Monday, 12 April 2021

Guest review by Simon Edge: SQUEEZE ME by Carl Hiaasen


"In normal circumstances the whole thing would be cartoonishly implausible, but the tragedy of our times is that it’s never been more believable."

Simon Edge
is the author of four novels. His fifth, The End of the World is Flat, is out from Lightning Books in August

Were it not for the farcical Florida recount in the 2000 Presidential election, I might never have begun my love affair with the novels of Carl Hiaasen.

Back then, an election that hung on whether voters had successfully punched out all the cardboard from a perforated ballot, or left some of it still dangling, was the most absurd that US politics had ever got. I remember Hiaasen, interviewed on Radio 4, explaining that this might seem weird to the rest of the world, but it was normal for the nuthouse that was the Sunshine State.

He was the Miami Herald journalist who reinvented himself writing angry comedy thrillers about Florida, channelling his fury at the destruction of the Everglades into satirical tales of venality and corruption. As a rule, the crooks’ greed is only surpassed by their rampaging imbecility, and a Hiaasen hero – usually some kind of crime-busting Crocodile Dundee – is on hand to ensure the villains get a horrific comeuppance, often with the help of some of the fiercer creatures from Florida’s vanishing wilderness.

After I heard him on the radio I started binge-reading Hiaasen, and he’s an influence on some of my own dafter plots. But it’s been a while, so it was a joy to complete a personal full circle in the wake of another presidential election with a strong Florida angle.

Squeeze Me opens at a fundraising ball on the billionaire island enclave of Palm Beach, where a rich Republican widow – and fawning devotee of her near neighbour, the 45th President – goes missing. When her body turns up buried in concrete, a blameless Honduran immigrant called Diego Beltrán is arrested. The President – referred to throughout the novel by his secret-service codename the Mastodon – whips up his supporters by turning ‘No More Diegos’ into a racist campaign slogan.

The Crocodile Dundee here is a tough-but-hot ex-con wildlife handler called Angie Armstrong. Teaming up with an honest local cop and an agent on the Mastodon’s detail, she establishes that no human killed the widow. Unfortunately that won’t help Diego, whom the President and his chanting supporters require to be guilty. Angie is determined to get him released.

There’s also the ongoing problem of an infestation of man-eating Burmese pythons – the titular squeezers – in the Palm Beach area. The one-eyed eco-warrior ‘Skink’, an old Hiaasen favourite, may or may not have a hand in it.

All the maestro’s usual ingredients are here: merciless satire on ignorant, filthy-rich incomers to Florida; a parade of inept crooks and hoodlums offing each other through bovine incompetence; heroic champions of decency and justice with more sympathy for the animal and reptile population than the ever-swelling human one; and a gloriously chaotic climax in which greed, vanity and preening arrogance get their just deserts.

The added zing here comes with the Trump connection. The President and First Lady are not just an off-stage presence but central characters: he with monstrously rolling gut, a daily regime of laxatives and a dependence on erectile treatments; she with granite indifference to everything but her hunky secret-service lover.

A good deal of the plot takes place in Casa Bellicosa, a thinly disguised Mar-a-Lago, which is the scene of an unforgettable set-piece showdown featuring super-sized pythons tripping on acid and a malfunctioning tanning bed. It’s Hiaasen at his absurd, grotesque best.

In normal circumstances the whole thing would be cartoonishly implausible, but the tragedy of our times is that it’s never been more believable. If we’ve learned nothing else from the past few years, we can at least all agree that the best satire is documentary.

On that score, Hiaasen and Trump are a match made in heaven.

Squeeze Me is published by Sphere

Monday, 5 April 2021

Independent Bookseller feature No.12: Madelaine Smith of P&G Wells, Winchester. HER STORY NOT HIS STORY


P&G Wells on College Street in ​Winchester, is possibly the oldest bookshop in the country having traded on the same spot, though under different names, since at least 1729. Tucked away in the streets to the south of Winchester Cathedral the shop offers an eclectic selection of local interest, adult fiction / non-fiction, children’s, teen and YA books as well as stationery and cards.

