Monday, 1 June 2020

Guest review by Rachel Ward: THE LOST MAN by Jane Harper


"A fabulously plotted and absorbing story."

Rachel Ward has written five thrillers for young adults, the first of which, Numbers, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. Her novels for adults, The Cost of Living and Dead Stock (Sandstone Press) are cosy crime stories set in and around a supermarket; Expiry Date will be published on June 18th . Rachel lives in Bath where she also paints and takes photographs. Twitter: @RachelWardbooks Facebook: Rachel Ward Art

In an isolated part of Australia, two brothers meet at the stockman’s grave, a landmark so old that no one can remember who is buried there. But today, the scant shadow it casts was the last hope for their middle brother, Cameron. The Bright family’s quiet existence is thrown into grief and anguish. Something had been troubling Cameron. Did he choose to walk to his death? Because if he didn’t, the isolation of the outback leaves few suspects…

Many of you will have read The Dry,  Jane Harper’s first crime book which deservedly won numerous awards including the British Book Awards Crime and Thriller Book of the Year 2018. If you thought that couldn’t be topped, The Lost Man gives it a run for its money.

Once again, the bleak sun-scorched outback landscape comes to the fore, providing a lethal environment for anyone caught out in it without shelter. Harper’s descriptions are vivid and compelling.

The book follows Nathan, one of the surviving brothers, who lives in an adjacent farm, as he tries to unpick the tortured family relationships on the main Bright family farm and the events which led to Cameron’s death. All the characters are well drawn and complex. Nathan himself is an outsider within his community and his family and is a fascinating focus for the book.

It is a fabulously plotted and absorbing story. There’s a real sense of menace and despair, as secrets are gradually revealed. The ending is surprising (at least to me) and satisfying.

I’m rationing Jane Harper books, because they are real treats to be relished. I’ve yet to read Force of Nature, and I’m delighted to see that a new book, The Survivors, is due in September. Highly recommended.

The Lost Man is published by Abacus.

See also: The Dry reviewed by Adele Geras

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Lockdown Sunday extra: Ann Turnbull chooses THE ANCHORESS by Robyn Cadwallader


"engrossing ... brought to life in an imaginatively convincing way."

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 www.annturnbull.com

This compelling novel tells the story of a young woman in medieval England who becomes the anchoress in a rural church. Her difficulties in settling to a life of prayer and contemplation have been brought to life in an imaginatively convincing way. The anchorhold is minutely described. Sarah measures it out: nine paces long by seven paces wide. There are two small windows into outer rooms, one for her servant to use, the other for visitors. She is also provided with a squint into the body of the church, which gives her a view into part of its interior - but the squint is angled so that she has no direct view and cannot be seen. A large crucifix dominates her cell, and a small window high up lets in a little light.The door is bolted. Under the stone floor are the bones of one of the two previous anchoresses. In this damp, cold place she prepares to spend the rest of her life.

Sarah is attended by a servant and a young girl who are there to make her life run smoothly and give her time for reading, prayer and contemplation. But she is an object of much interest to the women of the surrounding villages, who call in, one by one, to see her and talk to her. They don't come in need of spiritual help so much as information about her and to chat about the life of the village. One of the women says she thought she'd pop in just to be friendly, because "don't you long for a good natter sometimes, Sister?" The villagers are fascinated by the anchoress, and as they talk about their own lives the story expands to include the entire community.

Some of the chapters switch to the point of view of Father Ranaulf, a priest at the priory. Ranaulf has been appointed Sarah's confessor and visits her regularly, advising her on her reading and how to practise her calling. From Ranaulf's chapters we get a sense of the wider context of the anchoress's life and how it is overseen.

Two dark events haunt Sarah. One is the memory of how the lord of the manor had pursued and tried to force her, and how he remains a danger to young women. The other is the death in childbirth of her beloved sister, Emma. Sex and childbirth and the danger and grief they present for women are at the heart of this story. There have been two previous anchoresses, one of whom is buried beneath the floor of the cell and causes Sarah fear in her darker moments. The story of the other one is gradually revealed. Sarah struggles to subdue hunger and cold and to keep up with her spiritual reading. At first she is too hard on herself and is embroiled in outside events, but in the end a way forward becomes clear.

