Monday, 25 February 2019

Independent Bookseller feature No.5: FIVE LEAVES BOOKSHOP of Nottingham: VIDA by Marge Piercy, reviewed by Rob Bradshaw

Ross Bradshaw is a bookseller at Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, the first radical bookshop ever to win the Independent Bookshop of the Year Award in 2018. This year they're again in the regional running, as are four other radical bookshops from London, Edinburgh and Southampton.

"I worked in Mushroom Bookshop in Nottingham from 1979-1995, an earlier radical bookshop that closed in 2000, before setting up Five Leaves as a publisher. We've brought out some 200 books since then - social history, landscape, Jewish secular culture, and for a period a successful crime and young adult list. And we were the world's biggest publisher of books on allotments. We became the world's biggest when we published our second book on that subject...

We opened in 2013 and, though we still publish, the bookshop side of the empire takes precedence. Nobody could make a living from a shop selling radical books alone - and it would be pretty dull - so we operate as an independent. However, our position, slap bang in the city centre but up an alley, means our rent is low and we can sell the books we want to sell rather than the books we would have to. So, for example, a quarter of our fiction is in translation and we have a disproportionate number of children's books with black and ethnic minority characters in them, compared to what is published nationally.

We organise lots of shop events - 82 last year - and three or four all-day events with a number of speakers. And an annual radical bookfair. And we launched (or relaunched if you are old enough to remember) Feminist Book Fortnight with fifty other independent bookshops from Britain and Ireland, and, this year, Italy! We like to keep busy."

The next issue of The Spokesman, the journal with an old-fashioned name from the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. includes a long article by me on the history of radical bookselling, so forgive me going into the past to talk about Marge Piercy! The article included bestseller lists from two long-vanished radical bookshops that both featured Woman on the Edge of Time by Piercy, which also appeared on the best-seller list of Mushroom Bookshop. Forty years later this feminist utopian/dystopian novel is still in print. It was exciting way back when to read her American imports, only available in those pre-internet days in small radical outfits, on top of those published here by feminist presses. Copies would go round groups of friends, getting tattier and tattier. Her books were prescient in offering a critique of male sexuality, but also suggesting the existence of non-binary characters. One of her books, reflecting her own Jewish interest, was based on the Golem legend, turned into science fiction.

But the book that I liked best, which I used to read every year, was Vida. The Vida in question, Vida Asch, was part of the American anti-Vietnam underground, on the run with her comrades as were real people from the Weather Underground, a militant split from the mass organisation Students for a Democratic Society. Vida shows how she was drawn into armed activity, taking side-swipes along the way at the male privilege of the organisation's leading activists. But essentially this is a novel about relationships, and trying to keep them going under the most difficult circumstances, a world of safe-houses and betrayal in the 1980s while also looking back at Vida's earlier life in the maelstrom of 1960's America. In one of the safe houses she meets, and falls for, a younger activist also on the run.

In America Marge Piercy is well known as a poet, but her poetry never really caught on here, as Five Leaves (publishing wing) and Penguin discovered to their cost. In the States her work is so well known that some of her Jewish poetry has become part of the prayer book for Reconstructionist Jews, a modern, egalitarian movement.

Piercy herself is of a working class, poor Jewish background, which also comes out in some of her novels. I suspect she is not widely read nowadays, certainly in this country. All of her work is worth visiting.

Vida is currently available from Merlin Press and PM Press.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Guest review by Savita Kalhan: Rachel Ward's ANT AND BEA books

Savita Kalhan was born in India, but has lived in the UK most of her life. She got the writing bug when she was teaching in the Middle East, where she lived for several years. Now living in North London, she runs a teen reading group at her local library in Finchley, and writes for children.

Her debut novel, The Long Weekend, published by Andersen Press, is a tense thriller about two boys who are abducted after school. Her new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror was published in May by Troika Books: 'an unflinching, multi-layered exposition of male privilege, male abuses of women, and the clash of cultures. With hard-hitting clarity it shows how girls are silenced.' Love Reading 4 Kids

When I found out that I had won two crime fiction books by Rachel Ward I knew I was in for a treat. As a children’s writer, I know of Rachel Ward’s fiction for teenagers and thoroughly enjoyed her Numbers series.