New Manager Steve Scholey took over in March 2020 and promptly had to close the shop due to Lockdown restrictions. The team have used the time well working on refurbishing and rearranging the shop at the same time as supplying books via click and collect. Steve has regularly been out on his bike to deliver to our customers. 

Madelaine Smith first started selling books at the age of eight when she set up a secondhand bookstall
outside the family home in Sydney. One way or another she has been a bookseller ever since.

I read quite widely and don’t consider myself a fan of any particular genre. I do have a few favourite authors who I return to again and again but also love discovering new writers. Looking back over the books I have read over recent months I was surprised to see just how many books I had read by women authors, and more particularly that I had read quite a number of historical fiction titles which had as their central character a woman or several women. What they had in common was the fact that greater or lesser known incidents from history were being retold from the point of view of a woman. Her story not his story.

I’ve known the story of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet since I was a child (I don’t quite know how... I come from a theatrical family... I had a soft toy cat called Hamnet!) and although Maggie O’Farrell’s wonderful Hamnet is nominally about the child it is really the story of the mother, Anne Hathaway, known throughout this book as Agnes.

Told mostly as the story of one summer’s day in 1596, the day on which Hamnet’s twin Judith falls ill with the plague, the story slips back and forth into the lives of Agnes and Will; how they came to be together, how their marriage, brought about by Agnes’s pregnancy, was an escape for both of them. Central to the novel though is the loss of their child, the deep unfathomable grief that this brings and the different ways Agnes and Will live with their grief.

A pregnancy also sets the lives of the characters in Kate Grenville’s A Room Made of Leaves on their future path. Curiosity leads 21 year old Elizabeth Veale to give up what she had been warned all her life to protect. John MacArthur, her flattering seducer marries her but soon it is clear that it is an unsuitable attachment. John’s ambition takes them to the new colony of New South Wales where he hopes to make his fortune.

Based on the real life story of John MacArthur who every Australian schoolchild learns was the ‘father of wool’, pioneer in the great staple product of Merino wool, A Room Made of Leaves puts Elizabeth, and her life at Elizabeth Farm* at the centre of the story where previously it was really only John who was given credit. I have read two of Grenville’s previous explorations of early Australian life The Secret River and The Lieutenant which were both very male-character-centred. There were so few women in the very early days of the Australian colony but they too have a story to tell. One thing I felt was missing was any real sense of how very difficult life must have been in the late eighteenth century New South Wales especially for a woman brought up in comfort. The heat, the dust, the fear for your children, the overwhelming difficulties of this new life didn’t really come across.

The voyage to Australia in Dangerous Women by Hope Adams gives a better indication of what the life of convict women being transported to the Van Diemen’s Land penal colony was really like in 1841; cramped, overcrowded, unclean, unhealthy. Based on a real journey this book really gave me a sense of the fact that so many women were transported for very petty crimes. Acting out of hunger or desperation they ended up being sent to the far side of the world with no possibility of ever returning ‘home’. My own great, great, great, great grandmother was condemned to death for stealing a hat. The sentence was commuted and she was transported to Tasmania in the very early days of this penal colony. Her small daughter joined her on the voyage but died on the way and was buried at sea.

Miss Austen
by Gill Hornby shines a light on a woman whose life was much more comfortable though still for the most part ruled by financial insecurity. Cassandra Austen lived for nearly another 30 years after her sister Jane died and was in many ways the guardian of Jane’s reputation. Miss Austen set in 1840 focuses on an elderly Cassandra and her desire to find some letters that Jane wrote many years earlier. Cassandra is known to have destroyed a number of Jane’s letters and of course we will never know what was in those letters or why Cassandra felt the need to destroy them. This reimagining weaves facts and fiction together exploring the story of Cassandra towards the end of her life and revealing details of the Austen sisters’ lives and romantic disappointments, and above all their love for each other.