This is an engrossing book, which brings to imagined life the experience of becoming an anchoress. The style is not at all archaic, even though Sarah's lifestyle seems so alien now. And I found the ending very satisfying.

The Anchoress is published by Faber.

Monday, 25 May 2020

Guest review by John Bowers QC: TRIBES by David Lammy


"A mixture of personal background, sociological and political observations and what may be seen as a manifesto for a future Labour Government."


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 14 books on employment law. He has been Principal of Brasenose College Oxford since 2015. He also sits as a Deputy High Court Judge.

The word “tribal” has become unfashionable; it seems an old-fashioned word. It may be abusive (and certainly pejorative) to say someone behaves in a tribal way. But we all have our tribes, our identities, our clubs, even our football affiliations. And increasingly with social media, we only gain information within our own tribal groups. Tribalism has benign and malign features.

Thus a 2017 survey by the Washington Post found that 47% of Republicans thought that Trump had won the popular vote because this is precisely what they had been told by the right-wing media. Many Democrats would not want their children to marry a Republican. Brexiteers and Remainers seemed very different tribes with little in common. The country divided more in relation to the deep passions this debate unleashed than the normal politics of class. Strangely and tragically, it took Covid-19 to produce a national unity, at least temporarily.

David Lammy MP examines all of this (pre-Covid-19) in this important book. As the MP for Tottenham, he has made the running on several campaigns, most notably on access to universities, Grenfell Tower and Windrush. He knows about race relations and the importance of integration. Tottenham is a place with tribal intensity. In recent years globalisation and digitisation have ed to a new more pernicious type of tribalism. He cites the remarks of Celia de Anca that “the new tribalism comes from a shift from a longing for independence from a society made up of communities to a longing for belonging in a society made up of individuals”.

David himself is an interesting mixture of identities. His parents came from Guyana and he grew up in the British Caribbean community in a single-parent household but he spent term time as a choirboy in the very English environment of a Peterborough public school. He is black but married to a white woman and his children are of course mixed race. His DNA test showed that he was 25% Tuareg, 25% Temme from Sierra Leone, 25% Bantu, 5% Celtic and the rest mish mash. He has a tribal loyalty (surprising as it may seem) to Arsenal Football Club.

The 343-page book is made up of a mixture of personal background (his visit to the ancestral home in the Tuareg tribe in Niger is particularly moving), sociological and political observations and what may be seen as a manifesto for a future Labour Government (of which he may be a member having just been promoted to the Shadow Cabinet).

The book is divided into three parts: My Tribes; how belonging can break society; and how belonging can make society. He calls for “a new civic politics of belonging” which recognises that people have tribes but must be part of wider society and he rails against the “ethnic nationalists” and “the populists who offer the false solution of animosity to solve the real problems of our time”.

It is worth a read but some of it is uncomfortable reading - whatever tribe(s) you may belong to and particularly if you think you don’t belong to a tribe at all.

Tribes is published by Constable.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Lockdown Sunday extra: C J Driver on A BOOK OF FRIENDS In Honour of J.M.Coetzee on his 80th Birthday


"An absorbing corollary to the work of a great writer."


C J Driver in 1963
C.J. (“Jonty”) Driver was for many years a teacher – in Africa, Hong Kong and England - and latterly a headmaster, now living in East Sussex, he travels regularly to his country of birth, South Africa. Elected President of the anti-apartheid National Union of South African Students, he was held in solitary confinement by the South African police in 1964 on suspicion of involvement in the African Resistance Movement. While a postgraduate at Trinity College, Oxford, he was refused renewal of his passport and was stateless until he became a British citizen. He remained in effect a prohibited immigrant in South Africa until 1992. He has been honorary senior lecturer in the School of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia since 2007, a judge of the Caine Prize for African Writing and more recently has had residencies at the Liguria Study Centre in Bogliasco, at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and at the Hawthornden Writers’ Retreat. He has published five novels (the first four of which have recently been re-issued by Faber Finds), two biographies, two memoirs, and seven books of poetry, the most recent Before, published in 2019 by Crane River in association with the African Sun Press. The Uhlanga Press will publish, later this year or early in 2021, Still Further, New Poems 2000-2019.