In The Cost of Living we meet the two amateur sleuths, who both work for the local supermarket, Costsave, in the fictional town of Kingsleigh. Bea, a check-out girl in her early twenties, lives with her agoraphobic mum, Queenie; and Ant, from the estates, who left school early and seems to be going nowhere, but who manages to get a trainee job at the supermarket. An unlikely friendship springs up between them as a crime draws them together. There is a stalker in Kingsleigh and he is attacking women. Then a woman is murdered. This is all too close to home for Bea and she begins to investigate and, gradually, Ant is co-opted to help. Everyone is a suspect – colleagues and locals alike.

Dead Stock is the second book in the series. It opens with a body being dropped from a bridge, a dead cat, and more complications in both Bea and Ant’s personal lives. Although both books can be read as stand-alone, it is best to read the two books in order to get fully immersed in the series.

The main characters are down to earth and immensely likeable. The dialogue is fresh and witty. The plots for both books will keep you guessing right to the very end. I love the way Bea and Ant’s friendship develops over the two books – and the same applies to the rest of the supporting cast. We get to know all the staff of Costsave, and the locals, and follow their stories through both books. The depiction of Bea’s relationship with her mum Queenie is just lovely. Then there’s Bea’s co-worker Dot, who is a real scream, Bob on Meat, the odious deputy manager Neville, and so many more.

And everything is in place for a third book in this series, which I can’t wait to read – I really need to know more about one of Bea’s regular customers, who I won't name!

Rachel Ward aptly describes her books as ‘cosy crime’: cosy they may be, but they are still thrillers complete with red herrings and killers, like a novelised Midsummer Murders. So to drive away the winter blues, I would highly recommend curling up in front of the fire with a cup of tea or a glass of wine and a copy of The Cost of Living. You'll move on to Dead Stock in no time.

The Cost of Living and Dead Stock are published by Sandstone Press.

Monday, 11 February 2019

'I NEVER READ MY REVIEWS' by guest Paul Dowswell

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 Ausländer won the Hamelin Associazione Culturale Book Prize. Paul is a Fellow of the English Association and reviews books for Armadillo and Carousel.

Only the very richest or most modest writers can say ‘I never read my reviews’. Being a teen/young adult novelist who is neither of these things, I’m happy to tell you I read my reviews avidly. If it’s a good one I might think ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I was trying to do’ or conversely ‘Blimey, was I doing that?’ - a bit like the Beatles when a classical music critic praised their ‘flat submediant key switches’ and ‘Aeolian cadences’…

The chances of being reviewed have gone through the roof over the last 20 years. When I started off, you considered yourself lucky to be reviewed in any print medium – from specialist journals to national newspapers. These days any old fruitcake can contribute to a plethora of on-line review sites. (And they certainly do.) And although on-line reviews are always interesting to read, and more often written by the non-fruitcake fraternity, the variable quality of these reviews does diminish the weight attached to them.

My favourite review came from a non-fiction book of survival stories I wrote for early-teens nearly twenty five years ago. The Books for Keeps reviewer said ‘Any book that keeps me, my 14-year-old son and my 75-year-old dad intrigued and entertained has got to be a winner.’ Job done. I’m still proud of that.

But bad reviews are an altogether different kettle of piranhas and I’ll be deeply alarmed by one, unless it’s on Goodreads, when I might just feel irritated. (More of that later.)

The worst review I ever had was for my first novel Powder Monkey, about a young sailor in Nelson’s navy called Sam, which appeared in an online journal. The reviewer was an academic whose speciality is children’s fiction, and she wrote such an excoriating hatchet job it couldn’t have been worse if I’d just burned her house down with a flamethrower. I was distraught - not least because this was the first review of the first fiction I’d written and I thought ‘Oh no, I’ve been found out.’

Sam and the other characters exist (as)… wooden figures within the wooden walls, like two-dimensional cutouts in a museum diorama; they lack vitality, depth, and humanity. …there is little to attract novel readers, and nothing at all for girls...

I felt sick with anxiety and disappointment for several days, wondering if any other reviews would be so damning. Fortunately, in one glorious weekend shortly afterwards, two other reviews appeared in the Independent and the Sunday Times, both of which praised the book to the hilt. Champagne (or maybe it was prosecco) was cracked open.

