Monday 26 February 2024

RIVERFLOW by Alison Layland, reviewed by Linda Newbery


"It’s rare and refreshing to read a novel set in the here and now that has climate issues so firmly at its core."

This novel was a welcome surprise that came to me via a roundabout route. It began when I attended a Society of Authors ‘at home’ event – a workshop hosted by Lauren James, author of The Loneliest Girl in the Universe and Green Rising, and founder of the Climate Fiction Writers League. The focus of the session was how to bring climate concerns into fiction set in the present day – not necessarily foregrounding the various issues, but rather weaving in details as part of the daily lives and concerns of the characters.

I find it irritating to read fiction set in the present day that makes no reference to the climate emergency – especially when characters are taking flights here and there, driving big cars and eating steak in restaurants. It’s almost as if there’s a parallel world to ours with no looming crisis and with no need to change and adapt. It seems, both in young adult and adult fiction, that climate awareness is largely limited to ‘cli-fi’ – fiction usually set in the future, often involving fantasy. (An honourable exception to this is Eleanor Catton’s Birnam Wood – see our summer round-up.)

After the workshop I joined the Climate Fiction Writers League and was invited by Lauren to write a conversation piece with another author. This author turned out to be Alison Layland, whose novel, Riverflow, was published in 2019. As I haven’t yet published adult fiction with an environmental theme (working on it) Alison is to read my non-fiction title, This Book is Cruelty Free – Animals and Us. (For anyone who doesn’t yet acknowledge the link between animal agriculture and the climate crisis, please read the book, or for a more comprehensive overview, Philip Lymbery’s Sixty Harvests Left.) I will add the link to my conversation piece with Alison when it’s online.

Knowing nothing of Alison Layland or her work, I found myself immediately drawn to her characters, setting and plot. Riverflow is set in a small Shropshire village, Foxover, close to which Bede and Erin, a couple in their thirties, have lived off-grid on a smallholding for many years. Until eighteen months ago they shared Alderleat with Bede’s uncle Joe, until he drowned in the surging river, leaving Bede unable to accept that his death was accidental.

The frictions and rivalries of a rural community are convincingly depicted. Bede and Erin, former activists, clash with local landowner Philip Northcote who’s developing a fracking site. Bede, clever at mechanics and problem-solving, is an idealist, probably on the autism spectrum and at times infuriating to live with; to some villagers he’s known as Eco, a nice demonstration of the ease with which people can pigeonhole and ‘other’ an outlier, avoiding the inconvenience of acknowledging that his views are both valid and necessary. He and Elin are devoted to each other, but with the unavoidable sticking-point that Elin wants children whereas Bede thinks it would be irresponsible to bring a child into this threatened world. Elin, too, tries to steer a calm course through village conflicts while Bede can never curb a sarcastic or angry response when challenged.

Partly through snippets of the journal Joe kept hidden, we’re drawn into the backstory of Bede’s upbringing. Never knowing who his father was, he was brought up by his mother until her death, when her brother Joe took him in. But Joe had secrets of which Bede is unaware and which begin to threaten the self-contained life he and Elin have built at Alderleat. The plot centres on a series of incidents involving Philip Northcote, his widowed mother Marjorie with whom Joe had a close relationship, and attractive newcomer Silvan, Northcote’s gamekeeper, who befriends Bede and Elin. Bede is apparently being framed for acts of minor sabotage – releasing pheasants reared for shooting, scratching the side of Northcote’s Bentley – and then for a far more serious crime. The revelation of who's behind this malice is cleverly constructed, with several clues hidden in plain sight.

What makes Riverflow so appealing is the deft and delicate portrayal of the shifting relationship between Bede and Erin, alongside the details of daily life which are always underpinned by environmental aspirations and what it’s practical to achieve. It’s rare and refreshing to read a novel set in the here and now that has climate issues so firmly at its core.

Riverflow is published by Honno Press.

Monday 19 February 2024

Guest review by Graeme Fife: ONE DAY by David Nicholls


"I fall upon life’s thorns, I bleed..." Ode to the West Wind, Percy Bysshe Shelley. "Always look on the bright side of life..." Life of Brian, Monty Python

Graeme Fife is a regular reviewer here. He has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is 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, works of history and fiction. His novel of the French Revolution, No Common Assassin, tells the story of Charlotte Corday. His latest publication, Memory's Ransom, is published by Conrad Press. 

I came to this exceptional novel via the outstanding adaptation Nicholls made of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba – I recommend it most heartily.

The novel begins with two people in the immediate aftermath of university graduation. Those of us who have enjoyed that singular blessing may ask: graduation from what, exactly?

