Sunday, 27 November 2016

Guest review by Berlie Doherty: THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Guest review by Sally Prue: Mr WESTON'S GOOD WINE by T.F. Powys

Sally Prue is a writer for children of all ages, from picture books up to Young Adult fiction. Her novel Cold Tom won the Branford Boase Prize and the Smarties Silver Award, and Song Hunter won the Historical Society’s Young Quills Award. Her other jobs have included being a Time and Motion clerk, an accompanist, and a piano and recorder teacher. Sally is married, has two grown up daughters, and lives on the edge of a small but very beautiful wood in Hertfordshire, England. She  blogs at The Word Den. She is also to be found at and @sally_prue.

Writers are encouraged by their publishers to sum up each new book in a single sentence. This is partly to provide a strap line to put on the press release and cover (it’s more or less the equivalent of telling the prospective buyer whether the tin contains treacle sponge or axle grease) but it also happens to be good discipline for the writer: it’s generally useful if he or she has managed to work out what the book’s about before it goes to press.
How might T.F. Powys’s have summed up his novel Mr Weston’s Good Wine? 
Well, the nearest I can get is Cold Comfort Farm meets The Revelation of St John.
The set-up of the book is simple. Through the 1920s November mists Mr Weston, a travelling salesman, arrives among the inhabitants of the village of Folly Down. These villagers include an atheist vicar; his neglected daughter (‘If a girl is not taught hockey,’ says a well-meaning neighbour, ‘she might be found in a wood, talking to a serpent’); a wicked procurer of maidens for the amusement of the farmer’s unthinking sons; a love-lorn mystic; and the family of an innkeeper. 
Now, as it becomes clear very soon, Mr Weston is God the Father in disguise, and his sales assistant is the Archangel Michael. More disconcerting still is the fact that Mr Weston keeps a lion in his delivery van (a sign, as St Peter tells us, that we must be sober and vigilant because the devil, as a roaring lion, goes about seeking whom he may devour).
But how can anyone bear – or dare – to be sober when Mr Weston has brought his good wine to Folly Down? There is truth in wine, and Mr Weston’s good wine is as sweet as love and as strong as death; and the truth of death as well as of every kind of love (there’s lots of amorous tumbling in the village’s oak tree bed) are revealed during a timeless November evening full of tenderness and horror. 
Mr Weston may be white-haired and kindly, but he is also the terrible god of Isaiah: ‘I form the light, and create darkness,’ he says. ‘I make peace, and create evil: I, the Lord, do all these things.’
Mr Weston’s Good Wine is a book I have come back to again and again over the years, partly because it’s so funny, but mostly because I’m bedazzled and bewildered by it. It’s haunting, tragic, horrifying, joyful, silly and wise, all in the space of 232 pages, and its inhabitants are by turn lusty, bewildered, and cruel. I could say more, but am abashed by Mr Weston himself, who doesn’t argue when someone suggests changing the last verse of Psalm 104 to ‘let the critics be consumed out of the earth’.
 Mr Weston’s Good Wine is a hugely rewarding read. It gives us Tamar, who believes she’ll soon meet her longed-for blue-trousered angel; the bereaved Rev’d Grobe, who is fascinated by Coleridge’s poem Christobel and tenderly preaches a gospel in which he no longer believes (Mr Weston, by the way, prefers Cowper); Mr Grunter, who discovers there are worse things than being nobody; Luke Bird, who needs a miracle to attain his bride; the truly terrible Mrs Vosper; and poor Ada Kiddle, who…but I mustn’t give too much away.
So I’ll finish where everyone begins, with the title, Mr Weston’s Good Wine. The title is an echo of Jane Austen’s Mr Weston, of course, and as soon as I’d finished Powys’s strange story for the first time I re-read Emma to find the whole quotation.
It comes as Emma rides home in a carriage, alone except for the amorous Mr Elton, who ‘had been drinking too much of Mr Weston’s good wine, and [Emma] felt sure he would want to be talking nonsense’.
So: is Powys saying that Emma’s Mr Weston is god-like in some way? I wouldn’t have said so, but now I come to think about it…
Or does Powys only mean that Mr Weston’s Good Wine, the book, is nonsense (though Ronald Bythe called Powys the least-modern of writers, and what’s more modern than nonsense?)?
Or is Powys’s title just one more go at putting off the critics?
I’ll have to read both books again, one day, to see if I can work it out.

