Monday, 14 September 2020

Guest review by Graeme Fife: THE SHAPELESS UNEASE by Samantha Harvey

"No wonder sleep deprivation is used as torture ..."

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, is 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.'

Who contemplates with anything but unease the torment of sleeplessness? No wonder sleep deprivation is used as torture. And how to combat it? By going to the doctor?

"I need some sleeping pills, I say. She stares at me as if my tears have appalled her, or somehow confused her. Please, I say. Instantly I regret this because now the power is with her; now my night’s sleep is a favour she can grant. And yet it is. And if it would help to fall at her feet and supplicate myself, I would.

She gets her pills."

From nearly a year of nights longing for sleep, contriving to fall asleep, anything for what Sidney called ‘the certain knot of peace…the prisoner’s release’, comes this gem of a book. A soporific, a dose of Lethe, a wild distraction? No. In the waking hours, the dreamless, nocturnal vacancies when the mind races, loosed upon the increasingly extravagant stratagems for an hour or two of oblivion, Harvey’s deliberations explore the mystery of writing itself. I mean, how many jigsaws can you do without beginning to see the entire world, all patterns of existence, as a fretwork scattering of fragments, a shape-shifting puzzle? Put one puzzle together and another follows. There ain’t no solutions, here, no completion.

Out of her meditation on insomnia - and when insomnia takes over, what else do you do but try to work out what the hell is going on with you? – she ponders time’s fluidity, the static nature of now, the constant shifting of now. She reflects on perception, the way our focus changes in different circumstances, on mortality itself, this wondrous gift we have which can deliver such incomprehension and grief, such accumulations of distress. In our waking hours, welcome or oppressive, Harvey leads us on a quest, the tracking of sensation …

One effect of such inward scrutiny, the remorseless thinking, thinking, thinking about yourself which hours spent in your own wakeful company forces upon you, is the realisation that it becomes ‘indulgent, self-centred and a little mad’. Well, and so it does, but is this not the bold intelligence facing up to the fact that this is what’s involved in knowing yourself, the examined life? And from that exploration comes, for us who pretend to writing, the work.

Harvey ponders writing itself, the process, the mechanics, the effects. She speaks of the cacophony of her (our?) mind, the clashing din of ideas, mostly specious and useless ideas, sometimes a good idea, and how we are assailed by a Babel of voices, counter and kindly, out of which a lone echo of something worth listening to. This is to formalise what is always and ever very informal. ‘How do you get your ideas?’ ‘Not a clue. We’re all in the dark, most of the time.’ Immediately the image springs back at us: in the dark…compelled to watch the slow creeping of the clock’s hands, desperate to give the racing mind rest. As she speaks of those oppressive, slow-moving, sleepless hours, the pattern of the way her mind drifts suggests that similar pattern of formulating sense in words. Writing has saved her life, she says, the next best thing to sleep, sometimes even better. Why? Because she is sane when she writes, it’s the continuum of the dependable.

"Nothing else matters when I write, even if what I write turns out to be bad. I proceed from some open and elusive subconscious formlessness roughly called ‘me’, definable only by being nothing and nowhere, just the silence in which shapes move. Then words. Words harnessing things…the comfort of organisation, of shepherding chaos … "

One aspect of this arresting book which I find most attractive is the dispersal of thoughts, the digressive nature of Harvey’s writing, her curiosity, her penetrating insights, her willingness to follow the unpromising lead just to see where it goes. I wrote in appreciation of this exquisitely written book and wondered, given the attendant torture of insomnia, she might have mixed feelings about it, what it had cost her to write it. She replied (perhaps predictably): ‘My feelings about it aren't mixed, it was a life support and consolation, and I'll always be glad of it.’ Hurray.

I cannot resist quoting one splendid blast of invective:

"Why is Brexit called Brexit, when it isn’t Britain leaving the EU, it’s the UK? Why isn’t it called Ukexit? Never trust something that’s inaccurately labelled. Even the name of this con is a con. Even the name is a shitshow, an almighty, extravagant, eternal show of shit." 

The Shapeless Unease is published by Jonathan Cape

See also Graeme Fife's review of A Telling of Stones, by Neil Rackham, and his many other reviews here by entering his name in the Search box.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Guest review by John Bowers: THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENED by John Bolton


"This is a President truly addicted to chaos ... ”

After attending state school in Grimsby, John Bowers was called to the Bar in 1979 and took silk in 1998. He has practised primarily in employment law and human rights. He has written or been the co-author of fourteen books on employment law. He has been Principal of Brasenose College Oxford since 2015. He also sits as a Deputy High Court Judge.