As if from the calm swimming pool – knowledge from books and received study - into the open sea of tides, cross current, deeps shallows, a shelving bottom that offers little purchase or support, winds and surges, youthful intentions and dreams tested to breaking, friendships drifting away on divergent paths, promises lost in the breeze, the steady backing of even ignorant innocence caught up and crumpled in uncharitable reality, the harsh world of out there. Some attractions survive but wobble in the onset of maturity – stumbling career paths, the merry-go-round of weddings which may fracture the old bonds even further (posh dos in select venues) and the dizzying whirligig of children and family which hampers even the possibility of being settled. Settled in the realisation that there is no such thing as settled, that there is no full stop, only the faint idea of one whereas we all find ourselves on a hanging comma on which we must sit as on a swing in a hidden garden…

All this Nicholls explores in acutely observed and sympathetic detail, at once moving, touching, comic (a ghastly parlour game…family ‘fun’). He shirks no emotion, neither set-back nor upset, or falter, describing friendships, love and relationship with piercing candour and a most sensitive courtesy as if to say: ‘This is how it is, this is how it works out for many of us, be aware…’ Even plumbing the airless depths of grief without flinching. Be prepared to weep.

His structure hinges on a straightforward calendar account: twenty years of existence which charts the momentum of self-discovery, of negotiating pitfalls, finding new friends, reassessing former attachments, always searching for a liaison which may signal contentment. After a brief explosion of passion at university which might point to a romance future and lifelong devotion, the central characters, Emma and Dexter, separate and might never have met again save for a last-minute snatch of phone number. Their friendship skips and hops in the course of career and new partnerships, break-up and dissatisfaction, albeit the strong pull of their mutual attraction – of amity rather than romance – lingers and strengthens. They have affairs with other partners and meet, coincidentally, at parties given by mutual friends yet the bond persists and the question hovers: ‘Why are they not together?’ Life supervenes must be the answer and what is there more powerful than what might be.

A woman of my acquaintance in her early forties, unmarried, had been dumped by her ‘lovely lover’ (her words) and relaying this to a friend of long date – similar age, married with children, in that state which Nicholls describes as apparently living a life with a ‘background hum of comfort, satisfaction and familiarity’, a state of being periodically appealing to the lonely singleton – she wept bitterly, heaving sobs of misery. And the friend said: ‘Jos, you won’t believe this but I envy you…’ Jos, taken aback, between gulps and sobs managed to say: ‘En…vy…me?’ ‘Yes, for still being able to feel as deeply as you do.’

In a way, that’s the essence of this wonderful novel, a fearless, kindly, honest accompaniment through the darkened thickets of hard-won experience, perhaps, to the Golden Bough of self-knowledge. As one of his large cast of memorable characters says at one stage of the rocky, seemingly aimless journey remarks: ‘We’re just feeling our way, that’s all.’

And best accept that that is all we can ever do. No one can teach us how to live life better, that’s a modern delusion. Self-help? Balderdash. Get real, read this book.

And again:

He: ‘I just mean. I don’t know…When I was younger everything seemed possible, now nothing does.’

She, for whom the opposite was true, simply said: ‘It’s not as bad as all that.’

He: ‘So there’s a bright side, is there? To your wife running off with your best mate –‘

The word memorable is overused, maybe, but in this case it’s at least apposite, workable, meant, and there are some books which it hurts to finish. That does not preclude the joys of reading them all the way through, you know as well as I, after the heat of the sauna the pleasurable frisson of the cold plunge.

Nicholls writes with finesse and style, the rhythms of his prose both seductive and persuasive, the vocabulary smartly handled, the similes stand-out.

Graeme Fife's Memory's Ransom is published by The Conrad Press.  

Monday 5 February 2024

Guest review by Jane Rogers: OPEN WATER by Caleb Azumah Nelson

"Since I finished the book its mood and flavour have haunted me and I’ve found myself thinking, with great admiration, of how technically accomplished this writer is."

Jane Rogers
has written ten novels, including The Testament of Jessie Lamb, Man-Booker longlisted and winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award 2012. Other works include Mr Wroe's Virgins (which she dramatised as a BBC drama series), and Promised Lands (Writers' Guild Best Fiction Award). Jane also writes short stories, radio drama and adaptations, and has taught writing to a wide range of students.

Her dystopia Body Tourists is now available in paperback. For more information, see Jane's website.

This novel deservedly won the Costa First novel award in 2021. It’s narrated in the second person by a young Black man living in London. (And incidentally, it is the most successful novel-long use of the second person that I have come across. Often the second person starts to feel clunky or contrived, but here it simply pulls the reader into intimacy with the narrator.)

He meets a girl and falls in love, but nothing in his life is simple; the girl is his best friend’s girlfriend and both of them are riddled with guilt about betraying the best friend. He’s grieving for the death of his grandparents and also utterly weary of the casual racism and violence served up as standard to a young Black man in London. He’s tired of being an outsider, tired of being afraid, tired of trying to hide his fear. Nevertheless there are moments of joy and freedom, when he reaches ‘open water’: when his girlfriend tells him she loves him; when he dances at an all-Black jazz club; when he dances at Notting Hill Carnival.

