It’s just an idea, but if you’re looking for something extra to read (as well as Baby, Baby and The Labyrinth Year, which we hope you’ve bought and read!) some reviews of others you may enjoy, from Mari Howard…
Note: all prices given here are publisher’s recommendation: you can find good ‘deals’ both on Amazon and elsewhere, and often there are e-book versions …
15 January 2019
In the Blink of an Eye
by Ali Bacon
Linen press 2018
ebook, or paperback price £7.99 + p&p from Linen Press
(or £9.99 Paperback, Kindle £4.79 at Amazon)
About the author:
Ali Bacon lives near Bristol, where she’s actively involved with the local writing community. She has read her short stories at many LiteraryFestivals. I met Ali when we were both reading from our work at the first Hawkesbury Literary Festival (in 2015) and we both hope to be there again this year, reading and participating … (27th April … Hawkesbury Upton, a delightful village in the English Cotswolds …)
About the book:
If there was a star rating beyond the (sometimes too frequently used) 5, I’d award it to this book. It really deserves to stand out.
A few years ago we had Ali Bacons’ first novel, A Kettle of Fish, a competent YA-style debut, set in present day Fife, which I really enjoyed. But in this second one she has forged ahead, demonstrating great skill in handling factual historical material and transforming it into a captivating read.
In the Blink of an Eye is told from many viewpoints, (and I felt each chapter could be read as a stand-alone short story), building up a rounded picture of the life and ambience of the artistic community of Edinburgh in the 1840s to 1860s, and particularly the person of artist David Octavius Hill, known as D.O. (1802-1870). Viewing him through the eyes of the characters, Bacon gives us a consistent, broadly sympathetic, picture of the man. As the others talked with and about Hill, I could hear through the carefully constructed dialogue, which uses many words from Scottish vocabulary, the soft lilt of the Edinburgh region, and enjoyed searching for the meanings of words which I had not previously come across. To ‘swither’, to ‘keek’, ‘… that was a sair fecht… ‘And the turns of phrase, ‘So, will we go?’ rather than ‘shall we …’, and much besides, a thread through all the writing, which gives a wonderful atmospheric feel, the prose singing as it goes. The charm of D.O. is clearly evident in his conversation, and it is not surprising somehow that although he was not the most talented artist of his day, he was Secretary to the Royal Scottish Academy.
Book-ending the story is the great painting of the ‘Disruption’ – the breaking away of much of the existing Church of Scotland to form the Free Kirk in 1843. It is a huge painting, and Hill, having taken on the task of painting the assembled Ministers present at this significant event, failed to complete what he began in 1847 until 1866. Accompanying the life of Hill from the1840s onwards are three tragedies which contributed both to his outlook on life and (the second two) to the delay in completion this work. We meet him as the single parent of a small daughter, Chattie (Charlotte), his wife having recently died. The next significant event has already happened as the book begins: his seduction by the world of the new art of photography, and bonding with Robert Adamson, a scientific young man whose work on the process of photography was significant in moving this along to become an art form. He and Hill began working together in order that Hill had likenesses of all the Ministers he needed to include in the painting. But this led to a wider interest and clientele in portraiture. Adamson and Hill’s popularity increased as society photographers, Hill contributing his ‘eye’ to the composition of pictures, while Adamson worked on improving the physical processes. Adamson was, sadly, a delicate young man, and his death in 1848, after only four years of cooperation, plunged Hill back into mourning for his circumstances and continued his inability to plough on regardless with the difficult and drearisome task of a huge multiple portrait of black-clad men crowded into a huge dim room for a meeting.
Bacon carefully leads us along within an atmosphere of stoicism and acceptance which feels not only of its time, but somehow particularly Scottish. She frames the story within the life of a fictional character, a creation of her own the Reverend Malcolm Scobie. Scobie as a young minister had attended that Disruption meeting: as any older man, we meet him again and share his thoughts on his subsequent life, somewhat downbeat, accepting of his broken relationship with the daughter of a minister who did not approve of the break-away Free Kirk, and his solitary existence heading up the Free Kirk in Blairgowrie without the support of a wife or the distractions and pleasure of a family. This stoical acceptance again underlines the polite, quiet, giving-in of characters who hold the their griefs and disappointments silently, and carry on with the serious business of being upright citizens in mid-Victorian Scotland. I continued to love the carefully constructed dialogue, which leaves you with a distinct knowledge of feelings, possibly deemed unsuitable, laid aside, unexpressed. The only exception to this is a brief affair which Hill’s (eventually) second wife, Amelia, has with an Italian sculptor, (who shares a surname with the more famous Buonarotti) with whom she works when training in Carrara, Italy. We contrast this sunny escapade for a brief chapter with the cool of everything Northern. Whether of not it had any historical reality, (the sculptor is fictional), and whether it could have, abroad and well away from Scotland, is unimportant: it gives us a contrast of the cold North and the warm South which works well, like the marzipan seam running through the plan fruited bread of a Stollen. And nothing more is said of it.
So, six stars for a super second novel: I await the date and location of this author’s next …
27 November 2018
Girl with Dove (a life built by books)
by Sally Bayley
William Collins, £14.99 (hardback)
About the author:
Sally Bayley now teaches English at several Oxford colleges … but she grew up in a dreary, dilapidated house on England’s south coast, in a strange dysfunctional family. In this literary memoir, she attributes her successful escape to the books she read – each of them a ‘classic’ of its time and genre …
About the book:
I’ve just read this book, an extraordinary and very literary telling of an abusive childhood and the saving power of books. Although I’m not one to talk about things being “Marmite”, or to subscribe to “either you’ll love it or you’ll hate it”, this book is distinctly one which you will either abandon after a few pages or embrace with all your bookish intellect and/or your love of a mystery.
It is neither fact nor fiction, it is neither memoir nor commentary. And yet it is both. Bayley, once a teenager in care, and now a lecturer in Oxford, has woven memories of her childhood in a dreary seaside town and a dreary rundown house and eccentric family into a tapestry inhabited by characters from the books through which she believes she understood the world, or at least attempted to understand it, between the ages of about four and 14.