None of these books is a history book. Facts, as Kate Grenville admits, have been ‘slithery’ in the hands of the authors who have used what is known to tell a story set in a moment in time. The fact that all the stories do have some basis in the truth, are based on real people in real places is a perfect start for anyone interested to find out more about their life and times.

*Elizabeth Farmhouse was the very first ‘Historic House’ I visited when my 3rd form history class went on a school excursion. I remember very little about the house other than the fact that we had to remove our shoes when we walked inside as the floorboards were so old.

Hamnet is published by Tinder Press.

A Room Made of Leaves is published by Canongate.

Dangerous Women is published by Michael Joseph.

Miss Austen is published by Century.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Easter Saturday extra: guest feature by Paul Dowswell. RETURN TO SENDER - A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG CLOT


"Imagine my surprise when I was sacked at the end of the week..."

When there’s not a pandemic going on, Paul Dowswell writes historical fiction and is a frequent visitor to schools, both home and abroad, where he talks about his books and takes creative writing classes. His novels Eleven Eleven and Sektion 20 won the Historical Association Young Quills Award and Ausländer won the Hamelin Associazione Culturale Book Prize and the Trinity Schools Book Award. Recently he has become increasingly concerned about how deranged he looks in Zoom calls.

Readers of  Writers Review will no doubt be familiar with the joke about the rabbit who goes into the butchers and asks ‘Got any carrots?’ The butcher tells him he doesn’t sell carrots. But following four days of the same repeated request from the rabbit the butcher loses his temper and says ‘If you EVER ask me for carrots again, I’m going to nail your ears to the floor.’

The rabbit comes back the next days and says ‘Got any nails?’

The butcher looks perplexed and shakes his head.

‘Got any carrots?’ asks the rabbit.

Reader, as a young man, I was that rabbit.

And evidence of that rabbithood is everywhere in a bundle of my letters home from the age of 13 to 23, which I found whilst recently clearing out my mum’s house.

The early 70s found me incarcerated in a horrible little boarding school in the depths of Shropshire, where, unlike Byron at Harrow, I didn’t spend my pre-University years translating The Iliad from the original Greek into Latin. I was an academic mediocrity. I did write a lot of letters home though. And here, in defiance of the widely held view that texts and emails have destroyed the traditional art of letter writing, I present an extract from my letter home from November 27, 1972:

On Thursday there was the House Music competition. We came 4th. (Woe!) On a happy note I’ve had dioreaha (or however you spell it) recently.’

‘That’s nice, dear,’ I can hear my mum saying.

Having cocked up my A Levels I got into Goldsmiths’ in 1975 via the clearing system and read History – a subject I wasn’t terribly interested in at the time. Not a lot of work was done. On Nov 3, 1977 I wrote home ‘As for me, I’m ill at the moment – it’s sort of bronchitis and Flu and I don’t feel so good. However I’m taking good care of myself and getting lots of sleep.’

I obviously had no understanding of the laws of cause and effect, for in the very next paragraph I write: ‘John and Johnny P. (my brother and his best friend) came down this last weekend… we played a ridiculous game of spin the knife the low/high point of which was me having to take a paddle in the birdbath, John whipping himself around the garden, and Johnny having to squirt lemon juice down his throat (blaaaaghhh). We got utterly wrecked on Saturday night and all ended up sprawled on the floor playing I-spy and with Johnny P. drinking Italian plonk from his boot.’

I finished with the reassuring words ‘p.s. am taking approx. 5,000 pills a day so don’t worry.’

Other letters from university are full of ramblings about the travails of my rotten band. My dear dad, who hated rock music, wouldn’t have been remotely interested. ‘We did two gigs this week – One on Tuesday at a Psychology society Party at College + the other at some Greenwich rowing club on Friday. The psychology one was alright – only trouble was **** broke a lead, thus we balled up things a bit. The one on Friday was a disaster. **** broke a string and we lost the attention of what little audience we had.’

