Monday, 20 March 2023

Guest review by Rachel Ward: THE SECOND STRANGER by Martin Griffin


"If you are looking for a page-turning thriller to get lost in, then look no further."

Rachel Ward
writes adult crime and thrillers. Her first psychological thriller, Safe With You, was published in 2022, and her second, The Girl Who Vanished, will be out in May. She also writes a cosy crime series, The Supermarket Mysteries, the first of which, The Missing Checkout Girl Mystery regularly features in the cosy crime charts. She is currently working on the fourth book in the series. Rachel lives in Bath, and posts daily photos on Twitter from her early morning walks, as well as occasional paintings. Find her on Twitter: @RachelWardbooks

The tagline ‘One Detective. One Murderer. But which is which?’ neatly sums up the book, except there is so much more going on.

The setting is a country house hotel in the Scottish Highlands with extensive grounds, which Remie Yorke is getting ready to close for the end of the season and leave for good. On her last night, Storm Ezra hits, the snow piles up and the phone lines go down. An injured man knocks at the door, claiming to be a police officer, PC Don Gaines, who was transporting a prisoner from a nearby prison when the vehicle was in an accident. Remie lets him in, but while he is doing security checks of the building, a second stranger appears. His name, apparently, is Don Gaines.

The idea of guests and staff vacating a hotel at the end of the season, ensuring that a large building is almost empty was very atmospheric and a good set up. Add in a fearsome snowstorm and a stranger turning up and I was hooked. By the time I got to the second stranger, I was agog.

I listened to the audiobook, ably narrated by Tamsin Kennard, while I was painting. It kept me thoroughly entertained for several sessions. This book has all the key elements you need including a remote location cut off from the outside world, a small cast of characters who you can’t trust further than you can throw them, a protagonist with a troubled past, and twists and turns aplenty.

If you are looking for a page-turning thriller to get lost in, then look no further. I can’t wait to see what Griffin writes next.

The Second Stranger is published by Sphere.

Monday, 13 March 2023

Guest review by Penny Dolan: HORSE by Geraldine Brooks


"Her historical and geographical settings feel convincingly well-researched, whether she is describing families and their great estates, life on the Mississippi or the horrors of the American civil war."

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

by Geraldine Brooks, a Pulitzer winning novelist, appeared on my book group’s reading list. Its nomination by a member who, to our surprise, is a part-owner of a racehorse, gave Horse strong equestrian support. Additionally, when our local library supplied not four but eight new hardback copies, it was clear that somewhere in the county was a librarian who thought the novel worth purchasing. But was it worth reading? Here are my thoughts.

Brooks’ wide-ranging novel is spread between three American centuries, being a narrative about the early growth of horse-racing and about the meanings within that word “race”. Horse revolves around three specific ideas: a bay foal that became a prize-winning stallion, a lost equine portrait and a skeleton stored within the Smithsonian Museum.

The cover design gives a glimpse at an old painting which reveals a formally dressed black groom holding the rein of a tall brown horse and a black jockey in the coloured silks of the 1850s. Both men appear wary about being “uncovered”. This groom and the bay horse form the core of Brooks’ novel.

When the reader first meets Jarrett, he is an enslaved boy, working beside his father in the stables of a rich Kentucky landowner. After forming a deep bond with the new-born foal named Darley, Jarrett stays close to the creature during its early years. When the colt, re-named Lexington, passes to another landowner, Jarrett follows.

We see that his life is clearly easier than that of black slaves out in the fields. Jarrett is clothed, fed and treated well, principally because of his value to Lexington. Yet both are at the mercy of the wealth, whims and promises of their owners. For example, although gambler and race-course owner Ten Broek had given his word that Lexington would never be whipped, as soon as he has starts promoting timed, high-stakes races on his track, that promise gets forgotten:

Jarrett ‘could see the horse’s flanks heaving in obvious distress. He turned on (the jockey) Meichon. “What were you rowling him for?” he cried. “You could see it wasn’t in him.”

