Monday, 29 May 2017

RED SHIFT by Alan Garner, reviewed by Celia Rees

In a Lecture given in 1975, Alan Garner said that each of his books could be seen as an expression of a different myth. For Elidor we should look to Childe Rolande and Burd Ellen; The Owl Service to Lieu, Blodeuedd and Gronw from the Fourth Book of the Mabinogion. And Red Shift? The Ballad of Tam Lin. Unlike The Owl Service, the connection is not obvious, not to this reader anyway, but it is typical of Garner that, once seen, it is clear. The story of the earthly knight trapped in elfin form by the Fairy Queen then snatched from her clutches by plucky young Janet who pulls him from his horse, holds on to him through some fierce shape shifting and finally cloaks his naked body in her green mantle thus saving her love and the father of her child, informs and infuses the novel in a deep kind of way, barely discernable on the surface but THERE.

Once one knows, then this layer of this multi layered work becomes obvious.  At the beginning of the novel, modern star-crossed lovers, Tom and Jan, are separated by class and soon to be by distance. She is the daughter of doctors while he lives with his working class parents in a caravan. She is moving to London while he will be staying on at the caravan park. Tom is a troubled young man, highly intelligent, at odds with his parents, hypersensitive and barely in control of his emotions. Another reference, in a book with many references, is to Tom o’ Bedlam in King Lear. The novel starts with the two lovers looking down at the M6 motorway as they contemplate their parting. The novel is, of course, set in Cheshire, a county with deep resonance for Garner. As in all his novels, place is as important as myth (myth of the place most important of all) and place is key to the different strands of time that run through the book. The two modern lovers inhabit and wander through a landscape that has been inhabited before. Tom’s caravan park is at Wulvern, the site of an ancient burial mound; they take an ancient track leading from Crewe Station across railway sidings to the village of Barthomley and finally to Mow Cop, a place of ancient sanctuary and 'the netherstone of the world' on which 'the sky mill grind stars'. 

 The novel shifts back and forth from the present to Roman Britain and the English Civil War. The times are linked not just by place, but by the night sky. The lovers are linked by the moon and Orion even when they are far apart. This links them, in turn, to pairs of lovers in the past.  They are also linked by a votive Bronze Age stone axe head that is discovered and kept by each of the troubled young men and the strong young women who protect them.

The stories are marked by quite shocking violence that twists and turns, looming and receding though time, and is centred on the young men. Macey, at Mow Cop, is a berserker with the Roman soldiers, who is capable of flipping and killing indiscriminately. Thomas is subject to fits and visions and is trapped with other villagers in the church tower at Barthomley by Civil War soldiers in a siege which becomes a historic massacre that occurred on Christmas Eve 1643.  Both of these young men are saved by the love of a strong young woman and both are troubled by visions that link them to the modern Tom. The violence resonates to the present with references to the Vietnam War which was going on when Garner was writing. The Roman soldiers have American nicknames and speak in army slang. 

This is a multi layered and complex novel which makes few concessions to the reader. The movement between time frames is abrupt. Most of the modern story is delivered in jittery, jagged dialogue between Tom and his girlfriend. It is a novel of high compression. Only155 pages long, it requires the reader to do most of the work. The brevity is a stark contrast to most modern YA novels, especially fantasy, and what Garner manages to achieve, the amount he packs in to those few pages, is breath taking. In recollection, it seems a much longer novel, so much is contained within it and much of that actually goes on within the reader’s own head. The elliptical style, the sudden changes, the refusal to provide any easy explanations mark it as a true Young Adult novel defined, not by content, but by narrative sophistication. There is nothing easy about it but it is utterly compelling. Challenging in the true sense, it makes demands on the reader and demands to be read and read again.

‘It contrasts to the deadweight tedium of so much other ‘teenage’ fiction. The virtuosity with which he manages pace and dialogue is dazzling.’

So said The Times in 1973 and still true today.  

I'm writing this review on the same weekend as Philip Pullman's much awaited The Book of Dust is being trailed and previewed and I'm wondering if Red Shift would even be even be published now, for Young Adults anyway, or would it be seen as too 'difficult', breaking just too many rules? 

Monday, 22 May 2017

SIRACUSA by Delia Ephron, reviewed by Adèle Geras

Monday, 15 May 2017

Guest review by Sheena Wilkinson: THE DARK CIRCLE by Linda Grant

Described in The Irish Times as 'one of our foremost writers for young people', Sheena Wilkinson writes both contemporary and historical fiction for young adults. She has won many awards, including the Children's Books Ireland Book of the Year. Her most recent novel is Street Song (Black and White). 