Mr Weston’s Good Wine is published by Vintage. Sally Prue's  own theological comedy is called Goldkeeper.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Guest review by Paul Dowswell: THE DARK STUFF by Nick Kent

Paul Dowswell writes historical fiction and is a frequent visitor to schools, both home and abroad, where he talks about his books and takes creative writing classes. His novels Eleven Eleven and Sektion 20 won the Historical Association Young Quills Award and Auslander won the Hamelin Associazione Culturale Book Prize. Paul is a Fellow of the English Association and reviews books for Armadillo and Carousel. 

When I was 16 my idea of good writing boiled down to The King James Bible, George Orwell and Nick Kent. The King James Bible gave me a love of flowing, musical prose, Orwell taught me about clarity, and Kent was a master of the gripping introduction and striking image.

Kent is now in his 60s, having survived over a decade of full-blown heroin addiction and a hair-raising early adult life as a journalist with the New Musical Express in its ’70s heyday. As fellow rock journalist Mark Ellen put it ‘If there was a story involving Keith Richards, naked groupies and a flaming carpet, Kent was the man to tell it.’

He had a style best described as baroque, his endless sentences flowing from one clause to another. He never learned to type and delivered his work in dense, spidery biro scrawl, sometimes on the inside of a dismantled cornflake box. Kent loved the sort of words and phrases you can relish and run around your tongue: ‘languishing’, ‘denizens’, ‘vortex’, ‘the Babylon sweepstakes’, ‘lounge lizards’, ‘burlesque nadir’… Robert Plant described him as ‘one of the real poets’ of rock journalism and that certainly chimes with me. Kent always wrote about the more damaged end of the rock star fraternity and had a gift for bringing their bizarre lives and characters vividly to life.

His book The Dark Stuff, an amended compilation of his best newspaper and magazine articles, was first published in 1994. It’s a master class of gripping titles: ‘Sid Vicious – the exploding dimwit’, ‘Twilight in Babylon – the Stones after the ’60s’, ‘The Bewildering Universe of Roky Erickson and his two-headed dog’, ‘Lightning up with the Prince of Darkness: Miles Davis approaches 60’, ‘Going to Hell with Jerry Lee Lewis’… Anyone with a love of rock music could not fail to be intrigued.

And the articles that follow rarely disappoint. Take that last one on Jerry Lee Lewis where Kent describes a 1989 encounter with this titan of ’50s Rock and Roll, brilliantly capturing his intimidating manner and the cadence of his Memphis accent. It begins ‘He was trying to be courteous, but you could tell almost at once that being courteous wasn’t really part of his basic nature.’ Kent describes him as radiating waves of random hostility, like static on the radio. ‘Even wearing a white ski jersey with gambolling reindeer knitted on the chest, he still looked like Murder Incorporated.’ Lewis is torn apart by his deep Christian beliefs and the ‘devil’s music’ he plays. Writing about the recordings he created in his prime, Kent says “… now more than ever it sounds like the mad abandon of a man throwing coals into the furnace of a runaway train that’s dragging him straight to hell.”

How could you read that and not want to listen again with a fresh ear to this extraordinary music?

Facing stiff competition (Stanley Booth’s ‘True Adventures of the Rolling Stones’, Robert Greenfield’s ‘STP A journey through America with the Rolling Stones’) Kent writes better than anyone about the Stones in their drug soaked prime: ‘… the music seemed to drip from their fingers like dark honey. It all seemed so effortless yet so all-consuming in its intensity. And Jagger knew all about this music, how to inhabit its sharp angles and bleak crevices, how to caress it with his voice and ride its terrible momentum…’ all of which explains why the Stones, even now much copied by musicians a third of their age, are still filling enormous venues in their 70s.

