Monday, 25 September 2017

Guest post by Patricia Elliott - THE CRIME WRITER by Jill Dawson




Patricia Elliott is the author of nine novels for children and young adults. She was lucky enough to win the Fidler Award for her first, The Ice Boy, and since then has been short-listed for many other awards (however, to date, never again winning first prize!) She has written in most genres – fantasy, historical, mystery -  but settings are particularly important to her and Suffolk, where she lives, has featured in several of her novels, including her Victorian Gothic YA, The Devil in the Corner. Her last two novels were Middle Grade mysteries set in the Edwardian period and featuring twelve-year old would-be anthropologist, Connie Carew: The House of Eyes and The Ship of Spectres. She is currently writing a fantasy set on the Suffolk coast. 

Patricia Highsmith, whom Graham Greene called 'the poet of apprehension', is the protagonist of this clever, beautifully written novel, a successful combination of fact and fiction that is sometimes blackly comic yet always gripping. Jill Dawson has imagined Highsmith as the protagonist in her own murder story, and, like the characters in her novels, suffering the same feelings of guilt and terror after the act.

I chose this novel to review because as a young teenager I was mesmerised by Patricia Highsmith's novels. Gloriously dark and menacing, with protagonists that seemed trapped in tragedies that had befallen them through one bad move that then led on, inexorably, to a chain of events they were almost helpless to avoid and yet, in a strange, inexplicable way, encouraged, as if they were playing a mad game, struck a resonance with me. At that age I had decided you could not escape Fate. It lay in wait for you and probably not in a good way, but it was fun to tempt it and see what happened.

The Crime Writer is set in Suffolk, where I live now, not far from the village of Earl Soham where Patricia Highsmith, then in her early forties, came for a period in 1964. She also walked the streets of Aldeburgh, which I know well, with her close friend Ronald Blythe (author of the acclaimed Akenfield), and her irritable ghost roams still, I sense, brushing past the holiday crowds and up to the lonely, squat presence of the Martello tower brooding over the cold North Sea, where this novel ends.

But back to the beginning.

Patricia Highsmith chose the village of Earl Soham, a 'dull, pleasant place' in the middle of nowhere, precisely for its 'anonymity'. She hoped to escape the trying newspaper reporters who wanted to write about her as an award-winning American crime writer, a label Pat (as she was known) despised. As she would patiently explain, there was little detection or description of police procedure in her books. She preferred them to be seen as suspense novels. It is true that the murders in her novels are less significant than the pursuit afterwards and the guilt suffered by the murderer: the chase and punishment rather than the crime itself. Her sympathy – and thus the reader's – is for the murderer rather than the victim. The murders are often committed with little thought, as if the actual motive comes after the deed is done. 'What interests me most is what goes on in the mind of someone who has killed somebody,' she said. 'Perversion is... my guiding darkness.'

In Earl Soham Pat believed she would find the peace to work on both her new novel and a commissioned non-fiction book on suspense writing. The village was also within relatively easy reach of London and her lover, Sam, the unhappily married wife of the repulsive (to Pat) Gerald. Beautiful Sam, tall, poised, elegant, would visit her for romantic weekends when they would celebrate their secret love in complete privacy.

But in The Crime Writer things do not go as Pat hopes. Hurried calls in the chilly phone box opposite her dank little cottage do not bring Sam as often as Pat desires. Always paranoid about being stalked she becomes convinced someone is following her, perhaps the same person who sends her letters that she leaves unopened. Hallucinations of a grotesque little man and the darting shadow of a mouse haunt her, as well as memories of her troubled, sometimes abusive, childhood. A heavy drinker and smoker, socially awkward, spiky, Pat is a passionate collector of snails, who likes to observe them mating on her window sill (and, indeed, shares some of the creatures' characteristics). Alone, she luxuriates in dark imaginings of committing murder. Those she knows - unloved, even loved - are the victims in her fantasies. Only her dear friend Ronnie (Blythe), always equable and kind, who does not judge her, can lift Pat's moods, though his 'sense of glowing health and cheer' can be exasperating.

Meanwhile, there is the boisterous, puppyish Ginny Smythson-Balby, with her bosoms like 'two juggernauts', seemingly yet another journalist but whose extravagant charms are impossible to resist...

Jill Dawson writes from Pat's point of view, whether in the third person or the first, and which she chooses to use when significant. She completely convinces us that it is Pat's thoughts to which we are privy, though in the first person sections she makes no attempt to pastiche Highsmith's style. Highsmith's was spare, cool, relentless, with an overriding sense of dread; she spent little time on setting. Dawson's style is lyrical, particularly in her description, and immensely sympathetic to her complex, obsessive protagonist, as Pat becomes more and more unable to distinguish between what is real and what is in her head. As in Highsmith's novels, the 'murder' happens early in The Crime Writer; followed by reflection, guilt and the ghastly chain of repercussions, which culminate in another 'murder'. Some of this reflects the plot of A Suspension of Mercy, the novel Pat was writing at the time, set in Suffolk, about a man who fantasises about killing his wife, but Dawson has also used details from other Highsmith novels, in particular Strangers on a Train and Deep Water. Sam herself is modelled on the beautiful, sophisticated lover in The Price of Salt (filmed recently as Carol).

The period detail is excellent: clothes, perfume, the items sold in the village store, the smell inside the phone box, the toiletries in Sam's bathroom, sixties' pubs. And of course the novel is about a writer and includes many insights into what goes on in a writer's mind. As Pat remarks to Ronnie, 'Who isn't to say that the life of the imagination isn't the most valid, the most real...' Something perhaps all writers have felt at times.

The Crime Writer is published by Sceptre.



Monday, 18 September 2017

Guest post by Mary Hoffman: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler




Mary’s first book, a YA novel, was published in 1975. Since then she has written 120 books, mainly for children and teenagers but lately also a couple of adult novels under pseudonyms. After graduating in English Literature from Cambridge and spending a couple of years studying Linguistics at UCL, Mary wrote courses for the Open University for five years but then went freelance. She recently started The Greystones Press, a small independent publishing house, with her husband. Mary’s books have been translated into 30 language and won some prizes. She runs the popular History Girls blog, which can be read every day. Mary lives in a converted barn in West Oxfordshire with her husband and three demanding Burmese cats. Her three daughters are all grown up: one is a writer, one a theatre producer and the youngest, a designer, is sailing round the world. Mary has four grandchildren and her latest picture book, Pirate Baby, is dedicated to the two on the boat.

A new Anne Tyler novel is always a big event for me. I wait till it is available in paperback and when I saw this one in Oxford Waterstones, as I was buying my holiday stash, I snatched it up with joy. It was only when I opened it in Cornwall that I realised I hadn’t meant to buy this one.

For it is part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project that invites top fiction writers to re-tell – or re-imagine rather – one of the plays as a novel. I really didn’t like the concept and, of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Taming of the Shrew is one of my least favourite, only just above Titus Andronicus.

But, as the quotation from Good Housekeeping says on the back, “a new Anne Tyler book is always a treat,” so I set aside my reservations.

There is a typical Anne Tyler female protagonist. She is usually well into middle age or older, looking back on a life of devotion to a more or less grateful family when something jolts her into a re-evaluation of her life. It might be something as dramatic as a kidnap or as mundane as a walk along the beach but it leads to a major shift in outlook, a desire to do some things differently.