But there is a lot that we do not understand and that we are not given enough clues about to fully engage with the young Sally’s predicament. Instead she has made efforts to write parts of the book in a style imitative of childhood innocence, interspersing this with extracts from the books which most influenced her at that time: Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple series, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, and Dickens’s David Copperfield, where she centres on the character of Betsy Trotwood. Stop for a minute and think: which books would an eight-year-old normally have available to read, and possibly make sense of a chaotic family? I wonder why Sally’s school wasn’t equipped, as my children’s primary school, with a book corner filled with the paperback works of authors like Roahl Dahl? Did Sally simply reject James and the giant Peach, The Witches, and Matilda as too young and too superficial? Was she unaware of Michael Morpurgo’s books? Has she ever read the Alice stories? There is a mystery. Possibly she doesn’t like to mention that she also read such ordinary books? Or were such books not allowed at home? We are told that she had a “very religious upbringing”, though the actual facts about this are well hidden in the narrative, rather than describing the cult-like goings-on from adult viewpoint, Bayley has chosen to give us an insight into her child’s understanding. Of hearing “gobbledygook” language (praying in tongues). And using an often repeated phrase “black rocks coming out of (her) mouth”, which I have not totally fathomed, but which may indicate ranting in prayer as well as angry words thrown in the direction of the children.
Here we have survivor from a very dysfunctional family, consisting of three women – Bayley’s mother (obviously permanently depressed after the death of one of her babies), her aunt Di a powerful angry and unpleasant woman, and her grandmother, plus an assortment of children – both Sally’s brothers and a mysterious collection of others who we are never told much about and who do not have names. Near the end of the book she further describes the house as damp, dark, mouldy, though her mother has brought into it pieces of Wedgwood china, and a pink velvet chaise long. And at the same time, these women, who do no housework apparently nor go out to work, are occasionally insisting on good manners, employ an elocution tutor, and shout at the children to “keep their dirty little hands off” various objects.
It is amazing that this can exist, quietly, in the little seaside town in England through the 1970s and 1980s. Not only hidden poverty but simply hidden misery coupled with eccentricity and no ability to cope. At the same time, for some strange reason high culture was on offer to this child, (as in, Here’s the public library, use it!), who had the chutzpah to understand her situation could be changed by reaching out to the normal world, even though school had apparently not discerned that there were problems at home. She took herself to the only authority she could think of and through approaching the local doctor was able to escape, ironically into children’s services and the care system.
I hope there are not too many spoilers here but it is an extraordinary tale, and one that may not appeal to everyone, as the style in which it is told makes a demanding read. I would suggest that if you are interested or intrigued, you might like to follow the links to a couple of articles which you can find here and here The second is long and appreciative of the complexities of the style and the story telling, the first is a more straightforward review which very much reflects my feelings about this book, which I feel relies on presenting itself as a mystery wrapped in an enigma. As Sally herself says in her acknowledgements, one of her University tutors taught her how to be “an Autolycus” – which may provide the key to what she has written.
23 November 2018
The Cairo Brief by Fiona Veitch Smith
Lion Fiction (2018) £7.99 (p/b)
About the author:
Fiona Veitch Smith is a journalist and university lecturer in writing and journalism, and writer of children’s picture books and the popular “Poppy Denby investigates” series. She now lives in her native North East England, but was educated and attended university while her family were living In South Africa, so she brings a knowledge of two very different countries to her writing.
About the book:
The fourth Poppy Denby Investigates comes to us in the Agatha Christie tradition! A good part of the action takes place on the country estate of Sir James and Lady Ursula Maddox, of Winterton Hall, Henley on Thames… complete with butler ( Mr Grimes), library, seance and shooting party. It is winter 1921. Poppy and her boss, Rollo Rolandson, together with The Daily Globe newspaper’s photographer (and Poppy’s beau), Daniel Rokeby, are invited to join a weekend house party where the death mask of Queen Nefertiti is to be auctioned. Also present are an international cast of archaeologists, including the real Howard Carter (who was to discover the tomb of Tutankhamen a year later, in 1922) and his fictional rivals from Egypt, America, and Germany. The seance gives a chance for a cameo appearance of Sir Arthur Colin Doyle, whose second wife Jean was a medium (seances were all the rage in the 1920s). And the clay shooting party the opportunity for Poppy (who would not want to harm live birds) to find herself quite competent at shooting clay substitutes. And of course there are moments of high tension, more than one death to be explained, a stalker, and a threat to Poppy’s life.
Poppy’s actor friend, Delilah, (sadly for her fans), is much less in evidence, as is the Jazz Club owned and run by Oscar …but the author still weaves a thoroughly atmospheric1920s tapestry, and as readers have come to expect, a good read. Interspersed, Veitch Smith has again spun a thread of realism and integrity, in the character of the central young woman whose courageous, determined, and well-up-to-equality with the men at her work are impressive. Poppy also faces the ever present problem of her time: as a woman, should she marry or pursue her beloved, exciting, career? In 1921, a huge life changing dilemma. In this book, I especially appreciated her courage in facing, making, and sticking to her decision. The storyline, nearing its conclusion, affirms Poppy without giving any ‘fairytale solution’.
If there is a flaw, it is located in the imagined historical adjunct to real historical events. As in the previous books, we begin with a scene-setting chapter, pinning down the story to time and related world events. Archaeologists led by the German Dr Ludwig Borchardt are working in the Egyptian desert, and have excavated the city of Akhenaten, present day El-Amarna. So, Chapter One takes place in this desert area, giving us some background which will lead into the mystery Poppy investigates. Chapter One is also where a book aims to ‘hook’ the potential reader, who may be browsing around, looking for something that catches her eye with promise. But this mightn’t have drawn me in if I hadn’t met Poppy Denby before. As it was, I read on, and happily I did become hooked … Then, on finishing, I went back and re-read that first chapter. The two daring teenagers, the dark and chilly desert night, the horror of the discoveries, were all there. But, I remained critical. What was the problem? Was it just mine, because, as a mother of now-adult fraternal twins, I found the twin-ness in this scene less than convincing towards where it leads? Hard to say. It probably won’t bother you, Reader, at all!
My verdict again on the fourth Poppy Denby book: The Cairo Brief is a great, un-put-downable, read and I’m looking forward to Poppy’s next investigation.
1 November 2018
Christmas is coming … present ideas are here! Two books featuring teenage protagonists … and lots of other interesting, well-rounded, characters …
Pilate’s Daughter by Fiona Veitch Smith
Endeavour Press Ltd (2017)
About the author:
Fiona Veitch Smith is a journalist and university lecturer in writing and journalism, and writer of children’s picture books and the popular “Poppy Denby investigates” series. She now lives in her native North East England, but was educated and attended university while her family were living In South Africa, so she brings a knowledge of two very different countries to her writing.
About the book:
I loved this take on the family life of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who presided over the province of Palestine and famously washed his hands of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is indeed a contrast to Paula gooders more obviously scholarly Phoebe, a story based around the early Christian church in Rome. But this author has also thoroughly done her research on Roman Empire in the period of the early years of the common era. And towards producing a very different kind of book.