John Bolton is a polarising but significant figure. One suspects he could achieve an argument in a paper bag. He is a significant player in the Trump Circus because he was originally lauded by him as a great cold warrior who would make America’s enemies quake (having seen him as a regular commentator on Fox News). Gradually in office, Bolton became disillusioned with surely the most eccentric if not dangerous Commander in Chief in US history. He lasted as National Security Advisor only from 2018 to 2019. He resigned but the President, who is not one to allow people to leave with dignity, claimed that he had dismissed him, ostensibly for being too much of a war-monger. 

A great feature of the book is Bolton’s ability to contrast this Administration with that of George W Bush, where he held the post of US Ambassador to the UN; he had also served Bush Senior and Reagan. Unlike them, this is a President who has no sense of history, does not read much and does little to prepare for significant summit meetings. One does not sleep easily with him as Leader of the Free World. 

The book is the first insider’s account of Trump’s love in with the North Korean dictator. Trump adored a letter written apparently by Kim Jong Un. In fact it was Bolton says written by his underlings “as if the letter had been written by Pavlovians who knew exactly how to touch the nerves enhancing Trump’s self esteem”. Trump clearly wanted to meet Kim for the photo-op but did not read his briefings and was bested by Kim even though Kim had less cards to play and a smaller nuclear button (as Trump had once pointed out). This is at one with a disturbing kow-towing to other dictators or authoritarian figures whether they be Putin, Xi or Erdogan.

Trump’s ignorance as revealed by Bolton is truly extraordinary. As examples he thought Finland was part of Russia and he had no idea that the UK was a nuclear power. It is Trump’s attitude to Russia which is the most troubling, perplexing and difficult to explain. It is hard to understand why he would want to ensure that all but interpreters were absent from a meeting he insisted be held with Putin. As Bolton says “I was not looking forward to leaving him in a room alone with Trump”. Trump’s desire to see everything in terms of his own interest, especially his desire for re election but also commercial, is very worrying.

Bolton’s description of a meeting with President Xi Jinping of China is a classic. Xi read arduously note cards hashed out in advance while Trump ad libbed “with no one on the US side knowing what he would say from one minute to the next”. Xi ingratiated himself with Trump by saying he looked forward to working with him for another six years, at which point Trump said people were saying the two-term limit on presidents should be repealed for him. Trump then asked Xi to help him win the next election by alluding to China’s economic capability to affect the ongoing campaigns. Of course relations have now taken a turn for the worse with mutual allegations now filling the air.

The book also covers in detail the coup to topple Maduro in Venezuela which never quite happened. Iran, the Taliban, G7 meetings and getting Europeans to pay more for their defence are other themes which run through the work. Bolton provides some rare insights such as that he recalls that “Perhaps uniquely in presidential history, Trump engendered controversy over attendance at funerals” in particular those of Barbara Bush and John McCain, with whom he continued his petty squabble well after his death.

Bolton also sheds some light into the naked and ruthless media management of the Trump team. For example, he rushed out a statement on Saudi Arabia because this will “divert from Ivanka” who had been accused of using her personal e mail for government business.

This is a President truly “addicted to chaos” as the book blurb states. This is a truly dysfunctional White House and it is difficult to see why any rational person would want to work there. The book richly demonstrates how the daily tweets get in the way of developing rational foreign policy. 

The Democrats wanted to call Bolton to appear in the impeachment process. He does not quite deal with why he did not agree to testify and instead saved up his revelations for this no doubt lucrative book although he does aim probably merited criticism at the way the process was handled.

Bolton has few good words to say about anyone and has contempt for the idea that Trump was originally surrounded by an “axis of adults”. He takes aim at the inadequacies as he saw them of Mattis, Pompeo and Tillerson and is scathing about Nicky Haley, the Ambassador to the UN.

Bolton has a racy style and his insight into foreign policy in the past is illuminating. His overall verdict on Trump is “he second-guessed people’s motives, saw conspiracies behind rocks and remained stunningly uninformed on how to run the White House, let alone the federal government”. It is hard not to agree and the evidence is clearly presented in the book’s 577 pages.

The Room Where It Happened is published by Simon and Schuster.

See also: John Bowers' review of Tribes by David Lammy.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Guest review by Rachel Morris: OLD FILTH by Jane Gardam

"Beautifully written, moves at pace, surges with a bitter poignancy and is laced with a very particular kind of magical realism. It is also strangely defiant and often very funny." 