And just as there is often a woman like this, somewhat faded and disappointed in life, there can instead be a male main character, who is finding life something he has to wrestle with. It can be because of bereavement like Aaron, the hero of The Beginner’s Goodbye, whose wife has been killed in freak accident or like Macon in The Accidental Tourist, whose young son has been murdered, though you don’t find that out till the end.

Or he may just be someone who hasn’t quite got the hang of how things work for most people. Tyler males often seem eccentric and obsessive, hovering on the edge of the spectrum.

So I wasn’t sure how frustrated young Katharina and Petruchio, with his exuberant and outlandish behaviour were going to fit into the Tyler mould. I needn’t have worried; she is more than ready for the challenge.

It’s true that her Kate Battista has sleepwalked into finding herself the person who runs the house for her scientist father and ditsy, boy-mad fifteen-year-old sister Bunny. And into a job as a teaching assistant for four-year-olds in a nursery school. But she is only twenty-nine and not yet the faded and frazzled norm for a Tyler heroine.

Her “Petruchio” is Pyotr, her father’s research assistant in his lab, whose three year visa is about to run out. Dr. Battista, whose speciaiism is autoimmunology, feels he is on the verge of a breakthrough that only Pyotr can help him realise. So he hits on the bright idea that his daughter Kate might marry him to get him his green card and enable their research to continue.

This absurd notion is certainly worthy of Shakespeare’s play, though Dr Battista is a much more significant figure than Kate’s father in the Shrew. In fact, he is that male character whose eccentricities about domestic life mark him out as a Tyler creation. He might not arrange his groceries alphabetically like the Learys in The Accidental Tourist but he has devised a ghastly-sounding solution to nurturing his family after his wife’s death: “Meat mash, they called it, but it was mainly dried beans and green vegetables and potatoes, which [Kate} mixed with a small amount of stewed beef every Saturday afternoon and puréed into a sort of grayish paste to be served throughout the week.”

Is it any wonder Kate is “a picky eater” and Bunny tries ineffectually to become a vegetarian? (Actually, this was something I didn’t like about the book: that Bunny’s vegetarianism is sneered at as a passing adolescent phase. I am so tired of novelists taking this line or the other one that we veggies secretly yearn for and scoff bacon butties when we can).

Anyway, amazingly considering Pyotr’s disregard for social niceties and the pressure on Kate to provide him with a new immigration status, she does agree to a marriage blanc. Tyler doesn’t shirk the groom’s inappropriate wedding gear but it and his lateness are explained by a crisis at the lab: the experimental mice have been stolen by animal activists.

She even has a heroic stab at Katharina’s “thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper” speech so beloved of would be female actors when auditioning for drama school. But this is not entirely successful – how could it be?

“It’s hard being a man,” says Kate to her sister and the assembled company at the wedding reception her aunt has been allowed to give the happy couple, sounding like a mixture of Robert Webb and Matt Haig.

But a touching epilogue told through the eyes of their six-year-old son shows them to have become just that – a happy couple. Only Kate has gone back to college and she and Pyotr have both won scientific prizes. The further away it got from Shakespeare, the more I liked it.

Vinegar Girl is published by Vintage.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Guest review by Paul Magrs: HADDON HALL - WHEN DAVID INVENTED BOWIE by Nejib




Paul Magrs lives and writes in Manchester. In a twenty-odd year writing career he has published novels in every genre from Literary to Gothic Mystery to Science Fiction for adults and young adults. His most recent books are The Martian Girl (Firefly Press), Fellowship of Ink (Snow Books) and The Christmas Box (Obverse Books.) Over the years he has contributed many times to the Doctor Who books and audio series. He has taught Creative Writing at both the University of East Anglia and Manchester Metropolitan University, and now writes full time.

One of the reasons I love graphic novels is that they feel like someone has taken hold of a conventional novel and given it a bloody good shake. All the redundant words and phrases and padding and fluff and – especially – all the descriptions have simply fallen out. Leaving lots of lovely empty space.

In ‘Haddon Hall’ – a fabular, fabulous account of David Bowie’s rise to fame as Ziggy Stardust by French-Tunisian artist, Nejib – there’s lots of that lovely space. The pages are organized less like a traditional comic strip than they are a child’s picture book of the era he’s conjuring. There’s just a touch of the Babapapa books created by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor in this tale of the strange menagerie that Bowie gathered about him in 1970. Both narratives tell of polymorphous and perverse other-worldly beings who live in heterogenous harmony inside a home perfectly attuned to their needs.

The story goes like this: one-hit wonder David and his kooky American wife Angie find a dilapidated Victorian mansion in London where they can live out their fantasy of being bohemian aristocrats, throwing open their doors to other experimental souls. Guitarists, poets and cats come slinking through the massive, messy rooms and there are orgies and dinner parties and music festivals galore. It’s a utopian period that Bowie himself captures so brilliantly in those early records. It’s a strange thing: to have these sketchy, sometimes rudimentary figures evoking the time, place and even the music so beautifully. Dream sequences and drug hazes spiral off the page. Flashbacks drain the pages of colour, as we visit David’s youth and his brother’s first schizophrenic episode. Mostly, though, the pages are drenched in the gorgeous, hot pinks and oranges of a lost era.

There are cameos from other icons: Marc Bolan wanders through, full of envy and ambition, pipping Bowie to the post when it comes to getting onto Top of the Pops. Lennon glides through the tale in his limousine, lecturing Bowie on the awfulness of pop fame and how it conflicts with art (‘Look, David. I was at dinner last night with Stockhausen and Nabokov…’) They sit together by the river and the world about them becomes scratchier and darker as Lennon explains how isolating stardom is. And then, when David gives sanctuary to his troubled brother, he also rescues the equally-doomed Syd Barrett, of Pink Floyd fame. As a Bowieologist I know pointed out – this never actually happened. But that doesn’t matter. It should have happened and this queer reimagining of the past installs poor Syd under David and Angie’s wings for a little while.

Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that the whole story is narrated by the house itself. Haddon Hall has lain neglected for years and it talks to us directly of its delight when this strange young couple first came to look inside its doors. (‘I didn’t understand them, but already I loved them.’) The grand old nineteenth century pile has a final flourishing of life, thanks to the hippies and the glam rockers who come to make all kinds of music and love inside its walls.

The curling, sprawling, art nouveau fronds and vines and petals that scroll through the pages like flowery doodles look just like exotic plants pushing their glorious way inside a derelict building. The most wonderful moment of all comes, perhaps, as David writes his opus, ‘Life on Mars?’ – and has his turning point – slaving over his upright piano, ignoring the stacked-up meals Angie brings him (‘You have to eat, sweetie…’), smoking endless cigarettes as he plonks away. It takes a whole page of repetitious images – a Warholian frieze of tinkering, tinkling Bowies - until he hits his perfect tune and the song finally comes together. Visually this is rendered as more of those wonderful, spiraling plants, emerging from the lid of his piano, blowing trumpeting, blaring colour back to the story. It’s a fantastic moment – and distils the creative process into one gorgeous double page spread.

I’ve made it sound too straightforward and twee, perhaps. There are complications aplenty, and some wonderful moments of darkness. It’s a book about imagining your own kind of life and inventing it around you, but it’s cognisant of the pitfalls. Mad brother Terry is always there – pursued by the horrifying, phantom shapes of his affliction. Angie’s hopeless auditions and sheer lack of natural talent make our hearts go out to her, even as she tries her best to shine. Bowie himself is riven and eaten up with his desire to make a breakthrough both artistic and commercial. He almost despairs; he almost gives up. But he’s resilient and endlessly creative – and that’s what this book celebrates so fantastically. Even the frightening bits – the turbulent flights of fancy and the monochrome doldrums - are worth dragging yourself through.

