Monday, 30 October 2017

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: TANGLEWEED AND BRINE by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughn

Yvonne is currently a Writing Fellow with the Royal Literary Fund and an Associate Fellow of Writing Project, which provides training in clear, respectful written communications with a human touch to commercial, public service and charity organisations. Her publications include Bully, Not Dressed Like That, You Don't and (with Linda Newbery) Writing Children's Fiction: a Writers' and Artists' Companion. See more on her website. 

There are so many fairy stories in the world. I have shelves full of them: traditional, ancient and modern; stories for babies, young children, teenagers, adults. Many are retellings with a new slant: political, feminist, satirical, humorous, therapeutic, dark, dumbed-down. Not to mention the critical commentaries, the analysis of form and formula, the exploration and explanation of human cognitive development, of why we need these tales.

All these I have loved. But I haven’t often been surprised or entranced since discovering Angela Carter. And now comes Tangleweed and Brine. It’s marketed as a Young Adult book for readers aged 15+ (Sullivan is an award winning author in this category). This only proves the idiocy of the book world’s prevailing fish-or-fowl determination to categorise and constrain. I hope this book finds its way across the divide.

Thirteen traditional tales from Grimm and Perrault are retold from the viewpoint of the female characters. Karen Vaughan’s moody black and white illustrations capture the spirit of the stories: subversive and dark; aching with loss and longing and a backbeat of anger.

You were a friendless child, a barrel chested, sturdy little thing who played alone. Who looked up through the branches seeking nests, needing something kinder than human…

You grew up soft, but still you learned to hide it. Piece by piece. The world’s not built for soft and sturdy things. It likes its soft things small and white, defenceless. Princesses in castles. Maidens waiting for the perfect sword. You grew up soft, and piece by wounded piece you built a carapace around your body. Humans are peculiar little things.

Sullivan digs right down into the character’s heart and soul, bringing the shadows of personal history into the light and challenging the reader’s preconceptions. Sometimes, I didn’t even recognise the original story until it was almost over (a tip: don’t read the contents page, just dive in.) Tangleweed and Brine is a lyrical beauty of a book. Leave plenty of time to savour each story, to let it sink in, before tackling the next. Let the women who have so often been portrayed as the small, white defenceless things reveal their secret power and the determination to pull themselves free:

Sometimes love is something more like rage. It makes you fight. You feel the future, wide and bright around you, kicking in your gut as though a child. The night spreads wide and you have flown, you’ve flown. The shape of you impressed in attic cloth is all that’s left. You wonder how long it will take for them to notice. It is an idle thought. You don’t care.

- inspirational, poetic and beautiful, though maybe not a bedtime read.

Tangleweed and Brine is published by Little Island.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: DEAD BABIES AND SEASIDE TOWNS by Alice Jolly

Cindy Jefferies has been writing for for various publishers since 2001, with her Fame School titles being continually in print for over ten years, and translated into 16 languages. In 2016 she was invited to be artistic director of the children’s part of the inaugural Stroud Book Festival in Gloucestershire. Out of that came the idea for a children’s festival, of which she is joint co-ordinator with Rick Vick. She lives in Stroud, and splits her time between writing, festival work, refugee aid and looking after her young granddaughter. She is a member of the Society of Authors and the Scattered Authors' Society. Apart from enjoying a glass of wine with friends she likes parking her mini camper van on the land she owns with her sisters, having a brew-up and enjoying the wildlife.

Profoundly moving, this memoir begins with a traumatic pregnancy and tragic stillbirth. But as Alice Jolly tells us, she has never had much time for the me, me, me, of memoir. This award-winning book, published by Unbound and winner of both the V S Pritchett Award and the PEN Ackerley Award, is many things. It manages to be uplifting and controversial, occasionally funny as well as tragic, and asks at least as many questions as it gives answers.

