Monday, 25 September 2023

Guest feature by Dennis Hamley: THE SECOND PERSON FROM PORLOCK


"Each character, real or imaginary, had their own quest and I accompanied them on their journeys though the uneasy England of 1824. And I like to think I helped them find their destinations and their fulfilment."

Dennis Hamley has been writing for an unconscionably long time. His first book was published in 1962. Since then he's written more books than he can count, including The War and Freddy, Hare’s Choice, Spirit of the Place, Out of the Mouths of Babes, the six novels in the sequence of medieval mysteries The Long Journey of Joslin de Lay, Ellen’s People and Divided Loyalties. He says: "It's wonderful to see my Coleridge project in print at last, and published by Fairlight Books, based in Oxford where I live.  It came about when, after leaving hospital, I was visited by an ex-student of mine on the Oxford Creative Writing Diploma course - Louise Boland, a very good writer who had decided to set up as a small independent publisher specialising in literary fiction. That gave me the impetus to resurrect the project I'd been working on for years."

My interest in Samuel Taylor Coleridge merged into near-obsession at Cambridge, when my supervisor set our tutorial group an essay on STC’s theory of the imagination. This was in STC’s own college, Jesus. I loved this assignment, spent hours over it, found my understanding of literature changed utterly and received the supervisor’s comment ‘A noble effort’. Pleasing, but he omitted to say if it was actually any good. In 2002 a publisher, David Fickling, suggested I might write a novel about STC. So I did. It took me two years and he rejected it. And he was right. Incompetent and unreadable. So I got on with other things. But the resolve to write a proper novel about STC wouldn’t leave me. It took fifteen years for me to work out how to do it.

In 1972, a book called It’s a Don’s Life by Freddie Brittain, one-time fellow of Jesus (not to be confused with Mary Beard’s book) was published by Heinemann. Freddie mentioned a strange inscription in the first edition of Kubla Khan in the Old Library:

The writer of the above had much better have kept his sleeping thoughts to himself, for they are, if possible, worse than his waking ones.

It sounds damning. But perhaps it wasn’t. I needed someone to examine it closely. Who? A sizar, working as a library clerk, as had STC, perhaps?

My original failed novel depended on a what if? When in Sicily in 1804, Coleridge had a mysterious relationship with an opera singer, Anna-Cecilia Bertozzi. In 1808 he suddenly writes about her in his notebooks: ‘… her sincere vehemence of her attachment to me…Heaven forfend that I should call it Love.’

Back home, STC was in platonic love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of Wordsworth’s wife, Mary. He called her ‘Asra’, to distinguish her from the other Saras, wife and daughter. And now, just in time, he sees ‘the heavenly vision’ of Asra’s face, ‘the guardian angel’ who saves him from the final temptation . I couldn’t resist thinking, ‘Yeah, right!’ What if STC had, unbeknown to him, left a son in Sicily and that son comes to England to find him?

So I had three main characters: one, STC, real; two fictional, George Scrivener, undergraduate who finds the Kubla inscription and works out its true significance, and Samuele Gambino, putative son in search of the truth. For George, an aspiring poet, the wish is that STC might be his mentor. Samuele needs to square his mother’s vision of genius with his teacher Mr Calvert’s of an opium-sodden wretch.

Perhaps the word ‘riff’ best describes what I was attempting. All facts would be accurate, but STC didn’t live by mere facts. We meet him with the line:

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had seen a ghost.

He was lodging with Dr Gilman and his wife on a sort of extended rehab. The ghost first appeares in Highgate High Street and then haunts him. Is this revenant the Second Person from Porlock? George Scrivener works out that there couldn’t even have been a first.

Mixing fictional and real characters is a risk worth taking. Samuele’s guide in his quest is Charles Lamb, who tells him who to visit and provides letters of introduction. So Samuele meetsTom Poole, STC’s friend in Nether Stowey, Wordsworth, Southey and, most important, STC’s brilliant daughter, Sara.

Once I had a structure in my mind, actually writing the book came relatively easily. Each character, real or imaginary, had their own quest and I accompanied them on their journeys though the uneasy England of 1824. And I like to think I helped them find their destinations and their fulfilment.

The Second Person from Porlock is published by Fairlight.  

‘With no discernible sleight of hand this master storyteller, with effortless assurance and prodigious skill, weaves his mighty spell and conjures before our very eyes all we will ever need to know about the most famous lines of poetry that English ever produced.’ — Robert Lipscombe, author of The Salamander Tree and The English Project

Monday, 11 September 2023

Guest review by Rowena Edlin-White: THE FAIR BOTANISTS by Sara Sheridan


"Here is a novel of passion, intrigue, and women’s ingenuity which I can thoroughly recommend."