The book leaves him with a new hairdo (clip, clip clip: Angie chops his locks into a spiky, Heinz-red cut) and on the brink of massive fame. ‘On that day, David was finally avant-garde.’ It will also mean the breaking-up of the happy home, and already the commune’s members are going their own ways. Haddon Hall looks back on relinquishing its magical grip on its inhabitants and the story ends softly, and sweetly, with the narrator knowing that its best years are over, just as its friends’ are about to begin. The realization that your glory years can sometimes be quite short ones – ‘this enchanted interlude in my peaceful life as a house lasted for only two springs’ – is, I think, the most important part of this glittering tale.

Haddon Hall is published by Selfmadehero, 2017

Monday, 4 September 2017

Guest review by Joanna Rossiter: LILA by Marilynne Robinson



Joanna Rossiter grew up in Dorset and studied English at Cambridge University before working as a researcher in Parliament and as a copy writer.

Virginia Woolf's seascapes, Thomas Hardy's Wessex, the moors of the Brontë sisters and the blitzed bombsites of Rose Macaulay have all informed her writing. She is particularly interested in the bonds between people and places.

The Sea Change,  her first novel, was picked by Richard & Judy as part of their 2013 summer book club and was also chosen as the 2014 Bath Literature Festival's Big Bath Read.

She lives and writes in Oxfordshire with her husband and two children and is currently working on her second novel, set on the remotest island on earth.


In one of the very first conversations between the two main characters of Lila, the old preacher remarks after talking about his past that "I suppose the next time I tell it, it will be a better story. Maybe a little less true. I might not tell it again. I hope I won't. You're right not to talk. It's a sort of higher honesty, I think. Once you start talking there's no telling what you'll say."

As with all the best novelists, Robinson has an uncanny ability to distill the theme of her entire story into just a handful of sentences. Lila is a novel that is full of these miniature epiphanies - glimpses of the bigger picture in the book's small details. The light and water and wind that pervade Lila’s experiences of both nature and the towns she passes through are all imbued with symbolism: the river that Lila bathes in outside her drifter’s hut; the cracks of light coming in through the curtains of the St Louis whorehouse, the lanterns hanging in the trees of the revival meeting where Lila is selling apples as a girl. Always laced into these physical details is a sense of the spiritual - or at least an interrogation of their potential symbolism.

Lila herself is constantly questioning the relationship between the physical world and the spiritual world and whether or not they overlap. Is there any room for the spiritual when life for Lila is simply a daily struggle to survive? This is a question that never really leaves her even after she is safe and warm with a roof over her head. Water and its ability to make her physically clean and quench her thirst is also the means of her baptism and spiritual rebirth. But this symbolism does not sit easily with Lila; she wrestles with its portent and what it means for her old way of life, which she looks upon with nostalgia as well as hopelessness. She refuses to let her life be reduced into a simple trajectory of sinner turned saint.

Lila is the third novel in Marilynne Robinson's critically acclaimed Gilead trilogy. It follows the story of an orphan drifter who is raised on the run by a woman called Doll and works in a St Louis whorehouse before arriving in the small town of Gilead and unexpectedly marrying the town's preacher.

The concept of a fallen woman made good might appear trite in the hands of a novelist less skilled than Robinson. But, just as Lila's inner life, richly enjoyed by the reader, remains a mystery to the man she marries, the plot's air of simplicity soon gains depth as the novel progresses.

Lila challenges many of her new husband's convictions about the nature of life and death and the notion of a spiritual journey where the old life is left behind for a new clean life. She prefers to see divine wonder and grace interwoven through each of her experiences from her childhood through to the story's present. This is reflected in Robinson's masterful handling of the narrative which weaves together memories from Lila's fraught past with her more comfortable present.

The complexity of human goodness and divine grace is also reflected in the fact that the first person to show her unconditional love is not the preacher but Doll who takes her from a place where nobody answers her cries and raises her as her own child - to Lila there is arguably more divine love in this simple maternal act than all the small Christian kindnesses shown to her in Gilead, which seem contrived in comparison.

Once again it is a physical act of love - that of a woman caring for a child - that provides the starting point for Lila's spiritual questions. Ames, her preacher husband, is happy to muse from the pulpit or on paper - he likes to write letters. But Lila's theology is altogether more physical and internal - rooted in the landscapes and objects around her and in the people she loves. Even her love of the preacher is conveyed more through physical objects than words: the smell of his woolen jumper which she takes to use as a pillow or his garden which she tends.

Her constant conversational refrain of "that's a fact" seems to underline this connection to the physical. And yet Robinson also bestows it on Lila ironically: unlike the preacher, Lila's thought life is composed of questions rather than statements. Since she cannot find answers for even the most fundamental of questions about herself - her real name, the identity of her mother and father - she questions the nature of everything that follows. She experiences the world empirically, only ever asserting as fact the feelings most familiar to her: hunger, distrust, the cold. She is always reluctant to commit herself to words because that would involve revealing the inner life she has guarded so carefully over the years.

The fact that Ames only ever knows his wife in part and it is only the reader who is privy to lila's thoughts perhaps tells us something about Robinson's own philosophy for the novel as a form: to reflect the loneliness of human experience - the fact that no one can ever truly know the thoughts of another, the constant divorce between thought and word, and how the novel can paradoxically in a small way remarry the two to act as windows into the souls of others.

When Ames remarks that the more a story is told the less familiar it feels he is conveying something of this paradox: the novel as an artistic form gives the reader both the impression of closeness to its subjects and yet a sense of distance too - one is, after all, escaping the real world for a set of fictional characters removed from our own experience. For Robinson there seems to be a spiritual truth buried in all this: Lila wrestles with a God who, in spite of people's flawed attempts to make him known, remains mysterious - a God of questions as well as answers.

Lila is published by Virago.

Monday, 28 August 2017

RESERVOIR 13 by Jon McGregor, reviewed by Linda Newbery




A girl is missing. This trope has become altogether too familiar in recent years (and yes, I’ve used it myself, in Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon* - I’ll excuse myself by pointing out that I began it in 1997, rather than jumping on an already overloaded bandwagon). Jon McGregor’s novel begins with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old girl from a Peak District village on a winter’s afternoon, but it’s not the crime novel you might expect from this opening and especially not one of those whose plot hangs on a startling twist.

The girl’s name was Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex. She was looked for, everywhere. She was staying with her family in a village holiday let, and after her disappearance the parents return, intermittently and separately, the father sometimes behaving oddly enough to be treated as a suspect. Reservoir 13 is unusual in structure and style, spanning thirteen years, a chapter for each. We follow the lives of residents of this small village, location unspecified though with enough references to the Kinder Scout trespass, the well-dressing tradition, villages drowned beneath reservoirs and a crashed Lancaster bomber for us to place it in Derbyshire near the start of the Pennine Way. It’s unsettling at first that the viewpoint never settles on one or more main characters but circles around a great many, the focus often shifting within a paragraph from one character or group to another; but you get used to this, along with the brisk progression through the years. The omniscient narrative concerns itself almost as much with the yearly cycles of badgers, foxes, buzzards and goldcrests as with the human residents: In the beech wood the foxes gave birth, earthed down in the dark and wet with pain, the blind cubs pressing against their mother for warmth. I like to think that I’m fairly knowledgeable about wildlife, but had to look up “springtails”, which make frequent appearances.