This book made a huge impression on me because it’s the first thing I’ve read which has absolutely taken me inside the experience of a young Black man. I thought I understood racism, but here the reader experiences it with the narrator, and that is qualitatively different to understanding it in theory. There’s a troubled, alienated flavour to the writing, which circles around from the chronological progress of the love affair, to touch on events in the recent and distant past; at times the reader is as bewildered and lost as the narrator. But Azumah Nelson skilfully holds the novel together with key phrases which are repeated and riffed upon, in a way more reminiscent of poetry or jazz, than prose fiction. The narrator asks himself repeatedly, ‘How do you feel?’ and the use of second person makes this a question for the reader as much as the character. He refers to being ‘seen’ by other Black people, and most especially by the girl he loves; the police, who stop him and accuse him of robbery, look at him but do not see him. In this book Black people are rarely ‘seen’ as individual human beings worthy of respect, by the White population. And the painful questions, ‘What is a joint? What is a fracture? What is a break?’ recur in different orders, referring to different kinds of love and heartbreak, throughout the novel. Since I finished the book its mood and flavour have haunted me and I’ve found myself thinking, with great admiration, of how technically accomplished this writer is.

Open Water is published by Penguin.

Jane is a regular contributor to Writers Review. Here are more of her choices:

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh

Monday 22 January 2024

Guest review by Jon Appleton: THE PLOT by Jean Hanff Korelitz


"We’re spared none of the agony of revelation. Truly, I felt I was being drawn through a mangle..."

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

I suspect that many readers of this blog are genetically fascinated – and appalled – by the idea of novels about writers. As if being a writer isn’t challenging enough, why invent the tortured life of a comrade to add to the maelstrom of creative woe and anxiety in the world?

Maybe it’s cathartic.

I’m about to read Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2022). Here’s the blurb:

Caleb Horowitz is twenty-seven, and his wildest dreams are about to come true. His manuscript has caught the attention of the literary agent, who offers him fame, fortune and a taste of the literary life. He can't wait for his book to be shopped around to every editor in New York, except one: Avi Dietsch, a college rival and the novel's 'inspiration.'

When Avi gets his hands on the manuscript, he sees nothing but theft - and opportunity. And so Caleb is forced to make a Faustian bargain, one that tests his theories of success, ambition and the limits of art.

Sounds juicy, doesn’t it? (I guess there have always been a lot of novels about novelists and always will be.) But the book I want to persuade you to read is The Plot, a wholly persuasive thriller by Jean Hanff Korelitz, a new writer to me, who has also written The Undoing, which is a ‘major TV series’ and a host of other novels which I’m keen to discover.

Here’s the blurb:

When a young writer dies before completing his first novel, his teacher, Jake, (himself a failed novelist) helps himself to its plot. The resulting book is a phenomenal success. But what if somebody out there knows?

Somebody does. And if Jake can't figure out who he's dealing with, he risks something far worse than the loss of his career.

A beautifully simple idea. What really impressed me about this thriller was how long it takes for Jake to not only seize upon the genius of stealing the story – it’s told to him in conversation, in a brilliantly awkward encounter between two egocentric misfits; and Jake, to his credit, is a grafter; he’s published three failed novels – before it occurs to him to write Crib. So it’s agonising to watch how swiftly successful he becomes knowing, inevitably, he’ll be undone in a long, painful, suspenseful, drawn-out exposure. And I think we know early who will engineer his downfall – the title has a clever second meaning – but we’re spared none of the agony of revelation. Truly, I felt I was being drawn through a mangle as the months and weeks passed.

The writing is grimly witty. Jean Hanff Korelitz acknowledges in the afterword that writers are ‘hard on ourselves. In fact, you couldn’t hope to meet a more self-flagellating bunch of creatives anywhere. And yet, at the end of the day, we are the lucky ones.’ She also spoke of being allowed to write uninterrupted but supported by her immediate family during the lockdowns of 2020. These ambiguities flavour the novel.

Stephen King is an admirer of the book, and we know he’s a huge fan of taking the writing game seriously but also sending it up. I hope readers of Writers Review will embrace this fantastically bracing novel and feel horror and relish in equal measure.

The Plot is published by Faber.

Jon is a regular contributor here. More of his choices:

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura, translated by Philip Gabriel

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stewart

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett

An Honest Man, by Ben Fergusson

Monday 8 January 2024

SPECIAL FEATURE: Q & A with Julia Jarman about her novel THE WIDOWS' WINE CLUB


"It’s hard to define ‘voice’ but you can’t get going without it, and when I found my writing-for-adults voice it was a joy, like talking to a friend."

