11 August – The Shadow Doctor
Hodder & Stoughton, (February 2017)
Hardback (all prices as on Amazon) £13.48
About the author: AdrianPlass is a well known ‘author and speaker’ – and best known by many as the author of The Sacred Diary of AdrianPlass aged 37 1/2 some many years ago – Adrian has been writing and speaking ever since. With his wife Bridget he’s also been a member of the
Scargill Community in the Yorkshire Dales. Here he writes out of many years of interacting with other human beings, pondering the questions of ‘life, the Universe and Everything’ in the context of faith in God, Christ and the Holy Spirit …
About the book: I’ve just finished reading this book: I took it on holiday but it was more than holiday read, it demanded my full attention, and ended up deserving that attention.
Other reviewers have, for example, wondered who the “Shadow Doctor” is meant to be, and to expect to answer to this is to be looking for what is not there … or meant to be there. I see this book as a light sketch of some really deep questions, the questions which can end up being those which are solved by throwing aside any faith all, or by embracing cliches (in public, among friends) but rejecting them in your own, honest, heart.
Don’t be taken in by anyone who decries the Shadow Doctor’s advice about listening to Radio 4 (e.g. The Archers) , drinking good coffee, playing scrabble: the irony of it is, these things will or can divert, re-humanise, and detract from asking the deep questions. Sometimes we humans need that, or we can go under because the world is so cruel, unrelenting, and harsh … wars, terminal illnesses, and suchlike are questions without answers. And people of all faith and none will ask Why? and receive no answer from God, the Universe, or whatever … the thing with Adrian Plass is that he has faced up to writing the book which says it like it is, living on this planet. That is what Adrian Plass has always done, that is his talent, his specialty.
I loved his comments on Prayer:it doesn’t ‘Work’. Everyone who has prayed earnestly knows that it doesn’t ‘work’, in the terms we want, and many turn away, trying to rationalise what prayer is and what it is for. (Or, they give up faith …) Plass ponders this question, in the personas of the two main characters Shadow Doctor (the older man) and Jack (the younger one). He does not even try to answer. That in itself I find satisfying: Plass has integrity, and admits there are no (easy, or non-scientific) answers to the questions of life, suffering, inevitable death, among all living things.
But, as we, some us, have a sense of the Beyond, the Other, of Eternity, or of the teaching of Jesus or other great teachers, that there is a spiritual dimension, he engages with what cannot be said. What ought to be said. That it is incredibly hard to have no answers. And at the same time, to carry on. To carry on with belief that there is a Source of All Being who is personal and who cares … And, he engages with the story of Christ in Gethsemene, facing the same questions.
And although I found the book had a slow start, and that the ‘letters’ were maybe too long, Plass does it brilliantly.
26 July – No Compass to Right: fourth in the Crater Lake Series
Francis L. Guenette
Huckleberry Haven Publishing (July 2017)
Kindle £3.07 (or with Kindle Unlimited, 00.0) Paperback £17.04 (or look at the New and Used …)
Well, this is the book which sadly for Goats and Sheep I happened to be reading concurrently, and for me (personal taste) trumped Joanna Cannon’s debut novel (below).
About the author: Francis L. Guenette has spent her life in the areas of teaching and counselling, working with special needs children and teaching at undergraduate level at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a researcher, and a graduate student supervisor. So, like Joanna Cannon, she has a wealth of knowledge and experience with and about troubled human beings. She has lived most of her life in British Columbia and at present lives on the northern West Coast, in an off-grid cabin. Bears come into her garden!
She is married with grown children and has two young grandkids. Here, you can find out more at her blog
About the book:
No Compass to Right is the fourth of the Crater Lake series, a charming book from this authentic story teller and a very satisfying read. I have taken a copy with me on two holidays as beloved companion. The book is totally character driven, and I would recommend it to all those who enjoy meeting believable characters who become real as you read, and whom you can care about. Guenette is at her best writing scenes with emotional content. This is never over-written, but embedded within the dialogue and actions of the characters, and driven by her observation of human behaviour.
I’m kind of sorry to compare Goats and Sheep (below) unfavourably: my reasons centre on the warmth, compassion, and un-judgemental writing in the Crater Lake books. A person may be foolish, but they are never looked down upon, we are never encouraged to see them (by implication) as lesser than ourselves. I couldn’t not discern this in Joanna Cannon’s book. Crater Lake people are drawn towards flexible solutions, though, whereas the Goats and Sheep characters are definitely caught within the system of respectability and fear of open-ness and change. So my critique could be unfair!
It has become obvious over the first three Crater Lake books that Guenette is concerned with inclusiveness. She has already introduced us to First Nation Canadians, a teenage Mum, a lesbian couple, and a mother and child from Haiti. She has touched on the problems of a teenager coming out as gay, and another who was using cutting as a way to solve her emotional pain. Here she ups the stakes, and introduces a girl who is transsexual, weaving a quiet and undramatic story of the disappointment of the original gay character, when he discovers that the guy to whom he is attracted still has the body of a girl. This sad irony is deftly woven into the story, until near the end the two characters realise what is going on. The scene is emotionally touching because it is not high or exaggerated drama. ‘No Compass to Right’ also deals with the problems facing a guy who has been raised fundamentalist Christian, and who is questioning not his faith but how he himself will respond to what he has been taught, now that he is living outside of the tight religious community, and with several who are caught up in the effects of a narrow upbringing.