Rowena Edlin-White: "I was born in Nottingham in 1948, to two penniless actors. In the fullness of time I followed them to stage and screen but that gradually gave way to writing and a passion for kitchen-table publishing. For some years I wrote for children before moving into journalism and non-fiction. These days I research and write about local history, women’s history and ‘forgotten’ authors. My most recent book is Exploring Nottinghamshire Writers (Five Leaves), and I edit The Quill, a little Anglo-American journal about early women author-travellers. My favourite occupation is foraging in second-hand bookshops."

I went to the Wigtown Book Festival in Dumfries and Galloway again last September and was delighted to find Sara Sheridan launching a new novel, The Fair Botanists – in fact there was a women-and-gardening theme this time, which led me into several gardens in the region which I hadn’t visited before.

The Fair Botanists takes us back to Edinburgh in 1822: the Botanic Gardens are being physically moved, trees and all, from Leith Walk to a new situation at Inverleith, because it is just possible that King George IV might decide to visit the city and why should not the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens rival Kew? The gardens contain many exotic plants of interest to the medical profession, none more so than the so-called ‘Great Aloe’ which flowers only once and then dies; this event is believed to be imminent and several people have a vested interest in it.

Many women of the time were interested in botany as artists, herbalists or for the special properties of different species. Sheridan’s female characters span those interests: Elizabeth Rocheid is a penniless widow brought to town to look after Clementina, an eccentric in-law; Elizabeth is an artist. Belle Brodie has a keen interest in exotic perfumery - and is also “Edinburgh’s most expensive courtesan.” An unlikely friendship develops between these two women as they watch for the Aloe to flower. Here is a novel of passion, intrigue, and women’s ingenuity which I can thoroughly recommend.

Sheridan’s fictional characters interact with real people, for example, the under-paid head gardener, William McNab and Robert Graham, Regius Keeper of the Gardens. Sir Walter Scott puts in an appearance and the Rocheid family really did exist but have acquired a couple more members.

Enter Mrs Brunton:


In a short scene (if this were a play it would take place in front of the curtain whilst the scenery was changed) in Canongate Kirkyard, Johann von Streitz, a minor royal, comes across the Rev Alexander Brunton tending his wife’s grave. “My dear Mary...” Brunton says, “You have perhaps heard of her? She wrote novels. Her work has appeared in translation...” That’s all. But even before I read Sheridan’s notes at the end of the book I had my suspicions about Mary Brunton who wrote novels – she had to be real. I also referred to Sheridan’s book Where are the Women?, an illuminating guide to many notable women un-memorialised in Scotland, and yes, she’s there!

My first resort in cases of long-forgotten authors is the venerable Bromley House Library in Nottingham. A glance at the catalogue proved me right – they have three volumes by Mary Brunton (1778-1818). Needless to say, after nearly 200 years they are rather fragile, but I was allowed to borrow Mrs Brunton: A Memoir which also includes her third and unfinished novel, Emmeline.

Mary Brunton nee Balfour, was born and brought up on Orkney, from where – it is said – she eloped in a rowing boat with Alexander at the age of twenty. He gave her the space and opportunity to pursue her literary interests and her first two novels, Self-Control (1811) and Discipline (1814), were much admired. The Memoir includes letters to her friends with news of the progress of her publishing career. With regard to Self-Control, she writes to her friend Mrs Izett:

“My hopes of popular favour are low – very low indeed. Of a work like mine, the wise and the good will not be at the trouble to judge... it may become popular, for that is a mere lottery. If it do, be assured, my dear friend, its faults, of which it has many, will draw down the censure of those who are, or think themselves entitled to decide for their neighbours... But I am positive that no part – no, not the smallest part – of my happiness can ever arise from the popularity of my book, further than that I think it may be useful. I would rather, as you well know, glide through the world unknown, than have (I will not call it enjoy) fame, however brilliant. To be pointed at – to be noticed and commented upon – to be suspected of literary airs – to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex; and abhorred, as literary women are, by the more pretending of the other! – My dear, I would rather exhibit as a rope-dancer – “ [extract: Aug. 30, 1810]

Mary’s career was cut short at the age of thirty-nine when she died in child-birth; her only child, a boy, was still-born.

In Sheridan’s own words: “ historical novel is a time machine that takes the reader back to where they come from. It casts light on the modern world.” (Author’s Historical Note: The Fair Botanists, p358). I find this happens again and again. Her excellent novel led me back to a pioneer woman novelist of the early 1800s contemplating her own position as a woman writer of the period. Magical!

The Fair Botanists is published by Hodder.