Meichon looked defiant. “Marse Ten Broek say I ‘ave to ride ‘ard. I think – they say – he ‘as bet against us so ‘e want no person to say he cheat.”

Jarrett threw his head back and cursed the sky.’

Even as Jarrett curses, he knows that challenging the master’s actions could mean being sent out to work in the fields or sold.

Moreover, throughout the book, Brooks emphasises his situation as evident in her chapter headings: at first he is Warfield’s Jarrett, then Ten Broek’s Jarrett and finally Alexander’s Jarrett. He is a man without independence.

Around this historical core, Brooks wraps a contemporary tale about two academics meeting in Washington in 2019. Jess, an Australian, and interested in bones since childhood, is an anthropologist and Smithsonian scholar. who starts to study a forgotten equine skeleton to discover more about the horse’s identity and power of endurance. Theo, an Afro-American art historian, is studying the role of Black men during the early years of horse-racing. When an energetic dog brings the pair together, their quest leads them through all the hidden archives of the Institute. However, their deepening relationship also emphasises social pressures within modern America and the insidious influence of prejudice.

The third thread in the novel lies in that mysterious painting partly seen on the cover. An early character, Thomas J. Scott, is a racing journalist and a hopeful equine portraitist. As he paints Dr Warfield’s horses, he notices how helpful and sensitive the boy is, and does something kind.

“I remembered I’d promised him a painting . . . and as sometimes happens when the stakes are small, the painting came together with an uncommon felicity. I captured the light on that rich bay coat and the intelligent look in the eye. I considered keeping the piece myself. I was glad in the end that I did not, when I saw the look of joy on the boy’s face. It occurred to me then his condition afforded him few possessions he might claim as his own.”

Scott’s painting passes through Jarrett’s family until, in 1954 it becomes the property of Martha Jackson, a New York gallery owner who exhibits bold modern paintings. She has her own secret reason for keeping the small portrait which, in due time, will unlock the equine mystery for Jess and Theo, and act as part of the powerful ending.

Knowing little about gambling or horse racing before reading Horse, I had not realised that equine paintings, such as Stubbs' famous “Whistlejacket”, are an aspect of the business of horse-breeding and were adverts promoting the best bloodlines.

Perhaps, because there are more passionate and personal novels that give a voice to the life on the plantations, Horse does not attempt to offer the reader a close inner experience. Brooks, as a white woman novelist, writes with a distanced third person narrative voice which allows her to expand her themes and also allows her concluding chapters to stand out clearly. In addition, her historical and geographical settings feel convincingly well-researched, whether she is describing families and their great estates, life on the Mississippi or the horrors of the American civil war. I appreciated the contrast between Jarrett’s time, the easy academic life within the museums and galleries and the edgy emotions within Jackson Pollock and the art scene of 50’s New York.

While I did not entirely love Horse, I did love Jarrett as a character, and I enjoyed the care and balance within Brook’s storytelling. I welcomed the world that the novel introduced me to, and the strength of its still-relevant messages. Yes: well worth the read.

Horse is published by Little, Brown.

Monday, 6 March 2023



"The cover quotes Irvine Welsh: ‘Every Scot should read it.’ No. Everyone, I say, should read it..."

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.

The cover quotes Irvine Welsh: ‘Every Scot should read it.’ No. Everyone, I say, should read it, everyone interested in why the society of these islands is what it is, the fault lines, the tensions - we English with our damnable class structure, the Irish riven with unionism and the legacy of Anglo-Irish interference, the Scots, freer of tribalism, these days, if divided on political issues… Little Englanders, imperious and sentimental, sniffily call them ‘dour and practical’ whereas they’re less judgemental, more ecumenical.

I once taught at a public school (groan) whose governors came from the ancient Fishmongers Company and, puzzled, I asked the Headmaster whether they went from rich to not so rich. He replied: ‘From rich to extremely rich: they own most of Scotland and Ireland.’