Working towards their own satisfactory solutions, outside the box of convention, Guenette’s characters often demonstrate a growth in tolerance, which comes from mutual listening and opens the reader to understanding.
Guenette’s fondness for the beauty and wildness of the natural world, especially the wonderful scenery in which she lives in Western Canada is also reflected in her novels. Here she has the balance of descriptive passages and human action about right, whereas in the earlier novel I found there was (for me) a little too much description.
There are a couple of weaknesses: one is a slow beginning. As this is a series, the need is there to supply backstory to explain how the character came to be where they are in their journey of life. However, the short musings which are used tended to interrupt the narrative in the opening chapters. I wondered if this could have been more lively and engaging as dialogue or flashbacks.
My second criticism, (as others have said on Amazon reviews) is the baby talk employed by three year old Sophie. I wasn’t totally convinced of her version of toddler grammar, and I found her a bit too much the ‘cute kid’, compared to the reality of other characters.
However, I found ‘No Compass to Right’ a very satisfying read, and although it is a long book, I was sad to reach the end. Crater Lake is place so attractive that I would love to visit. It could be argued that is almost too perfect, and also that Guenette, rather than upping the drama as teenagers and others sought to mend their troubled lives, has adopted an ‘observational’ attitude. I would say that this, rather than using overstated emotions, and ‘visceral’ writing, is the clue to drawing in the reader. Guenette portrays some very individual and generous solutions to complex family problems in a way which, rather then being critical, opens readers’ minds to the possible.
10 July – Holiday Reading …
Beginning my Holiday Reading picks is this popular novel, set in England in a famous heatwave summer … recommended by a friend … though I’m a bit critical of the writing, do give it a try …it has a mixed bag of over 1,00o Amazon reviews …
The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
The Borough Press, £7.99
About the author: Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist, and this is her debut novel. She lives in England with her family.
About the book: It’s a crossover novel which combines coming of age, social comment, a bit of nostalgia (set in the 1970s)and all driven by a mysterious disappearance. At times, I wondered if it was meant to be a satire – but decided not, though I think it might make a good TV serial.
A Gallimaufry of Goats and Sheep?
Although this debut novel has over 1,000 reviews on Amazon, and was predicted to be a bestseller, I found it disappointing, but ploughed on past a slow start hoping for great things once the two misfit little girls began their search for what had happened to a neighbour who had disappeared.
As I read, I began to feel that it really should be a satire: but that the writer couldn’t totally commit to writing one. Maybe she wanted to be able to include some poetic descriptions, and could not bear to edit these out? As a satire, it would’ve been a cruel (satires usually are) picture of middle Britain, circa the 1970s, escaped from the 3-day week and with Margaret Thatcher waiting in the wings with her ideas to up the economy. However, it plods, not daring to be a satire, attempting to be a mystery, a social commentary, and a coming of age story, but never deciding.
The story is set mainly in 1976, a classic of heatwave summers. But the period details are clumsy – too many Angel Delight references without giving a real feeling of that horrible, fake, ‘desert’, while trying to raise a laugh about it from the reader. The possible irony of the instant pudding and the character of a precocious child could have been charmingly funny, but wasn’t exploited effectively. Some period details were inaccurate: for example you can’t buy Brussels Sprouts in midsummer, and even if you can now, you couldn’t then: the range of frozen vegetables was peas and runner beans. Cardigans and slippers abounded, adding awkwardly to the a sense of an old-fashioned setting: were we meant to laugh at the past? One cardigan is placed in muddled time: it’s removed from a child who might otherwise be too warm – outdoors, in November. I liked the idea of a pink duffle coat, but never saw one back then. And the little girl Tilly’s sou’wester, worn as a sun hat – what was that about? Were we meant to assume that her mum was too poor to buy her a sun hat, or was Tilly herself a complete eccentric by choice? Either way the reference was never cleared up, and was too far from realism to be funny.
Indeed, the humour seemed self-conscious and often demeaned the characters as the writer gave a ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ to the reader, as if she, and we, were ‘above’ their ways of thinking or being. It was hard to picture the Estate: few inhabitants seemed to be out at work, a disproportionate number were elderly and retired. Was this a council estate? It seemed to hover between that and small development three-bedroom 1930s houses, the population who bought them as young marrieds now ageing by 1976. Dollops of imaginative, poetic, writing sat uncomfortably within this dreary background, peopled by stock characters with no lively, or personal, endearing features. The whole group seemed equally tired of life. Meanwhile the precocious Grace lived both in a world of children’s creative play and had ‘an old head on young shoulders’. Her narration of most, but not all, of the text, sounded by turns too old and too young for her pre-pubescent age, and I felt although this could describe the age group it was not done convincingly as regards language and understanding.