Julia Jarman, a regular contributor to Writers Review, has been writing children’s books for forty years, and still is. Cheeky Chick is her latest picture book. Recently, though, she turned her hand to ‘golden years’ women’s fiction and The Women’s Wine Club was the happy result. 

Linda: The starting premise of your novel is a brilliant one, with instant appeal. Were you always aware of how the novel would end for each of the three characters?

Julia: You told me it was a brilliant premise, Linda, when I first mooted the idea. I wasn’t so sure. I had a title in mind, I think, Widows In Love, and saw it as a rom-com. Three widowed women looking for love. It was as vague as that. I didn’t have specific outcomes in mind. I wrote the first draft to find out. You and other friends had begun writing for adults, after several years of successfully writing for children. I wondered ‘Can I?’ – as I like a new challenge - and you said firmly, ‘Yes you can!’

Linda: Did you find it equally easy to engage with each of the three main viewpoint characters? I know that the novel has been several years in the making – how have they developed during this time?

Julia: It has been a very long time in the making! I got the idea soon after my husband died in 2009 and thought of it as ‘Peter’s last gift to me’ but also felt guilty for exploiting the situation. It felt like an invasion of privacy, his privacy, our privacy, and that feeling may have held me up. But Peter had always encouraged my writing and said ‘use anything you like’ when I’d expressed similar reservations in the past. Sweary Viv was the first character who arrived in my head, probably because she is most like me, but I’ve also got a prim and proper side – believe it or not! – and was downright Puritanical in my youth, so I easily identified with Janet and knew where she was coming from. Zelda turned up, and aware of the ‘appropriation’ issue, because she’s mixed race and I am not, I hesitated, but she soon felt very real and insisted on staying and I loved her, so I thoroughly researched to find out as much as I could about her circumstances and carried on writing. All three developed over time. I discovered them as they discovered themselves, becoming more complex, acquiring ‘layers’ as I wrote and re-wrote, drawing on memory, research and imagination.

Linda: I especially like the Pitmen Painters scene. Is this an exhibition that has particular resonance for you?

Julia: Yes! Like Viv, the first I heard of it was when I went to see Lee Hall’s play, Pitmen Painters. It said, it enacted, what I believed, that human beings are makers, that we are more alive, more ourselves, more human when we create. That is what one of the characters says in the play. When he is working down the pit for the bosses he is not truly alive, not truly himself, but when he draws or paints, when he is depicting his reality, expressing his truth, he is. When I eventually stepped into the gallery to see the exhibition I felt I’d entered a holy place, embodying that truth.

I should also say that my father was a coal miner, briefly, three days and that was enough for him. He was put down the pit when he was fourteen and felt that a life in the mines would kill him, spiritually if not physically, though he wouldn’t have put it like that. He thought that no one should have to do that, and I felt that I was connecting with him.

AdèleTell us a little about the journey the manuscript took on the way to becoming the book it is today.

Julia: It had a lot of rejections, mostly nice rejections, but nonetheless disheartening. It first went out with the title A Second Summer, to fourteen mainstream publishers of women’s fiction, at the beginning of 2021. Some didn’t respond. Most did, complimenting me on ’wonderfully drawn characters’ ‘the balance of humour and depth’, ‘captivating style’ etc, but then came the ‘but not for me’ for a variety of reasons. Caroline, my agent concluded that it didn’t have the ‘SOH, the stand-out hook’ essential for commercial fiction and there was no point in sending it out again till it did. I was a bit nonplussed as I thought the SOH was the basic premise. Three women hit hard by grief, are looking for love. Will they find it? But I licked my wounds, re-read and re-wrote it, bearing in mind the feedback I’d had from editors and lay-readers. Several said they were confused by the to and fro-ing between the three characters, so I tried to put that right. I also strengthened a thread with an unpleasant minor character, making her more unpleasant, adding plot twists. I sent it out to more readers, including Georgia Bowers, librarian i/c of women’s fiction at Bedford libraries (and a writer herself), asking her to be ruthless in her criticism. Would she buy it for the library? She got back saying yes she would, but not with that title. She suggested The Widows’ Wine Club which I now think is its SOH.

In June 2022 my agent sent The Widows’ Wine Club out to nine smaller publishers of commercial fiction, and I got eight more rejections. Then came an expression of interest from Boldwood Books, a brand new publisher, only three years old. Editor Sarah Ritherdon had ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ my novel but had lots of doubts. It was hard to launch debut authors, she said. My 35 years as a children’s author counted for nothing. She asked my agent, ‘Had Julia got famous friends who would plug her book? Could Julia write more books? Quickly!’ Boldwood didn’t take one-offs. They only did multiple-book deals and their marketing plan required second and third books only months after the first. Gulp. The Widows’ Wine Club had taken me at least ten years. Could I write the next in ten months? Yes, said my friends – and I have!