McGregor uses short, often simple sentences, and dialogue is rendered without speech marks. To give the flavour of this: Inlets are probably clogged again, he said. Everything else all right? Yes, yes. Fine. He took out a pouch of tobacco and rolled a cigarette. She looked as though she had more to say. He nodded up at a bank of clouds over the moor, thickening. Weather, he said, and walked on. Mr Jones, she called after him. Will you let me get someone in? He stopped. It’s a decent boiler, he said. I’ll sort it. A goldcrest moved through the tall firs at the far end of the playground, picking quickly at the insects feeding between the needles. From the hills behind the allotments a thick band of rain was moving in.

McGregor plays with the reader’s expectations of what's happened to the missing teenager.Various possibilities are aired by the locals: there are old mine-shafts, locked-up cottages, a closely guarded boiler-house, and of course the several reservoirs, where the title and the number 13, which corresponds to the number of chapters, seem to be leading us. When walkers stray from the paths, children explore mine tunnels and the water-levels in the reservoirs sink to drought level, we anticipate a discovery; and James Broad, one of the group of teenagers who hung around with Rebecca, knows more than he’s told the police. In another novel these would be either clues or red herrings. But in many such novels the denouement, however carefully the ground is prepared, proves disappointing – the rug-snatching moment not enough for the reader to suspend disbelief. You won’t find that here, with the focus on the ordinary lives of the villagers and the rhythms of the seasons and of community life. Though still remembered, the mystery is in the background.

A woman moves to the village to escape from her violent husband. Teenagers grow up, go to university, return. Allotment crops thrive or fail. Relationships end, new ones develop. Pantomimes are staged each winter (yes, in some ways it’s like Ambridge); the parish council meets; words were had when someone offends. Social media arrives; contacts are made on Facebook; lambs are born, ewes lost in snowdrifts; there’s minor and more serious crime; a dairy farmer is forced by supermarket milk prices to the point of giving up. Many or even most of the characters' stories are characterised by disappointment and loneliness, adaptations and compromises. As the years pass and the missing girl fades into legend, we're reminded how old she would be now and how she might look.

A Guardian feature earlier this year explains that McGregor ‘wrote the book out of sequence, getting down all the scenes about individual families, and then all the lines about blackbirds, foxes, reservoirs and so on, storing the sections in a ring binder. “Then I went back and cut it all up and rearranged it. There was a point when it was purely collage.”’ At any point, he says, he was concerned with just one line. Perhaps that explains the sense of freshness and immediacy that gives this book its distinctive quality. There's something quite mesmerising in the telling; something seductive in the rhythms that reminds me of Cormac McCarthy.

Reservoir 13 is published by 4th Estate.

*published in paperback as Missing Rose, 2016

Monday, 21 August 2017

Guest review by Ann Turnbull: BLACK COUNTRY by Liz Berry



Ann Turnbull writes stories for young people of all ages. Her young adult novel No Shame, No Fear was shortlisted for both the Guardian and Whitbread awards. Since the 1970s Ann has lived a mere twenty miles or so north-west of the Black Country, so its accent is familiar – but her own accent remains stubbornly south-east London.

I came upon Liz Berry’s work by chance while writing a historical novel set in the Black Country. I was searching online for a book about the local dialect, and among the phrase books was Liz Berry’s book of poems. Poetry sounded like a more enjoyable way of getting the feel of the dialect so, by a happy chance, I bought that instead.

In the end, hardly any dialect found its way into my novel, but this book awakened in me a renewed interest and enthusiasm for poetry. I became immersed in these poems, loved them, and read them over and over again.

Black Country is a celebration of the region – its people, their work, their landscape and history. Like Liz Berry, I believe that the voices of ordinary people – those strong, resonant voices – should be celebrated. They carry, as folk songs do, the stories of working people’s lives and history. So here are the canals (‘cuts’), nail-making and chain-making industries, pits, pubs, food – and here is the authentic voice of the people:

“bibble, fittle, tay, wum,
vowels ferrous as nails, consonants
you could lick the coal from.”

There’s the world of work:

“Nailing was wenches’ werk.
Give a girl of eight an anvil and a little ommer
and by God er’d swing it,
batter the glowing iron into tidy spikes…”

And, when work was done, there were the pigeons beloved of colliers

“whose onds grew soft as feathers
just to touch you, cradle you from egg
through each jeth-defying tumble.”

There are sensual, lyrical poems about love and sex, funny poems, dark ghostly tales, poems based on family letters and stories. This is a collection of great variety – of ideas, and of styles and rhythms, with depths and subtleties that become apparent on re-reading. There is a beautiful precision in the use of language. On Christmas Eve the Black Country is ‘tinselled by sleet’ which ‘fattens and softens to snow’; a teacher ‘unhooked a high window on a stuffy day/and heard the room’s breath’; pigeons fly ‘jimmucking the breeze’.

The collection carries throughout the theme of a girl growing up and leaving home, and the imagery of birds is used to describe her awakening to adult life, love, sensuality and eventual flight:

“then an exultation of larks filled the clouds
and, in my mother’s voice, chorused:
Tek flight, chick, goo far fer the winter.”

What I love most about this collection is the warmth and tenderness that lies at the heart of all its variety. My own favourite section is the last, in which the poet returns to her childhood – in particular to her father who, the summer before she started school,

“…made me a boat of words
and pushed us off from the jetty into the Sea of Talk.”

This poem ends:

“Bab, little wench, dow forget this place,
its babble never caught by ink or book,
fer on land, school is singin’ its siren song
and oysters clem their lips upon pearls in the muck…”



Liz Berry was born in the Black Country and now lives in Birmingham. Black Country, her debut collection, was published by Chatto & Windus in 2014, and has received many awards, including the Somerset Maugham Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Guest review by Caroline Pitcher: THE NORTH WATER by Ian McGuire





Caroline Pitcher loves writing stories. It’s like living lots of lives, not just one.

Her books include The Winter Dragon, Lord of the Forest, The Littlest Owl, Please Don’t eat my Sister, Diamond (Kathleen Fidler Award), Kevin the Blue (Independent Story of the Year),The Shaman Boy (East Midlands Arts Award for Cloud Cat),The Gods are Watching, Eleven o’clock Chocolate Cake, Mine, Silkscreen (Arts Council Award), and short stories such as Tam the Eldest, The Dolphin Bracelet and Our Lady of the Iguanas. 


Caroline has just ordered expensive new glasses ready to begin that novel that’s been in her mind all summer. See also her website.


Behold the man. Henry Drax, harpooner, smelling and sucking his fingers after readjusting his crotch, murdering a stranger and raping a boy in the very first chapter. You have been warned.

Drax is the wild, unholy engineer of vile magic, of blood-soaked transmutations. Even when he disappears into the vast indifference of the Arctic Circle, you’ll sense him out there, waiting. He’ll burst back into the story like an acid attack. No unhappy childhood or abuse excuse for Henry Drax. He is beyond reason, a morally null thing.

In the port of Hull in the eighteen fifties, Drax joins the crew of the Volunteer, a whaling ship owned by the rich and ruthless Baxter, who now has other plans for it. Baxter has hired Brownlee as captain, an odd appointment seeing as Brownlee’s last vessel was crushed to matchwood by a berg. Brownlee must appoint a ship’s doctor, and he thinks that Patrick Sumner, a shortarse hopalong, will do, because he is cheap and seems easy-going. Unlikely as it may seem, it is the Homer-reading Sumner who will stand up to Henry Drax. When first they meet, Drax stares at him for a moment as if deciding who he is and what he might be good for.