I wondered how old the author was during that amazing long heatwave summer. I was in my 20s and I remember it well – the last summer before we became a family. A long, brightly lit, ambiently warm time of relative freedom, with long evenings outdoors on the dried-up lawn. A holiday atmosphere, and a general mood of happiness at the summer weather. Eating was easy: salad, and soft fruit, and absolutely no Angel Delight. But then, we were graduate students: as a commuter a couple of years earlier, I recall the stickiness of the commuter train to my vac job in the London office of smallish publisher, where I spent time weeding the old files of a medical journal they published! But again, where was the buzzing of lazy bees, the snaking garden hose abandoned after the drought minister’s grim warnings, the scent of a hot fence, the scrubby buddleia covered in butterflies, in this picture of 1976? Heat and sloth formed an inconsistent background, where, if the events were driven by the oppression of a heatwave, they could have been more closely linked. (Were Grace’s mum’s ‘little lie downs’ due to the heat? We didn’t know. I worried her mum was ill: but evidently no, simply frustrated in her dull marriage, where financial problems weren’t being shared.)
Finally the God bits, while avoiding being ‘preachy’, really added nothing to the plot or the atmosphere of the novel. The Jesus bit, about two thirds of the way through, is where the plot really disintegrates, and is downright silly, even though it brings the community together for a while. If anything, the presence of any question of finding God on the estate seems to reflect that in the author’s belief, in 1976, the presence of God or Jesus was kind of hopeful. And, since we are all a mixture of ‘goats’ and ‘sheep’ (‘rebellious/bad’ and ‘good’) gives the message that condemnation of others is unwise and unjustified…
The ideas and the intention are good. But overall, this book has an unfinished feel. It needed more time and editing to perform as it should: but that wasn’t given, and it was publicised as a best seller, punching beneath its potential weight.
Two more excellent reads …one from 1965 and one from 2017! I’ve a sneaky feeling that the second might slip comfortably into the society of the first, given a few edits and historical adjustments?
My Grandmothers and I,
by Diana Holman-Hunt … Hamish Hamilton, priceless and out of print I suspect!
About the author: Diana Holman-Hunt was the granddaughter of Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphealite artist … read about her on Wikipedia …https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diana_Holman-Hunt
About the book: Diane Holman-Hunt’s autobiographical My Grandmothers and I reads like a non-fiction Alice in Wonderland. As a child, Diana lived entirely surrounded by adults, those who wished her to ‘amuse’ them, and those whose bizarre behaviours, confusing though they were, she accepted.
Left by her father (overseas with the Indian army) and her mother (who is absent is never explained), Diane’s growing years from pre-schooler (though she hardly attends school at anyone) to age 16 were spent being shunted between her maternal (her main home) and paternal (for occasionally occasional fortnightly visits) grandmothers. With her mother’s parents, her main carer, known simply as ‘Fowler’ was her Grandmother’s ladies maid. She also knew and keenly observed the housekeeper Hannah, the Butler (Johnstone, often the worse for drink), the cook, a couple of housemaids, and Arthur who drove the carriage and latterly the car.
At her paternal Holman-Hunt Grandmother’s, the household consisted of just two elderly women, ‘Grand’, widow of the artist William Holman-Hunt, and ‘my good Helen’, the general servant, housekeeper, cook, and sole companion.
Diana’s maternal grandparents were gentry, living in large house on their estate in East Sussex, where they led stuffy and restricted routine lives. Grand’s life combined social and cultural snobbery with a strange home-grown piety, derived from the ‘Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood’ brand of interest in all things Mediaeval. Grand’s memories of her dead husband wrapped William Holman Hunt in a kind of virtual saintly robe of admiration. When attending social visits or hosting her own parties and at homes Grand insisted on dressing Diana in classical costumes, the precious leftovers from the artists’ needs to work from models dressed to depict the myths and Biblical stories which inspired their works. Once she had to stand by while Grand explained the creation of Hunt’s ‘Light of the World’ to a g group of tourists in St Paul’s Cathedral. Diana learned to explain the paintings at the house to visitors.
Diana’s acceptance of it all, even to sleeping initially on the horsehair couch in Grand’s bedroom seems to have always struck her as bizarre. But she didn’t question beyond objecting to the dressing up. Grand would respond with authority and Diana would have to fit in. Even when escape comes at 16 with the return of her father it is brief. Her father is only interested in introducing her to his nightclub crowd, and soon returns overseas. Diana is not free of the clutches of the Holman Hunt culture or to return to the maternal grandparents’ home. Her maternal aunt refuses to give her a home lest this endangers the ‘coming out’ of her now-Debutante aged cousin Patricia.
This description of the childhood of an unwanted only child born into a wealthy family, ‘well connected’ on either side, in the very early twentieth century, gives what I suspect is not as unusual as it first seems. Diana’s experiences are only more bizarre and fascinating due to her connection with both the Society and Art worlds of the immediately post-Edwardian era. But the evidence is there in many stories written for children at the time, featuring childhoods spent in the homes of unmarried or otherwise childless aunts and uncles, or of grandparents, whose lives completely ignored their needs and hardly touched them, while the children roamed free, played games based on the Biblical characters and mythical figures which inhabited their books, and formed close relationships with the servants.
A wonderful read, if you can obtain a copy.