AdèleHow many drafts did you go through? (I think the answer might be inspiring to other writers.)

Julia: Umpteen. I lost count. Ten at least, and I do a lot of re-writing as I write.

AdèleIs any character in the novel based on a real person? I’m assuming all three widows have bits of you in their DNA!

Julia: Assumption correct about use of my own DNA! I’ve said quite a lot about this to Linda. As to the ‘real person’ question, I’m going to hide behind the standard disclaimer ‘any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental’. I’ll risk saying that some of the characters are composites of people I’ve met, but sorry - that’s as far as I’m going!

Celia: This is your first novel for adults – when and why did you decide to write for an adult audience? How difficult did you find it to make the move from a writing career that was well established to this very different and challenging market?

Julia: I think the story dictates the audience, so when I have a story in my head I ask myself, consciously or unconsciously, is this a picture book for under-5s, a chapter book for 8-12 or a book for teens? This story was clearly for adults. The difficulty was finding the time to write it as I was very committed to the world of children’s literature and that for me included a lot of school visits. I was finding it hard to find uninterrupted time to write longer fiction for children, and was veering more and more towards picture books, which I love writing, when Covid changed all our lives. Suddenly I had time on my hands and a story in my head, partly written, for adults. I fished out my widows.

Writing for adults is, I think, easier than writing for children, which is why so many writers going the other way, or having a ‘go’ for their first book, come a cropper. They think – heaven knows why – that it must be easier. It isn’t. When you are writing for children you have to be aware that you’re writing for an intelligent audience, probably more intelligent than you the writer, but your readers haven’t had as much experience as you. They don’t know lots of stuff that you know, so you have to impart information and explain concepts in a non-patronising way that respects their intelligence. By comparison when you write for adults, you can assume their experience is much the same as yours. It’s therefore easier to find your ‘voice’ as a writer for adults. It’s hard to define ‘voice’ but you can’t get going without it, and when I found my writing-for-adults voice it was a joy, like talking to a friend.

Celia: The Widows' Wine Club is bittersweet in the truest sense. How hard was it to find the right balance between humour and pathos?

Julia: I didn’t think about this. I just told it how it was, being as true as I could to my experience and that of other widows I’d spoken to. I am I think, unconsciously funny. I come across as funny even when I’m crying inside . I’m not sure why this is, but looking back I think I’ve always made people laugh. A testimonial I like said, ‘People laugh a lot in Julia’s company and if they don’t, she does. She is serious but splendidly without solemnity.’ If that was the verdict on my books I would be happy.

Celia: Your widows are an attractive and likeable group who will appeal to many readers. I understand that you're working on a sequel. Will there be more after that?

Julia: I’ve just delivered the sequel which has a new main character, Libby Allgood. I’m hoping that readers will love Libby as much as they love Viv, Janet and Zelda, and not be disappointed by this change of focus. Reviews have made it clear that readers want the sequel to tell them more about the three Muscateers, and it will, a bit. But they will have to wait for the third book to learn a lot more about all four when I take them on another adventure.

The Widows' Wine Club is published by Boldwood. Widows on the Wine Path will be published on 3rd April.

Monday 1 January 2024

A tribute to K M Peyton, 1929-2023, by Linda Newbery

"Best known for the Flambards quartet and the Pennington stories, Kathy wrote a number of stand-alones that were just as impressive."

Linda Newbery
edits Writers Review. Her recent young adult novel
The Key to Flambards continues K M Peyton's Flambards quartet into the 21st Century, and is published by David Fickling Books. 

It came as a sad shock to learn that K M (Kathleen) Peyton has died aged 94, after a remarkable and distinguished career as a writer for both children and adults. Many readers love her Flambards quartet and the Pennington novels, and she's influenced many another author, including me - she was (possibly unintentionally) a pioneer of young adult fiction in the 70s and 80s, along with other such 'golden age' authors as Robert Cormier, Jill Paton Walsh, Jean Ure, Alan Garner, Robert Westall and Aidan Chambers. One of her extraordinary achievements was to publish books over eight decades - I wonder if there's another author in the world who can match that? Surely very few. 

I first came across K M Peyton while training as an English teacher, when I happened upon Flambards in the college library. I well remember how eagerly I devoured it, captivated by the setting, the characters, the social issues and how beautifully and economically she evoked countryside, seasons and weather. I went on to read more and more of her work, and she introduced me to young adult fiction, which hadn't existed in my own teenage years. So I owe her a great deal - especially as, many years later, she gave me permission to continue the Flambards story in my own novel The Key to Flambards, about Christina's great-great-granddaughter, set in 2018. On my website, I've written quite extensively about how I became friends with Kathy and about the various elements of the quartet that I wanted to pick up in my story, so I won't repeat that here beyond explaining how we met: I was at the time a regular reviewer for Books for Keeps magazine, and asked to interview her for the Authorgraph feature. She invited me to her Essex home, and from then on we met regularly at publishers' parties or for lunch in Chelmsford, until she became less mobile and I visited her at home each year. A couple of times, staying overnight, I made a point of doing some writing in bed, in the hope that a little of the Peyton magic would get into my words. 