A pattern was emerging.

The band broke up shortly after, although **** is still a good pal. (Hence the *s.)

I graduated in 1978, and moved to a grisly bedsit in New Cross Gate. (‘Paul’s room is not so bad,’ wrote my girlfriend to my parents, ‘just a bit scabby – but there aren’t any cockroaches or rats.’) Eventually I found work at a market research company, where I collated surveys on fork-lift truck lubricating oil. Desperate to escape, and still not really having A CLUE what to do, I enrolled on a teacher training course back at Goldsmiths’ College. Nowadays, my respect for the teaching profession knows no bounds, but back in 1979 I wasn’t so sure. My course, I wrote to my mum, herself a teacher, ’… contains a million bossy girls/women all called SUSAN (no Sue, Suzie, Suzanne etc just SUSAN) who have been nursing a burning desire to teach since they lined their dollies up at the age of three and told them off for not doing their homework.‘

Mea Maxima Culpa, teacher chums. And friends called Susan.

The autumn of 1980 found me on the dole (again) and subject to the whims of the job centre, who sent me to Woolworths head office on Marylebone Road to act as a security guard in their impressive glass and marble foyer. ‘It’s crushingly boring beyond belief and only suitable for the lobotomised and those in a deep opium trance,’ I wrote home. ‘I try and keep myself amused by seeing which hurts the most when I bang my head on it, (Of Marble, Glass, Plaster and Plastic, Marble is by far the worst), and breathing on the main glass door and drawing Anarchy signs in the condensation.’

Imagine my surprise when I was sacked at the end of the week.

But other more exciting opportunities in the world of work were presenting themselves. One, in particular, promised a life-changing turn in the road. At 22/23 I was desperate to work for the BBC and understood the important thing was to get in, doing anything, and then apply for the more interesting jobs from the inside. With that in mind I wrote home in June 1981 ‘The BBC have been in touch. I had an interview yesterday for a job in the outside broadcasting dept – v. boring – costing transmissions via the G.P.O. (British Telecom)…’

With mounting excitement I relayed the news that ‘the bloke rang that afternoon and told me I didn’t get the job BUT………..

1. They were very impressed (repeated 9 times)

2. The job was ‘way below my capabilities anyway.’

3. He would be in touch with the right people and they would be looking out for a suitable post and I would hear from them shortly.’

40 years later, whenever the phone rings, I still hope that it’ll be them.

See also: I NEVER READ MY REVIEWS, by Paul

Monday, 29 March 2021

Guest post by Cindy Jefferies: ANCIENT LIGHT by John Banville

"You need to discover it for yourself. And you’re not borrowing my copy, nor will it find its way to the charity shop. This one’s a keeper."

First published in 2001 for children, Cindy Jefferies found success with her Fame School series with Usborne Books, obtaining 22 foreign rights deals. Latterly writing fiction for adults as Cynthia Jefferies, her first title The Outrageous Fortune of Abel Morgan was published in 2018, followed a year later by The Honourable Life of Thomas Chayne, set during the English Civil Wars, followed in 2019. Both titles are now available in paperback. 

John Banville is not an obviously Irish writer. That is neither praise nor complaint, and maybe it says more about me than him. But many writers betray their nationality within their writing and I suppose, being Anglo-Irish I do thoroughly enjoy finding places, objects, words within a novel that I particularly recognise as Irish. Ancient Light isn’t the first Banville novel I have read but it’s been a while and he has tricked me now at least twice. I knew before I started the book, but utterly forgot where he was born until I read the notes on the back again, and shook my head at having read such a breathtaking story.

