Reviews – what we’re reading …

My Counterfeit Self   bk cover 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

bk photo white dog

(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.

 

the-translator

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.

Khulud Khamis’s blog

(The above is the review I originally posted in Goodreads after reading the book, February 2016)

October 16th …Two new book reviews …p1230150

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

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11708631/The-Looking-Glass-House-by-Vanessa-Tait-review.html

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.

*See article in Oxford Today, (digital edition), for details on this flamboyant Russian aristocrat. See also here:

*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.

The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst & Ante's Inferno: (published by Troubadour, photographed in a family kitchen ...)
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst & Ante’s Inferno: (published by Troubadour, photographed in a family kitchen …)

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 …p1220990

 An Unknown Woman, Tea by the Nursery Fire, The Kill Fee, I Think of You …