Here we have a wonderful evocation of the lives of wealthy colonial governors, dodging around the local leaders, trying to keep the peace over a keenly religious and educated elite and a lively nation who believe God has a plan to defeat their oppressors. There are lavish banquets and entertainments, and there is the parallel life of pilots wife and daughter struggling for a fulfilled life in a male dominated society. His wife is hunting for a meaningful spiritual life, haunted by disturbing dreams. His daughter Claudia Lucretia, in late teenage, promised in a political marriage to an ambitious high up soldier, is falling in love with a mysterious, deeply troubled, rebel.
As the book progresses, the writer remains well in control memorable cast of characters, while taking part in the an increasing role of romance and intrigue, combined with a creative take on some biblical stories from gospel. The family and the locals into a believable, though newly created, narrative.
A gripping and entertaining read, which has all the potential for great movie: handsome men and beautiful women, intrigue, skulduggery at the political level, a band of rebels, colours and atmosphere of a Mediterranean land, romance, tension, and an intriguing, satisfying, that leaves us wondering – what did the house of Pilate do next?
Now read on … a very different book, but Star is also a mid-teen …in a 21st century world …
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Walker Books (2018) paperback £7.99
About the author:
Angie Thomas is a young writer and activist from Jackson, Mississippi, where she still lives. Her story, and how she came to write her first novel, is best found by reading a couple of really interesting interviews, which you can find here and here …
About the book:
I loved this book. It’s definitely a page-turner, and a lot more.
It’s another of those ‘identity books’ I’ve read this past summer, (see my blog post ‘Three Search for Identity’ here. Angie Thomas, the only Black student in her college Creative Writing class, found her identity through writing, and through writing this tale first a short story and later turning it into her first novel. I’m not going to give any spoilers (I usually don’t!) but to say to those who are put off by ‘strong language’ please don’t put down the moment you find the f-word splattered across the pages … You will be giving up on a gem of a first novel, highly original in location, stuffed with believable characters you’ve never met, and totally different from the usual debuts. In fact, there is a very funny line (‘He said “Thug Life stood for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody” … Now we have to somehow un-fuck everybody’. page 426, my italics). Which just goes to show just how the dreaded f-word has lost (perhaps not in all contexts, but certainly in the language of the young) its grosser meaning, and become – well – a kind universal for simply bad stuff …
Okay, that said, this is a story of how to find your ‘voice’ or vocation. It gives a positive message to ‘YA’ readers, and more. It’s a story that should be read by everyone now, when so much is happening to divide us human beings into ‘tribes’ who find identity in being ‘against’ all who are not like themselves. The main character, Star, is drawn deep into a complex situation, learning and developing all the time. Her journey visits all the effects of loss, rejection, fear, compassion, anger, commitment – many of the emotions we all need to explore, especially as teenagers move towards a mature adulthood. And I, as a long-term adult, particularly appreciated finding a ‘coming of age’ novel which didn’t centre on the obvious (puberty anxieties and ‘sexual awakening’) but centred instead on these enduring and necessary developments.
It’s also impressive as an example a well-crafted story (I could trace the ‘story arc’ – a useful example to follow, as a writer, but never found it contrived.)
So, go and read! And let it speak to you …
8 October 2018
Phoebe: a story
by Paula Gooder
Hodder & Stoughton 2018
About the author:
Paula Gooder is a theologian who, having worked as a lecturer in Theology and other related areas is now an independent writer and speaker. She has a love of the Biblical texts, an open and curious attitude towards what they say, and a calling to pass this on to others. She’s also married with children.
Read more about her here: (Reform is not a magazine I would recommend, but in this interesting interview we hear Paula Gooder’s thoughts and interpretations of the Bible, not Reform’s)
About the book:
A brilliant story, drawing on what little we know about the lives of various characters mentioned in Acts and in Paul’s letters, and fleshing out their lives. Gooder demonstrates thoughtful knowledge of a wide variety of humanity as she brings to life many people named in the stories of Acts and in Paul’s letters. Central character Phoebe is certainly middle-aged in Roman terms, but we see her making enormous strides in a growing faith and confidence, as also do her companion Felix, a young rescued “street boy” and an older man, Titus. Aquila and Prisca, and various others are also well drawn, rounded characters. Paul’s character is presented in such a way that we have an explanation of his rather difficult and somewhat off-putting personality.
‘“Paul is a man driven by the mission given to him by God.”
“I know that.”
“Yes, but I don’t think you understand what it means. Paul has no time for relationships. In fact I don’t think he would even understand why you are all upset now. He feels called to proclaim the gospel to the ends of the earth… It’s proclamation that matters to him, not friends.”’ (page 199)
A couple more quotes from the dialogue will give you a taste – but no spoilers:
‘When they were baptised, they became part of the body of Christ. They are part of us now. One of the family. In Christ there is no due or Greek; slave or free, male or female. We are all one in Christ Jesus. We can’t just declare it to be true; we have to live it too.’ (page 176)
‘The very person of Jesus threatens with power in our world.’ (page 179)
To help our understanding of life at the time of the early church, about the last third of the book is “notes”. These are both interesting, enlightening, and useful. There are explanations and descriptions of Roman life, beliefs, and conventions, as well as references to the various scholarly disputes and readings of Scripture which forms the basis of the story.
This book would certainly fulfil both the requirements of a church “home group” or a “book group” with plenty to discuss and learn about the early Christians, and is also suitable reading to recommend to any who are curious about the Christian faith, its origins and basis and on-going relevance for today.
14 September 2018
All among the Barley
by Melissa Harrison
Bloomsbury August 2018 Hardback £15.29 e-book £14.26 (Elsewhere you may find lower prices …)
About the author:
Melissa Harrison has written two previous novels, both listed for literary prizes. She is otherwise a nature writer, critic, and columnist for The Times, the Financial Times, and the Guardian newspapers. Read more about her here
About the book:
This is a subtle story. A little way in, I began to feel that it might possibly turn out to be simply another “coming of age story” with the classic plotline of “sexual awakening”, set in the 1930s in order to up the naivete and innocence of the protagonist, Edie, a rural farmer’s daughter aged 14. And to exploit the charm of the “unspoiled” English countryside at that time.