He always wrote with great sympathy for his subjects, apart from Sid Vicious, who famously attacked him with a bike chain. Here’s the introduction to a piece on the tragic, acid-inspired demise of Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett: ‘First came the Floyd. Then came the void. And sometimes, in between this tragic passage, the omens were there for all to see… As anarchy came screaming through his psyche, so the sound it made overwhelmed his muse and its music.’

I even met him once, at a literature festival in France. They say never meet your heroes, but he was charming and perfectly happy to chat and sign my dog-eared copy of The Dark Stuff. It’s my bedside comfort read and I’ve never grown tired of it.

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

Guest review by Jon Appleton: COMMONWEALTH by Ann Patchett

Jon Appleton worked in-house in publishing for 20 years and has been a buyer for a book club, reviewer and speaker on children's books and publishing. He is now a freelance editor and writer with a particular interest in helping new authors pitch and publish their work. His debut novel, Ready to Love, was released in Summer 2016, and he blogs regularly on writers and writing at

It’s for her novels with exotic locations – Bel Canto (set in South America) and State of Wonder (along the Amazon) – that Ann Patchett is best-known for winning prestigious prizes. But everyone should read the books that are set in more familiar territory, her own United States, and you should start with her seventh novel, Commonwealth.

It’s the story of two families fused together as the result of a kiss at the christening of Franny Keating back in 1964. Marriages fracture and reform, but most significantly of all, a brood of six children coheres into a tribe and their feral bonds exist independently of (though of course also influenced by) their parents’ divorces and remarriages and inevitable ageing. For fifty years, until the present day.

Commonwealth is a big novel – there are a lot of characters, a lot of time is covered, and the title itself promises vastness. Just as Run (an earlier Patchett novel) is a beautiful word, so too is Commonwealth, which in America describes Virginia, one of the two key locations in the book, a designated ‘commonwealth’ state. Of course, it also conveys the common wealth of a family with its secrets, betrayals, punishments, tragedies and the rest, that burden and enlighten members in different ways. At the heart of the novel is the devastating death of a child, but that’s nearly eclipsed by a great betrayal, spurred by Franny and her relationship with a much older man, a writer called Leo Posen, who turns the family story into a bestselling novel – called Commonwealth – which forces all the children to confront the chronology and interpretation of their lives.

Although the canvas is large, it’s not an epic novel. Ann Patchett scoops chunks of time out of the narrative, and drops us back into stories at their end, or at the beginning of the next one. (It’s no surprise to learn she has a file of off-cuts – whole deleted scenes which she removed, with the proviso that she could reinstate them if required – which didn’t happen).  You need to backtrack at times and remember which sibling belongs to whom and where they’ve ended up and what they recall. But her touch is light and her movements skilful so we have complete faith in her ability to carry us through the years.

Patchett’s great skill is her ability to illuminate her subject from all sides with a kind of ‘admiration and disbelief’ as she writes in this novel. (Perhaps all her books could be called State of Wonder.) Here’s how Patchett describes Franny’s relationship, at 29, with the much older novelist:

‘After all this time he could not believe that she was with him: not only was she young (not just younger but categorically young) and more beautiful than he had any right to deserve at this point, but she was the cable on which he had pulled himself hand over hand back into his work: she was the electricity, the spark. Franny Keating was life. For her part, Franny could say the name Leon Posen, like she was saying Anton Chekhov, and find him there in the bed beside her. It did not cease to be astonishing with time. And more than that, he had found her life meaningful when she could make no sense of it at all.’ She goes on to tell us, ‘Which is not to say they were without problems …’

There are plenty of stories about novelists out there but what is most interesting about Commonwealth is that it really is, apparently, faithful to the story of Ann Patchett’s own parents’ divorces and remarriage. She wrote the book because she felt that until she’d addressed her own story she’d be unable to develop new fictional worlds. Patchett is Franny, who is as laconic and bitingly funny as Patchett appears when she writes in her own voice in works of non-fiction such as This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (which, incidentally, contains ‘The Getaway Car’ which is the best account of a writer’s journey I’ve ever read).

Of all the books published in 2016 Commonwealth is the novel I was most looking forward to, and (with two months to go) I can safely say it’s my book of the year.