Best Murder in Show by Debbie Young… Hawkesbury Press, £6.99
A cosy village mystery … first in the Sophie Sayers series …
About the author: Debbie Young is an Indie author who has previously written several books of witty short stories in the ‘flash fiction’ genre, as well as the non-fiction Coming to Terms with Type One Diabetes and with fellow Indie author Dan Holloway, Sell your Books!
Find more about Debbie on her web page:https://authordebbieyoung.com/writer/
About the book: A fun, friendly, and relaxing, wonderfully escapist and (almost) family friendly story featuring young wide-eyed wannabe writer Sophie who’s inherited a cottage in the Cotswolds …
Here’s a really cosy Cosy Mystery, set in a believable Cotswold village and guaranteed to appeal to nostalgic readers. Curl up with Best Murder in Show and a mug of cocoa, and delight in the summery scenes of village life with a twist!
Debbie Young’s debut novel stands on the solid ground of her Flash Fiction books, published over the past few years, and maintains the warm humorous gaze at English village life, in the best of all possible traditions. The story opens with a sketch of the discovery of something untoward at the annual Village Show, on a hot, sunny, summer afternoon. The kind of afternoon which is set with blue sky, a few fluffy clouds, bright flowers, and the gentle buzzing of bees.
As a writer, and village resident deeply involved in local life, Young has ample experiences to draw on to describe the various local clubs and groups, the shop as centre of rumour and exchange of news, and the “newcomer”. Our newcomer here is Sophie Sayers, aged 25, full of anxious optimism and seeing herself as the writer to step into her famous, now deceased, Aunt May’s shoes, as well as the cottage she’s inherited.
A good start for a series of mysteries for this young 21st-century Miss Marple to inherit, and a fun holiday read.
My Counterfeit Self
by Jane Davis
Complex, political (in the broadest sense), insightful … many layered …
About the author: Jane Davis is an Indie author (and member of the Alliance of Independent Authors). She has written and published 7 novels, and won the Daily Mail First Novel award with Half Truths and White lies. As the middle child in a large, Catholic family, Convent educated, and having spent over 20 years working insurance, Jane has plenty of knowledge of human nature and questions to pose to the reader … read more about her here
About the book:
“She was to be talked about as if she wasn’t there.”
So Lucy Forrester, at this point in the story a child of about 10, perceives how her parents and other carers think of her.
As ever, Davis has tuned in perfectly to the period, here the 1940s, drawing an accurate sketch of social attitudes towards children in the mid 20th century. Lucy’s concept of herself after a period of illness with polio, which restricted her life to living in what was called an “iron lung”, is machine girl. “Machine girl” is mysterious until we understand that the unquestioning behaviour (obedience) required by adults of children is mechanistic, in Lucy’s opinion. But her governess Pamela has educated Lucy’s already resilient spirit just in time, so that she will never be totally trained to fit into her gender and class by becoming a “people pleasing” young woman.
Her brother Freddie verbally tortures her, pointing out that both Lucy and he will be sent away to school: “You’ll be parcelled off, just like me”. Really, he is really dealing with his own misery: we see that the equality boarding school is given to all, in this area, it is no better for either gender. Lucy losing Pamela when she is “parcelled off”, but wonderfully reconnects as a young adult.
While never pushing politics in the face of her readers, Davis’s feminism and empathy with social “misfits” and unconventionals shine like a gold thread through her storytelling here, as in her other books. Her historic feminist sympathies clearly inhabit and inspire her, just as, in A Funeral for an Owl, she critiques, by implication, the ethos of 20th-century public schools towards girls, the attitude of fathers towards the education of daughters (and even of their mere existence), and the collusion of mothers in the process. An Unchoreographed Life explores the unconventional lifestyle adopted by a single mother, when she needs to earn her living and care for her child. Her only qualifications are as a ballet dancer (a life choice encouraged by her parents). She finds work as an “escort”, but is determined to hide this from her young daughter. In other novels, Davis points to more creative ways women have emerged from the chrysalis of their societal gender role into lives which can be precarious, unconventional, and frowned on by others. At the same time, storytelling is the important thing, and the means of bringing this inequality to the attention of the reader.
In a passage about halfway into My Counterfeit Self, Lucy has a long illuminating dialogue with her father, (pages 136 following). Davis creatively takes us through the basics of several areas of gender inequality and the paternalistic male attitude to women as lesser beings. She highlights conventional solutions women have adopted, and how these lead to avoiding the truth about their own actions.
In her television interview (pages 166 to 179) we see how Lucy views herself as a “counterfeit”, or construction for public view. The “machine girl” is still there, within, while outwardly she is seen as a successful poet, bringing the state of the world to the public attention. There is a deep truth in this belief. Speaking as her tough witty counterfeit persona, she describes the counterfeit self as “crafted for the outside world”. This is skilfully counterpointed a few pages later when a photograph taken by her husband Ralph reveals Lucy’s “true self”. As she says “this was Lucy, playing the part of herself”. And again, she speaks of “creating false memories” of her friend, lover, and critic’s writing about her work, her publicity or celebrity self.