Ah, how he beguiled me in the very first paragraph: "Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother. Love may be too strong a word but I do not know a weaker one that will apply. All this happened half a century ago. I was fifteen and Mrs Gray was thirty-five. Such things are easily said, since words themselves have no shame and are never surprised." I was completely lost in the telling of the tale, except when I was obliged to read some elegant phrase again or to marvel at the conjunction of two entirely apposite words that I wish I had thought of.

Many years later the narrator is remembering this affair with his best friend's mother and trying to make sense of it. That’s it. I’m not going to describe it any more than that, except to say that it’s one of those novels you finish regretfully and find yourself gazing at, even as you set it down. I could mention a lost daughter, an old jalopy, the acting life and more, but just go and buy it. You need to discover it for yourself. And you’re not borrowing my copy, nor will it find its way to the charity shop. This one’s a keeper.

Ancient Light is published by Penguin.

Monday, 22 March 2021

THE INVENTION OF NATURE: the Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science, by Andrea Wulf, reviewed by Linda Newbery


"Why isn't he as widely acknowledged as Charles Darwin as a key figure in our understanding of nature?"

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Her young adult novel Set in Stone was a Costa category winner; she has published widely for young readers, and is currently working on a new adult novel. Her non-fiction title This Book is Cruelty-Free: Animals and Us will be published in July by Pavilion Books.

What an amazing man Alexander von Humboldt was - one of those driven people who achieves enough to fill ten lives. Yet until I heard about Andrea Wulf's book when it won the Costa Biography prize in 2015, the name Humboldt meant little to me beyond the Humboldt current in the Pacific and the Humboldt penguin. In fact, he has more animals and plants named after him than anyone else – as well as the Mare Humboldtianum, an impact basin, or ‘sea’, on the moon. He was so influential that I’m astonished he isn't a household name, like Charles Darwin, and Wulf's subtitle reflects this: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science. 

Born into a wealthy Prussian family in 1769, he loved collecting and labelling shells, insects and plants from an early age. His father, an army officer, died when Alexander was nine, and he was brought up by his rather distant mother, who sent him to study government and politics. Alexander rejected this planned career in favour of natural history, and became a tireless traveller, explorer, collector, writer, observer and interpreter of the natural world.

While still in his twenties he came to the realisation that nature forms ecosystems, such a key concept today. His term for this was Naturgemälde, in which – unlike other naturalists of his day, who focused on identifying, naming and categorising as if species lived in isolation – he saw that natural systems form a complex, interdependent web. Not only that, but as early as 1800 he foresaw that human intervention had the potential to disrupt the climate; he described "mankind's mishief ... which disturbs nature's order".  More than two hundred years later we're still waiting for this to be fully acknowledged by world leaders.

His earliest travels, in his twenties, were in Venezuela, where he climbed mountains and volcanoes, studied vegetation and made detailed notes on climate zones. From then on, he wrote and published copiously, starting with botany, progressing through his seven-volume Personal Narrative, which combined scientific study with travelogue. Through further travels in South America he observed the damaging effects of Spanish colonialism on indigenous peoples. He advised Thomas Jefferson on the likely effects of independence from Spain and how it might affect the United States; throughout his life he was an outspoken critic of slavery. His influence also set Simon Bolivar on his campaign to free south American from Spanish rule. Wulf points out his contradictions, though – while approving of revolution, he served for years as court chamberlain to the German King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. 

His view that nature calls for an emotional response alongside scientific interest  (he wrote like a poet, one reviewer said) inspired the Romantic poets – Wordsworth and Coleridge are known to have read his books, and Byron directly referred to Humboldt in Don Juan. And Charles Darwin had Humboldt’s Personal Narrative in his cabin on the Beagle, ­annotated with his own comments. Reading these, Wulf says, is like eavesdropping on a conversation between the two. For Darwin, Humboldt was such a key influence that he rather nervously sent the older man a copy of The Voyage of the Beagle, and was delighted when Humboldt replied with detailed appreciation. ‘Few things in my life have gratified me more,’ Darwin wrote; ‘even a young author cannot gorge such a mouthful of flattery.’ We’re so used to seeing Charles Darwin as the bearded, venerable grandfather of natural science that it’s intriguing to see him here, responding as any novice author would to praise from a much-admired elder.