Kathy's Carnegie Medal
Readers may not know that the M of K M Peyton referred to Kathy's husband Mike, an illustrator, writer and sailor. For a while they wrote serialised stories together, Mike supplying plot details while Kathy did the writing. Before that, Kathy had published her own first novel, The Horse from the Sea, when she was only 15; she once showed me her handwritten first draft of that story. She also showed me her MBE, awarded for services to children's literature, but I was keener to see her Carnegie Medal - she won that for The Edge of the Cloud, the second of the Flambards books, as well as the Guardian Prize for the trilogy (as it was then). Other accolades include the Children's Book Award, for Darkling. Numerous other titles were shortlisted for the Carnegie and in 1966 she was declared runner-up for Thunder in the Sky, the year the judges decided not to award the Medal - she always retained a sense of aggrieved bemusement about that! (And in my opinion, Thunder in the Sky would have been a worthy winner.)

So what were the qualities in her writing that earned her such acclaim and such devotion from her readers?

David Fickling, editor of many of her books, has called her 'a born writer', and surely she was - with the desire to write from an early age, and an enviable gift of fluency that made writing look easy. In our conversations she told me that she didn't like revising her work, and did so only at the request of editors, sometimes reluctantly. She was described by John Rowe Townsend (I think it was him) as 'an Ancient Mariner of a storyteller' for her compelling plots. She was particularly good at action, whether it involved horses and hunting, early aviation or mountain-climbing - the finale of The Boy who Wasn't There is truly nail-biting. Her characters and the tensions among them were never less than compelling; she was attuned to adolescent yearnings, frustrations and conflicts, and several of her stories involved a young person at odds with a demanding or ambitious parent and determined to find their own way in life. And no one - not even Dick Francis or Cormac McCarthy - has written about horses better than she did; their beauty, grace and vitality, their personalities.

Meg Rosoff is another author who was impressed by the qualities of Kathy's work, writing in a Books for Keeps article:  "I started reading and couldn’t stop. Something about this woman’s writing resonated directly with my brain and my heart – the unsentimental, sharply-observed, clear voiced love of horses and riders, the trials of adolescence, of friendship and country life and the endless difficulties with families, all rendered in the most intelligent elegant prose."

Best known for the Flambards quartet and the Pennington stories (oh yes - she wrote wonderfully about music, too; Patrick Pennington was a gifted pianist) Kathy produced a number of stand-alones that were just as impressive. A favourite of mine - and, I know, of hers too - is A Pattern of Roses, a beautiful and lyrical mystery which begins when Tim, son of materialistic, status-conscious parents newly moved to a country village, finds a gravestone with his own initials on it, marking the death of a fifteen-year-old boy from Edwardian times with whom he finds affinity. This book was filmed, incidentally giving the young Helena Bonham Carter her first screen role as the imperious, privileged Nettie. The cover shown here features Kathy's own artwork - a trained artist, she provided cover images for several of her novels as well as illustrations for some younger books. Her painterly eye is apparent in her evocation of place, shown here just before Tim finds the other boy's grave:

He walked across the churchyard, through long yellowing grass. It tapered down to the compost heap, the elm-trees closing in on it. A few graves humped themselves untidily; it was the cheap end, Tim thought, the stones, roughly etched, all illegible now with lichen and time. There was a rose-bush growing, with strange, smoky-violet flowers dropping faded petals into the grass. The colour smouldered; the roses, the rotting peat round the gardener's heap, a tangle of old man's beard like white mist over the elm hedge. Tim saw it with his O-Level artist's eye, and smelt the old summer going and all the years and years that had gone before in the decayed, deserted corner of the churchyard.

The Flambards trilogy (as it was then - the fourth book, Flambards Divided, followed after an interval of twelve years) was filmed by Yorkshire television - it's well worth watching, but true Peyton lovers will prefer the novels. I still love, as I did back in my twenties, the sense of imminent change as the First World War approached; the feudalism of Uncle Russell and his obsession with hunting, the social inequities that Christina's cousin Will sees clearly. When the kindly groom Dick is unfairly dismissed by Uncle Russell and Christina visits him at home where he cares for his invalid mother, she contrasts the poverty there with the attention lavished on the Flambards horses:

She thought of the new blanket on Goldwillow that Dick had smoothed the last time she had seen him in the stable: thick and bright with stripes of black and red on deep yellow. The blankets she looked at now were grey and threadbare. Dick's mother was less than a Flambards horse. Dick had always known it. It was a part of his reserve, his quietness, knowing things like that, she thought.