Still true and if not in practical exactitude, the repercussions linger, our royal family persists in its depredations, the mockery of the tartans continues to astonish…

Of the obvious stars of the Scottish Enlightenment we already know – the engineers, the doctors, the philosophers; their contribution is undisputed and essential to a cultural shift in Europe overturning centuries of stagnation and ecclesiastical strait-lacing. Oddly, one element in Scottish society which contributed to the reshaping of idea and social regeneration was the kirk, that centre of bigotry and fearsome moral control exemplified by extreme Calvinist preachers like John Knox – his polemical pamphlet The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstruous Regiment of Women (1558) insisted that the power wielded by queens ran contrary to the dictates of the Bible. However patriarchal the tone, nevertheless his fierce Protestant belief that the mediation of a priest harms the liaison between man/sinner and God, underpins a more egalitarian principle than in any society structured on class divisions opposing the wealthy few and the lesser many, where people are expected to do what they’re told by those with money, land and therefore power. Such an egalitarian ideal not only proved to be very influential but, in the words of Thomas Reid, an Aberdonian theologian: ‘Settled truth can be attained by observation’ is, incontrovertibly, ‘a science of human freedom’ and, indeed, provided the core impulse of the American revolution against despotism. 

 The grip of the kirk gradually waned, though Burns was still put on what we might call his local kirk’s ‘naughty seat’ for his dalliances. In the Scottish novel Sunset Song (Lewis Grassic Gibbon), the recording angel keeps Burns waiting at the Pearly Gates while he hides the Virgin Mary, in case the lecherous Ayrshire Lothario should corner her. As the kirk’s bigotry faded so a new community of thought informed the thinking of Scottish moral philosophers. Thus Adam Smith, born in Kirkcaldy, fused the ‘soft’ side of the Enlightenment, the belief in man’s innate goodness, its faith in the power of education to enlighten and liberate, and the ‘hard’ side, its cool and sceptical distrust of human motives and intentions. Smith cannot resolve this tension and it continues to permeate modern life and mustn’t be ignored. (The ‘soft’ side informs the French revolutionary insistence that human virtue may be enforced through law.)

Commerce and trade matter: the increasing wealth of Glasgow based on various trading enterprises and industry, Scots venturing out to distant markets and returning to establish a new hub which didn’t depend on ‘English gold’, to cite Burns. Two major cities, now: Glasgow and Edinburgh, new-built, models of grace in design. The eventual erosion of clan feudalism counts, too, in the emancipation of a society more and more independent and free-thinking, sponsoring the main flow of cultural influence from north to south instead of an imposition as it had ever been from south to north. Enterprise and education, the marriage of theoretical and practical, germane to the straight-talking, more open-minded Scot than the hidebound toffs of their more potent neighbour with whom they were – increasingly unwillingly – united. The cruel repression of that determination to shake off the chains – Jacobitism, the violence of the redcoats – stirs much beyond resentment; it fuelled clarity of mind on the issues pertinent. Herman stresses the presence in Scotland of a willingness to pursue a mix of education, religion, language and an ability to manage social contact better, in contrast, for instance, to the more rigid ‘them and us’ of the aristocratic / plebeian travails of England. Education, above all, and a trust of technology – the industrial revolution which ensued on the freeing of minds – ‘mehr Licht’ in Goethe’s last words – show themselves pre-eminent in Scottish society even as England insisted on books books books, the older the better. All very well but where are mathematics, engineering, making? Death to Privilege… the message of the Scottish radicals, out of sterner pious ideals, maybe. If only it were so.

The Scottish Enlightenment is published by Fourth Estate.  

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is reviewed (and highly recommended) by Graeme here.

Read this Q&A with Graeme about his French Revolution novel, No Common Assassin:

Monday, 27 February 2023

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: UNSETTLED GROUND by Claire Fuller


"These characters are beautifully drawn by Fuller with their frailties and difficulties with the modern world laid bare."

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. Both titles are now available in paperback.

Unsettled Ground took me back to my teenage years, when I was made melancholy by reading some of the Russian classics. There is something of the plight of those serfs here. But while they suffered grinding poverty with no recourse to a better life, this is a very modern, English tale of two marginalised country dwellers.