Possibly, Humboldt’s ‘web of life’ idea is also behind James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis – that the Earth, as a whole, is a living thing, capable of regulating itself (if not destroyed by excesses of human interference). Certainly it was the impetus behind Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh, which elaborated on Humboldt’s idea that humans would have a disastrous effect on the natural world. Marsh even foresaw that animal agriculture and meat-eating would deplete natural resources, and that vegetarianism is far more sustainable. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden also owes much to Humboldt’s writings. and Wulf believes that Humboldt was the first to produce nature writing as we think of it now..

The energy and drive of this remarkable man lasted well into his eighties – when he died, at 89, he was still working on a massive, multi-volume project, Cosmos, which aimed to bring everything – animals, plants, geology, oceans and even the sun and stars into one consummate study.

If you’re interested in nature, exploration, the history of science and how we see ourselves in relation to the natural world, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this richly informative book as much as I have. Perhaps Humboldt’s ideas, revolutionary in their time, strike us now with a new and pertinent force. 

So why has he slipped from view? Why isn't he as widely acknowledged as Charles Darwin as a key figure in our understanding of nature? Wulf suggests that, firstly, he was writing at a time when generalism in science was being replaced by specialist disciplines; and secondly, that anti-German feeling in Britain and the USA began to play its part. Still, Wulf concludes that "Environmentalists, ecologists and nature writers today remain firmly founded in Humboldt's vision - although many have never heard of him. Nevertheless, Humboldt is their founding father."

The Invention of Nature is published by John Murray.

See also: Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Monday, 15 March 2021

Guest review by Graeme Fife: SUNSET SONG by Lewis Grassic Gibbon


"I’ve read few novels charged with so urgent an onward pulse of gripping drama played out on a confined stage."

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.'

I owe my friend David, a native Scot, many books to which I was a stranger, but none of his recommendations has pleased, enthralled, astonished me more than this remarkable novel, written by a man three years before his cruel death at the age of 35. Merely to scan the list of his work begs the question: ‘When did the man sleep?’

The novel is set in a small farming community in the Scottish Highlands in the years leading up to the First World War. To recount the obvious elements of such close-knit society – the neighbourliness, the support and help, the loves and ructions, the content and the disquiet, the petty slights incurred through envy and misunderstanding, the greater spite engendered by rumour – is no more than routine. The fluctuations of human intercourse tauten and loosen, the human spirit abides in the villagers, shoves them aside, gives way to the relentless call of working the land, managing the livestock, making do, the common matter of living in some sketchy plenty beyond mere subsistence. There is joy and sadness reflected in the tumble of seasons, foul weather, broad warmth of summer, pinch of winter, burgeoning of spring, the days carolled by familiar birdsong. And the men and women, young and old, who people the tiny parish, who vote for a new minister to mount the pulpit of the kirk on the strength of his preaching, and gather for the weddings and funerals, the pitch and fall of life all round them.

I’ve read few novels charged with so urgent an onward pulse of gripping drama played out on a confined stage. Central to the story, Chris Guthrie, from quean (girl) to wife. It’s her story above all but the existence of one touches the being of all and that is part of Gibbon’s exceptional skill as a weaver of story. The lyric quality of the writing, the rhythms and thread of the narrative, never slackening their tug and pull, are utterly beguiling. I open at random. The villagers are out in the fields harvesting the straw:

‘Sore work Chris found it to keep her stretch of each bout cleared for the reaper’s coming, the weather cool and grey though it was. But a sun was behind the greyness and sometimes when you raised your head from the sheaves you’d see a beam of light on the travel far over the parks of Upperhill or lazing across the moor or dancing a-top the Cuddiestoun stooks, a beam from the hot, grey haze of that sky that watched and waited above the sweat of the harvesting Howe.’