However I was then pleasantly surprised by the unfolding story, a far more complex weaving together of the situation in agriculture at the time combined with a rise of nationalistic politics (as in other parts of Europe) and a more complicated appraisal of innocence, ignorance, and taboo. Edie herself at first presents as a bit of a “trope”: the clever child of unimaginative parents, abandoning her chores in favour of “escaping into a book”, she’d be heading for a career as a librarian. As the book progresses we see that she has complex problems, which combine with her own personality to direct her fate. These are not the only cause of where she ends up: there is a feudal hierarchy at work in the rural community, which places the farmer as the head of the family, whose wife must obey him, and whose farm workers cannot gainsay him, even when he is clearly heading for disaster. The expectation for a farmer’s daughter was marriage to the son of a neighbouring farm. Nothing must be said around how the farm is doing, nor such subjects as mental illness, alcoholism, or sexuality, and there is a kind of remaining mythical belief in witchcraft.
This toxic mix is working in Edie’s life even before the catalyst, a woman called Connie FitzAllen, arrives, posing as a researcher into rural living. Connie may give Edie more food for thought, and a glimpse into a possible other world, but her response to other factors around her clearly demonstrates that her problems come from within herself and her isolated setting, combined with a solitude caused largely by her rejection at school by the other children not only for being clever. They believed, or said they believed, she was the daughter and granddaughter of witches. The taboo around discussing this subject and dispelling her belief in it, her father’s inability to speak of or address his financial problems, and the overarching 1930s era of depression and political unrest are seen as causing the destruction of an innocent bystander, whom nobody has thought to initiate into many of the “ways of the world” because she is too young. She is only ever going to be a woman whose job will be to raise children and perform harsh household duties. And because there is always too much work to be done. Edie’s sexual innocence, despite living on a farm, is evidently partly due to solitude, partly to her own passivity as the youngest female. and partly to having expectation of having any power of her own, other than imagined “magical powers”. Such “sexual awakening” as she has is simply a confusing disaster.
Writing after the Brexit referendum Harrison has made points not only about the 1930s but raised questions about politics which are extremely relevant today, showing Connie the Londoner as merely playing with those whose lives she knows nothing about. And, while presenting the beauty of the countryside, demonstrating through the harsh lives of rural people (then and even now) that nostalgia has no place in living with a healthy reality. It is a timely story.
5 September 2018
by Alice Broadway
Scholastic, £7.99 (paperback)
About the author:
Spark is the second in Alice Broadway’s fantasy trilogy about Leora flint, a young girl living in a dystopic, imaginary world. Alice is Mum to three children, one with special needs, and lives in Lancashire, UK. Disillusion with the Evangelical church led to a loss of faith, and possibly also to the depression she admits to – but her ambition to be a writer has paid off well in the highly original first novel in the series, Ink.
Read more here: (article from a Lancashire newspaper)
About the book:
I bought the second of Alice Broadway’s Ink series with great curiosity and anticipation, after reading the first, Ink (reviewed further below)
Spark continues to showcase Broadway’s inventive, fertile imagination, as she sketches out the lives and characteristics of the ‘blanks’ (untattooed people) in their home area of Featherstone. They live in poverty and deprivation, thanks, they believe, to the meanness of the citizens of Saintstone, the ‘inked’ people.
Leora, sent to spy on them by the Mayor (ruler) of Saintstone, is encouraged by her tutor, Obel, to accept the Mayor’s plan, and instead of spying to use this as an opportunity to discover more of her family’s history. It is not terribly clear whether or not she will also be a spy. She arrives and earns the trust of a blank family and of some of the other blanks, although not all are willing to accept her. But later, when she is asked to ‘report’ she does so … feeling bad about it…
I found the first half of the book as gripping as Ink. I felt as ambiguous as Leora. I was drawn in. However, increasingly Leora’s confusion, between being a spy for the Inked people and actually discovering and becoming true friends and sympathetic with the Blanks, was becoming my confusion. What was the reader to understand here? Did we have a ‘confused narrator’ (as in an ‘unreliable narrator’?). It is hard to tell, but perhaps Broadway means the reader to enter deeplyninto Leora’s mindset and emotions? To suffer with her?
This became more confusing as the story proceeded, and increasingly took away much of my previous enjoyment. My feeling was that, whether or not the confused narrator was supposed or not to confuse the reader, this definitely worked to impart a feeling of the writer herself being confused, and to the detriment of wanting to read on and find out what happens. I was very sad about that. Possibly Broadway had become too ambitious or her intentions had become ambivalent? The book continues to be a page turner, but the story lacks direction by this point and some of the events do not seem to be leading anywhere, although we learn more about the religious beliefs of the Blanks. We also learn that there are no characters we can be certain are either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which means we are left with nobody to ‘root for’. We become as distrustful as Leora, feeling her pain and either being drawn further inside this adventure or simply giving up on the book.
We shall see how Broadway has concluded in the third book of the series, and whether she can deliver a satisfying conclusion. Will Leora’s confusion around her family, her relationship with the Blanks and her search for a map for life end happily? At present, at the conclusion of this book, she is lost in a maze of strange happenings.
Read my ‘Mari Howard Author’ blogpost here to find my comments on reading books about Identity, written by writers who would well understand Leora’s own identity problem!
1 July 2018
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Bloomsbury Circus £16.99 (hardback)
(Paperback/ebook available too)
About the author:
Kamila Shamsie is a Pakistani writer, and daughter of a writer. Her first novel was published when she was 25. She was educated in Karachi, then attended two colleges in the USA, and now lives in London and has duel Pakistani and British nationality.
About the book:
From Burnt Shadows (2009, her fifth novel) to her latest book, Home Fire, I admit I’ve been a fan of Kamila Shamsie’s writing. Her capacity to catch hold of the most basic human dilemmas, conflicts, and solutions, placing them within the context of human relationships, has inspired my own. It was after reading Burnt Shadows and the succeeding Shamsie novels that I radically re-wrote the first draught of my Baby, Baby. Shamsie had given focus, and I was seeking to tell a tale of our changing times and multiple societal viewpoints in the British post-colonial era, and within a context of scientific curiosity, fundamentalist faith, and family relations. I can’t and wouldn’t compare myself with Shamsie, but reading her latest book reminded me again of the influence of her depth, skill, and concerns.
Shamsie, born and raised in Karachi, considers similar subjects from a Pakistani Muslim view, often tracing the tensions between a traditionalist older generation and their younger more liberalised family members, often educated or living overseas in a Western country such as the USA or the UK. And always, as a reader, you also perceive this is a microcosm of the rich political and cultural world scene, constantly changing and challenging.