Monday, 28 August 2023

SPECIAL FEATURE: Q & A with Hazel Gaynor about her new novel THE LAST LIFEBOAT

 "The best historical fiction allows the history and the research to settle quietly onto the page rather than shouting about it."

Photograph by Fran Veale
Hazel Gaynor is an award-winning, international bestselling author of historical fiction. Her debut, The Girl Who Came Home, was a New York Times bestseller, and her most recent book, The Bird in the Bamboo Cage was shortlisted for the 2020 Irish Book Awards Popular Fiction Novel of the Year, and was a national bestseller in the USA, where it is published as When We Were Young and Brave. Her latest novel The Last Lifeboat is out now. Hazel’s work has been translated into seventeen languages and is published in twenty-three countries to date. Originally from Yorkshire, she now lives in Ireland with her family. Here Hazel answers questions from Adèle, Celia and Linda.

Celia: What attracted you to this particular aspect of Second World War history? What came first, wanting to write about the Second World War, or this particular incident?

Hazel: I was interested in the history of WW2 evacuees and Operation Pied Piper, a mass evacuation campaign where children were sent to the countryside from Britain’s towns and cities most at risk of bombing raids, and while researching that I came across the phrase ‘seaevacuees’ and was intrigued. Children being sent overseas was a less well-known evacuee story. But it was an account of an evacuee ship torpedoed in the Atlantic, and a lifeboat of survivors, lost at sea for eight days, that sparked the idea for The Last Lifeboat. I imagined two women connected by the tragedy: one in a lifeboat with other survivors, the other in London, desperately awaiting news of her children. It immediately interested me as it was a little known and very different story of WW2, a story of human courage and endurance more than a story of war.

Linda: You've covered various historical periods in your fiction. How do you balance the demands of research with the need to be a productive novelist?

Hazel: Discovering forgotten stories and voices from the past is so fascinating, and it is such a privilege to reimagine them on the page, but historical fiction is not a history lesson. Like all fiction, it aims to entertain, to provoke reaction and discussion, to consider the world through someone else’s experience. The imagined narrative in my novels comes from months, sometimes years, of detailed research, but much of that research isn’t written into the book but more informs my understanding of the place and time to create an authentic world for my reader. The best historical fiction allows the history and the research to settle quietly onto the page rather than shouting about it. I often fall down research rabbit holes, but the nagging pressure of a deadline is a great motivator to stop researching and start writing!

Celia: The Last Lifeboat is based on an actual incident in the history of the wartime evacuation of British children to Canada. Did the fact that this was a real event constrained your writing in any way?

Hazel: When writing anything based on true events, I am always mindful of the fact that it really happened, and that ordinary people like you and me lived through those moments, even if my characters are fictional. I don’t feel constrained by the history – this is partly why I write historical fiction rather than factual history – but I am always mindful of being very respectful of the history.

Adèle: How much planning do you do before you write? Can you describe your process a little?

Hazel: I’m a definite pantser rather than a plotter, so my stories often take unexpected turns as my characters lead me in interesting directions! I do a lot of research while the initial idea percolates and to help me get a grasp of the event and timeframe I’m planning to write in. I then prepare a 2-3 page outline document to share with my agent and editors to make sure everyone is excited about the concept, and once we’ve all agreed on the direction, I start writing. I continue to research through every stage of the writing process, right down to final edits when I am still double-checking facts and minor details. I’m a terrible first drafter and constantly go back to edit early pages when I should be getting on with writing the rest of the book, but somehow it always gets done!

Adèle: What is the best advice about writing you’ve ever been given? And the worst?

Hazel: Start writing, and finish what you start. It sounds obvious, but this is the only way to find out if you really want to write, if you’re prepared to make sacrifices to find time to write, and if you have a story you want to tell. Give yourself permission to write a messy first draft and don’t give up when it starts to feel too difficult. Every writer, no matter how experienced, goes through a period of doubt. Remind yourself that a first draft doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be written. Worst advice? Visit your local bookshop on publication day to see your book on the shelf. I did this with my debut novel. They didn’t have it in stock!

Linda: How do you think the publishing industry has changed since you were first published?

Hazel: Over the ten years of being a published writer, there has been a very positive growth in books written and published by diverse voices. There have been many discussions about cultural appropriation and whose story a writer should tell and the book I’ve chosen to review (Yellowface, by Rebecca F Kuang) reflects that in the most brilliant and original way. Fortunately, ebooks didn’t see the end of print as everyone feared, and the popularity of beautiful hardback editions and sprayed edges has been amazing to see. I dread to think what my answer to this will be in another ten years with the rise of AI - it terrifies me!