Dominic, her self-appointed critic, is the inspiration for Lucy’s creation of her public persona. Ralph, the photographer, who produces photos for her publicity, has a genuine relationship with Lucy, kept secret from her public. He is straightforward and kind, and although he is gay, they marry. The marriage is a “public myth” but forms a supportive environment for Lucy. In another twist of irony, Lucy’s “seduction” of Dominic, the handsome and mysterious man to whom she is attracted, runs counter to any belief she has of living more honestly than her parents, and involves Lucy in using “feminine wiles”, however much she may also hold more feminist and counter-traditional views
Lucy writes poetry from an early age, although it takes Pamela’s insight into her notebooks to make her understand this. She is then so impressed by the poet Edith Sitwell, that hearing that people “saw (Edith) as being eccentric, forbidding, and dangerous”, her own thought is “that was exactly how I thought a poet should be”. Adding, “poetry is all about ideas, it demands your full attention”. Davis’s entertaining books are, in this sense: poetry: without being written as verse, or “beautifully written”, they demand attention and aim to raise awareness.
In My Counterfeit Self, we have a many-layered book involving a many layered person. The love triangle of Lucy, Ralph, and Dominic (Ralph loves Dominic, Lucy loves Dominic, and does Dominic really love either of them?) comments, silently, on her parents’ truthless lives. At the heart of the novel lies the moral question of truth and dishonesty, whether practised within human relationships or world politics. An intriguing and entertaining story posing questions at the heart of human society.
Girl with a White Dog by Anne Booth
(Catnip books, £7.99)
Entertaining, warm, and informative … here’s a ‘Young Adult’ book which stands out as one for everyone, YA or not …
About the author: Anne Booth is a writer of children’s and YA books, and giving, with a light touch, an informative age-appropriate slant on society. She is passionate about inclusion …She is, among other things, a speaker to schoolchildren about her books, and mum to 4 almost-grown-up children, including twins …
About the book: Girl with a White Dog is a YA novel aimed mainly at 13-14 year olds, (Year 9). It has been nominated/listed for several book awards..
This remarkable YA book quietly and confidently delivers its message, in plain sight yet never over dramatically. It’s very choice of refusing the heights of drama, and preferring to use a first person narrative by a year nine (age 13 to 14) student makes for a sensitive put over of how it feels to be the object of prejudice.
Drama is not totally lacking of course. The real drama is left to the denouement, when Jessie (the young protagonist) finally learns the meaning of her grandmother’s strange statements and behaviours. Until then, even the discovered box of old photos, a familiar trope in today’s novels, hasn’t told all, and the old letters Jesse respectfully has left unopened.
Along the way, we meet several of Jessie’s friends, relatives, and acquaintances. And we experience her learning about the feelings of being a recipient prejudice, from their to others’ prejudicial behaviour towards them, and also to some unawarenesses of her own.
Anne Booth, the author, has created a believable world of home, school, and village, grounded in place and time. Throughout Jessie’s search for information about her Gran, the family and other characters form both a secure background and a contrast to Jessie’s own life, giving a good portrait of early teenage experiences at a time when having a dependable family to return to can encourage forays into the world beyond the familiar. Jessie’s daily life of school and the ups and downs of friendship must continue as a backdrop to her search for Gran’s secret past, her efforts to understand and accept the apparently negative behaviour of others whom she cares about, and her first strong attachment to a boy who has always been there as part of her world.
When Gran’s childhood experiences are revealed and explained, as part of the wider history of our world, they are not the only learning experience which Jessie has encountered over the time of the story. And they bring with them some interesting points relating to prejudice, and point of view.
As an adult reader, I feel this is a must-read for today’s teenagers, indeed for today’s grown-ups as well. In the present political climate of the world it is a very timely tale.
Thoughtful Fiction: Two from overseas writers …
Here’s something a bit different: I’ve really enjoyed finding books from other countries and cultures than my own. They usually give an informative and refreshing perspective.
The two I’ve chosen today are Lela Aboulela’s The Translator – possibly my altogether favourite novel – and Haifa Fragments, from Khulud Khamis …
The Translator (Polygon, 2008)
About the author: Leila Aboulela is a Sudanese writer, who studied in England at the LSE. She grew up in Khartoum, and now lives in Aberdeen.
About the book: The Translator is a brilliant ‘debut novel’, a real treat. This Sudanese Muslim writer has incredible depth, sensitivity, and a spirituality in her approach, which I haven’t found in any Western novels I’ve read. It was back when I bought it a joy to read, and is the only novel I’ve found satisfying at a second reading…
Aboulela weaves a story from complex emotions, the forbidden attraction of employer and employee, across the barriers of culture and religion, and wins without falling into the conventional traps of our age. Bereft widow of a bright overseas student at med school meets jaded divorced lapsed Presbyterian… I shan’t tell you more, except that except that she keeps you guessing till the end, as ‘translation’ takes place within hearts and souls of two lonely lives in snowy wintery Scotland.
If there’s a weakness, it’s when she writes about the return to Sudan, rather than the (for her) alien land. But the book ticks all the boxes for writing sensitively about a love affair of delicate complexity.
And Leila Aboulela’s next two novels (Minaret and Lyrics Alley) are equally good: one set in London, the other in Sudan and Egypt. Always she deals in complex, thwarted, or forbidden love: always she’s delicate and deeply thoughtful, while being an ‘easy read’.