The funniest bad review I got was from a girl who absolutely detested my East German novel Sektion 20, and took out her rage in the reviews section of a Northern Irish book award website. I had added a few German words to make the speech a little more Germanic - things like Mὕtter and Vater and Fräulein - nothing too complex and certainly nothing that would have foxed your average Beano reader. But my reviewer was incensed.

WHAT A NIGHTMARE!!! I didn't like this book at all - it was horrible. I normally like reading books about wars but this was just B.O.R.I.N.G!! I absolutely hated every second of it. Let's see why I hated it so much... (1) the way half of it was in a different language I could not understand at all. (2) the characters…

There follows eight lines of angry ranting. And then concluded:

… Paul if you ever read this - here is a little tip...PUT IN A TRANSLATOR WE DON'T KNOW HOW TO SPEAK WHATEVER LANGUAGE IT IS!! I am going to give this book a 1.

(Capitals reviewer's own.)

I sent the review to my brother, who declared ‘She sounds like xxxxxxx xxxxxxxx* after three lines of coke.’ She certainly had a vivid style, although I’m sure she hadn’t been at the white powder. Maybe she ought to try for a career as a tabloid columnist. I suppose she’d been made to read it as part of her school’s participation in the book award, but she’d resented it so hugely she was very keen to let me know about it. Fortunately the book did go on to win a book prize, but not that one.

* Name of Irish pop star omitted on legal advice

But sometimes the mouths of babes and sucklings speak uncomfortable truths. My previous book The Cabinet of Curiosities was set in pre-Renaissance Prague and well off the beaten track of the First and Second World War, and the Nazis, Romans and Tudors – the key Historical Fiction eras any novelist steps away from at their peril. The first review I saw, on Goodreads I think, just said ‘This book is of no interest to me’. My editor agreed. After this one bombed, she said ‘Best stick to the 20th Century’, advice I have followed to this day. (My brother, incidentally, thought Cabinet of Curiosities was my best book... so there’s no accounting for taste.)

On the subject of Goodreads I have to say I detest the know-all, judgemental tone of some of the reviewers. (‘I was horribly bored…’) And I also know several other writers who agree with me. (So there, know-all, judgemental Goodreads reviewers!) I only know it for the children's and young adult reviews and don’t know whether those for adult books can be just as snotty.

Amazon reviews aren’t nearly so bad and opinionated – perhaps because most of them are positive unless the reviewer has a grudge or wants to complain about shoddy goods. Maybe Goodreads is the place to go if you’ve been made to read a book against your will and want to share your pain with the author? One writer friend of mine thinks it’s because it’s a social media community, and that automatically makes it more prone to vituperative comments. I sometimes wonder if schools require their pupils to post reviews as part of a reading project – but whatever the reason for it, it’s made Goodreads reviews inessential, and feedback I got from fellow-writers about this ranged from ‘Here be dragons’ to ‘I never look at it.’ One of my writer friends pointed out how contradictory some of these reviews can be – complaining about how slow the plot is whilst bemoaning the lack of development in minor characters, for example. Or moaning about a young adult book being ‘obviously written for children’. This is a shame because many of the reviews there are excellently written.

So why are reviews important? Well, it nice to get a pat on the back from a stranger, or even better, a respected broadsheet reviewer. When you’ve spent the best part of a year alone in your study labouring on something, you need more than your partner to tell you ‘it’s good’ and your mum to trill ‘it’s marvellous, darling’. But reviews, along with book prizes, are also a splendid way of letting a school know you might be worth inviting in. Likewise, positive reviews are also bait for foreign publishers and that’s always a good thing. And letting your editor/publisher know someone thinks you are a class act can’t do anyone any harm.

I review books myself now, for a couple of journals, and this can be quite a moral conundrum. Most of the time I try and provide a sound bite in my review that can be picked out for a nice little quote. No problem if I like the book, but tricky if I don’t. I reviewed one young adult story, written by an American author, which reimagined the Second World War as fought by young women in combat roles as well as men, presumably for a parochial female readership uninterested in reading about characters who aren’t exactly like themselves. But I could see it was an exciting page turner and said so. (‘…highly readable and sometimes unbearably exciting.’)