Thanks so much, Hazel, for answering our questions - we hope your novel will reach many appreciative readers! 

The Last Lifeboat is published by Harper Collins.

Monday, 14 August 2023

Guest review by Penny Dolan: AN ENGLISH LIBRARY JOURNEY (with detours to Wales and Northern Ireland) by John Bevis


"Whether to geographers, to history and design enthusiast, to local studies nerds and a mix of casual readers, a useful enterprise ... such fascinating oddments as the photographic pioneer brothers and their very own Stuffed Ox ..."

Penny Dolan is a children’s storyteller and writer. Her last novel for older children, A Boy Called Mouse, was nominated for the Young Quills Historical Fiction Award, and she is currently completing a companion book. She posts on The History Girls, on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure as well as being a regular contributor here, and can be found on Twitter @PennyDolan1.

After a librarian friend suggested An English Library Journey by John Bevis, I borrowed a copy - from my local library, of course.

Although published in 2022, this hardback book has been given a vintage look and cover. A slightly eccentric account, it made an interesting interlude between reading-group commitments and non-fiction titles.

However, to my mind, despite the title and all the library locations, Bevis’s account does not feel like a geographical study: focus on specific landscapes, topography or economic regions. The book is a chronological account of visits to almost two hundred English libraries and what gives the content relevance is that his trips took place between 2010 and 2019.

This was the decade shaped by the Big Crash, the EU referendum, Osborne’s austerity, the ‘Big Society’ idea and the subsequent decline in government and local authority funding, especially to libraries. Bevis’s lightly amusing quest ends by revealing the damage done to the public library service and the success and failures of various cost-cutting initiatives.

The author, it must be noted, is not a librarian but a freelancer. An occasional builder, decorating and gardener, Bevis has also been a typesetter for the V&A, poet and writer, designer, printer and publisher, and bookseller at Whitechapel Art Gallery.

He does, though, respect books and libraries. In his dramatic opening chapter, he describes how, as a nine-year old, he helped when fire broke out in an upper room at the Guildford Royal Grammar school. Though the flames had been doused by the fire-brigade’s hoses, water was running through to the school’s precious library below.

He became ‘part of a human chain stretching the width of the school grounds . . . books were passed hand to hand or cradled four or five at a time . . . I do not remember how many hours we worked but the effort seemed endless . . .All the books that passed through our hands were saved. . . .’ They were all aware of the rare 15th Century chained library nearby but safely out of reach of the fire.

The chapter develops into a short history of library provision , from early circulating and subscription libraries, the library acts, Carnegie’s philanthropic provision and the growth of the public library service during the twentieth century. Clearly, Bevis loves everything about books.

But how did this journey begin? Years later, after a health scare, Bevis becomes his wife’s chauffeur. Once he has driven her to her work at a variety of prisons, he has the middle of the day free. His plan is to find the nearest library’s computer suite and continue with his writing project and commissions.

This is when the eccentricity begins. Bevis must have a membership card to use the computers, but he can only get that by pretending to be “resident”. After outwitting the system a few times, he finds himself the proud holder of five different library cards. Inspired, he now starts on a personal quest to collect a membership card from as many libraries as he possibly can.

An English Library Journey is his account of all the libraries visited on this odd quest, year by year. The locations seem quite unconnected: for example, in Section One, dated 2019, he briefly records visits to Telford and Wrekin; Isle of Wight; Shropshire; Central Bedfordshire; Luton; Essex; Norfolk; Surrey, Nottinghamshire. Some libraries are given only a few lines, while other entries are much fuller than others.

Bevis’s interest is mainly architectural, along with comments on the how the building appears within its general setting. He writes that Leamington Spa’s ‘broad streets and terraces’ remind him of ‘TV and costume drama” and hint at ‘an England that’s too good for the English’. Meanwhile, Milton Keynes’s library ‘had made no space for itself but had blended into the constructed homogeneity of (the) town centre and Darlington Central was ‘a magnificent edifice with an art gallery’ and many ‘bare rooms and the scant library itself rather rattling around in the family mansion.’ It is ‘trying to downsize.’

Bevis includes the history of many buildings, noticing the architecture and occasionally the architectural firm. Newport, Shropshire, has a ‘modern generic fit-out . . . but the upper storeys are a family at war: the left hand building stolid in its plain stay-at-home Neo-Georgian brich while to the right is the crazy cousin, A Gothic stone gateway with castellated battlements (is) all that’s left of an 18th Century folly that housed a wool merchant and a draper. ‘ Luton’s influential Central library is ‘a pale floating box on peg leg pillars’; March (Cambridgeshire) has a feisty glass wedge of a building, now it its tenth year and, after a run of depressing visits, he finds that Slough is unexpectedly ‘bucking the depressing trend. . . A wrapped aluminium and glass cultural flagship.’