Her fourth, published earlier this year, is a more complex work, time and location shifting between Scotland and 19th century Russia. The unusual angle on the history is intellectually intriguing to the western European reader.
Read about Lela Aboulela here
Haifa Fragments (New International Publications, 2015)
About the author: Khulud Khamis is a feminist Palestinian writer. Her mother is Slovakian and her father Palestinian. In her blog, she says about her writing “I deal with political and social issues such as identity, belonging, racism and discrimination, art as political resistance, hard-core social taboos in the Palestinian society, women and disabilities, sexual violence, and issues affecting women and the LGBTQI community, all from a feminist perspective.” She lives in Haifa.
About the book: I discovered Haifa fragments while browsing in Blackwell’s with a visiting American friend. It looked like my kind book (one of the kinds I like to read): a feminist novel set in a Middle Eastern country, which would give me insights into women’s lives in a different culture to my own, along with some idea of the political scene and how young ambitious women live in a complicated regime in what is essentially a potential war zone. In other words, plenty to learn and think about, while telling a story.
I was not disappointed. This story of Maisoon, born into a Palestinian Arab Christian/Muslim family is packed with contrasts and curiosity – the curiosity of an Israeli Arab about the Palestinians of Gaza, of whether she can or should work for and with a Jewish Israeli, of how and why her parents are together, and whether or not she wants to commit to her Muslim boyfriend and even get married.
The story doesn’t settle all these issues: it explores them. It’s not a romance: it’s a cultural tour. It is hugely satisfying in its own way, and makes no sentimental mistakes, and somehow you can’t not like the characters, because even if they do what you wouldn’t, they are young, exploring, curious, and sympathetic. Underlying this is a clever theme or symbol of how, in her work, Maisoon is bringing together the cultures of the two groups, Jewish and Arab, who inhabit modern Israel. And while is there, is is never clumsy or forced. Khamis is an activist, but she is not out to preach or convert her readers, simply to describe and to present the lives of her characters in contemporary Palestine.
(The above is the review I originally posted in Goodreads after reading the book, February 2016)
October 16th …Two new book reviews …
The Looking Glass House by Vanessa Tait and
The Kill Fee by Fiona Veitch Smith
… as the evenings draw in, fireside reads – or evenChristmas stocking fillers … though suitable to different tastes …
The Looking Glass House (Corvus, £7.99)
About the author: Vanessa Tait is the great-granddaughter of Alice Liddell who inspired the Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass books. She grew up in Gloucestershire, and studied Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmith’s, London. *‘Like most writers, Tait always wanted to be one’ says the author of another blogpost (see link at end of review) about The Looking Glass House…
About the book: I bought this book after reading a positive review … and because I love the Alice stories, full of crazy, often upside-down, fantasy based on maths and logic, the author Lewis Carroll’s academic discipline…and on the upper class Victorian culture, oppressive to lively children..
I soon realised that Tait, the writer, is less engaged with storytelling than with her words and style. Although a descendent of the Liddell family through Alice, she knew little of the inner worlds and motivations of Alice and Charles Dodgson (the real Lewis Carroll). So she choses Alice’s governess, Mary Prickett, to be the central character. In her eyes, Mary becomes not merely strict and buttoned-up, but troubled and miserable in the very upper-class setting of the Deanery. This soon leads to jealousy, and an ultimately vindictive act.
Her interest in contrasting the lower middle class Mary (termed ‘Pricks’ apparently by the Liddell children, and Tait in an aside comments ‘a gift to a novelist …’) with the snobbish, upper-class Mrs Liddell, the academic Dodgson, and the pompous and distanced Dean, could have made a nicely patterned ‘comedy of manners’. Her gift for describing the physical and visual, without attention to inner qualities, spoils this possibility. And transforms the governess’s constant apprehension and stress (a bad choice, surely, by Mrs Liddell—was she saving money in order to keep up with the aristocratic undergraduates?) into monotonous descriptions of Mary Prickett’s experience of sensory overload. Tait’s description of the complicated buffet laid out for a Deanery party sets the tone in the opening scene. Through Mary’s eyes, we see swirls of faces, and bodies, and objects, and more dirt, saliva, sweat than we can deal with. The poor woman lives a distracted and anxious life. There is some attempt at poetic writing such as (page 45) ‘… on the counter were buttons, bed laces, bobbins and carpet binding …’ —but why should this collection of ordinary haberdashery bother Mary? Why do all characters sweat, blush, and bother in equal measure? Alice is twice a snotty-nosed kid, when she cries. Okay, realism. She is also spoilt, and manipulative. Maybe so. But everything is too similar … and Mary’s lust for Dodgson is written crudely rather than empathetically. Tait is bent on killing any darlings of romance.
She does this heavy-handedly, using the humour of superiority, where we, the omniscient narrator and her readers, share in sniggering at the characters’ antics. Curtis Sittenfeld also uses this, in her Sisterland and Eligible, writing every characteristic of every character as larger than life and twice as gross or stupid. The result is books unremittingly populated by Hogarth cartoons, and leads too easily to flattened narrative. Tait may have intended to bring the Victorians to life, or down to earth, but (in my opinion) she has failed.