Rachel Morris began as a novelist but was sidetracked by her love for museums and for 20 years has been a director of a museum-making company called Metaphor. Her book, The Museum Makers, is out on 27th August. It’s about time and memory and museums, but also about families and the stories they tell and how, in the ways that we all try to make sense of our pasts, we are all museum makers. It’s part memoir of a bohemian childhood full of madness, death and storytelling; part hymn to the strange, addictive magic of museums. The Museum Makers is published by @septemberbooks and is available in bookshops, as well as online, at Amazon, at Waterstones and at 

I never meant to fall in love with Jane Gardam’s novels. When I first came across Old Filth (the opening book in her trilogy), I could still feel the echoes of my distant adolescent rebellion. What do I want with an English comedy of manners, I thought? How wrong I was. And when I re-read Old Filth again a couple of weeks ago I thought it surely would have dated, because the book looks back to a time that is so utterly vanished that it’s like opening a door to another world and stepping over a chasm so deep that you cannot see the bottom.

In fact Old Filth (which was published in 2004)  was and remains beautifully written, moves at pace, surges with a bitter poignancy and is laced with a very particular kind of magical realism. It is also strangely defiant and often very funny.

It tells the story of the lawyer and judge Eddie Feathers, also known as Old Filth (as in ‘Failed in London, Try Hongkong’) and also Fevvers, Sir Edward and the Judge. Old Filth was a Raj orphan, an anodyne description for a bitter childhood. His mother died at his birth, he was brought up in a Malay village and then taken unwillingly from the foster mother he loved, fostered again into a cruel family back in the UK, went to Oxford, started poor, made a packet in Hongkong, lived - in short - a life that was a strange mixture of privilege and grief. And that is one of Jane Gardam’s themes – never assume that other people have led dull and uneventful lives. When the book opens he is living out a furious and irascible old age, clinging to his wife’s memory like a drowning man to a lifebelt.

The book’s strengths are many. Gardam’s dialogue is to die for – supple, expressive, often startling. She can turn the direction of a story on a sixpence. (Oh, you think quite suddenly, so that’s where this is going.) She has a transfiguring talent, can flood a scene with an ecstatic strangeness, can turn the ordinary world momentarily into something glorious. (Her magical realism is at least as strange as anything in Gabriel Garcia Marquez.) And she is also fiercely loyal to Old Filth, her central character – which in this case is a strength.

But above all she writes wonderfully about Time; how it holds us and confuses us; how we live in all times, past and present, simultaneously; how Time maroons us on lonely beaches (‘Who the hell was he?’ asks one policeman of the other about Old Filth, ‘He’s like out of some Channel 4 play’); and above all how the griefs of our childhoods follow us everywhere and never leave us, returning sometimes in old age in a flood that drowns us.

Old Filth got me wondering about charm in novels – and why some novels have it? Old Filth has charm, as does – for instance – Brother of the more famous Jack, by Barbara Trapido. Which is another story. But maybe in the end it comes down to energy and exuberance?

And the next two novels in the Gardam trilogy, which are called The Man in the Wooden Hat and Last Friends, are, remarkably, almost as good. 

Old Filth is published by Abacus.

Monday, 24 August 2020

SMALL PLEASURES by Clare Chambers, reviewed by Adèle Geras

"A story I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I first picked it up."

Adèle Geras has written books for readers of all ages. Coming from Michael Joseph in February next year is her novel Dangerous Women, published under her pseudonym, Hope Adams.
Twitter: @adelegeras

This novel, which I read about a month ago, is going to end up near the top of my list of Books of the Year, 2020. I would love it if some prize juries put it on shortlists.

It’s Clare Chambers’ first book for a decade and I’m determined to read her entire backlist. On the strength of this novel, I regard her as one of those writers you can trust. After only a few pages you know you’re in good hands. Her prose is sharp, intelligent and witty. It’s lyrical without being sentimental, and she is able to transport a reader instantly to a specific time and a place. Her ear for dialogue is superb. She creates an entire universe: a rather narrow and parochial suburban world which is nevertheless fascinating and whose denizens are as full of emotional turmoil and tormented feelings as anyone in a novel with a flashier setting. Lovers of Barbara Pym and Dorothy Whipple will feel completely at home in this novel, and speaking as someone who was thirteen in 1957, when it’s set, I can promise you that every detail is spot on.