Although rather startled by the noise and the range of activities – music sessions for babies, Knit and Natter groups, the strange behaviour of some computer users - he is very conscious of the design of the interior of some individual libraries, the layout of space and shelving, the windows and light and atmosphere, as well as the ease and kindness with which he gets his card.

The book has a slightly uneven style, with some visits clearly more interesting and longer than others. Occasionally, as part of his quest, he tries visiting two or three libraries in one day. Yet, gradually, as the journey continues, Bevis’s observations darken. The design and lettering on his library cards also leads him into the history of library unions and consortiums around London, particularly the subsequent withdrawal of richer authorities, unwilling to keep sharing their stock. He draws attention to private providers, describing how one giant company went bankrupt, with several library contracts taken back in house by local authorities.

He notices the publicity given to Little Free Libraries, and telephone box libraries, pointing out that not only are they not true libraries, they rarely occur in areas that are without library provision. To them that have, more shall be given? He highlights the hub model (where a single, central librarian looks after smaller, mainly volunteer run-libraries) as a way of cutting staff costs, the council’s biggest worry. Alongside, he notes that volunteers come from a certain age and class, creating a model that works in prosperous areas but not in poorer communities.

Bevis also notes cuts in hours, the growing use of self-service tills, the long term thinning of library book-stock, in number and in depth and the practice of proudly including a “library” among several council services within one site, mainly because the library is often diminished by the practice. When he visits the ‘Rowntree Library Cafe’ in York, he seems appalled by the meagre offer of three sets of shelves. How can this shadow be publicised by the council as a valid library?

Revisiting one site, several years on in the decade, he finds the library that was always so busy has no more than a dozen users during the time I was there. . . It is the result of some other order of catastrophe.’

Of course, along with his descriptions and interactions with local people, Bevis does discover successful locations and libraries, such as the provision in Richmond on Thames, although even then he points out that the authority is ‘fortunate to ride austerity with the wealth of its populace and a below-average social fund budget.’

An English Library Journey was a slightly uneven experience for this reader. At times, I felt cross that Bevis’s card-collecting wheeze was wasting staff time and resources, that some visits were too brief, simply a chance for him to tick off that card, and also that his attention was more focused on his work in the computer suite rather than the work within the main areas of the library and books as a whole. I would have liked more about the books on offer in these libraries.

However, re-reading it, I felt that Bevis’s account, with its growing emphasis on spreading the word about our libraries, whether to geographers, to history and design enthusiast, to local studies nerds and a mix of casual readers, was probably a useful enterprise along with such fascinating oddments as the photographic pioneer brothers and their very own Stuffed Ox.

Additionally, although Bevis’s journey is two, three or more years out of date, An English Library Journey could also be a useful reminder about the need for extra vigilance about the coming rounds of cuts.

An English Library Journey is published by Eye.

More reviews by Penny:

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders

The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty

Monday, 31 July 2023

SEVENTH BIRTHDAY FEATURE: our books of the year so far, by Adèle, Celia and Linda


As usual on our birthday, the three of us recommend books that have caught our attention so far this year.


End of Story, by Louise Swanson, is a lockdown-influenced dystopia and the premise is so ghastly (all fiction, stories etc firmly banned by the state) that I absolutely had to read it to find out what happens. I’m going to say very little about it so as not to spoil the pleasure of anyone coming to this book for the first time. Try and avoid looking up any reviews…that way, the twists as they occur will be all the more startling. I’m looking forward to seeing what this author does next. She manages a many-layered story with terrific virtuosity.

Yellowface, by Rebecca F Kuang, is the kind of book I call a “frying onions” book. Once I start one of these, I really can’t put it down, even to cook and I’ll be stirring a pot with one hand and holding the book up to read with the other. This is a story of a writer becoming hugely successful by stealing another writer’s novel. It’s tremendously good about the often mad world of publishing, and such hot button topics as cultural appropriation.  Though there are various bones one could pick with it, while you’re actually reading this book you notice none of them. It was a huge bestseller, and Rebecca E Kuang has a big following as a fantasy writer.