Jeanie and Julius are fifty-one year old twins, living with their mother in a cottage that hasn’t been updated, perhaps ever. They do have a solid fuel Rayburn, but no bathroom and an earth closet outside. They scrape a living from their large garden, producing fruit and vegetables for sale, as well as eggs. Julius gets occasional work, but nothing permanent, while Jeanie has a weak heart and has never been employed outside the home. When their mother dies suddenly the twins are thrust into the horror of having no money for any sort of funeral, and their precarious existence begins to implode.

This novel made me both sad and angry at the plight of these two characters, especially Jeanie, who has few resources to cope in a society where data is king and electricity for charging gadgets essential. I have known people like this and these characters are beautifully drawn by Fuller with their frailties and difficulties with the modern world laid bare.

There was a point at which I wondered if I could bear to carry on reading but I’m glad I did. There are secrets in this family to be unravelled and they are revealed with skill. Unsettled Ground settles at last into an ending I could believe in without giving me sleepless nights. The gentle, unquestioned love between sister and brother is beautifully done throughout the novel. Highly recommended.

Unsettled Ground is published by Fig Leaf

More of Cindy's choices:

Monday, 20 February 2023

TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW by Gabrielle Zevin Reviewed by Adèle Geras

 "Above all it's about creativity; how it works and why it's vital to everyone's happiness."

Geras has written many books for children and young adults and six novels for adults, the latest of which (under the pseudonym Hope Adams) is Dangerous Women, published by Michael Joseph. She lives in Cambridge. 

If you were looking for a target audience for this novel, I would be the last person to be considered. I'm old, and it's mainly about teenagers and youngish people. It's set in a world I have no interest in at all: the world of gaming. I have never played a computer game in my life and even reading this wonderful novel has not tempted me to try any. I downloaded it firstly because my younger daughter said it was very good indeed and secondly because I have read a book by Zevin before: the fascinating YA novel called Elsewhere, which I enjoyed very much. I read it a long time ago and details I remember are hazy but it deals with the Afterlife. I knew she was a very good writer, so I started reading quite optimistically but ready to give up if the gaming became too difficult for me.

I needn't have worried. The story is about people and their relationships with one another, their difficulties, their triumphs. Every character is brought to life most beautifully and we end the book feeling we've spent time with good friends. We care about them. Also, you will need a tissue at several points in the story.

Sam and Sadie meet as very young teenagers in a hospital. Sam has a foot that causes him pain and disability throughout his life and the sections dealing with the treatment he receives are sometimes very hard to read. The two of them find they have a love of gaming in common and the story follows them through their lives. They become creators of games and for me, more than the love stories that play out, more than the sharp dialogue between the characters, more than the bonds that bind Sam and Sadie and several other characters together, more than the excitement in following their fortunes to heights neither could have imagined when they first set eyes on one another, it is the actual process of creating the games that is the most interesting and important part of the book for me.

What I learned from this novel is that building a game involves many of the same processes as those involved in writing a novel. You are making a new world. You are deciding who the characters are, and what they do and how their adventures play out. You find out how they can progress through the game. You put difficulties and obstacles in their way and give them the means to overcome these. You also find out about the Market, and how certain games succeed and make vast fortunes while others fail and come to nothing. You share the anxiety (well known to every writer) of wondering to what extent people will be able to understand your vision, sympathise with your characters, share your world. This novel can be read as a love story, the tale of a group of friends and a moment in history when games became such an important way for people to access stories, but above all it's about creativity; how it works and why it's vital to everyone's happiness.

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is published by Chatto & Windus.

Monday, 13 February 2023

Guest review by Julie Owen-Moylan: DEMON COPPERHEAD by Barbara Kingsolver


" ... a stunning piece of work. Kingsolver’s storytelling is masterful yet always demanding justice for a community that has been abandoned and mocked."