Three place names tossed casually into the sweep of the description like fixing points, and Chris, herself, at once a centre of attention but only one of the many at work there in the days after reaping.

There is a potent, elegiac quality in the writing itself, laced through as it is with many words of native Scottish. Scabrous opinion has it that the Scots language was invented to provide poets with a plentiful supply of off-the-peg rhymes. David has written about the Scots language which was ‘held [in check] forcibly by the English, curtailed, shamefully restricted then banned under threat of death, its richness lost over the centuries as English took its place. We fell dutifully into line like any other colony of the Empire. It rankles, still.’ Gibbon himself says that he’d hope that anyone reading the book might not feel put off by the inclusion of such vocabulary, but there is a Glossary and useful, too. The colour of the old language, still alive in its remnants, even today, underlines the sense of a way of life dwindling. The demands of the War lead to the felling of great swathes of pine forest, a detriment never fully repaired. Machines were already growling at the hooves of the working horses and the lean provision of what could be grown on small farms was increasingly challenged by the superabundance of town markets.

But above all, in Chris Guthrie, Gibbon has brought to life a woman whose feelings, thinking, passions, dismay and joy, bind this reader, at least, to wonder at the richness of fiction’s best inventions. She is not alone. She joins a varied cast of memorable characters - friends, neighbours, the likeable, the shifty, the dafties, the odd balls, the kindlier souls.

Last year, I named three books which I looked forward to reading. Had I but known, Sunset Song would have been there, at the top. I suggest, wholeheartedly, you consider adding it to your list.


Graeme is a regular reviewer here. Here are more of the books he has chosen:

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Bright Day by J B Priestley

What a Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe

A Telling of Stones by Neil Rackham

West of Sunset  by Stewart O'Nan

Uncle Silas by Sheridan Le Fanu

Monday, 8 March 2021

Q & A with Hope Adams (Adèle Geras) on her new novel DANGEROUS WOMEN

"I regard patchwork as a wonderful metaphor for life as well as a beautiful craft and (sometimes) art form ..."

Hope Adams is  the pseudonym  of one Adèle Geras of this parish. Here she  answers questions  about her new novel from Celia Rees and Linda Newbery.


Celia: Dangerous Women is based on a true story. How much did that effect your telling? What fictional elements did you decide to add and why?

Hope: I tried very hard to stick to the known facts about the real voyage, though I took the liberty of adding a crime and a ticking clock to keep readers gripped by the story. The real voyage was a very peaceful and uneventful one on the whole. That would never do for a novel!

Linda: It's no spoiler to say that the novel begins with a knifing, the key event of the story which we keep circling round. How did you decide on the structure - Kezia's viewpoints alternating with 'Clara's' and others, and the back-and-forth of the time scheme? 

H: It took very many editorial interventions and shiftings around of great slabs of narrative before we fixed on an order. I always had a back and forth structure and an order which I thought would be fine but there were others involved who made it even better! Both my UK and my USA editor worked on it together, which was most efficient but I did have to do a bit of juggling of scenes, etc. The time scheme had to be very carefully worked out. I slightly changed the real timing of the love affair to suit my plot. Putting the actual knifing right at the start came quite late on, but I hope it works. 

(the US edition)

C: You have a mix of real and fictional characters. Which were real people, which made up? Why did you feel it necessary to add these particular characters?

Only four of my characters are real: Kezia Hayter, Charles Ferguson, James Donovan and the Reverend Davies. I put them in because I didn’t see any reason to leave them out. Charles especially is very important to the plot and together they provided a ready-made panel of judges.

L: You said that the voyage of the Rajah is very well documented. This must have been helpful, but were there any points at which you felt hampered by the facts? 