Sumner boards the claustrophobic, faintly faecal-smelling Volunteer. He is a disgraced army surgeon with a reputation in tatters, no explanation given yet. Every evening he takes twenty-one grains of opium to blur his past and after a concoction mixed with rum he dreams of wandering over the ice fields, seeing unicorn, sea-leopards, walrus, storm petrels, albatross - and polar bears.

Sumner is isolated from the crew as the ship slumps and pitches amid the seething hillocks of an adamantine sea. This is a world of harsh beauty and horror. Think mythic Melville, but also Lord of the Flies, Heart of Darkness, and the Old Testament fierceness of Cormac McCarthy. Any women writers here?

Sometimes I had to snap the book shut to keep Drax and the savagery inside, but not for long. The suspense was too much to bear. The story gripped me. It was a while before I noticed it’s told in the present tense, which can irritate. Not here.

The scenes of seal-killing and whale-hunting are inevitably violent, almost too much for a veggie Greenpeace reader. I wonder if there’ll be co-editions in Japan, Norway and Iceland... There’s shock after cruel shock, blood, pus, shit, rape, murder, odd sex and non-stop swearing, but there are rare rays of beauty to light the desolation; the sky is dense with stars and upon its speckled blank, the borealis unfurls, bends back, reopens again like a vast and multi-coloured murmuration. There’s also sly humour. When a priest woos the Esquimaux with crucifix, candles and Jesus, they find it secretly amusing, a form of exotic entertainment in the otherwise dull expanses of winter.

This is McGuire’s second novel and it won the RSL Encore award. He has recreated a lost world. He grew up near Hull, my distant hometown. My father worked in High Street, a few doors up from William Wilberforce House, so I loved the Hull setting with the cobblestones, Queen’s Dock, Bowlalley Lane, the Turkish Baths, the De La Pole Tavern and the Tabernacle, Charterhouse Lane, and yes! Caroline Street, but my favourite street, the Land of Green Ginger, is much too magical to feature here.

The narrative plunges like a roller-coaster built on ice. Sumner the surgeon sinks lower, even lower than you could imagine. There is some kind of redemption, and the ending has a scene of profound loneliness which has haunted me since I first read The North Water last year.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Guest review by Chitra Soundar: DAILY RITUALS - HOW GREAT MINDS MAKE TIME, FIND INSPIRATION, AND GET TO WORK by Mason Currey


Chitra Soundar is an Indian-born British writer, storyteller and author of children’s books, based in London. When not writing stories or not visiting schools, Chitra fills her well with her nephews, taking photos of flowers and birds, going to museums and attending dancing classes. Find out more at www.chitrasoundar.com or follow her on twitter via @csoundar.

I was constantly moaning on Facebook about not writing enough. The truth was that I was writing a lot – but I wasn’t spending enough time ruminating on the characters and the plot. An artist friend who watched me whinge and moan suggested I read Daily Rituals – a book put together by Mason Currey, which actually started as a blog.

In his introduction, Currey says, “My underlying concerns in the book are issues I struggle with in my own life. How do you do meaningful creative work while also earning a living? Is it better to devote yourself wholly to a project or to set aside a small portion of each day?”

I was bogged down by the same questions – can you do creative work, write the next best British Asian middle grade novel if you’re working to a deadline? Can you do good work if you spend three days a week at a day-job and hardly have time to think about anything else? Can a modern writer who still has to pay the mortgage, bills and an occasional treat claim their place on the artistic pedestal?

I’ve often blogged about my writing process, the preoccupation with time, filling the well, spending time between writing and thinking.

So someone suggesting this book to me felt like a gift. It was unsolicited advice from the universe to let go of the how and just focus on the what – because if anything this book tells me there is no one way to do the “art”. What works for a writer in France in the 1800s might not work for Stephen King in a park trailer.

When I started reading Daily Rituals, I was amused and awed by the genius, pettiness and even the arrogance of many. While many respected the writing, some dreaded it and others could operate only in excesses.

Currey has chosen a wide range of writers, musicians and artists across generations, continents and some cultural diversity. Many of the accounts have been scoured from interviews, memoirs, newspaper clippings and such. But the short accounts from each artist reads like a story. A little glimpse through the window of a famous artist who we admire and would love to emulate.

Not sure if I can drink and dine out every evening like Francis Bacon or write in the family sitting room like Jane Austen surrounded by the noises of siblings, but I did find a kindred soul in Henry Miller. Like him I prefer to write from dawn to noon and anything I write after that is counterproductive to the work in progress.

P G Wodehouse and Stephen King have different rituals but they did solid work and had goals for each day. One writer I would have liked to see is Alexander McCall Smith whose rituals have been published widely. He is also a musician (apart from being a medical law professor) and he talks about his writing rituals here and here.

Writing places also seem to vary – from sheds to basement to a desk in the corner of a bedroom to writing with the company of snails. While some wrote after a coffee, others needed a stiff drink. Each of their muses seemed to ask for different things.

Did it stop my clamouring? Did it make me more confident of my methods? While any of these rituals cannot guarantee genius, it was reassuring to know that there is no way to approach it. There is no formula, there is no secret code that you get to find out only if you’re inducted into the hall of fame. There is just YOU. By that I mean ME. What works for me is surely only what works for me. I have to reflect on my own habits and discern the things that work and follow those rituals.

When we find that magic ritual – we should hold on to it. I know; it does cause huge amount of stress within our families.

o “I will not write until the genie appears out of this eco-lamp!”

o “I need to lock myself in the family bathroom for four hours in the morning to write.”

o “I can only write in cocktail bars between 6 pm and 9 pm and this entire table is taken for my enormous antique typewriter.”

Just kidding. Mine are much more sensible – I just live in a different country from my family or chloroform them until I’m done in the morning.

I wanted to share this book with all of you because we all wonder about the muse at some point – especially when there is a deadline and the words are stuck and wouldn’t flow down. Or we overwork – draining our creativity on to page and suffer from anti-social thoughts like – why do I have a family? Why do I have to take a shower today? What is the meal between breakfast and lunch? We feel guilty on days we don’t work, we get an idea during a holiday and we abandon our companions to the sharks in the ocean and hide in a dry corner with a notebook or a laptop.

So if you’re a regular output no-nonsense writer or I-write-when-I-want writer, this book will interest you. If not anything else it will give you the courage that whatever your method, there were more crazy ones out there!

Daily Rituals is published by Picador.











Monday, 31 July 2017

Guest review by Tony Bradman - THE PASSAGE trilogy by Justin Cronin


Tony Bradman has written books for children of all ages. His most recent titles are Anglo-Saxon Boy (Walker), Revolt Against the Romans (Bloomsbury Education) and The Greatest Stories Ever Told, illustrated by Tony Ross (Orchard).


Is it me, or is there still a general air of snootiness about genre fiction in our literary culture? An implicit belief that if a novel features an apocalyptic plot or vampires then it can’t have any literary merit? We could add accessible prose to the charge-sheet, and stories with lots of jeopardy, terrific action sequences and memorable dialogue. To some critics I’m sure that all seems rather, well… vulgar.