What is it that drives us on, as human beings? That is the question that remained in my mind when I finished the book. The simple answer is the desire to succeed, but when does that become unreasonable, or foolish? When is it admirable, understandable? Alice Jolly retreated to one seaside town or another, places she describes as the “ultimate act of defiance,” to recuperate between miscarriages. At one point she likens herself and her husband to gamblers. “We have become like gamblers who have lost so much that only a win can save them. Good money after bad.” She tries hard to come to terms with the situation. Unlike so many, they already have one healthy child. Surely they should be happy with that? Perhaps only those who have suffered the loss of a stillborn child will understand, or maybe no one can ever really, at the deepest level, understand what drives another.

At its simplest, this book is about a woman who refuses to accept that her family is complete. But it is also about money. With money, so much more is possible. IVF, donor eggs, adoption, surrogacy. Do these possibilities ameliorate the situation, or make it worse? Other questions arise. Morality, the law, mental health, the impact on others. This is a personal story, but it is also more than that, and I think, an important book. It is, too, beautifully written, honest, and without self pity. I shied away from reading it for a long time because I thought I would find it too emotionally difficult. When I found the courage, my fear was totally unfounded. Not only did the language draw me in, it is also just so darned interesting.

Jolly’s ability to write about tragedy without making it tragic is extraordinary. By managing somehow to stand a little outside her experience she shields the reader, without compromising the truth. This is, perhaps, the writer’s detachment Leonard Woolf describes so well in his autobiography, World Within World. However arrived at, the treatment serves this book exceptionally well. There are thoughts, too about how to process difficulties, and the role of emotional authenticity. Nowadays, “Everybody has to be allowed to feel what they feel, express, process…..But now I begin to realise that there may be events too big to process. Sometimes the only way to survive is to get up and walk on without looking back.”

Alice Jolly surrounds her story with place and time, with just enough detail to make us feel the seasons and years as they pass. Brussels, London and Stroud are all places that have been called home, while the coast is not somewhere to live, but a place to retreat to from time to time. And there is the beautiful house up high in the Cotswolds: a house so draughty that the heating is pointless. The house takes time and energy and emotion while it is renovated, but at last it is beautifully restored, and contains a family that eventually, touchingly, feels complete.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is published by Unbound.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Guest review by Jon Appleton: CARNIVORE by Jonathan Lyon

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor, having spent 20 years in-house in publishing. He works with writers through the Writers Workshop, the Arvon foundation and as private clients. For commercial publishers he specialises in books for early readers and crime and thrillers for adults. In 2016, he self-published his debut novel, Ready to Love, which is currently in production as an audio book. Follow him on twitter @appletonsbooks

Just over halfway through Jonathan Lyon’s debut novel, there’s a passage that’s both visceral and heartbreaking but to share it almost screams ‘spoiler alert!’ But since this dazzling novel will have played with your expectations of what it’s about long before you reach this point, I think it’s a permissible tiny spoiler, so I’ll share a little text here:

"I’m not invulnerable, I’m not some supervillain beyond conscience who toys with wills for sport. I’m lonely. I’m still a boy, Francis. I’m a – a boy with a wasting body. I’m not a carnivore – or, I am but it’s because I was made one – a carnivore of circumstance – anaemic, fiending and predatory, but without a predator’s power to choose."

There you have it – the carnivore of the title is Leander, our narrator, a man in his twenties who has long endured chronic fatigue syndrome, an invisible but debilitating illness which he keeps from the people closest to him, including the boy he quite probably loves.

There’s so much Leander cannot control about his life – the pain, namely – so where he can he continually dissembles – he has invented his own identity and history. Constantly, he shifts the boundaries between himself and other people. But he is not invulnerable, nor is he entirely disregarding of others. He is not immune to the consequences of his actions. Drugs don’t help his illness but they alter states for him and lead him to heightened pleasure but also deep depravity.

Drugs and sex immerse him in an underworld of crime and corruption which lends the book it thriller aspect. To simplify the plot: the story becomes an exciting, page-turning chase across the vividly rendered dirty streets of south London to capture one man who has kidnapped another. (London emerges as another carnivore character – a city literally eating itself.)

It’s a playful book by its very structure – it’s divided into acts, and part of the action involves the creation of a film (which provides a lot of humour) as well as the filming of sex tapes which will disturb many readers and offend some. But everything, wherever it occurs on the spectrum between pleasure and pain is a performance, as we are constantly, delightfully reminded: people are directed and controlled, deftly manoeuvred by a talented writer in control of his material.