Kathy hadn't at first intended Flambards to be published for children; it was at an editor's insistence that it appeared on a children's list, but as the series progressed to depict Christina in her twenties, widowed, divorced (sorry, spoilers) and contemplating a new beginning, it became what we would now call crossover fiction. Kathy wrote several adult novels too, though they never won acclaim to match her writing for young readers. The Sound of Distant Cheering is set in the world of horse-racing, clear-eyed enough to show the seamy, callous side of the industry alongside the glories and the triumphs: Jeremy, a trainer, thinks:

Oh, Jesus, who would be in the racing game! It was so magnificent at its best, seedy – to put it kindly – at the bottom. Human greed ruined it; the exploitation of one of the kindest, gamest animals on earth for money ...

Possibly her favourite of her adult novels was Dear Fred, set in Victorian Newmarket, in which teenage Laura is obsessed with the champion jockey Fred Archer before finding loves of her own. Kathy felt that this had been published rather uncertainly, not a children's book but not marketed for adults either; in recent years she hoped that it might be reissued. Anyone ...?

Kathy with her dog, Jacko
I will miss my visits. Kathy was always great company - forthright, sparky and funny. Sometimes we talked in her study, a spacious room overlooking the garden and her bird-feeders, with shelves lined with her own books among many others. On the walls were a number of fabric collages she had made, all depicting horses in her distinctive style. On warm days we would sit outside the back door looking out at the large pond, or walk in the wood she'd planted alongside the house over many years - another commendable achievement. 

She'd started another novel, for adults, in her nineties, but failing concentration halted its progress. It's sad to think that there will never be another K M Peyton book - but for her many admirers, or for those new to her work, there's that huge, glorious list of titles to revisit or discover for the first time, and the lasting inspiration she's left to both readers and writers.  

Do you have a favourite memory of Kathy Peyton, or a favourite of her books? We'd love to hear them - please tell us in the comments!

Kathy Peyton, LN and David Fickling, publisher, at the launch of The Key to Flambards

My website has a page dedicated to The Key to Flambards, with more about my admiration for the Flambards stories and the elements I wanted to echo in my own novel.

Monday 25 December 2023

Christmas round-up by Adèle, Celia and Linda


Christmas greetings to all our followers! 

To mark the day, Adèle Geras, Celia Rees and Linda Newbery (left to right above) have each chosen three books - two they've read and one they plan to read in the New Year. 

What would your choices be? Tell us in the comments!

Linda's choices

Don't Even Think About It - why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, by George Marshall. 

Do you wonder why people aren't talking about the multiple threats of climate emergency all the time? Or why politicians repeatedly fail to address climate breakdown as a top priority? Don't they get it, and what would it take to make them treat the climate emergency as if it is an emergency? This is permanently on my mind, so I grabbed the book when I saw it in an Oxfam shop window. George Marshall, with the help of various specialists, explores the psychology of how we respond to dangers and why climate breakdown somehow doesn't make the cut. There are various explanations, including: "It provides us with none of the defining qualities that would give it a clear identity: no deadlines, no geographic location, no single cause, solution, or enemy." Even when people have faced a climate-change-induced disaster such as flooding or wildfire, they're more intent on getting back to 'normal' than on acknowledging its cause and probable repetition. So how will we confront the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced? Marshall's book is almost ten years old, but just as relevant and pressing as when it was published. It should be required reading for politicians, especially those attending COP summits and failing to reach effective agreement on curbing emissions.

Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo by Michael McCarthy

In this poignant, wide-ranging book, Michael McCarthy gives a chapter to each of our summer visitors, or 'springbringers' as he calls them: cuckoos, nightingales, turtle doves, the various warblers, swifts, swallows and house martins. He examines their habitats and behaviours and how they're part of our culture, represented in folklore and literature. For each bird he meets someone with particular devotion and knowledge, accompanies them to experience that special intimacy and to appreciate how much would be lost if the species were to continue its decline or even be lost for ever. "During my quest for them they were not all gone, the summer migrant birds: some of them had made it back from Africa, and for that unforgettable springtime, the world was still working. But for how much longer?"

The book I can't wait to read in 2024:

Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

This book and its key concept have gained such traction in the environmental movement that even without having read it, I understand its central concept: namely that governments must wrench themselves away from the goal of endless economic growth on a planet with finite resources. Instead, Kate Raworth suggests viewing the economy as a ring doughnut. The central hole, representing poverty and destitution, is a space into which no one should fall; the outer rim of the doughnut represents an 'ecological ceiling', the limit of expansion, so that wealth and resources beyond that are turned back in, to the benefit of all. "Today we have economies that need to grow, whether or not they make us thrive: what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow."  Like many great ideas, it's so simple as to make obvious sense. I've heard Kate Raworth speak and have heard others embrace these ideas, so it's about time I read the book for myself.