The new novel, Home Fire, maintains the context of as one of the characters says, drama in an Asian family while also, inspiredly, telling a tale of today, a tale of politics, pragmatism, and terrorism which is also a story of human emotions, confusion, longing, love, loyalty, and grief. It so happens in the novel that the British Home Secretary is a (now non believing) Muslim and, as his closest aide says, ‘These are the times we live in’ (Home Fire page 222).
One guy is crucial to the entire plot: yet he appears the least powerful of the cast, despite being the son of clever, wealthy and achieving parents. When he and Isma, a British Asian graduate student studying in the USA, meet in a cafe on a bitterly cold morning, the plot makes a quiet entry.
The crisis which ends the book is brought about by the action of this young man of whom, near the beginning, Isma had concluded that ‘when he had said goodbye there was no mistaking the finality of his tone’ (Home Fire page 37). Or of the precipitous action of her younger sister, driven by grief and love.
A powerful novel of personal and political interactions we should not ignore.
9 June 2018
Brit(ish) by Afua Hirsh
Jonathan Cape Vintage Publishing £16.99 (full price, but look on line for other deals)
Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Chatto & Windus £14.99 (hardback) (Paperback and ebook also available)
Firstly … Congratulations to Kamila Shamsie who was awarded the Women’s Prize for Fiction this week, for Homefires.
Some of my close friends may already know my interest in reading novels written in English by non-English writers. Beginning with Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows, I have over some years explored the works of contemporary non-English novelists and discovered the depths of human commentary these contain. Generational, cultural, and religious issues and conflicts are explored in intelligent thoughtful writing.
Here I’ve reviewed a couple of books by black British women, one a novel, the other non-fiction, where I think the same depth of thought and investigation into the human condition and the effects of a surrounding culture are explored.
About the authors:
Afua Hirsh has worked as a human rights barrister, legal affairs and West Africa correspondent for the Guardian, and social affairs editor for Sky News. She is also mixed-race British: her mother is from Ghana and her father Jewish English. Hirsh’s search for identity through her childhood and university years comes to a wider audience in this well-researched book, Brit(ish).
Diana Evans has a Nigerian mother and a White English father. In Ordinary People she reflects this in her main character Melissa. Before becoming a journalist and then a full-time novelist Evans spent some years as a dancer. Her first novel 26a documents in fiction her young life as a twin and the experience of her sister’s suicide.
About the books:
“For me, living in Ghana ultimately created more problems of belonging that it was able to solve. But I can’t resolve these problems by falling back on my British identity either, because Britishness has not yet fully rejected its roots in ideological whiteness, and the pain that has been inflicted on blackness. For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion. And exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years – that there is nowhere else to go.” (Afua Hirsch, Brit(ish))
Taken together, one factual and one fiction, these books set out the difficulties involved in being ‘ordinary’, if you are middle class, British, and Black.
Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish) fills in, for me, the thought-provoking background, present and historical, to Evans’ novel. It’s a long detailed read but well worth while if you want to understand the irony of trying to fit in as ordinary, when you are Black, or especially, ‘mixed-race’, in today’s Britain. Hirsch counts as ‘mixed-race’, having a Ghanaian mother and a Jewish English father. Her parents tended to ignore the whole subject of ‘colour’, and the young Afua was intensely aware of nevertheless being ‘different’: for example, could she straighten her hair with the products her friends used on their European hair? She grew up in a very nice part of Wimbledon, attended a girls’ independent school from ages 7 to 18, and went on to Oxford University. By then she had been feeling a need to find her identity, which she felt was so obviously Black. This began with work which took her to Senegal, West Africa, then later (ironically, married to someone of Jamaican descent, as is Melissa in Ordinary People) trying to settle in her mother’s birth country of Ghana.
I heard Diana Evans interviewed about Ordinary People on Radio 4, and was instinctively drawn to her subject. It’s a strangely discomforting world. While sharing the same lifestyle, expectations, and and ideals for their children, ‘ordinary middle class’ Black or mixed race families feel horribly obviously-not-the-same. Colour-coding marks you out in the surrounding sea of White ‘normality’, in the neighbourhood, at work, at the baby group… Cultural backgrounds puts a more than usual spin on the ‘we fell in love: how come now we’re struggling?’ which besets parents of a certain age with young children.
Michael and Melissa are 30-somethings, with two young children, living in a South London terraced house. Michael’s background is fully Jamaican, Melissa is half Nigerian and half White English. Growing up was very different in their two homes. They met and fell in love when Melissa’s work took her to Jamaica where Michael happened to be at the time, visiting his West Indian roots. Now, thirteen years into the relationship, like many young parents, the humdrum existence of family life begins pulling them apart. Melissa misses her work at a (Black) women’s fashion magazine, while she’s stuck at home with the baby, or reluctantly cooking Nigerian stew which just doesn’t come out as good as her mother’s. Michael misses the ‘old Melissa’ he fell in love with. Their friends Damian and Stephanie, who moved to suburban Surrey, suffer the same cultural crises, always heightened by a sense of their awkwardly different childhoods: Damian’s on a London council estate, with his politically idealistic but disillusioned father, Stephanie’s, raised to ignore her Black heritage. Stephanie is alienating Damian, as she tries to be everything a British middle class Mum can be, surrounded by Ikea furniture. An extensive conversation over Sunday lunch at Stephanie’s parents’ house reveals that every effort is already made by her mum and dad to behave, talk and live exactly as the White majority. The scene is a clever imitation of an average non-Black family, almost as if Stephanie’s family have learned a script. And Damian, from his impoverished background, feels inferior.
This novel is at its strongest when the author is concerned with areas which point up the ironic clash of cultures and the problems of trying to fit yourself into a society which will always see you as different. The characters dip in and out of the problem, and towards the end take a distinctly ‘ordinary’ holiday in Spain, hardly compensating Melissa for her longing for a much more exotic trip, maybe to Jamaica or even her own ethnic background of Nigeria. Taking the kids to experience their roots. But no: it’s at a villa in Spain, where Michael and Melissa share a villa with Damian, Stephanie, and another couple… The point here is, perhaps, overdone. As are the several pages describing Melissa’s discomforting and tedious visit to a baby music group with her small son. The writing though cleverly capturing the tediousness of being ‘ordinary’ Brits becomes tedious to read!
Like Hirsch, Evans’s characters expected equality but found themselves categorised into the White British understanding of ‘Black’ by the surrounding society. Hirsch’s detailed research tells us how and why. The vast canvas of cultural racism, encompassing first slavery and then colonialism, has complicated everything for Black and mixed-race Britons. I was particularly shocked by reading how ‘mixed race’ children were treated up to very recent times here in Britain. Eugenics was planted in the public mind from as early as Hume and later Nietzsche, and continued with the social workers of post second world war Liverpool, all implying low intelligence and inferiority in damning and ignorant ways.