I’ve always found that attitude to be enormously irritating, so I’m pleased to say Justin Cronin’s trilogy of doorstep-sized novels make it look as narrow-minded as it really is. His trilogy - The Passage, The Twelve and The City of Mirrors - is an apocalyptic novel with vampires, but it also has enormous literary merit. It explores character and relationships, it has intimacy and grandeur, melancholy and joy. There are passages of technical explanation any writer of science-fiction or thrillers would be proud of, but also moments of genuine lyricism that will linger in the mind. I bought each volume in hardback as they appeared, and was utterly gripped.

The premise does combine several familiar genre tropes. A rogue element of the US government sets in motion a secret project to develop super-soldiers with hugely enhanced physical powers and a capacity for instant self-healing. The catalyst for these changes is a virus discovered in a rare species of Colombian bats, and the first test subjects are a dozen death-row convicts, men who are offered the chance of life if they ‘volunteer’ for the project. But the scientists, government agents and military men seriously underestimate what the virus can do - the convicts are turned into giant vampires who are virtually invulnerable. The inevitable break-out occurs, the test subjects escaping from a secret laboratory - and the apocalypse soon follows.

And what an apocalypse it is, an almost complete extermination of the human race. The original twelve vampires kill thousands, but also spread the virus in order to create more vampires who are like them - and who will be under their control. Before long only small pockets of survivors remain, their outposts dotted across America and completely cut off from each other. But from the beginning we know there is hope. The bad guys - and this is a measure of just how evil they are - also infect a six-year-old girl called Amy with the virus thinking that she won’t turn out to be so dangerous. They’re right - she gains some powers yet doesn’t lose her humanity, although they can never imagine the role Amy will have in the long-term future of our species.

I should point out that Justin Cronin doesn’t tell his enormous tale in a strict chronological sequence. The Passage does begin at the beginning, setting up the premise, introducing the twelve convicts, Amy, and some other key characters. But it quickly leaps 92 years, telling the story of one of the outposts and its people, the descendants of refugees. The storylines in both The Twelve and The City of Mirrors then move backwards and forwards in time, filling in more background detail in the lives of important characters, setting up clues and foreshadowing events to come. All, is resolved at the conclusion of the final book - the stories of individual characters as well as the ultimate fate of the human race a thousand years after the catastrophe.

The trilogy weighs in at something like 800,000 words, and by my reckoning that’s about six-or-seven-novels-worth of material. I was going to say that this puts it on a Tolstoyan scale, but in many respects it’s even bigger that. There’s a huge cast of characters too, many of whom could easily have whole novels devoted to them. But you never get them confused with other characters, or forget what their place is in the overall tale, and that has to be a testament to the sheer craft of Justin Cronin. He manages it all with great aplomb; I was gripped by it all, often re-reading sections.

It’s difficult to convey the sheer quality of the whole thing - until you read it for yourself you’ll have to take my word for it. The trilogy has been very successful in terms of sales, and film rights were bought by Ridley Scott before the first book was published, although now it seems likely to be made into series for television by HBO. If that happens, then I think it could do for the apocalyptic novel what the Game of Thrones adaptation has done for fantasy fiction, ie proved that it’s best done on epic scale on screen as well as in print. And don’t forget, you heard that here first.

The Passage trilogy is published by Orion.




Friday, 28 July 2017

FIRST ANNIVERSARY - My Holiday Reading by Adèle Geras


Every summer, when the newspapers give us the reading choices of their great and good contributors and guests, I'm astonished at the height of the brows of everyone who responds. These people are regularly reading works of deep intellectual heft and size. Military histories. Other detailed histories. Serious, difficult novels. Works of sociology and philosophy. Poetry which needs, you'd think, a bit more attention than you can give it from a sun lounger. Or maybe I'm wrong. It's true that my son-in-law was reading MONTCAILLOU (history and small print combined) so I do believe that there are folk who genuinely do this.

I'm of the other persuasion. My holiday involved two long train journeys across Europe so I really needed 'something sensational to read on the train,' in the words of Oscar Wilde. In between, I was spending most of my time beside a pool, so I needed something involving; something that would keep me awake when my eyes were closing in the warmth of the sun. I have to say, I succeeded so well this holiday that I wanted to share my choices with readers of  this blog. 


What these books have in common, (apart perhaps from the Sam Bourne TO KILL THE PRESIDENT, to which I'll return), is that they fulfil the best (to my mind)  definition yet of what a good novel is. It's a story about "proper people in interesting situations." Proper people, to be clear, means human beings rather than spacemen or Daleks or any fantasy creation.  Jodi Picoult has dealt in proper people in not only interesting situations but skewered on the horns of some dreadful dilemmas. In SMALL GREAT THINGS, a black nurse is forbidden by a white supremacist father and mother of a newborn baby to touch him in any way. The baby dies. The nurse has tried to help him, of course, but he dies nonetheless. A court case ensues. Every single issue related to race, medical ethics, personal problems is forensically and very grippingly examined and you do end up knowing and understanding much more than you did at the beginning. I raced through it with great enjoyment but by the end I felt two things. Firstly, it was too long. I think if 100 pages had been trimmed away, it would have been a much better book. Secondly, I thought that the additional material added at the end about how the writer came to write the book was a little redundant. But the characters are well-drawn, and the trial unfolds with tension and surprises along the way. We are in the viewpoints of several people: the nurse, the white supremacist, the defence lawyer for the nurse and so on. I do recommend it, especially for anyone who enjoys a good drama largely set in court.


THE AWKWARD AGE by Francesca Segal is related to the Henry James novel with the same title but I can't talk about that, never having read the James.  I downloaded this because I so enjoyed Segal's first novel, THE INNOCENTS. I was very glad that I had. It's a cracker of a novel. A middle- aged couple is deeply in love. The woman is a widow. The man is divorced from his first wife. The man has a son, the woman has a daughter. Of course, the teenagers are appalled by the obvious passion their parents are displaying. They hate one another. And then, they stop hating one another and begin to love one another instead and this causes no end of dreadful problems. Because this book is mostly about people, their failings, their madnesses, their ambitions, and secret desires, I am not going to spoil what plot there is by telling you any more. There is anguish, humour, understanding, reconciliation, jealousy of various kinds and above all, sparkling, witty, sharp and also deeply clever writing. We know everyone; we sympathise with everyone and at the same time want to slap them very hard. It's like spending time with a family which is horrendous in many ways and yet which is at the same time fascinating and attractive and thankfully not yours! I can't imagine anyone not enjoying this book.


THE PARTY by Elizabeth Day is a very gripping story indeed. It's also about people who in many ways have nothing to recommend them. There are echoes of the Bullingdon Club, and whiffs of resemblances to various people in present day politics. But. But but but...

At the heart of the book are two  character whom we can't help liking, in spite of their many flaws. It's clear from the way the novel is (very beautifully) structured that Something Awful has happened. Martin, the damaged hero, is in a police station. Interspersed with Martin's account of what's happened, and how his whole life has led up to it, comes Lucy, his girlfriend's account of the same story from her point of view. She is writing this account at the behest of a psychiatrist...hmm, you might think and you would be right. The something awful that we're talking about happened at the Party of the title, but there are other awful things that are gradually revealed. I promise you, you will not  be able to put this book down. I raced through it, glued to every sentence. Day is a very elegant writer and even though some of these characters aren't people you'd necessarily want to have next to you on the sun lounger, they are fascinating. Day is a journalist as well as a novelist and this novel is above all, gossipy and in the know....it's terrific.