Carnivore succeeds entirely in being several books at once: an urban fairy tale, a literary thriller, a story about telling stories (Leander describes himself as a ‘master of fictions’), a comedy (you could even call it a farce), a tale of self-destruction.

Don’t be deterred if you think it all sounds a bit meta. Then again, surely we’re better than ever at coping with that kind of writing because there’s much more of it about in the mainstream? Many of Lyon’s ideas about truth and reality will be familiar to you. Here’s an example: ‘Stories that aren’t biographically true can still be true – if they reveal something about the teller’s psychology … a lie, as an evasion or a complication, is still a revelation of character – it’s a slanted truth.’ What I loved about Carnivore is that these ideas, however erudite or lofty or whatever are mired in the physical. You never forget that Leander is suffering. It grounds the reader. You emerge from the book feeling wrung out, knowing it was a physical experience.

It’s an entertainment but one, I’m sure, its author hopes readers will emerge from with a keener understanding of what it’s like to live in a state of chronic pain. And we do.

Carnivore is published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Guest review by Andrew Fusek Peters: CORDUROY by Adrian Bell

Andrew Fusek Peters is a poet, author and conservation photographer. His poems have been recordeded for the Poetry Archive. His books include Dip, Wilderland and Upland. See more on his website. 

I am currently re-reading Corduroy after a four-year gap. This time, I am using it as my country meditation before bed – sometimes ploughing through only a few pages before my heart sinks into a peaceful ease. This edition is a Slightly Foxed re-release of a classic nature writing adventure first published in 1930. The author, Adrian Bell (father of Martin) seemed to have two yearnings when young. He wanted to be a writer and, as a Londoner, he also wanted to escape the city ‘flying from the threat of an office life’ to delve deeply into the countryside of his dreams.

As an author and nature writer who left London at eighteen and finally married a Shropshire lass, it could be said I identify slightly! John Clare and to an extent Edward Thomas immersed themselves deeply in hill, field and forest. Theirs is the poetry of the insider looking out, so at one with nature that sometimes it is hard to separate the poet from the landscape. But Adrian Bell brought something different to the table. He was keenly aware from the get-go of his outsider-ness, his difference, his outdoor city boots sniffed at by his host Mr Colville, knowing that London leather will only survive a short while through the farming calendar.

Adrian pleaded with his father that his life ‘should be something in the open air’ - be careful what you pray for. As a paying guest, he began an utterly new life on the Colville farm. Even at that first meal of boiled batter pudding and roast pheasants, when contentment strikes it is tempered by ‘seeing myself in the wide looking-glass of the sideboard’ where he was not ‘large and rosy like the rest’ but ‘pale and thin, sitting like a ghost among them’.

This could have been an inauspicious start. The middle-class Londoner is properly a fish out of water. But Adrian had three great assets on his side – a wonderful thirst to learn alongside the willingness to work to a totally different timetable from the dawdling hours in suburban drawing rooms, and lastly, an attitude of respect for the people that still come to life in these pages. He did not play the outsider as a role, it was simply that the A-Z of farming life needed careful study, to which he applied himself henceforth, and on and off for the rest of his life.

Adrian was changed utterly by his experience. When he returned to town he ‘re-entered a world of nervous significances, where the very furniture was a complex language’. To his former friends, he is an amuse-bouche - or as he put it ‘a character part.’ Yet it is his willingness to embrace difference, to play his part as visitor or urban refugee that warms the text through and through.

‘Children gathered here also, and gazed upon the wonder of the fire, awed into silence as the sparks flew high, and an occasional passer-by paused and warmed his hands, exchanging some item of local news with the blacksmith. For in winter, the forge was a meeting-place second only to the inn, I discovered.

"I suppose these have made a difference to your trade," I said as a motor went by.

"Yes, they don’t need the kind of shoes I make," he replied. "There’s no hackneys kept today, no carriage horses; that’s how we’re hit…"'

This is the role Adrian played best, moving beyond mere nostalgia to a lament of modernisation. The book is full of tales of ancient squires and the last miller who worked the windmill, greasing the gears with tallow candles. By 1920, the world of humans was already in flux. One war over, another to begin, where it was known that many soldiers took Corduroy with them to remind them of the life left behind.