I need to be utterly upfront about what follows, because it clearly teeters on the edge of nepotism. I want to recommend a book mainly commissioned and entirely edited by my sister, Professor Dorothy Driver, as a way of honouring on his 80th birthday someone she calls her "life-companion", whom it happens I've known since 1958 (actually longer than she and he have been together): J.M.Coetzee, novelist, autobiographer, academic, twice Booker Prize winner, Nobel Prize winner, and so on.

A Book of Friends was published earlier this year. There is a preface by my sister, a foreword by Professor Jonathan Lear; and a range of contributions by some 35 other writers, including a poem by me. The range is wide: for obvious reasons, I'm not a person who could review the book objectively, but there are bits and pieces there which I think deserve reading and re-reading – or looking at more than once. For instance, reproduced as "Images". there are (among others) reproductions of two paintings by David Coetzee, John's brother; some photos by Kai Easton of John's cycling trips in France; Adam Chang's portrait of John; and a double-page "picture-plus" by William Kentridge.

Some of the entries were written specially for this festschrift; other are extracts from works in progress. It's not a great surprise that not every piece is as riveting as every other. I found myself especially interested in Nicholas Jose's story, Evvy After, which includes James Joyce's story Eveline, Dubliners 1914, as an intertext. I loved Peter Goldsworthy's very funny piece which begins when he is asked at a literary conference if he has ever met the "great Australian writer, Elizabeth Costello". There are interesting poems by Marlene van Niekerk, Antjie Krog, Akwe Amosu and others. I enjoyed what I think is an extract from a memoir by Siri Hustvedt.

Unsurprisingly, this is an international collection. Partly as a result, some of the writers included were entirely new to me, and I was glad to have a fairly extensive description of the contributors to help me place them. Although John is South African by birth, upbringing, education and most of his years, he has now emigrated to Australia; he has taught in the Americas, north and south, and his polymathic brilliance means that he is regularly invited to literary festivals and conferences in countries beyond the English-speaking world. I don’t know how widely available the book is going to be even within the continents of its publication, Australia and South Africa, but I would nevertheless recommend it heartily. For those who can’t get a physical copy of the book, there is an ebook available.

I have never not enjoyed reading what John Coetzee now calls simply “writings”, because he wants to blur the boundaries of genre. I would recommend as specially memorable and likely to become classics what I would still call novels: Waiting for the Barbarians, Life & Times of Michael K, and Disgrace. I won't be around to have my judgement vindicated, but those are the three “writings” I would start with if I had never come across his work before. When you have read them, perhaps even before you get to them, I think you would find A Book of Friends an absorbing corollary to the work of a great writer.

A Book of Friends, In Honour of J.M.Coetzee on his 80th Birthday, is published in Australia (by Text Publishing) and in South Africa (by Amazwi Museum of South African Literature) 

J M Coetzee


Monday, 18 May 2020

Guest review by Ann Pilling: DRIVING SOUTH TO INVERNESS: POSTSCRIPT TO AN ACTIVE LIFE, by Phoebe Caldwell


"A brave, funny and inspired book."

Ann Pilling has written or edited over 40 books for children and has published three collections of poetry. A fourth, Jigsawis coming from Shoestring this October. She is married with two sons, six grandchildren, two cats and half a dog. She lives in the Yorkshire Dales which she calls 'the country of my heart', a phrase first used by D H Lawrence whose prose and poetry she greatly admires.

Not long ago Phoebe Caldwell, for 45 years a highly distinguished practitioner who worked, nationwide and abroad, with people on the Autistic Spectrum, decided reluctantly that she could no longer live independently. Now into her eighties she put her Yorkshire home up for sale and downsized to a small flat in a ‘retirement complex’ in nearby Settle. She can still be alone but help is at hand, should she fall, should the plumbing fail, or should the underfloor heating begin to roast the undersides of her feet. Such catastrophes, and the snail’s paced attempts of the ‘management’ to sort them out , are told with a wry mixture of frustration, humour, and sheer disbelief.