Other reviewers have commented that The Looking Glass House has spoilt the world of Alice in Wonderland for them, but also that choosing between the two books they will leave this on one side and continue to treasure the original Alice. For me The Looking Glass House did not destroy the world of Alice, who may well have been a precocious, spoilt child in the eyes of her governess. She was the thorn between two roses: her older, beautiful, sister Ina, and her younger sister Edith, baby of the family. My objection and disappointment lies not in the story, thin though it is, but in the use of a snide, sniggering, style. And with the total lack of character development. Constant repetition of what is visible and probably repulsive does nothing to fill out the story of how a shy academic and an energetic child full of questions, living the upper-class Victorian childhood of distance from loving parents, came into a firm friendship, which could, but did not, transgress the boundaries. The distant attitude of her parents was very likely to draw Alice towards anyone who showed interest in her, and took trouble to be amusing. And it is surely undeniable that the frustration of the friendship led Charles Dodgson to seriously apply himself to preparing his story for publication. And to the pleasure of reading it for many children to come.
* A more favourable review, and an additional critical one, can be found at https://dracarya.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/ask-the-author-vanessa-tait/ and at
The Kill Fee by Fiona Veitch Smith (Lion Fiction, £7.99)
About the author: Fiona Veitch Smith is a Northerner born and (mostly) bred in Northumberland. Halfway through her childhood, the family moved to South Africa, and after completing school, Fiona trained as a journalist at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape. She has worked in journalism and taught the subject at the two Universities in Newcastle uponTyne, UK, where she now lives, and has written plays and children’s picture books based around the boyhood of the Biblical character of David. The Kill Fee is her third novel, and the second in the Poppy Denby series.
About the book: By contrast to The Looking Glass House, The Kill Fee demonstrates an author’s real gift for storytelling. This book is much more than ‘a crime novel’. Set in 1920, and involving a fictional plot relating to the Faberge eggs belonging to the newly-deposed and assassinated family of Tzar Nicholas Romanov, the cast of characters includes aristocrats, journalists, and theatre people in almost equal numbers. The chase is soon on to discover a thief. And then, also a murderer. But there’s no simple ‘cut to the chase’ at the expense of entertainment and insight along the way.
Veitch Smith writes with a confidence which carries us along to believe in all the shenanigans, and in each character’s predicament. We also learn something about the journalism of the time, visiting places (such as Fleet Street and St Bride’s, the ‘journalists’ church’) which were synonymous with the profession until radio, TV, and finally the digital revolution struck at newspaper journalism. Bit parts are played by historic figures such as Felix Yusupov* (involved in the murder of the ‘mad monk’ Rasputin*) and Lilian Baylis, reviver and director of the old Vic Theatre, (who like Veitch Smith spent part of her young life in South Africa). (Find out more about Lilian Baylis )
Poppy Denby is a great creation. She walks the line between feisty female and woman behaving with decorum as befitted women in 1920 (before they even had the vote). She enjoys an active social life and loves her work at The Globe newspaper. She is daring and curious but always believable, and she is pleasant with it. Her boyfriend Daniel, a young widower with children, isn’t cast as a wimpy foil but as a brave and capable ex-soldier. Nonetheless he holds the attitude of protectiveness towards women characteristic of his time. Poppy’s musings on her dilemma – if he proposes marriage, how can she give up her exciting and fulfilling career and become stepmum, even a mother – is totally correct for 1920. Women once they married were expected to bear children, and for this reason were expected to give up a career. She is friendly, polite, and determined in all her relationships, and far from being resentful of her childhood in a Methodist family finds herself drawing strength from it, and from her war work with the Methodists in the recently-ended 1914-18 war.
A small feature to delight the reader who recognises them are some almost hidden uses of phrases identifiable from other places or works of fiction. Rollo (Poppy’s boss at The Globe, and both a US citizen and a dwarf) and Ivan (the office archivist) are described (p.260) as a ‘little and large’ pair, (a reference to a pair of 20th-century UK TVcomics). Princess Selina is said to have referred to someone ‘killing her darlings’, a phrase used by writers and editors to describe editing out favourite but irrelevant passages when working on a draft. Daniel, near the end, remarks how a father can never forget his child, a Biblical echo here which describes God and his relationship to his chosen people (in context, ancient Israel).
There’s more: when Stanislavski the theatre director (a real historical person*) describes Adam (suspected of a crime) he likens him to Hamlet rather than Macbeth, (p.278). Stanislavski has already begun to talk of the people involved in the current criminal investigation as if they are characters in a play.
Some anachronisms occur, possibly to help the struggling modern/non UK reader along, and even possibly deliberately intended. Spotting them is quite amusing … some are less obvious than others! A pelican crossing stood out like a sore thumb at one point. The journalists drink gallons of coffee, as befits journalists, but back in1920 it’s more likely to’ve been tea in England. However there is much which fits perfectly, and vocabulary such as walls have ears and hijinks and hullabaloo to counteract the fess up* on page 294. And when out and about, everyone wears a hat (Poppy’s a then-fashionable cloche).
Altogether a good read for crime addicts and non-addicts alike. A fast paced, intriguing story, warmly told, and a great Christmas present to read beside the fire with cocoa or a glass of wine.