And, as the quote I began with, from Hirsch, implies, there is actually no obvious ‘home’ for anyone of her background, neither Britain nor Africa. There is no ‘going home’: home is here, but it is not homely.
1 May 2018 …
Yes: the Book Blog is back …
The Death Beat
Fiona Veitch Smith
Lion Hudson IP Ltd 2017 £7.99 (UK)
The Death Beat, in the tradition of the Poppy Denby mysteries, set in the 1920s ‘jazz age’, is a crime story, and more than a crime story.
Poppy, the young journalist from the north-east of England, travels to the USA to accompany her boss, Rollo Rolandson, on a three-month work assignment with the New York Times. What an opportunity!
Even though for Poppy, the job means being set to work on the ‘death beat’—the obituaries. Here Poppy gets involved with mystery. Previously, on the boat, travelling to New York, she and her actress friend Delilah have already been spotted—and courted—by a couple of wealthy attractive young men. And the mystery begins to take Poppy further into their lives.
And soon into the contrasting lives of a couple of impoverished young girls fleeing antisemitism in Europe. Following incidents she’s witnessed, Poppy is drawn into situations where she learns too much, for some people involved, about the deeply contrasting attitudes towards rich and poor, perfection and disability, in 1920s America.
Another satisfying read from this sharply observational author, packed with historical atmosphere, fast-paced, yet thoughtful.
19th December: a seasonal offering!
Murder in the Manger
Hawkesbury Press 2017 paperback £7.99
About the author:
Yes, here’s Debbie Young’s third in the Sophie Sayers Cosy Mystery series … Debbie 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:
Okay, I am currently reading Exit West by Mosin Hamid … and I just read The Death Beat (third in the Poppy Denby series) by Fiona Veitch Smith… But, it’s Christmas (nearly) so here goes on a seasonal piece: Murder in the Manger. We are back in Wendlebury Barrow soon after the solving of the Hallowe’en mystery Trick or Murder, and wide-eyed Sophie has not only embarked on a romantic relationship with Hector of the bookshop but also written a Christmas play to be performed by the local amateur dramatic group and the schoolchildren. As the play is about to go into rehearsal, Sophie’s ex, Damian, turns up in his van ready to cause her anxiety and embarrassment.
Nonetheless she is well established now as a valued member of the village community and there is plenty of support from a range of friendly Wendlebury Barrow characters we have come to know, popping in and out of the bookshop, consuming tea and cakes, and cooperating on the Christmas preparations. Carol is making costumes, Billie is making risqué remarks, Sophie and Hector are together, (despite Sophie’s occasional worries) and all’s right with the world.
In this new story, we’re taken through the whole “run up to Christmas”, village-style, which includes a sensitive depiction of how this traditional Cotswold community keeps Remembrance Day. It’s thoughtfully done, emphasising that a local event includes a real ‘remembering’ of members of families who have lived, and still Iive, in the area. Grief and solemnity are real. After this, we embark on a portrait of preparation for Christmas which avoids any sideswipes at over-commercialisation, Black Friday, and cyber Monday. Instead, Young gives us the scene of a village Christmas Lights ceremony (with hiccup saved by real gum-boots) and an ambitious but obviously ‘Am-dram’ production in a tradition more 1960s than 2017, and delightful for that. All well oiled with food and drink and mistletoe, and of course a donkey.
If I have a criticism of this book it is that the mystery trail isn’t quite gripping enough, and though warm and satisfying in cosiness and happy ending, won’t satisfy readers who hoped for nail-biting stuff, albeit gently done. I also felt that we the readers might need further reminding of the backgrounds of the wider cast of villagers from the Writers’ and Drama groups (first described in the summer mystery, Best Murder in Show), so that we can fit each into context and appreciate their reactions better.
Altogether, a fireside story, and a great retreat from the world of fake news and political unrest: nostalgic, friendly, and packed with scenes and comments to make you smile. One only wishes life in Britain today was a little nearer to life in Wendlebury Barrow (in terms of getting along with each other, enjoying the simple things, and forgiving and accepting) but the world has moved on and us with it. Suspend belief in sophistication, and curl up with Murder in the Manger and cocoa or, like Sophie and Hector, a nice brandy.
Reviews of Exit West and The Death Beat queuing for after the festivities …
Small Great Things
by Jodi Picoult
Hodder (paperback) 2017
About the author: Jodi Picoult is an American author with a big output. She writes contemporary fiction of a kind which lies between literary and popular genre fiction, and always tackles controversial areas where emotions run high. Her books are immensely popular, but she could be accused of ‘preachiness’ and of ‘sentimentality’ for they can be seen as either informative, thoughtful, and well researched, or as playing our emotions and indulging in a kind of fictional invasion of privacy … I read one years ago, and I then found this when looking for holiday read: take you pick on how you view her work … I tend to think her heart is in the right place … read about her here
About the book: This was my favourite hard-to-put-down holiday read back in the summer. I had been avoiding Picoult’s work a while, because court procedure has not interested me enough to find all books lead into the courtroom. However I picked up this book at a service station on the journey, and was absolutely gripped by it.
Having said that, the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon are passionate and divided. Some readers adored the book, around it profoundly thoughtful, and impressive. Others disliked it enough today they ‘hated’ it, and pointed out flaws in both the medical/legal and the race-related areas. You will have to read it and see for yourself … Here’s my take on it …
The story concerns the three worlds of Ruth, a senior midwife, a woman of colour, who works in hospital on the delivery suite, a white supremacy family whose baby dies while under the care of Ruth’s team, and Ruth’s defence lawyer, a white woman, who considers herself to have liberal views. This looks like a typical Picoult triangle, but nonetheless I found the book gripping. It deepened my awareness of the ongoing problem of race relations, and increased my insight into the consequences of the irrational fears and feelings of inadequacy which can lead human beings into violence and hate.
Back to those Goodreads andAmazon reviews (reviews by the people for the people, for a book like this these will look to the content, and handling of the subject, possibly very subjectively, and here we have a controversial subject handled in fiction). I went to see how Small Great Things had been received, and found a number of reviews by women of colour who were extremely critical of Picoult even tackling the subject of race prejudice. They put their arguments well, and made a good case collectively for the impossibility, as they felt, of a white person managing to realistically write the experiences of a woman of colour without resorting to classic situations. Their opinions were that this didn’t come from true everyday real-life experience in a country based on white Western values and which has in the past employed slavery.