Phoebe dislikes the word ‘downsizing’, a euphemism for shrinkage and prefers ‘editing’ where the emphasis is on selection, rather than contraction. Her problem was to condense a library, a museum and an art gallery into two small rooms. When I first visited Phoebe she showed me round. I was moved by their beauty and enchanted by their diversity and their occasional eccentricity. Everything chosen was of significance to her. I recalled William Morris's  ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’

This book is the product of a richly furnished mind. It ranges widely, from the author’s knowledge of botany, zoology, chemistry to the workings of the brain. She writes with insight and passion about paintings and ceramics, about music, about poetry. Her descriptions of nature are those of a poet, her observations of the majestic limestone landscape which she inhabits are both precise and powerful. She writes of ‘drumlins, like green bubble wrap’, of how ‘Pen-y-Ghent, Ingleborough and Whernside rise from their limestone plateau like yolks sitting on the white of poached eggs.’

Phoebe married early and had five children with her biophysicist husband Peter. She describes his ‘most astonishing eyes, sea green with a pale circle round the edge, like that slither of light trapped under the crest of a breaking wave’. He died young. Half mad with grief she took scissors, sat on their Emperor size mattress and tried to cut it in half. Unsurprisingly her small curved nail scissors were inadequate. Phoebe sold the rambling ruin they had lived in, and moved to a small cottage and went back to work. She has been working ever since.

What do the old do all day, she asks, apart from continually looking for their glasses? Line-dancing, quizzes, craft-work, all feel to her ‘like colouring books for children, to keep them quiet on a car journey’. But she is realistic. ‘The struggle to keep the mind going is balanced precariously against inertia and the temptation to retire to bed and read thrillers.’ What she longs for is ‘humour, conversation, empathy, and psychological awareness’.

Phoebe has a religious faith. Life keeps posing unanswered questions. To someone whose working life has been given addressing the physical disorientation and emotional isolation experienced by people on the autistic spectrum, there must be so many. She writes of meditation, of the experience of being in ‘Presence’. There may be other kinds of mindfulness, she says, ‘but I don’t care, since it works for me and empowers my life and helps me to help others.’

This is a brave, funny and inspired book. Read it.

Driving South to Inverness is published by Pavilion Books.


Sunday, 17 May 2020

Lockdown Sunday extra: REDHEAD BY THE SIDE OF THE ROAD - reading Anne Tyler in Lockdown, by Paul Magrs

"Four novels in five years from her. That's amazing, and I'm so grateful for that quiet, calm, sane voice still being here."


Paul Magrs brought out his first novel in 1995. Last year he published his book on writing, The Novel Inside You. This year Snow Books are republishing his Brenda and Effie Mystery series of novels. He lives and writes in Manchester with Jeremy and Bernard Socks.

Easter Weekend, 2020

Sometimes I think I’ve lived my whole life in lockdown. Many readers and writers I know secretly hanker to live like this. It must be why I’ve always been drawn to the novels of Anne Tyler, these past thirty years, since I discovered her. Tyler heroes tend to hanker for locked down lives, and they spend their days quietly aghast at the way everyone else goes flitting and changing about.

Up much of the night worrying and lying awake, fretting about Bernard Socks not being indoors, even though I know he's all right really. These are warm, moony nights for cats to go crazy in. At three I put on my slippers and take my keys to have a look at the bottom of the garden and of course, there he is, sleeping in the Beach House chair. I carry him indoors and he indulges me, running straight back out once I’m in bed.

This morning is beautiful. The sun so strong and the cherry blossom like great cumbersome sleeves on the branches outside my study window. The petals are starting to fly off already. There's just a few days of this.

Jeremy gets up saying, ‘It's like waking up each day and thinking that you've gone deaf. There's no city noise at all.’

A thousand people dead each and every day. Our rates are worse than anywhere in Europe. After us looking at Italy and Spain in horror for those weeks, it turns out those were the precise weeks our government should have been taking action, when they were simply telling us to wash our hands and to carry on as normal.

My treat to myself is the new Anne Tyler, which arrived the other day. It was on order for months. I take the parcel and open it and immediately wash my hands. Does cardboard carry the virus? Was the postman wearing gloves?