Julie Owen Moylan
is a writer whose short stories and articles have appeared in New Welsh Review, The Independent, Sunday Express, and My Weekly. She has also written and directed several short films as part of her MA in Film. Her graduation short film, BabyCakes, scooped Best Film awards at the Swansea Film Festival, Ffresh, and the Celtic Media Awards. She also has an MA in Creative Writing, and is an alumna of the Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. Julie is the author of two novels, That Green Eyed Girl  (May 2022) and 73 Dove Street which will be released in July 2023.

“First I got myself born” - and with that line we are introduced to our young narrator Damon Fields, known as Demon Copperhead for the fiery red hair that is his only inheritance from an absent father. Demon has learned to rely on himself and expect nothing much from life. His voice rings through the opening pages, cynical and world weary beyond his years.

This re-imagining of Dickens’ David Copperfield is set in the broken-down ex mining communities of the Appalachian Mountains. Young Demon at first reminds us of Huck Finn running wild and sharing adventures with his best friend Maggot, but soon his limited luck runs out as his young mother marries someone with no interest in taking on another man’s child. When his mother is driven back to her opioid addiction, our young hero finds himself thrown onto the mercy of an inadequate foster system. His experiences of being rejected and exploited by poor families using him to raise extra cash through fostering, seem hopeless and bleak but what keeps us turning the page is that underneath Demon’s world weariness and misery is a desperate yearning for something better. Kingsolver’s skill is in making us yearn alongside him. We want nothing more than this boy to find some love and care in a world that so often rejects him.

Kingsolver’s mastery is not just that she has written a character we want to succeed but within these pages she throws a harsh spotlight on the issues that lead to children like Demon being abandoned. It is reminiscent of Dickens’ seeking to highlight the gruesome poverty of Victorian England and the fate of abandoned orphans seeking their place in the world. The wheel of fortune that dictates where you are born and from that fact everything else good or bad will surely follow.

The author writes of the people she knows and the communities she grew up in. They are so often mocked and maligned, written off as rednecks or ignorant MAGA converts. Kingsolver wants us to understand it’s not that simple. There are good reasons why people chose to believe a rich man spouting lies.

These communities in Virginia are in thrall to the large mining or tobacco industries with no means of escape. Those industries own the schools and the public services. They educate the youth just enough to work their jobs but never enough to challenge the system that put them there. Many of these towns or communities have been abandoned as the mines close down and all that is left is a hopeless wishing for them to come back. With no way out, and very little work to do, people choose to numb their pain through alcohol or prescription drugs doled out by willing physicians and representatives from large pharmaceutical companies. Everything feels better at least for a few hours.

This opioid epidemic takes a harsh toll on Demon’s life sweeping up his mother and later his girlfriend Dori. Throughout everything the world can throw at him, Demon keeps on going. He is unbreakable, emotionally resilient as people keep failing him over and over again. It seems inevitable that eventually he will suffer one blow too many and stay down. As we root for him to get back up and keep praying that he will survive and get to realise his dream of visiting the ocean.

Demon Copperhead is a stunning piece of work. Kingsolver’s storytelling is masterful yet always demanding justice for a community that has been abandoned and mocked, for boys like Demon caught up in the resulting opioid epidemic and the abject failure of a foster system that simply doesn’t care. We yearn for Demon’s happiness as if it were our own and by the final page of this book, we rage at the injustice of wealthy corporations who walk away leaving only the wreckage of people’s lives behind them.

I recommend this book to everyone for the incredible writing, the wonderful storytelling and a genuinely thought-provoking read. Great books make you think differently about the world once you’ve put them down and Demon Copperhead certainly does that.

Demon Copperhead  is published by Faber & Faber.

See also: Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered, reviewed by Anna Wilson

Julie Owen-Moylan's That Green-Eyed Girl is published by Michael Joseph.

Monday, 6 February 2023

THE FLOW by Amy-Jane Beer, reviewed by Linda Newbery


" ... conjures natural surroundings, weathers, landscapes and of course flowing, falling and trickling water with striking immediacy." 

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Her latest publication, This Book is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us, is a guide to compassionate living for teenagers and adults.