My final book is a thriller by Sam Bourne who is actually the Guardian writer, Jonathan Freedland. He's a wonderful journalist and often writes articles that are spot on both in style and in substance. I downloaded this because I assume the author knows what he's talking about and  I wanted to see how he'd manage a story about the assassination of someone who bears a very striking resemblance to Donald Trump. All the characters seem to have their equivalents in real life and that was the fascination for me. I have been wondering why no one is suing Sam Bourne but I've   worked it out now. If anyone sues, it's a kind of admission that they know the book is about them. The only possible thing for Trump and his minions to do is to say: "What me, Gov? No resemblance at all..."

All in all, four cracking books for your pleasure. Hope you agree about at least some of them. 

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

FIRST ANNIVERSARY - reading pile roundup: Linda Newbery

A side-effect of hosting WRITERS REVIEW is that my to-be-read pile (both virtual and actual) is out of control, with new additions almost every week. I have two overcrowded shelves of books-in-waiting: charity shop bargains rubbing shoulders with overdue library books, loans from friends, occasional advance proofs, impulse buys and the next choice for Reading Group. Inevitably, some books wait there for a very long time, as others jump the queue - and that's without including the titles lined up on my Kindle. At least I shall never be short of a good read. 

One that will go straight to the front is Alan Hollinghurst's The Sparsholt Affair, due in October. I particularly enjoyed his most recent novel, The Stranger's Child, and this one - beginning in Oxford in the Blitz and following three generations to the present-day - promises everything Hollinghurst is known for: elegance of style, insights into social mores and changing times, a focus on art and architecture. 

Time Will Darken It, by William Maxwell, is the book I've chosen for my Reading Group. I have yet to read anything by Maxwell, but his reputation gives me high expectations. Tom Cox, of the New York Times, listed it as an underrated classic of American literature, a "quiet, mid-career masterpiece". ("Quiet" is the kiss of death to marketing departments these days, making me wonder if the novel would even find a publisher today.) Nicholas Lezard, whose Paperback of the Week feature in the Guardian has sadly come to an end but was such a reliable source of books otherwise at risk of being overlooked, said of it: "This is such a good novel that I'm still shaking thinking about it ... A novel not to be recommended to people but to be pressed on them, urgently." So I am pressing it on my Reading Group, for September.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker, unaccountably had a long wait on the shelf before I started it this week. Such a clever idea: Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the family servants - a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead set in Jane Austen's world, or at least the long hours and repetitive toil behind the scenes which allow her main players to lead their lives of comfort and leisure. Of course the servants have their own secrets and desires, and in one case a background that takes us far beyond the confines of Longbourn. I'm already hooked, by the writing as well as by the premise. Jo Baker is certainly a striking talent; far from imitating Jane Austen she has found a distinctive style of her own, and a sense of wild landscape in some of the scenes which is more reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte. 
There's usually some nature writing on my waiting pile. Currently heading that section is The Seabird's Cry  by Adam Nicholson, from which I expect eloquent writing on marine ecosystems, the lives of birds and how we're casually destroying the environment.

I enjoyed Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,  was even more impressed by The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, and am looking forward to her new novel, The Music Shop. She has a wonderful way of combining simplicity and profundity in writing about unexceptional lives. For a taster, catch it on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime last week and this.


What are you looking forward to reading? Please tell us in the comments!















Monday, 24 July 2017

FIRST ANNIVERSARY guest post by Tracy Chevalier: THE OPTICIAN OF LAMPEDUSA by Emma-Jane Kirby

It's our birthday! We are a year old this week. Huge thanks to all the guest contributors who make this possible by lending us their time, expertise and enthusiasms - we wouldn't be able to do it without their willing help. Special thanks to this week's guest, Tracy Chevalier, for helping us to mark the occasion. Her brilliant novel Remarkable Creatures was our very first review, and we're delighted to welcome her now in person with this timely recommendation.






Tracy Chevalier FRSL is the author of nine novels. She is best known for the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has been translated into 39 languages, sold over 5 million copies worldwide, and made into a film. Her most recent books are the historical novel At the Edge of the Orchard, and New Boy, a retelling of Othello for the Shakespeare Project. She is President of the Royal Literary Fund, a Trustee of the British Library, former Chair of the Society of Authors, and holds honorary degrees from her alma maters, Oberlin College and the University of East Anglia. She grew up in Washington DC and in 1984 moved to London, where she lives with her husband and son.

The most moving and important book I’ve read in the past year is The Optician of Lampedusa by the journalist Emma-Jane Kirby. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction other than for research purposes; I’ve often found it slow-going and worthy, as if a determined lecturer is trying to force information into me. This book is different: short, urgent, devastating. Kirby first came across the story and reported it on BBC Radio 4. Now she has turned it into a clear, simply written true tale for our time. I read it in two hours and it will stay with me for life.

A few years ago an ordinary, unnamed optician who lives on the small island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily went on a fishing trip for a couple of days with his wife and six friends. One morning they woke to distant sounds of distress, and discovered that close by a boat full of migrants and refugees crossing from North Africa had sunk. The waters were churning with over 500 people struggling to stay afloat. The book describes in detail how the optician and his friends scrambled to rescue 47 people, pulling them onto a boat designed to hold only 10. If you have ever wondered how you might respond to an extreme crisis, the optician and his friends provide a model of how to connect with your vital inner humanitarianism.

The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of that harrowing experience and the group’s struggle with the resulting psychological trauma. Having thought little about migrants and refugees until then, they developed great concern for the people they rescued, and later managed to meet with them, in a heartfelt reunion. It is a lesson in how specific stories change people’s views of a general crisis.

The optician is realistic about the effect the influx of refugees has had on Lampedusa’s community and resources, but reveals a new understanding of what it means for people to risk so much to get to Europe and a new life.

Many of us have spent a lot of time talking about the refugee crisis without having any real experience of it. Whatever our views, most are unlikely ever to meet a refugee, much less save them from drowning. The Optician of Lampedusa makes concrete and personal what has been an abstraction. Once you’ve read it you’ll feel like a crucial piece of the jigsaw – the human piece – has been filled in. For that reason, it is a must-read.

The Optician of Lampedusa is published by Or Books.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Guest review by Keren David: FAMILY SECRETS: LIVING WITH SHAME FROM THE VICTORIANS TO THE PRESENT DAY



Keren David is the author of eight novels for Young Adults; she is also Features Editor for the Jewish Chronicle. Her latest book is The Liar's Handbook (Barrington Stoke)


There are some works of non-fiction that help and inspire me when I’m writing one book in particular. For my latest I've been reading books about Canadian life in the 1900s, and very interesting they have proved.

But there are other books which provide enlightenment and underpinning for almost everything I write. Deborah Cohen’s marvellous Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day is most definitely in the latter category and I commend it to any writer whose subject matter involves families, secrets, lies, shame or privacy; that is, very many of us.

Cohen examines areas of family life which have involved secrecy and shame, particularly in the twentieth century and examines social attitudes towards them. Adoption, homosexuality, learning and physical disabilities, race, domestic violence, incest and illegitimacy are all covered, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards secrecy itself, as society moved towards today’s confessional culture. Cohen tells the story of what happens within the family, a change from the usual accounts of social change which focus on protest movements and changes in the law.

To tell those stories she has looked at family letters and diaries, the files of adoption agencies and institutions for the mentally handicapped, the records of marriage counsellors and the divorce court. Just reading about her research (“In Edinburgh, staff had to cut the plastic bands strapped tightly around marriage-counselling files from the 1940s and 1950s before I could begin my research”) gives me a frisson of excitement. The curiosity, that need to know more and understand people better which fuels many a journalist or novelist (I am both), is very well satisfied in this book. It also helps place the current fascination for revealing more and more Love Island-style in a narrative starting in the teeming Victorian tenements where privacy was a luxury that the poor could not afford.