I've read her for thirty years and now she's writing characters slightly younger than me: characters who are already middle-aged, faded and disappointed. Characters who've missed out somehow. Taciturn, diffident characters who we meet on the very day that they try to catch hold of their lives again.

I always love her characters. They’re kind and they've usually lost out and, if it's through fault of their own, it's not a bad fault. Not usually. It's to do with a one-time hesitation, a fatal stepping back in order to let other, more pushy people dart forward. Her characters let others get on with being self-centred and ruthless and unkind.

Straight away I'm thinking of people who have leapfrogged their way onto and then over me in the past. It’s the same in Micah’s backstory here, when we learn a little from his college years. He stood by and let himself be robbed. There was a rich boy who simply took the patent for a software programme away from him. You’ve had comparable situations in the past, when you let people get away with stuff. And, like Micah, all you think you can do in these situations is pity the thief. Yes, I guess I might have been daft, letting them get away with it, but really… don't they have any ideas of their own? No talents? How desperate must they be to steal ideas, or to use up and exploit people and then move on past them?

I've been unlucky and foolish in the past. Hapless as an Anne Tyler character. I'm thinking of people I thought were friends and, looking back, realizing that there was always something smarmy about them. I look back at particular ones and think, Yes, the way they grinned was just like the Blue Meanie in the Yellow Submarine cartoon and that should have been a danger sign.

At the moment I'm feeling sadder and more demoralised about my own work than I even realised. I took the week off to read and do very little work. I learned a bit more about painting with gouache and I gloried in 1970s Jackie Collins and that really was about it for me, this week. But I was also reading Anne Tyler and she put me into a kind of reflective, mopey mood. I love to read her but she makes me feel terrible, too, when I realise, like many of her characters, that I might have done my life wrong. I start to suspect I ought to have had harder edges, maybe… or fewer mixed feelings.

A tough day, feeling claustrophobic indoors. The only place I can sit is my study and that is wholly infused with the idea and atmosphere of work. I'd love to be able to spend the day in the garden. I think how lovely it used to be in the Beach House. I go out to take a look and the garden is so neglected. The Beach House is damaged and crammed with furniture we don't want and can't fit indoors. It's impossible to sit out here.

Jeremy started work in the garden, putting it all back together at the end of February. And I thought: maybe this year he'll sort it again. Then he found all those bones under the fallen tree at the far end and we had to get the police and CSI round, and that was a whole drama for a day. A ridiculous drama – soon resolved. (‘My money is on the remains of a badger,’ said the woman from CID.) The next day we visited my family in Trimdon and it was on the drive back we listened to the news and realised how close the pandemic was coming. We suddenly understood we were all going to be locked in for months, likely as not. So here we are.

Jeremy sits for two hours each day, transcribing the government broadcasts, decoding and fact-checking and commenting on them. Then he posts them online. The local groups are full of people he argues about politics with and they barely acknowledge the work he puts into this and other community initiatives.

I can hear the reasonable, doom-laden voice of the minister and the health experts playing through his laptop in the garden under my window. I want to tear out my hair. I did actually cut my own hair this morning. We’ll all be doing it before long.

I've been sleeping so badly. Lying awake worrying about Jeremy and our parents and Socks and everyone. Lying awake, too hot and thinking: a thousand dead every day. In hospitals I read that they have to turn everyone over and over again. It's best when they lie you face down: best for the lungs and the fluid on them. This image of passivity is horrifying in a way, so that everyone looks like giant babies, being turned over, helplessly.

Finishing the new Anne Tyler this morning, Easter Sunday. Jeremy and Socks have just got up and gone back into the garden. Reading and thinking, that's four novels in five years from her. That's amazing, and I'm so grateful for that quiet, calm, sane voice still being here. Telling us that it's okay to be wrong, imperfect, messy, timewasting… and it's never too late to go back and to make a change. Maybe.

And the theme of quietness! I just read a review of the new one on Amazon where someone says that when they give friends Tyler's books they complain about nothing happening! I think you might as well say that about your own life. (Well, perhaps some people do.) There's absolutely everything happening in her novels, I think. It's all there.