Jean Swinney is a reporter on the local newspaper. She lives with her mother, who is a millstone round her neck. Then a story comes to her attention. A woman is claiming that her ten-year-old daughter is the product of a Virgin Birth. As she follows the story, Jean becomes involved with the family she’s investigating. I shall say no more for fear of spoilers ... the author herself has written of how she based the Virgin Birth part of the plot on a real story in the Sunday Pictorial (see @ClareDChambers on Twitter)

A controversy-ette has sprung up on Twitter about Small Pleasures, but I’m not telling you what that’s about either. What I will say is: this novel is as carefully put together as a Swiss watch, and there’s nothing that hasn’t been thought through. This might sound enigmatic, but you’ll see what I mean when you read the book.

The tasteful picture of tangerines on the cover is not really indicative of the kind of novel it is, but I’m pretty sure that it’s there for a reason. I just hope everyone who isn’t drawn to “that sort of cover” makes their way past it to a story I haven’t been able to get out of my head since I first picked it up.

Small Pleasures is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Monday, 17 August 2020

Guest review by Jill Dawson: NEGATIVE CAPABILITY by Michèle Roberts

"Feels like being in a café with Michèle, enjoying a glass of French wine and listening to her being funny, irreverent and political, passionate and indiscreet ..."

Jill Dawson
is the author of ten novels, including The Crime Writer, about Patricia Highsmith. The latest is The Language of Birds, about the nanny murdered in the household of Lord Lucan in 1974. She runs a mentoring scheme where established writers work with new ones, Gold Dust Mentoring.

Following a series of devastating rejections, novelist and poet Michèle Roberts decided to keep an account of her life in order to make sense of her shattered sense of self. This wonderful, fearless, surprising memoir is the result. I have been recommending it lately to all my writing students because if there’s one thing all writers need to understand it’s how to cope with rejection, how to survive it and carry on writing.

I should state here that I know Michèle (she was my boss, the Director of the MA in Creative Writing when I taught at UEA) so I don’t doubt I’m biased, but I loved her writing long before I met her: its sexy openness, daring experimentation, vividness and warmth. If you haven’t read her, along with poetry and memoir and short stories, there are fourteen novels. Daughters of the House, shortlisted for the Booker, is a good place to start. 

I devoured this. An honest insight into how another writer – one as established as Roberts no less – feels when a novel gets bounced around by agents and publishers is rare. The book could be read as a companion to her earlier memoir, Paper Houses, which tells of her formative years as a young feminist in the 1970s. Alongside her thoughts on writing, on Creative Writing students who want to produce ‘marketable commodities’, set against her own passionate desire to make art and take risks, there is also a glorious exploration of food, sex, friendship, loss, feminism, art and religion. This intimate memoir feels like being in a café with Michèle, enjoying a glass of French wine and listening to her being funny, irreverent and political, passionate and indiscreet, (although this artlessness, the creation of such a natural-sounding voice is of course the skill of an accomplished writer who makes it look easy).

In one chapter, reading Roberts on rejecting the idea that the male gaze creates desire, I was struck by how powerfully her thinking had influenced me in my twenties. The idea of the radical nature of actively desiring, feeling desire as a woman and not just wanting to be desired, reflected back at twice your natural sexiness is a theme that comes up in my novels a lot. Since I was reading Michèle Roberts in the 1980s at the start of my writing life, I am aware of how much I owe her.

‘Negative capability’ she reminds us, is a term Keats used in a letter to a friend, meaning ‘to be capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.’ Dwelling in the not-knowing, not being able, is of course so much easier to talk about, preach, than to actually practise. Might the concept be extended not just to writing but to living? Perhaps it could more broadly refer to all situations where a person felt out of control, even to ‘not being published, not being read’?

‘Just treading water, swimming, just lying on my back, floating in the present, the buoyant present holding me up and rocking me’, she suggests.

If you want to be buoyed up, nourished, encouraged to be fully alive, to challenge and to doubt, this memoir is a joy from start to finish.

Negative Capability is published by Sandstone Press.



Monday, 10 August 2020

Guest review by Katherine Langrish: THE GOLDEN RULE by Amanda Craig

"The novel is about relationships destructive and supportive, and learning to see people for what they truly are..."

Photograph by Jo Cotterill

Katherine Langrish is the author of a number of historical fantasies including the trilogy West of the Moon, anDark Angels (Harper Collins). Her most recent book is Seven Miles of Steel Thistles (The Greystones Press), a collection of essays on folklore and fairy tales based on her award-winning blog of the same name.