The North Shore by Ben Tufnell is the last book I read, but it’s so unusual and so perfectly conceived and written that I know it will stay with me in a way that only special books can. I’m not sure what to call it or how to describe it. It helps to know that the author is also a botanical illustrator, and a curator and knows a great deal about art. It’s a short book, and only partly a story about a storm on the Norfolk coast and what or who a teenage boy brings into his house…weaving in and out of this plot strand are short essays about all kinds of things and careful digressions in which various works of art are described and considered. The Green Man makes several appearances and Linda Newbery (of this parish) will be especially pleased about that. I can’t urge this book o you enough. It’s mind-boggling. I was tremendously grateful to have my phone handy, ready to look up specific art works on Google as I went along. It’s a book that has echoes of W G Sebald here and there but which is really unclassifiable. I loved it. 


Eleanor Catton won the Booker Prize for The Luminaries, a Victorian mystery which was adapted for TV. Birnam Wood, a very different follow-up, also set in her native New Zealand, pitches a group of guerilla gardeners, led by the idealistic Mira, against Lemoine, a venture capitalist; both have ambitions, very different ones, for a farm abandoned after a landslip, and without the knowledge of the owner. When Tony Gallo, former member of Birnam Wood and aspiring journalist, learns of the deal struck between Mira and Lemoine, he's horrified that Mira has so readily sacrificed the group's ideals, and conducts his own investigation into Lemoine's activities. A catastrophic accident raises the already high tension, leading to a high-octane denouement. A compellingly literary and character-driven eco-thriller.

Naturalist Colin Tudge is well known for The Secret Life of Birds and The Secret Life of Trees. I was lucky to hear him speak recently; he's immensely knowledgeable and an engaging thinker. The Great Re-Think is an ambitious and heartfelt project in which he examines sustainability, government, ethics, environment (though 'biosphere' is his preferred term, 'environment' having been degraded by over-use and commodification), food and farming, the past and the future of how we see the planet and our place in it. His outline is that "All human action should be guided by moral/metaphysical principles on the one hand, and by the principles of ecology on the other"; neoliberalism has led to a belief that we can ignore planetary and ecological boundaries in our quest for endless growth. We do indeed need a great re-think of how we use and abuse the planet's resources - and urgently. If only there were the political will for this to happen ...

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is set in 1960s Jackson, Mississipi, 'where black maids raise white children but can't be trusted not to steal the silver'. College graduate and would-be writer Skeeter returns home to find that the maid who reared her, and whom she loved, has been dismissed. Setting herself apart from her privileged social group, she finds her niche as an author when she determines to give a voice to the black maids who service their homes and bring up and love their employers' children, only to see those children trained to share their parents' prejudice. It's been criticised as a 'white saviour' novel (of the kind condemned in Adèle's choice Yellowface), and Viola Davis, who played Aibileen in the film, said afterwards that she wouldn't now take the role, as she felt that the film wasn't focused enough on the black characters. But the novel, moving between the perspectives of Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny, does give powerful insights into the background and daily lives of black women and the stark differences between their homes and neighbourhoods and those where they work (and don't miss the Afterword by Kathryn Stockett). In fact, if anyone is thinly-drawn, in my view it's a couple of the bitchy, entitled white employers. If you've read the novel or seen the film, what do you think? Have to say that I found it completely gripping and sympathetic.


I’ve always been a fan of the brooding, complicated, brainy detective – from Sherlock Holmes to Hieronymus Bosch by way of Adam Dalgleish. I can now add Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk to the list. I also like a good detective series and have now read all three of the books that feature Falk as the hero. I was upset to read that Exiles might be the last. Apart from their likeable hero, the books share seemingly effortlessly clever, seamless plotting. As a writer, I’m always looking for the sleight of hand, the shadow of the puppeteer’s strings. Each of the novels begins with a profound puzzle. As with all good puzzles, the solution is impossible to predict but ultimately completely convincing. It’s the steps leading to it that make for such compulsive reading. The novels are set in Australia and the continent itself is a powerful presence. The people, the landscape, the weather, extreme or benign, make these novels very much of their place. I’ve never really wanted to visit Australia, they have poisonous spiders and snakes, but after reading Exiles, I was prepared to brave such dangers and go to see this extraordinary place for myself.

Broken Light, by Joanne Harris, is as brilliant as the shards alluded to in the title. Many of the chapters are prefaced with a quotation from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s The Lady of Shallot and mirrors, glass, brittle, sharp reflective surfaces, provide a running motif from the first chapter to the last. As does Magic. Joanne Harris is a clever, restless writer who has written in many different genre since her beginning in the Magic Realism of Chocolat. Magic Realism is a notoriously difficult genre to handle and Joanne Harris does it superbly, walking a razor thin line between reality and, well, magic. The book begins with the memory of a magic show, a dazzlingly beautiful female magician, the Great Corovnik, and a trick done by mirrors. It also begins with a dream about woman being murdered in a local park: #shewasonlyrunning. The dream and the memory belong to Bernie Moon, late forties, menopausal and vanishing fast. Now she is remembering the words whispered by the Great Corovnik to her eight year old self: Make them look and Bernie does just that. Joanne Harris acknowledges Stephen King’s Carrie as one of her sources of inspiration. In King’s novel, the onset of womanhood unleashes her superpower. Joanne Harris reverses this, one of her many mirror tricks. The child Bernie had a superpower, she could see into people’s lives, into their minds, into their ‘houses’ but with her first period, she lost that power. The onset of the menopause brings it back - with a vengeance. Instead of accepting the invisibility brought on by having reached ‘a certain age’, Bernie comes to see who she really is and she Makes Them Look!