Oh, remember, when you wrote your little play about going to see your granda at the end of his life and you'd been chatting with a very famous producer friend and he said send it to so-and-so at such-and-such productions, his great supporter, all these years. Well, you had the assistant put onto you, of course, and you explained (modestly, stupidly) that perhaps the script was a bit quiet and a bit small scale for them. Then, of course, the assistant gave it a day or so before writing back, and telling you she found it a bit quiet and a bit small scale for them.

Oh well, it doesn't matter. Do you remember your first agent and how she used to say that you had to find something ‘high concept’ to hang all that ‘beautiful writing’ on, or else no one will care, because nothing really happens?

They only notice Anne Tyler now because they've been told to. All these years, and she's finally caught on. Thirty years ago I was lying in the park in Lancaster after my second year at University. That summer I read fifty novels in an empty house and wrote one of my own. I was living in lockdown back then, without even knowing it. All I did was read and write and venture out once a day to the park. Just the same as now.

And just like in an Anne Tyler novel, those thirty years went by and, though all the changes seemed very dramatic at the time, I’m doing all the same stuff as ever. I’m happy to, with the world around me in such constant disarray.

Redhead by the Side of the Road is published by Chatto and Windus

Monday, 11 May 2020

Guest review by Judith Allnatt: TRIO by Sue Gee


"A beautiful novel about loss, the process of grieving and coming alive again to beauty, friendship and love."

Judith Allnatt writes short stories and novels for adults. Her novels have been variously shortlisted for the Portico Prize for Literature, the East Midlands Book Award and featured as a Radio 5 Live Book of the Month. Short stories have appeared in the Bridport Prize Anthology and the Commonwealth Short Story Awards, and have been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service.

Judith’s latest novel, The Silk Factory, is an eerie story of love and memory drawing on both the Luddite weavers’ rebellions in the nineteenth century and a modern day haunting. She
 has lectured widely on Creative Writing for over two decades and is a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She lives with her family in Northamptonshire and is working on her fifth novel. For more information and blog posts see Judith’s website. 
Twitter: @judithallnatt

Trio  
is a beautiful novel about loss, the process of grieving and coming alive again to beauty, friendship and love. The main character, Steven Coulter, is not part of the eponymous musical trio but a teacher who tragically loses his young wife and is paralysed by grief. A year later when a colleague, Frank Embleton, invites him to a concert given by his sister and two friends, the music moves him. He begins to open to new possibilities for involvement in the world beyond his daily classes and his lonely house on the Northumberland moors and to the chance of new relationships.

Music is a healing power throughout, allowing feelings to form and be acknowledged. It releases the expression of feelings that are beyond words, as when a fellow teacher, morose Mr Dunn, veteran of the Somme, weeps to hear a young chorister sing Once in Royal David’s City.

Many of the pleasures of Sue Gee’s novels are here. Remote moorlands, Bamburgh Castle, Lindisfarne and the country house, with its pele tower and haha, where the trio practises, are lyrically described. Her subtle observation of human behaviour and her nuanced dialogue provide tantalising glimpses of her characters’ secret desires.

Set in 1937, the novel balances themes of stability and fragility. The English country house seems timeless with its ancient cedar still with its childhood swing. Its grandfather clock acts as a symbol of continuity with its rising moon and reliable quarter hour peal. Yet beneath this is the continuous sense that all can be turned in a moment: through the ravages of TB, the sense of war stalking ever closer; through loves revealed and rejection turning worlds upside down.

In a bold move, the story transitions from 1937 to the present day in the last section, and follows the next generation of Steven’s family. Although this might seem disconcerting and a challenge for the reader to engage with a new character, I quickly became fond of Geoff and interested in his nostalgic journey to his past. At first I thought the main purpose of the section was to show the reader what had become of the original characters through and after the war. I soon came to realise that something much more subtle was also going on. Gee shows us the past inextricably bound up in the present; the strength of attachment to childhood places, memories triggered by chance encounters, the need, near the end of life, to make a pilgrimage to one’s roots and to honour one’s ancestors.

This is a gentle, thoughtful and elegiac novel where appreciating the texture of the writing is as enjoyable as working out the characters’ secrets. It has the rare depth of insight one has come to expect from Sue Gee’s novels and I found myself pondering on loss, love and time, long after the last poignant scene. 

Trio is published by Salt.