H: I altered the timings of certain things as I’ve said above, but otherwise, I have taken the liberty of adding a crime but hope I may be excused for that as I’m writing a novel. I also decided not to use any of the real women’s names. 

C: Each of the chapters begins with a piece of sewing. Are these fabrics from the Rajah Quilt and how did you select which piece for which chapter?

H: I was lucky enough to be helped enormously by my friend Carolyn Ferguson, who’d been given sight of every single fabric used in the real quilt (which was actually a coverlet, not a quilt!) She showed me photos of the fabric and I chose them in a rather random way. If I could describe them adequately, they were picked. A lot of fabrics fell by the wayside when it was decided only to have them at the top of the THEN passages.

C: How and when did you have the idea for Dangerous Women?

H: I’ve been wanting to write about the Rajah Quilt ever since I saw it in the V&A museum in 2009 in an exhibition called QUILTS. I started writing it properly in 2017.

L: Was it daunting to set your novel entirely on a 19th Century sailing ship? Did you do any practical research for that? 

H: I went to see the Cutty Sark, and asked some questions of some nice people at the Royal Museum in Greenwich but otherwise I didn’t do a tremendous amount of research. Carolyn (see above) has written a paper or two about the real Rajah Quilt and those were tremendously useful. 

I was worried that one setting on board ship might be boring, but the flashbacks to characters’ lives make for a bit of variety, I hope. 

C: Was the novel always going to be called Dangerous Women? Did you try out different titles and why did you settle on this one?

H: This novel went through very many titles. It’s been called Great Waters, The Work of their Hands, Miss Hayter’s Company, and so on. Then it was decided that CONVICTION would be a good name. I never liked it, mainly because Denise Mina had a novel of the same name, which appeared last year. It was only when Reese Witherspoon chose Mina’s book for her book club in the USA that my American editor said: ‘We can’t have two books called the same thing so close together, as no book club will ever choose it.” She came up with Dangerous Women which I love and which is perfect for the novel. Whether a book club will choose it now is unknown but meanwhile I’ve got a very good title, I think. 

L: You said that the voyage of the Rajah is very well documented. This must have been helpful, but were there any points at which you felt hampered by the facts? 

H: I altered the timings of certain things as I’ve said above, but otherwise, I have taken the liberty of adding a crime but hope I may be excused for that as I’m writing a novel. I also decided not to use any of the real women’s names. 

C: As writers, we invest a lot of ourselves in the books we write: our particular interests, passions and obsessions. What part (or parts) of Dangerous Women are things dear to Hope Adams/Adèle Geras?

H: I have loved and been interested in patchwork all my adult life. One of the first books I wrote for children was called Apricots at Midnight and that was about an old lady telling stories based on the patches in a quilt. I regard patchwork as a wonderful metaphor for life as well as a beautiful craft and (sometimes) art form. I love the history of patchwork which is a very ancient way of preserving memories and using and reusing what you’ve got to hand.

L: I like the way you've shown Kezia struggling to be listened to and taken seriously by the senior men on the Rajah. She, obviously, was a real person -are any of the other women based on real people? And what sort of futures would the women have had in Van Diemen's Land? 

H: No, all the other women are products entirely of my imagination. Even my Kezia is more of a feminist than she would have been, I think, in real life. She was a very devout and pious young woman.

As for the convict women and what became of them, I think many  might have been employed as domestic servants or worked in the new farms, workshops etc that were being set up in the 19th century. I tried to show that for many, it would perhaps have been a better life than the one they had at home.

L: Do you see Hope Adams as a different personality from Adèle Geras? (I think we once talked about her having a different style of dress!) Is her writing different from Adele Geras’s and where do you see her going?

H: Not really, alas. I did toy with the notion of different clothes but that came to nothing. Hope is exactly like Adèle in her writing style, I think, though readers will be the best judges of that. I changed nothing in my writing process. And she (Hope) will be starting on another historical novel very soon…watch this space.

Dangerous Women is published by Michael Joseph.