"Something happens to our brains when we stare at moving water: a sort of broad, effortless attentiveness," Amy-Jane Beer wrote in a Guardian feature, and I think most of us recognise this. "Spend a quiet hour on a riverbank watching water slide by," she writes in her introduction here, "and you might find yourself wondering where it comes from, and where it might be going. You might even ask yourself What is a river? The answer is simultaneously simple enough that it is taught to nursery-age children, and vast enough that the mind struggles to hold it."

This expansion from immediate mental and physical sensations to the changes wrought over aeons of Earth history makes The Flow a thoroughly engaging read: personal, confiding and anecdotal, but also packed with information about geology, wildlife and botany, folklore and place-names. An experienced and apparently very brave kayaker, Amy-Jane Beer lost a close friend in a river accident. On a kind of pilgrimage to the river gorge in the Howgills where her friend Kate tragically died, she resolved to explore, know and appreciate waterways in all their moods and forms. She portrays natural surroundings, weathers, landscapes and of course flowing, falling and trickling water with striking immediacy.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe," wrote John Muir, and The Flow is a testament to this, showing the interconnectedness of ecosystems, how they can be damaged and how, sometimes, they can recover from human interventions, if given time and space to do so. 

No nature writing of our times can be free from a sense of grief at all we have to lose: or even, at times, seem intent on losing. There's anger and frustration here as well as appreciation: about the (now well-documented) pollution of the River Wye by run-off from intensive poultry units, and the inadequacy of the Environment Authority to prevent or even properly measure river pollution in general; about the modern love of tidiness that too often wants river-water channelled quickly downstream between neat banks, at the expense of water-meadows and floodplains which could do so much to absorb groundwater; and about the sobering fact that around 97% of rivers in England are legally the property of landowners, so in most cases to canoe, swim, paddle or snorkel in them is to trespass. (I didn't know that.) Amy-Jane Beer points, too, to the deliberate and false separation of town and country in attempts to keep control over land and resist change (something I'm well aware of, as a rural resident fiercely opposed to hunting and shooting). She comments on the hostility often shown to landscape restoration: "a minority in positions of significant influence continue stoking an 'us' and 'them' narrative." Every challenge she's met with on a river, she says, has come from a privileged white male - something that's come to media attention in recent weeks, with the attempt of Devon landowner Alexander Darwall to ban wild camping on Dartmoor; Amy-Jane Beer has been vocal about that on behalf of Right to Roam. More positively, she meets in her travels various people who share her deep love of ecosystems and work to improve them, whether by planting trees to slow the course of a river, introducing beavers to Devon rivers or rewilding their own patch of land.

Each chapter is focused on Beer's exploration of a particular place and habitat - by walking or climbing, wild camping or swimming in icy water.  She's a likeable and immensely knowledgeable companion, whose sense of wonder at the grandeur, variety and sheer incomprehensible age of the Earth pervades her writing.  Explaining rock formations to her young son, " ... for a moment I grasp a bigger picture. This weird formation isn't just on the surface. We're standing on millions of cubic metres of it - a structure that is both skeleton and shell, as much conduit as barrier - and all of it potentially subject to the influence of running water. There are rivulets and rivers down there. Some of that drizzle we walked through earlier - freshly condensed in the air above us - has already gone on below, on its way to becoming something else. Seeping, washing, leaching, dissolving, depositing, freezing or vaporising. It has no destination, only spaces and forms it passes through, and occasional organic or mineral partners, any of which might sit out of the dance for a matter of hours or billions of years, before the water whisks them back into play." Eloquent, insightful, exhilarating - it's no surprise to find in the acknowledgements that Beer is an admirer of Robert Macfarlane, whose readers will find much to enjoy and appreciate here. 

The Flow is published by Bloomsbury.

More nature writing reviewed on the blog:

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, reviewed by Sue Purkiss

Natural Selection: a Year in the Garden by Dan Pearson, reviewed by Linda Newbery

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, reviewed by Paula Knight

12 Birds to Save your Life - Nature's Lessons in Happiness by Charlie Corbett, reviewed by Linda Sargent