The book starts with a sentence that could come from a novel: “Celia Ward was resourceful and she was desperate.” Celia and her husband wanted to adopt a baby, and in 1920 she felt it had to be as secret as possible. She stayed in a nursing home for a month, pretending to have given birth, and told everyone that the child was her own. If you love watching Long Lost Family, or Who Do You Think You Are? then this book is for you, it puts many such stories in context, leaving enough to the imagination that to read just one chapter provides a writer with a fertile river of ideas to develop.

“There are an infinite number of stories to tell about families, for they are all famously unhappy (and perhaps also happy) in their own ways…” says Cohen, “Writing about the families of the past is an enterprise that necessarily balances the universal and the particular, for the emotions that families call forth (love as well as hate, the warmth of protection and the struggle against dependence) are uncannily familiar - whether considered from the standpoint of legal frameworks, social structures or the brute facts of demography - has often changed utterly.”

Her book made me reflect on my own family’s twentieth century secrets ; the ones I know about anyway, which include one great uncle in a mental asylum, another who was homosexual, and another uncle who disappeared from our lives when I was six, and then reappeared again when I was 14. My husband’s genealogical researches likewise turned up lies about a marriage and a great-aunt who died in a poorhouse. And when I wrote books about adoption and bisexuality, Cohen’s research and insights were invaluable; I can’t recommend it highly enough. And I will be reading it yet again this summer.

Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day is published in hardback by Viking, and in paperback by Penguin with the title Family Secrets: The Things we Tried to Hide

Monday, 10 July 2017

A FATAL INVERSION by Barbara Vine, reviewed by Linda Newbery


I'd planned to review something else today, but because of the recent heatwave I'm revisiting, instead, my favourite Barbara Vine novel, which takes place during the exceptionally hot summer of 1976.  

The TV adaptation in 1992, in which the young Jeremy Northam played one of the leads, introduced me to Ruth Rendell as her Barbara Vine alias. The novels written under this pseudonym are notable for their creeping sense of menace, and the way in which ordinary, not particularly ill-intentioned people become involved in terrible events through their circumstances or obsessions. If you start on a Barbara Vine, you'd better have plenty of time at your disposal; she will soon have you thoroughly hooked. Even on a re-reading, knowing the main thrust of the plot and the breathtaking twist at the end, I couldn't put this one down.

Unremitting summer heat contributes to a powerful sense of place and atmosphere. The 'inversion' of the title refers to Ecalpemos - some place in reverse - the name given by Adam, one of the viewpoint characters, to Wyvis Hall, the Suffolk mansion he unexpectedly inherits from a grumpy uncle. Intending just to visit and take stock of the place before heading to Greece for the summer, he and a friend, Rufus, decide to stay there in secret. The slightly shabby mansion, its lake and grounds and woodland, seem cut off from ordinary life; the 'drift', the long avenue leading in from the public road, marks this separation. We experience the place as the young men do, freed from studies and parental expectations, with no one to please but themselves: "He and Rufus, like sultans, had reclined on quilts and smoked hashish, the pungent trails of smoke rising into the dark air and mingling with the scents of the summer night"; and also as Adam views it later, remembering that Shiva, who joins them, called it Eden: "as if a necessary condition of being in this paradise was the commission of some frightful sin or crime that must result in expulsion." 

The novel moves back and forth in time, starting ten years on from that summer. Burying a dead spaniel, the current owners of Wyvis Hall unearth human bones from the pet cemetery in their pine woods; inspection reveals these bones to have belonged to a young woman and a baby. When this gruesome find is reported in the press it unsettles, separately, Adam, Rufus, and Shiva, who have never met or communicated since the day they left in 1976. Each of them, knowing exactly what happened though with varying degrees of involvement, dreads further investigation. Both Adam and Rufus are now well-established professionals, Rufus a gynaecologist, Adam a computer designer; Rufus fears for his reputation, Adam for his marriage and his baby daughter. Approached by police, Adam unwisely denies having lived at Wyvis Hall that summer, a claim that can easily be disproved by a number of locals: the 'coypu man', the dismissed gardener, the post-girl.

Of course we don't at first know who the young woman might be, nor the baby, but possibilities unfurl as the 'commune' Adam needs to finance his hedonistic summer begins to assemble. There are girls; first Mary, Rufus's girlfriend, who soon leaves, then two casual pick-ups, and - the one on whom the plot hinges - Zosie, a childlike but sexily appealing waif brought back by Rufus and seemingly with nowhere else to go. Soon Zosie finds dubious ways of providing cash, and goes from being Rufus' lover to Adam's. The 'commune' is completed by Shiva and Vivien, brought there on the recommendation of a mutual friend, and expecting - Vivien especially - a place of spiritual enlightenment and practical self-sufficiency. Earnest, orderly and principled, seeking the stability missing from her childhood, Vivien soon takes charge of domestic arrangements, becoming a mother figure to Zosie.

As each of the three men reluctantly recalls the events of that hot summer, the tragedy unfolds for the reader with awful inevitability. I had forgotten many of the details from my earlier reading, but appreciated this time how cleverly everything is woven into the whole: the 'coypu man'; Vivien's blue dress; Zosie's small gold ring; Uncle Hilbert's shot-gun; Vivien's background in a care home that's resulted in her love of children and her career as a nanny. The hints and foreshadowings are all there, hidden in plain sight.

What Vine / Rendell does so successfully is to engross the reader in the lives of characters who aren't particularly likeable. Adam is careless of his good fortune, inconsiderate of others and casually racist towards Shiva, remembering him only as 'the Indian' despite sharing the house for several weeks. Rufus, a medical student, is ambitious and arrogant, treating young women as possessions: when Zosie appeals to him to take her side in a crisis, he responds: "I'll tell you whose side I'm on. Rufus's. And that goes for always.' Zosie, vulnerable and dependent, frequently likened to a small, timid animal, is the one whose actions precipitate catastrophe. Even Shiva, anxious for respectability but too keen to win approval, contributes to the mounting disaster; years later he has confided in his wife, but kept this final secret to himself. All three viewpoint characters are tormented by guilt, remorse and the need for self-preservation, in various measures. Not only does Barbara Vine keep you hooked; she makes you feel complicit, caught up in the same tightening mesh as her characters, imagining that you're there in the kitchen on the fateful morning, sharing their dilemma.

Recently, I've read high-profile thrillers that depend on a major plot twist meant to snatch the rug from under the reader's feet. Without exception they have left me feeling dissatisfied, resenting the time I've invested in reading - the cleverness of the twist isn't enough to make up for thin characterisation, implausible motivation or a denouement that falls flat once the revelation has been made. Revisiting this darkly enthralling masterclass has reminded me just how good, how superbly good, Barbara Vine / Ruth Rendell was. That ending, so surprising, so absolutely right ...  well, you'll have to read it for yourself, if you haven't already done so.

I haven't read all the Barbara Vine titles yet, but this one remains at the top of my list, with Asta's Book, The Brimstone Wedding and The Blood Doctor as runners-up. If you're a fan too, which is your favourite, and why? 

A Fatal Inversion is published by Penguin.

This is an adapted version of a review which first appeared on my website blog, Between the Pages.