onto the wheat belt and then the inhospitable and desolate landscape of the Murchison gold fields, settling arguments with other teenagers in the only way he knows – with his fists – and wishing his father dead. A wish that is shockingly fulfilled when Jaxie returns home one evening to find his dad crushed beneath the roo bar on his car because he’d not bothered to use the right equipment to jack it up. ‘Being a cheap bastard is what killed him’ is Jaxie’s comment.

Everyone in the small community knows that Jaxie hated Captain Wankbag (Jaxie’s name for his father) and that the local policeman, ‘that fat ranga with the hissy laugh,’ was his dad’s bestie, so Jaxie doesn’t hang around to be accused of murder. Panicking, he puts together a few essentials and goes on the run, heading first into the wheat belt: ‘Nothing but stubble paddocks far and wide. Everything flat and bare. Shanksing across that country you stick out like a rat on a birthday cake, … houses rare as rocking horse turds.’

Jaxie heads north. There is one good thing in his life and that’s his girlfriend and cousin, Lee, 'the only person in the world who gets me,’ but Lee and her family live in Mt Magnet. It's only a couple of hours by car, but Jaxie has no transport avoids the highway in case he’s hauled in by he police. He sets off to walk across the desolate landscape of goldfields and salt flats to reach her and, as he soon realizes, it is a fool’s errand. It is hot, waterless and vast and although Jaxie is by no means ignorant about survival in the bush – he knows about camping, has a gun and can shoot and butcher meat – he is dangerously ill-equipped for the journey.

Jaxie is brave and devoid of self pity and we follow him as he lurches from one crisis to another, hardly able to see out of his injured eye (a legacy of his father’s brutality) and at one point nearly dying of thirst. He follows an old track to a deserted prospector’s camp where he stays for a while, and then, in a search for salt to preserve a great roo he’s shot, he comes upon a shepherd’s hut, in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of a great salt lake. Someone is living there and whoever it is has been there for a while as it is well set up, but there is no sign of a vehicle. Who could possibly survive in this desolate place for any length of time without supplies from the outside world? Suspiciously Jaxie observes the hut through his binoculars, keeping his distance and, he believes, keeping out of sight. But the old man who lives there has already sensed Jaxie’s presence and when they finally confront one another, it is, at first sight, at least, a meeting of two totally contrasting worlds - that of a well-travelled, highly-educated but disgraced Irish priest called Fintan MacGillis and of an illiterate and foul-mouthed teenager from a deadbeat rural settlement.

The oddest of odd couples, then. Jaxie never lets his guard down. No adult, apart from his mum, has shown him any kindness and he is narky and suspicious of this weird old man who talks to himself, reads books and sings. ‘With that accent of his and the way he said things fancy and musical, it was like camouflage and you knew deep down he’d been doing this all his life, hiding in clear sight. He had a boozer’s face but as far as I could see there was nothing to drink out here but rainwater and billy tea. He had skinny legs with ropey blue veins winding up them and his top teeth were plastic and they moved enough to make you seasick. His specs was always on crooked too, one hinge busted and the arm wired on rough as a pig’s tit. And it was clear he was half deaf. Anytime you said something he cocked his head like a kelpie.’

They insult one another, are exasperated with one another, but slowly they create a fragile bond. Jaxie often flares up and threatens to leave, but somehow he never does, in spite of his yearning to get to Lee. Through flashbacks, we learn a lot about Jaxie’s past life, how his relationship with Lee developed and of the abuse he’s suffered, but Fintan remains an enigma. We are never told why he lives here, who brings him supplies at Christmas and Easter (except this Christmas, when no one turned up) or for what crime he is doing penance. Jaxie immediately assumes it is ‘kiddy flddling’ and though Fintan assures him it is not he won’t say much about his background – just a tantalizing hint, here and there.

So, the weeks go by and Jaxie helps the old man with trapping and butchering goats and some of the heavier jobs around the place, giving the reader a well drawn picture of the harshness and tedium of the daily business of keeping alive in the bush. Then, after a furious row with Fintan, Jaxie finally leaves to continue his journey north. However, he has only gone a day’s walk when he makes a shocking discovery that changes everything. From here on the tension really ramps up and after one careless act and fatal indecision we are witness to a tragic conclusion with an extraordinary and heartbreaking description of stubborn loyalty and unexpected tenderness.

Writing in the vernacular is never easy to sustain but Jaxie’s dialogue rings absolutely true throughout and is a wonderful contrast to Fintan’s mellifluous tones. There’s a lot of humour, too, often quite dark and delivered through Jaxie’s one-liners; there's also lyricism, particularly through descriptions of the landscape with its huge skies, its mirages, the changing colours of the salt flats and the rocks, the hostile scrub and the well observed habits of the wildlife. In this Winton captures the essence of the utter isolation and vastness of the place and shows how both Jaxie and Fintan, in their very different ways, are in awe of it.

I have spent a lot of time in Western Australia and I’ve been through one horse towns such as Monkton and flown over the goldfields and salt flats. Winton’s descriptions, through the words of Jaxie and Fintan, are utterly convincing. I was immediately transported back there, seeing, smelling and experiencing it all again.

On the surface, Jaxie is unlovable and inexpressive but we're taken inside his thoughts from time to time - ‘Some nights there was so much feeling in me head I was glad it couldn’t get out. Christ, you could burn a skyscraper down with what’s in me’ - and we cannot help but empathise with him. Despite the rotten hand he’s been dealt Jaxie has soul and we end up loving him and longing for him to survive, to find Lee and ride off into the sunset with her. Though in many ways this is an unremittingly harsh story it is shot through with such bright streaks of perseverance, hope, love, loyalty and humanity that I found it an utterly compelling read - a real page turner. Quite an achievement, given that there are only two main characters.

I have long been an admirer of Tim Winton’s work and in The Shepherd’s Hut he is at his very best. I know I shall go back to it again to savour the rhythm of the writing, the sense of place, brilliantly fleshed out characters, humour and depth of insight. It's a wonderful, acutely observed, tautly-written book from a master storyteller set in a landscape he knows intimately.

The Shepherd's Hut is published by Picador.