Likewise, another book I read – again by an American author – had a plot where every good character was Jewish and every bad character was a Slav. Paris, Prague and Rome are depicted as crime-ridden cess pits – this is fiction for the sort of Fox News ‘expert’ who thinks Birmingham is a no-go area for non-Muslims. But it was still an exciting story and the publishers quoted from my review – although not the bit about its uncomfortable racial bias. (‘…It’s certainly a page turner, and I enjoyed its visceral action.’) Incidentally, in case anyone detects an anti-American bias in this, my two favourite novels of the last ten years have both been by American writers.

I’ve only been asked to review one book I unconditionally detested, a balls-achingly mawkish teen drama with a cover showing three characters staring up at the Milky Way. (One of the characters is ‘a soft candle lighting up a dark room’. I rest my case.) Being a do-as-you-would-be-done-by sort of chap, I wondered about sending it in, but then I realised the writer had thousands of reviews on Amazon and was an international best seller so whatever ‘Disgruntled of Wolverhampton’ said about him was entirely of no consequence. So off it went. Alas the editor spiked it, for which I have still not forgiven her...

Postscript. My mother has asked me to point out that she does not trill ‘It’s marvellous, darling,’ whenever I send her one of my books to read.

Paul Dowswell's novels are published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 4 February 2019

Guest review by Ann Turnbull: A STATE OF FREEDOM by Neel Mukherjee

Ann Turnbull has been writing stories for young people of all ages since 1974. Her most recent book is In That Time of Secrets, a Young Adult novel about the persecution of Catholics in 1605, set in the Black Country. Find out more at

I was immediately drawn into this story by the beauty of the writing and by the dreamlike events of the first chapter, in which an American man of Indian birth and his young son wander, sightseeing, in the ruins of an ancient palace. They are tired. It’s been a long day, and they’ve been delayed by an accident: the death of a workman who has fallen from scaffolding. They encounter the unsettling presence of a man who may be a spirit, a ghost, or a warning.

The remaining chapters follow the interwoven stories of several people: a young man from London visiting his parents in Mumbai; two determined women - Renu, a cook, and Milly, a cleaner – both of them seeking freedom from poverty; Soni, whose anger and despair drive her to join a guerrilla group; Lakshman, a desperately poor man who trains a bear cub to dance and tries to earn a living from it; and his twin brother Ramlal who leaves home to find work as a labourer in the city.

The story takes you to the heart of their struggles. Soni’s father, having borrowed money at high interest and travelled miles with his desperately ill wife, finds himself lost and defeated in the overcrowded hospital as he is sent upstairs and down, and up again, only to be brushed aside without help once more: “Soni’s father turned away, came outside and sat down on the steps. Against his will, his mouth twisted, like a child’s; he couldn’t make it hold its shape; he failed to make his crying resemble a dignified adult’s.”

The young man from London sums up his work, “My design job in London was flexible. I worked for a progressive, thinking-outside-the-box class of trendy outfit …” This is about as far removed from the lives of the other people in the novel as one could get, and he is uncomfortably aware of the very different lives of his parents’ servants, Renu and Milly, who live in the nearby slum and work shifts at several houses. Their earnings are not for themselves, but for the better future they are determined to win for their dependents.

Milly escapes to a kind of freedom, while her friend Soni’s family is left in despair. But all the people in this story had hope at first. Once, “on a golden afternoon when the boys were eight or nine”, Lakshman’s brother Ramlal had shown him how to see the face of Shiva in the mountainous landscape near their home: “Of course, Lakshman could see – he could see the god’s beautiful, lotus-like eyes, more closed than open, and the mouth, almost smiling … there he was, the great god Shiva, his face imprinted on Nanda Devi, his abode. And there he, Lakshman, was, gazing on it, a wonder revealed to a boy, and all the air, all the light and all the days were his to do what he wanted.”

These stories combine to give a deep insight into the lives of the poor in India. I’d recommend reading the book twice. On a second reading you make the connections more easily, and the writing is so beautiful, varied and engaging that it’s a joy to re-read, to experience aspects of the story falling into place, and to admire the intricacy of its construction.

A State of Freedom is published by Vintage.