Adèle's choices
A Memoir of my Former Self 
 by Hilary Mantel  

We have recently lost two wonderful writers. Hilary Mantel died in September 2022 and Antonia Byatt (my next choice) in October 2023.

This posthumous collection is a joy for Mantel's many thousands of fans. It has all sorts of delicious things in it, including her film reviews and sundry articles that I somehow managed to miss when they were first published. There are pieces about her health, about her stay in Saudi Arabia  (particularly interesting for those who love Eight Months on Ghazzah Street) as well as many other gems. It's the perfect book to sit on a bedside table. However tired you're feeling, there's always a small piece of Mantel's characteristic wisdom, humour and out of left field view of things to enjoy before you got to sleep. A very comforting and hugely enjoyable book.

The Virgin  in the Garden
  by A S Byatt

I read this novel when it was first published in 1978. It was the first of a series of novels that became known as the Frederika novels, after one of its main protagonists. I was knocked out then and now, picking it up again after nearly half a century, I am still open mouthed with admiration and love.

It is 1953. We are introduced to the Potter family, who live in Yorkshire. Bill Potter teaches at a school which is about to put on a school play celebrating both the glories of Elizabeth 1st and the coronation of the young Elizabeth ll. The Potters have three children: two girls and a boy who suffers from autism. This is a family story, the story of a community, the story of a particular time. I am loving it just as much now as I did then, but now I appreciate something that may not have struck me so forcibly in the 70s.  Byatt takes her time. She never skimps. She describes things, in huge detail and because she does it so brilliantly, you do not resent the time it takes you to read the pages. A whole  chapter describing the décor of a country house; a long passage about what a butcher's shop looks like and smells like and  is like.  We come away from the book seeing more, knowing more, and aware of so many things that we hadn't previously thought of. Byatt knows an enormous amount and she's generous with her knowledge. In other hands, this might become tiresome, but she's also so good at emotions, and interactions between characters and her writing is leavened with humour and understanding of how a scene should be played. I say 'played' deliberately. This is a very theatrical book, which is just right for the subject. I do hope readers will read it now and follow the Potter family into other books. But a warning: Still Life contains the saddest death I've ever read in modern fiction. 

The book I  can't wait to read in 2024:

Young Jane Young 
 by Gabrielle Zevin

I feel quite proud of myself and this blog for being among the very first lovers of  Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by the same writer. It's been a huge bestseller and has spent something like half the year in the Sunday Times Top Ten. The success is well-deserved. 

I have heard wonderful reports of this book, from people in general and my younger daughter in particular and I trust her judgement completely. It's going to be a treat, I know. Zevin's track record speaks for itself. She's incapable of writing a dull book. Go on, treat yourself! 

Celia's choices

The Fever of the World: Merrily Watkins Mysteries
by Phil Rickman

I have been reading Phil Rickman’s Merrily Watkins novels, off and on, for a while now. I first discovered him when I was writing spooky stuff for Young Adults. The novels centre round his engaging main character, Merrily Watkins, the Diocesan Exorcist for Hereford, or Deliverance Minister, as they are currently titled. The Church of England moves with the times. The books interweave the vicissitudes of Merrily’s professional and personal life with her investigations into mysterious and suspicious doings in the border country in and around Hereford. In The Fever of the World, she is asked to help with the investigation into a mysterious death on the banks of the Severn. Like all his books, the case is not straightforward and may contain elements beyond the remit of the local police. Phil Rickman is very good at weaving together the everyday and familiar with elements of the ‘other’. He’s helped in this by his choice of location: the haunted and hauntingly beautiful border country between England and Wales.

by Stephen King

I haven’t read any Stephen King for a while now but I was led back to him by my fellow Writers Reviewer, Adèle Geras. He is such a consummate story teller; you know you are in a safe pair of hands from the very first page. The novel follows investigator Holly Gibney who made her first appearance in Mr Mecedes and also appeared in Finders Keepers, End of Watch and The Outsider. Of course, I had to go back and read all those, too!

The book I can't wait to read in 2024:

The Year of Living Dangerously
by Christopher Koch

The film version directed by Peter Weir, starring a young Mel Gibson and smouldering Sigourney Weaver, is one of my favourites. It follows a group of foreign correspondents in Jakarta on the eve of an attempted coup against Sukarno and in its depiction of corrupt dictatorship and ruthless repression it is as relevant now as it was then, maybe more so when every year feels increasingly dangerous. I’ve only just discovered that the film was adapted from Australian writer Christopher Koch’s 1978 novel. I’ve managed to get a copy and it’s top of my 2024 to-be-read pile.