*Stanislavki: read about him here
*This is recorded at 1840 in the USA but how far would it have travelled by 1920? Could an English soldier in the 1914-18 war have had it and added it to his vocabulary? And would those listening understand? This is an interesting point, seeing that many slang phrases from the US crossed the Atlantic along with their military during both world wars.
CHRISTMAS is coming ... Are you thinking about Christmas presents yet? Do you have teens or almost-teens to buy for? YA Books from my friend, and Oxford author, Griselda Heppel have that ‘here’s something a bit different to give ‘ feel …
Here’s a review of her second great YA read…
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst by Griselda Heppel (winner of the People’s Book Prize (children’s section) 2013 …
About the author: This is the second of two novels for young readers (of any age above about 9 years) by this author, born in Germany and a graduate of Cambridge University where she studied English, and her interest in traditional legends and fairy tales. She worked in publishing, is married and has four grown children, so has now the time to develop an idea she had many years ago, to work on some European legends not yet adapted for children. Her books are imaginative and up to date, taking the reader and the characters through time travel to the worlds of magic and classical mindset, ‘with a twist’. Her website is at http://www.antesinferno.com/about/4587972222,
About the book: Once again, Heppel has created a YA winner by combining contemporary children’s school lives with an ancient legend.. The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst is based around the German stories of ‘Dr Faustus’ stories of pacting with the devil (or Mephistopheles). Adult versions in three languages include Goethe’s German play, the English Elizabethan play of The Tragical History of Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlow, and in French, Gounod’s opera Faust.
Heppel, undaunted, tackles the story as a contemporary/Elizabethan version, the modern scenes well set in a school environment where Henry Foist, from a very ordinary home, is temporarily seduced into friendship with a boy from what looks like an exotically well-off family. Henry is an able boy: his ‘friend’ wants something from him which he can’t achieve himself … In Elizabethan times, we meet John, who is favoured by a wealthy and educated man and brought in to learn alongside his son. Neatly, a discovery by Henry links his tale to John’s. And the old morality tale comes alive as young readers discover how human beings haven’t changed over history: Henry and John are locked into the same timeless problems of temptation, bribery, jealousy, and bullying.
The story moves with ease between the two centuries, and tension builds as the parallel narrations twist and turn towards the denouement, making this a real page turner, and at the same time, an encouragement to young readers to delve further into history and/or the classic tales of earlier times.
And Ante’s Inferno is worth a read too …
Earlier Reviews … Just read this autumn …
An Unknown Woman by Jane Davis ...
About the author: Jane is an Indie writer and member of ALLi. She has written 9 books. An Unknown Woman was named Self Published Book of the Year by Writing Magazine and the David St John Thomas Charitable Trust. But that’s not why I read it! I have enjoyed several of her others: A Funeral for an Owl, An Unchoreogrpahed Life, I Stopped Time, and was one of the beta readers for the just-published (1 October 2016) My Counterfeit Self.
About the book: As always in Jane Davis’s novels, the title of An Unknown Woman is mysterious and gives nothing of the stories subtle theme away. Is it that Anita is unknown to herself? Well, partly… She is, as she realises, a ‘Tilly Mint’ daughter (googled this and found it at https://www.h2g2.com/approved_entry/A280892 so grateful thanks to them!) Read on, as they say, to understand the ambiguity of the cover and the title. You may be guessing to the end. Jane never explains her page-turners of stories … but they always work and satisfy…
Another masterful tale from this writer, whose tales weave around the family events and personalities which shape our extraordinary lives. A great, entertaining, though-provoking, read.
Tea around the Nursery Fire by Noel Streatfield
About the author: Noel Streatfield is the author of many children’s books which have stood the test of time. She was born in the 1890s, but her books have remained in print, and some made into movies. Her most well known is Ballet Shoes, first published (by Dent) in 1936!
About the book: I loved Tea around the Nursery Fire. It gives the reader a look through the window into a past world, where in wealthy families having many children was seen as necessary to carry on the dynasty, yet they were handed almost straight to Nanny from birth. As a recently become Granny, learning more about how babies were viewed, cared for, and clothed, fascinated me.
Noel Streatfield herself was born in the 1890s, and here writes about the era 1870 -1918/20, looking back beyond her own childhood to tell the story of her father’s nanny. She also gives interesting glimpses of her father’s parents. Evidently his mother was no a natural at childrearing, and longed to get back to her round of social engagements as fast as possible. She declined to breastfeed.
Nanny Emily’s feelings for children are all that her employer’s are not. She evidently adored the children and the work, though had to exist within the confines of the house rules and a servant’s status. Nonetheless, an accolade comes from the eldest boy, and first to go ‘away to school’. On return for the Christmas holidays, he runs up the stairs to find Nanny for tea (by the Nursery Fire), rather than accepting the invitation to join Mama in the drawing room for a polite, grown-up, celebratory tea. Nanny’s career is not all fun and positive, and there is at one point a great loss and sadness which must not intrude into nursery or indeed into her employers’ family life. But the story is mostly a fun read, very informative, evocative, and entertaining.
Read this lovely book to enhance your visits to National Trust and other historic houses and gardens.
Read, and currently reading …
An Unknown Woman, Tea by the Nursery Fire, The Kill Fee, I Think of You …