In the middle of a bitter divorce triggered by her husband’s affair, struggling to support herself and her five year-old daughter while working as a cleaner, Hannah is forced to spend money she hasn’t got on a railfare to Cornwall to visit her dying mother. Hot and thirsty in the standing-room-only carriage, her luck seems to change when rich, elegant Jinni invites her into the air-conditioned first class and offers her chilled water, chilled white wine – and confidences. Strangers on a train, the women have more in common than appearances suggest: they both feel like killing their husbands. When Jinni suggests that if they swap victims they could get away with it, Hannah agrees. But nothing is quite what it seems. Meshed in a web only partly of her own making, Hannah soon doesn’t know which way to turn.

This was a novel I really couldn’t put down, and not only for the strong story-telling. Amanda Craig has a cool eye for social nuances: the comfort mixed with prickling disquiet of fitting back into family and community you’ve tried to leave behind, the hurtful, casual ignorance of rich folk about what it’s like to be poor, the vitriolic exchanges of marriages gone sour. There’s also a wonderful sense of place and identity: the Cornish countryside and people in all their contradictory moods.

Above all the novel is about relationships destructive and supportive, and learning to see people for what they truly are. Since not being fooled by appearances is a fairy tale theme, it gave me great pleasure to discover the briar-rose tendrils of more than one fairy tale twining through the narrative, and references to children’s literature too. The classic book Green Smoke has captured the imagination of Hannah’s little daughter Maisie: all about a friendly Cornish dragon, who lives in a cave. But of course caves and dragons can be dangerous…

As I reached the end I realised that the writer with whose work I’m most drawn to compare The Golden Rule is Daphne du Maurier. She too told strong stories with strong characters in strong, often Cornish settings: her books live and are loved. Du Maurier has sometimes been belittled as a Gothic novelist, though why ‘Gothic’ should be regarded as in any way derogatory I do not know: frankly what was good enough for Charlotte and Emily Bronte ought to be good enough for anyone. Richly textured, modern, contemporary, literary, The Golden Rule  treads confidently in their footsteps.

The Golden Rule is published by Little, Brown.

See also: The Lie of the Land by Amanda Craig, reviewed by Adele Geras

Monday, 3 August 2020

Guest review by Ann Turnbull: THE STORY OF THE BRITISH ISLES IN 100 PLACES by Neil Oliver

'The author declares, "This is my love letter to the British Isles." It's this emotional response that makes the book such an engaging read.' 

Ann Turnbull has been writing stories for young people of all ages since 1974. Her most recent book is In That Time of Secrets, a young adult novel about the persecution of Catholics in 1605, set in the Black Country. Find out more at

I've long been a fan of Neil Oliver's archaeology programmes on TV, but had not read any of his books until I was given this one for Christmas. 
It's a large, heavy hardback of over four hundred pages. I read it slowly, a chapter a day, looking up map references and photographs, and feeling frankly astonished that there were so many places in Britain that I'd never visited, and some I'd never even heard of. This is not a travel guide, although it will inspire readers to visit many of these places. It is very much Neil Oliver's personal response to the wonders of the British Isles.

He describes how all the islands were once part of a great land mass that later separated from continental Europe. The book is arranged chronologically, and the first chapter takes us to Happisburgh in Norfolk where, in 2013, archaeologists found the footprints of five people - two adults and three children - who were walking there in the mud some 950,000 years ago. I remember seeing a reconstruction of these footprints in an exhibition at the British Museum - the adults moving forward, the children criss-crossing as they scampered about. When the people (who were not Homo Sapiens) walked here, these islands were still joined to continental Europe. Aeons had passed before the events in the next story, the cave burial of the so-called 'Red Lady' of Paviland - a young man who died about 34,000 years ago.

The story progresses through time, between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Here are rock carvings, axes, henges, ships, castles, bridges, churches, battlefields, an ancient tree, and even a chapter about an unknown place: the site of the Battle of Brunanburh - a critical battle, which ensured the permanent divide between Scotland and England. The people of Britain are here too: Captain Cook, Mary Anning, King Alfred, the Brontes, Robert Burns, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Penlee lifeboatmen, and many more.

The book ends at Dungeness on the Kent coast - a final chapter drawing the threads together, in which the author declares, "This is my love letter to the British Isles." It's this emotional response that makes the book such an engaging read.

The Story of the British Isles in 100 Places is published by Bantam Press.