Picoult herself, in an interview I read online, talks about how she had wanted to write this book many years ago, but felt constrained through ignorance of experiencing the lives of people of colour from the inside. When she came to write it, she had begun to feel more adequate the task, and that it was time for the book to be written. I’m not sure why that was, but the original publication date was 2016. Since 2001, a growing problem of racial and religious extremism has come to the fore around the world, and nationalism has risen or reappeared in many countries. This may be the time for such a book in the white western world, even one which addresses a small corner of a vast problem. The storyline of the white supremacists highlights how fearful a group which, because of its country’s ‘colonial’ history has imagined itself to deserve place at the top of the hierarchy, begins to feel challenged by shifting social attitudes to equality and changes in demography.
Whatever we feel about the qualification Picoult has or has not to write an extensive third of the book from viewpoint of a woman of colour, without having experienced such a life herself, I found the book a thoughtful and significant read, and the story compelling. If I have a criticism it is that as she ties up the story the writer introduces a fact about a character which is both crucial to the tale and is a significant irony. Quite how she could have introduced this fact earlier and kept us reading I am not sure, and although it makes a satisfying story-ending, and is also a fact to consider in assuming that all is as we think it is our own gene pool, I feel that it needed trailing through, as a ‘what if? What do we know about? As she doesn’t, the clinching of the plot appears as a final piece of evidence produced at a late stage. Both to the courtroom and to the reader. On the other hand, knowing how much our parents and grandparents kept, and probably still keep, from their children about their, background, I feel that it does ring true to life, leaving something for the reader to ponder.
Would I recommend this book to a friend? Since the story is a page-turner, and to an extent informative, I would recommend it to any friend who enjoys serious fiction that attempts to tackle controversial subjects. But I would also recommend that they read around the many excellent post-colonial novels by writers from non-white, non-European authors. Picoult’s viewpoint can only be that of a middle-class white person in America: the world is a big place and experiencing story through the eyes of those whose culture is other than our own is always invaluable, whoever we are and whatever our culture.
11 November … Second in the Sophie Sayers series by Debbie Young! Slightly late for Hallowe’en and Guy Fawkes but better late than never …
Trick or Murder
by Debbie Young
Hawkesbury Press 2017 paperback £7.99
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:
In this the second of the Sophie Sayers mystery series, author Debbie Young has really got into her stride, moving from flash fiction to full-length novels. The second book continues the cosy feel of Wendlebury Barrow village life, and wide-eyed Sophie is now well settled in her job at the bookshop, Hector’s House. Trick or Murder, beginning as autumn sets in, benefits from the creepiness of Hallowe’en followed by the excitement of Guy Fawkes/Bonfire Night, as the villagers prepare to enjoy both to the full. And this is definitely Guy Fawkes!
Knowing this author’s fondness for the detective stories of Dorothy L Sayers, (after whom Sophie is named …), discovering that a mystery is developing around the new Vicar of Wendlebury Barrow was no surprise! Are there also echoes of the works of Susan Cooper, to be unearthed in the plot? I certainly wondered whether or not Sophie had read Cooper’s books as a child, but decided probably not, as she would surely have remembered, and commented, as this mystery deepens? On the other hand, maybe she was too busy enjoying her developing relationship with Hector?
I was happy to find that Sophie has matured since her first appearance in Wendlebury Barrow, and enjoyed how the characters are developing into a cohesive and almost believable community. Their lives, centred around the bookshop, the village store, and the school, sound so enviable.
Altogether a great relaxing and pleasingly escapist read for the winter fireside. What will the next season, Christmas, bring for Sophie to investigate? (Watch out for a review!)
And you can read my blog post on The Fun of Writing a Series, over on the Mari Howard Author blog (click along from the Hodge landing page)
11th October – How are you doing with reading for pleasure? Here’s another good read – Alice Broadway’s debut (and highly original) novel INK …
Scholastic £7.99 (2017)
About the author: Alice Broadway is Mum to three children, one with special needs, and lives in Lancashire, UK. Disillusion with the Evangelical church led to loss of faith, and possibly also to the depression she admits to – but her ambition to be a writer has paid off well in this highly original first novel, in the popular YA Sci-fi fantasy genre, but definitely a new departure, and a new country …
About the book: What more up to date in a current YA novel than a story based in a country where everyone has tattoos? And not just one, or two, but many? Ink also takes insights into 21st century culture, aimed at entertaining young people, to another level. As I read, I felt it belonged equally to ‘YA’ and ‘grown-up’ fiction for its depth and insights.
Briefly (so as not to spoil your reading), the story is told by Leora, aged sixteen, who is about to take final school leaving exams and begin work. Her country has a custom: everyone is ‘marked’ with tattoos which record every single significant life event, from birth onwards, including misdemeanors. There can be no secrets.
By contrast, over the border live the ‘Blanks’: a people who are not marked. They must be dangerous, mustn’t they? Nobody knows what anyone has done, or thinks, or may do… The Marked people hate and fear the Blanks …the Marked people take the skins of their dead, inspect the marks, and at a ‘weighing the soul’ ceremony, (an idea reminiscent of ancient Egypt), can know if this person was always ‘good’ and has not betrayed the country … Anything anyone does which the state would disapprove of must be (secretly) removed: it is a crime to remove any of the marks which have been made, a terrible crime.
Leora’s father has recently died: an event which destabilises her life, and as the book progresses, she is led to question everything: her father’s goodness, her country’s integrity, her own origins. He had some mark removed …
Leora has a friend, Verity. Verity’s family, with its ‘feel-good’ attraction of cosiness, love, authority and stability fits the present (insider) aim of the ‘perfect Christian family’. As I met Verity and her family, having known many of these, I felt their familiarity in my bones. Leora who is less svelte, beautiful, talented, and unquestioning than her friend, sometimes feels like an ‘out person’. (And so did I!) Verity appears to have no problems with the cultural norms, goes into a good respectable though boring job, does this well, is obedient to her employers. But, she also tries to help Leora on her search for the truth about her father.
Despite being tattooed all over with their ‘story’, those in the know (both ‘bad’ and ‘good’) are keeping inner secrets, appearing to be ‘open with everyone’. Some behave with a kindness which begins, too late, to strike Leora as suspect and syrupy. So, while apparently living open lives, Leora learns they collude with lies and secrecy.