Adèle Geras and I are enthusiastic supporters of The Rest is History podcast, hosted by Tom Holland and Dominick Sandbrook. The podcast ranges far and wide. I’m constantly learning new things and new ways of looking at history: areas I already thought I knew about, subjects completely new to me. In March, they broadcast an episode rather alarmingly titled, Climate Apocalypse. Their guest was Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History at Worcester College, Oxford and author of The Silk Roads: A New History of The World.  His latest book, The Earth Transformed: An Untold History, is if anything even more ambitious. A history of the world, written from a fundamentally environmental perspective and spanning time from c.4.5bn BC to the present. Truly global in scope, Frankopan examines the powerful effect of environmental change, how it has shaped life on earth and the lessons we can learn from previous civilisations and their responses, or their persistent failure to respond, to changes in climate. Ambitious indeed, and a very lengthy read, but fascinating and informative. As an early adopter of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory, I found it very interesting indeed and in a week when global temperatures have reached historic highs and wild fires rage across several continents, it couldn't be more timely.  

What are your best reads of the year so far? Please tell us in the comments! (They don't have to be new books.)

Monday, 24 July 2023

SEVENTH BIRTHDAY SPECIAL FEATURE: guest Anthony Horowitz chooses THE ESCAPE ARTIST by Jonathan Freedland


"A study of humanity like no other and an unforgettable read."

Anthony Horowitz is one of the most prolific and successful writers working in the UK – and is unique for working across so many media. A born polymath, he juggles writing books, TV series, films, plays and journalism. Anthony has written over 50 books including the bestselling teen spy series Alex Rider, which is estimated to have sold 21 million copies worldwide and has been turned into a hugely successful TV series by Amazon Freevee. A third series has just been filmed and the fourteenth Alex Rider novel, Nightshade: Revenge will be out later this year.
Also an acclaimed writer for adults, Anthony was commissioned to write two new Sherlock Holmes novels, The House of Silk and Moriarty. He was commissioned by the Ian Fleming Estate to write continuation novels for James Bond with Trigger Mortis and Forever and Day, published in 2015 and 2018 respectively. A third novel in the series, With a Mind to Kill, was published in May 2022.

Anthony’s award-winning novel Magpie Murders was published in October 2016 to critical acclaim and was serialised on BritBox at the beginning of 2022 with Lesley Manville in the lead role. It was televised on the BBC in 2023. The sequel, Moonflower Murders, will begin filming in September 2023. His new series featuring Detective Hawthorne and a sidekick called Anthony Horowitz has four books so far: The Word is Murder, The Sentence is Death, A Line to Kill and the recently published The Twist of a Knife. Anthony has just started work on a fifth: Close to Death.

Anthony is responsible for creating and writing some of the UK’s most beloved and successful television series including Midsomer Murders and he is the writer and creator of award-winning drama series Foyle’s War, which was the Winner of the Lew Grade Audience award for BAFTA.

Anthony was awarded a CBE in 2022 for his services to literature.

(photo credit: Canneseries/Olivier Vigerie 2022)
I’ve always had misgivings about books about Auschwitz. The evil of the place is so overwhelming, its darkness so profound, that how can any writer find anything new to add to what is already an extensive library on the subject? And there is a danger that repetition will only blunt the horror of it all. I visited the camp one February, a few years ago, and standing there in my jersey, gloves and puffer jacket, but still colder than I had ever been, I wondered how anyone could have survived even a week there (the average life expectancy was actually four months). Meanwhile, all around me, other visitors were taking selfies. 

The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland, which came out last year and is now in paperback, is a brilliant and important piece of writing because it tells a story that is less well-known, because it finds fresh details to illustrate the horrors of life inside the camp but above all because its focus extends far beyond the gas chambers and the electrified fences. In terrible detail, it explains how the world allowed the Holocaust to happen.