And I too catch glimpses in my second life as a conservation photographer, gradually getting to know some of the farmers and walking their land – being invited in for tea and biccies while we discuss curlews and the rare sightings of the leucistic white kite. Adrian is a good role model in his affection for the land and its people. He is a chronicler of a different age now falling into second hand echoes. My wife’s grandmother, when she was alive, told me how she remembered the coming of electricity to the Forest of Dean at the same time this book was written, when there were still carriages drawn by horse.

I leave Adrian, who went on to write twenty further books on the countryside, with the last word:

‘I had this pleasure of catching in the cloistral gloom of cowshed or stable those gleam-lit attitudes of strength and patience which the old painters turned into religious masterpieces.’

Corduroy is published by Faber.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Guest review by Miriam Moss: GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS by Max Porter

Miriam is an award-winning writer of fiction - short stories, novels and picture books. She grew up in Africa, China and the Middle East before living in England. After graduating, she taught English until the arrival of her first child, when she began writing.

Her latest short story, Salvage, is published in the Fish Anthology 2017, and her novel, Girl on a Plane, a fictionalised account of a real life hijacking experienced while travelling alone in the Middle East aged 15, is published by Andersen/ Penguin Random House. Her next novel is set in Africa.

She has published many picture books, including Matty takes Off (Andersen), Bare Bear (Hodder), Wibble Wobble (Orchard), I Forgot to Say I Love You! (Macmillan) and Bad Hare Day (Bloomsbury). Her latest is Dr Molly’s Medicine Chest (Walker).

Miriam lives in Lewes, Sussex, has three grown up children and works in a converted triangular potting shed in the garden. See more on her website.

Behind the Emily Dickinson–derived title – her poem is called Hope is the Thing with Feathers - is a short, finely crafted prose poem. The wonderfully compact, moving narrative is a meditation on grief, but it’s also a surprisingly funny book, as well as a clever and highly original read.

A mother has died suddenly, leaving a grieving writer. the father of two young sons, bereft and in disarray. The father, who attempts to come to terms with his wife’s death, is writing a book about Ted Hughes (called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis) when, one night, a huge crow bursts through the door of their London flat.

Crow, the mythic creature from Ted Hughes’ poetry, is a trickster, a philosopher of death and rebirth, who intends to stay, and he joins Dad and Boys in a trio of alternating voices, full of energy and unpredictability.

Crow, who has elements of the shaman, describes himself as ‘ … friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.’ His relationship to the father is as chaotic and unpredictable as grief itself. He’s protective, predatory - and then suddenly sensuous: ‘I prised open his mouth and counted bones, snacked a little on his unbrushed teeth, flossed him, crowly tossed his tongue hither, thither, I lifted the duvet. I Eskimo kissed him. I butterfly kissed him.’

Though the book’s emotional landscape is desolate, there’s plenty of black humour that playfully derails the reader’s expectations. The writing shifts from tragic to uplifting, from Crow’s mocking hilarity to the awful sorrow of the father and the heart-wrenching sadness of the two boys.

The domestic landscape is never far off. Grief, we are told, needs time to heal, but from the father the boys have other more ordinary needs: ‘washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows’.

The mother, whose life has been cut cruelly short, is evoked by the details of how she lived: ‘She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus)./She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm)./And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.’ And it is only at Crow’s leave-taking that we hear how she died. ‘Accident in the home./She banged her head, dreamed a bit, was sick, slept, got up and fell,/Lay down and died. A trickle of blood from an ear.’

Together, Crow and Dad work through his grief, and, during the final session, they look back: ‘You’ll remember with some of my early work with you,’ Crow says, ‘that what appeared to be primal corvid vulgarity was in fact a highly articulated care programme, designed to respond to the nuances of your recovery.’

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the story also becomes a meditation on the difficulty of writing. Porter, at one point, advises that the only way to write, in this case about love and loss, is ... to begin.

Summary: Grief is as unique as you are.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is published by Faber.