The author has worshipped in the Christian Evangelical tradition, which she has now left, disillusioned with the strictures and control she found in the church she attended as an adult. Anyone who has been in a similar situation will see that Ink has an allegorical side – and that the story of the revered leader and founder of the country rather mirrors Jesus. The book still makes sense without this background, and illustrates the irony of any repressive and blinkered society. It’s a fantasy, and a political critique. It looks into the murky depths of many organisations, such as governments and corporate businesses, and including the church. What is impressive is how it can be read both as a straightforward fantasy and as a critique, and that it is well written to function on both levels. Indeed Ink reminds me of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, a book which can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the author’s life, academic discipline, experiences of two world wars, or religious knowledge and commitment. But which makes even more sense when you know.
It is a necessary and timely ‘coming of age’ story about dishonesty masquerading as honesty. A first of a series, we shall see how Alice Broadway moves forward on her theme.
Read more background here: (an article from a Lancashire newspaper)
19 September … another two good reads!
From two very different, inspirational, authors …
Dear Reflection: I never meant to be a Rebel
Vine Leaves Press £9.99 Kindle £1.99 May 2017
About the author: Jessica is an author, musician, writing coach, and book cover designer. She’s from Australia, and now lives in Greece. Jessica has recently returned to her first love, music, and continues in her other creative work. Her website is here:
About the book: I found this book deeply moving, a gripping read, and unexpectedly, incredibly helpful in my own search for making sense of recollections of my childhood and ongoing fight with depression, pessimism, and doubt, and to continue to use my creativity.
Jessica Bell is never sorry for herself, either her present or past self. As the only child of rock stars, her growing years were complicated, by her mother’s addiction, and by the rejection which any child who is “different” for whatever reason, will experience, especially at school. She wanted to be accepted, liked, and to fit in. She was just seen as different by the other kids. Her flair wasn’t what you were meant to have. Her mum didn’t dress like suburban Australian mothers did. So, how to find friends? She ended up with a kind of out crowd. She lost her first close friend.
Her alcohol dependence, a way to keep going in the struggle as a teenager, is honestly described but never made sensational. Her stumbling through various relationships is told in such a matter of fact, well written, style that it comes over as understandable, almost inevitable, and sad, but also you know that in the end Jessica will win.
And, she does. Into using her creative gifts, both as a writer and as a musician. Others have described in more detail the story of how she overcame the problems, and the friends she made along the way who modelled ways to move forwards, and encouraged her. She emerged as a successful writer, teaches writing, and now fronts popular band Keep Shelly in Athens (see here: here:)
Altogether an inspiring read!
Little Gidding Girl
CreateSpace/Kindle £9.00/£2.99 March 2017
About the author: Vivienne is hard to describe, but I know her as a creative, a fellow writer (she writes poetry, fiction, a blog …), a nature lover, and a deep thinking honest and no-nonsense type person, so I hope that will do to introduce her …
Find her website here:
About the book: I am still reading, and now enjoying, this interesting book. I loved Tuffnell’s earlier books, and at first found this one a bit hard to get into. The main character, Verity, seems so disturbed and unhappy with herself that I found her difficult. Her employer and her old school friend are terrible bitches, and their treatment of Verity makes you so mad that she is not standing up to them. However…
Having read T.S. Eliot’s poem Little Gidding, one of his Four Quartets, I admire Tuffnell for evoking that atmosphere of looking back in middle age at “how my life could have been”. She closely echos Eliot’s feelings, and pushes her character Verity until she seizes the chance to work this through. First Verity experiences disturbing visions of her life as it might have been, and sees how her imagined idyll might be reversed to describe something nearer a possible truth. Next a real encounter with the old school friend sends Verity into a search for the real facts.
No spoilers here, but the progress towards how Verity comes to see that her (apparently boring) suburban life is filled with love and understanding, by her real-life, science teacher husband and her teenage daughter Rose. This is done with sensitivity and a real understanding of the process involved with letting go of nostalgia. At the sometime she is enabled to stand up to the women who have persistently put her down and discourged her.
A book about facing our old memories, accepting that we may have “loved and lost” as young adults, and about the blessing of being both ordinary and extraordinary. Verity emerges, and one hopes she will now re-engage with her creative side, feel that she is loved, and never again accept being exploited or having a low opinion of herself.
If you haven’t experienced middle-aged nostalgia maybe not the book for you, but for those of us who have encouragement is at hand with this brave and deft author.
Introducing Three Thoughtful Books …
Firstly, Trying to Fly
Instant Apostle, 2017 (paperback £8.99)
About the Author: Annie Try (pen name of Angela Hobday) is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, and has written books on creative therapy with children. Her first novel, Losing Face, was aimed to the Young Adult market, Trying to Fly is her second, aimed at a general fiction audience.
About the book: Trying to Fly is the on-going story of woman who, as a child of six, who after experiencing a worrying traumatic event on the beach, is caught up by her memories in middle age. At first I was unsure whether I really wanted to read this story: would it be depressing, or even dull? Would I want to turn the pages? But as Annie Try is a co-member of a writing organisation, I decided to give it a try.
As a small girl, Jenny witnessed a man apparently ‘trying to fly’ off the roof of the beach cafe … she later learned that he had done this to kill himself … but had he?
Now middle aged, and having been a carer for her aging parents, Jenny has retreated into a lonely, single existence. Now she’s in therapy to try and overcome being housebound by agoraphobia. I ploughed on, feeling ‘Oh dear, what next? Will she pull herself out of this?’ Here the pace and intrigue picked up, the story moved quickly to how her increasing curiosity about her early memories creates a resolve to solve the mystery. Shies certain that man had no intention to die. As she first makes a connection (through a panic attack!) with someone who also witnesses the incident, then bravely creeps from the house to meet up and share further details, I became drawn into her life. It’s a story about process, and Try is brilliant at creating characters who, though neither young, beautiful, nor ambitious, are real, appealing, and definitely people to root for.
And, while telling the story of the hunt to discover the truth about the man who ‘flew’ off the roof of the beach cafe in 1956, she weaves a rounded picture of what it is like to fear venturing beyond home. To learn to trust new people, to discern motives, and to discover that you can do what you were certain you never wanted to even attempt. To become resourceful in trying. To ‘take baby steps’ which may mean dealing with the present moment as it unfolds. And to discover that romance is not restricted to the young.
I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in people, and who enjoys a mystery that’s a bit different to the usual crime-solving novel. And anyone who has a fear or phobia and their family. There’s a lot of insight to be gained. As the blurb says, it is definitely a ’multi-layered and satisfying’ page-turner, and a feel-good read.
(To follow soon: our reviews of I didn’t Mean to be a Rebel, by Jessica Bell, and Good Small Things, by Jodi Picoult …)
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 …