Its central protagonist, Walter Rosenberg, was just nineteen years old when he became the first Jew to escape from the camp, hiding in a tiny dug-out beneath a pile of wood and covering himself in petrol-soaked tobacco to put off the guard dogs. This breathless sequence – he and his fellow escapee, Fred Wetzler, were just seconds away from being discovered – is extremely tense; a reminder that, under another name, Freedland has written many successful thrillers.

Once out, the two men had to travel 75 miles through enemy territory to reach the border with Slovakia. “Just nineteen and twenty-five years old, Walter and Fred were entirely on their own. The way Walter saw it, they had been written off by the world…” And this is the nub of the matter. The descriptions of life inside Auschwitz are horrific enough. The casual murders, the starvation, the daily torture are detailed in sombre, effective prose. But as incredible as it may sound, what happens to Walter (who renames himself Rudolf Vrba) is in some ways even worse.

He had escaped in order to tell the world what was happening. “If the Jews knew what was coming, what sand might they be able to throw in the gears of the machine that was poised to devour them?” A scientist and a mathematician gifted with an extraordinary memory, he described his ordeal to a Jewish organisation in Bratislava – the UZ – and the result was The Auschwitz Report which detailed everything from the arrival of the transports from different parts of Europe to the numbers and even the names of those who perished. The final list numbered 1,765,000 dead in just two years.

Almost nobody cared. Nobody did anything. The Catholic church responded to their report with silence. Copies of the report got ‘lost in the post’. Jewish community leaders who did receive it dithered. The Americans were lethargic. Churchill read the document but his response was ineffectual. “What can be done?” he wrote to Anthony Eden. “What can be said?” The British did consider air strikes on Auschwitz or even on the railways leading to the camp. They decided not to.

Jonathan Freedland does not lose faith with his subject. “His life was defined by what he had endured as a teenager. But he was not crushed by it.” Even so, reading the second half of this book, it’s hard not to feel that Rosenberg does not come out of it as quite the hero he most certainly was even if he is credited with saving the lives of 200,000 people. For him, it wasn’t enough. The last part of the book describes a life that self-destructs. He falls out with Fred Wetzler and also with his daughter. An inveterate womaniser, he divorces his childhood sweetheart and wife. He moves from country to country and seems to have few friends. When he dies, in 2006, just forty people come to his memorial service.

The Escape Artist is a complex portrait of a man who was no artist and who never really escaped from the shadows of Auschwitz or, indeed, from himself. It is a study of humanity like no other and an unforgettable read.

The Escape Artist is published by John Murray

Monday, 10 July 2023

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: THE MARRIAGE PORTRAIT by Maggie O'Farrell (Audiobook narrated by Genevieve Gaunt)

"Beautiful, lyrical writing in places, and always an absorbing story."

Yvonne Coppard
is a Writing Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and writer of fiction for children and adults. See more on her website.

In 1560, fifteen-year-old Lucrezia di Cosimo Medici was married to Alfonso d’Este, the hereditary Prince of Ferrara. The marriage contract, a political alliance, had been signed two years earlier but Alfonso agreed to wait until Lucrezia reached puberty before consummating the marriage. It was a short and seemingly unhappy union. Within a year, Lucrezia was dead and there were rumours that her husband had arranged for her to be poisoned. Don’t be put off by knowing her fate before you start listening; even if you prefer stories with a happy ending, this one will be worth the journey.

From the tiny amount of information recorded about Lucrezia, O’Farrell creates a novel full of tension and suspense. She takes Lucrezia from a loved and protected child to a hopeful, then anxious, then terrified bride. Lucrezia tells her own story, in the present tense, and there is a lot of back and forth between the present moment and her life in Florence. For the audio listener, this means you need to pay proper attention to the date and location given at the start of each track.

Genevieve Gaunt gives a convincing evocation of a child bride who is forced to grow up too fast and use all her wit to survive. Some readers of the book have told me they found the pace too slow, with too much real-time detail of Lucrezia’s thoughts and memories. For me, this was an important part of the novel’s success. Maybe hearing a convincing voice, rather than reading the text, is what makes the difference. The listener is inside Lucrezia’s mind as she struggles to make sense of her situation, and then to cope with the growing awareness that her life is in danger and there is no one who can protect her. It’s beautiful, lyrical writing in places, and it’s always an absorbing story.

No spoilers, but a tip for the listener: finish the book before you listen to (or read about) O’Farrell’s explanation of how she approached the historical facts. Resist the urge to know ‘the truth’. Trust me, ignorance will make the story, and its ending, so much more satisfying.

The Marriage Portrait is published by Tinder Press.

See also: Maggie O'Farrell's Hamnet reviewed by Anne Cassidy

and a general appreciation of Maggie O'Farrell's writing, including After You'd Gone, by Graeme Fife.