I blame the Chalet School. Linked to an Alpine TB sanatorium, it sparked off in me a lifelong obsession with all things tubercular. In real life, I am too squeamish even to watch a hospital drama, and flinch from every cough in the street; in the pages of a book no medical detail is too vile. As long as it is about something I am pretty safe not to encounter in real life. So, no to cancer, yes to cholera; no to stroke, yes to scarlet fever.

But TB, of course, is the best. And a novel set in a TB sanatorium, thus combining medical beastliness with the enchantment of the closed community – bring it on! Add in social change, the dawn of the NHS, lesbians and twins – could Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle tick any more of my boxes? I’ve enjoyed several of her novels before, but I would have picked this one up regardless of who wrote it, simply because of the setting and subject matter. It very quickly became my favourite book of the year so far. I finished it reluctantly and have been busy recommending it to everyone I know.

It’s hard to define what makes a book compelling, but from the moment I started The Dark Circle, I really couldn’t put it down. Grant introduces us to eighteen year old twins, Lenny and Miriam, coming of age in post-war London. It’s a grey world of austerity and anti-Semitism but change is in the offing, and Lenny, who ‘had slept with three birds already’ and ‘had his own London drape with two pairs of trousers’ is determined to dodge his national service and be part of the coming boom. He doesn’t expect to be told he has TB and that his twin sister Miriam is also affected. Though the novel spans a wide cast of characters, from patients to doctors to the inimitable Uncle Manny, it is to the twins that we always return, and around their bond that the action spins.

This being the dawn of the NHS, these working class characters are swept off to the Gwendo, formerly an exclusive private sanatorium but now ‘opened … to anyone.’ Everything is alien to them – the strict regime; the threatening landscape; the still mostly genteel backgrounds of the patients. They make connections with people they would never otherwise have met, ladies and army captains, girl graduates and even an American sailor.

What binds these characters is quite simply their shared experience of their disease: a horrible thing, traditionally a death sentence, but, by the early 1950s, starting to respond to new drugs. Grant acknowledges the romantic cult which has always surrounded TB, but sets this against the reality of symptoms and treatment. Her characters cough, and bleed, and sweat and spit. They grow bored and cold on bed rest open to the elements. They have their lungs collapsed and, in one of the most horrifying scenes, their ribs broken and removed, leaving permanent disfigurement. They grow podgy under the enforced rest and milky diet. A far cry from Keats and even the Chalet School.

Grant brilliantly captures vicissitudes of life in this isolated community, poised always between boredom and high drama. Who will live and who will die? Until now, this has mostly been a matter of luck but as the novel progresses, a new treatment becomes available: ‘Streptomycin… It’s supposed to be as compete a cure as you can hope for.’ But stocks are limited. Who will be offered it, and on what grounds?

At first I was slightly disappointed when the action of the novel moved on from the intensity of the Gwendo; I had become, like the characters, institutionalised. And that first long section, ‘Each Breath You Take’, remains my favourite. But as I read about the developing fortunes of our heroes, into almost the present day, I decided that this was one of the book’s strengths: to show how close we are to that time which might otherwise seem so distant. It reminds us that Lenny and Miriam and Valerie are our own parents and grandparents. And with a health service in crisis and the terrifying rise of antibiotic-resistant infections, The Dark Circle is a great deal more than a brilliantly-observed period piece.

The Dark Circle is published by Virago.

Monday, 8 May 2017

Guest review by Linda Sargent: THE BURIED GIANT by Kazuo Ishiguro

Linda Sargent is a writer who works as a publisher’s reader (David Fickling Books since 2002). She has published short stories and articles and her first novel, Paper Wings, appeared in 2010; she is also the author of Words and Wings, a training guide to creative reminiscence work, available as a free download from her website.

Recently we saw the theatrical version of La Strada, based on the film by Fellini who is quoted as saying that, “the best cinema (has) the language of dreams, everything you see there has meaning, but the meaning is not always literal or easily understandable”. This surely applies to all great art, and certainly to Ishiguro’s powerful and hypnotic book, The Buried Giant. Anyone, picking it up and imagining they’re embarking on another foray into a Game of Thrones’ world is likely to be disappointed, and yet the fundamentals are there, but mystical rather than literal. Similarly, there are the echoes of one of my favourite childhood authors, Rosemary Sutcliff, in her vivid recreations of Roman and post-Roman Britain. This, though, is a Britain of bogs and forests where ogres lurk, stark mountains and rivers sprinkled with sprites and pixies, a Britain of meandering and uncharted paths and all shrouded in a memory-hazing mist, emanating from the dragon, Querig, as she slumbers under an enchantment cast by the now dead, Merlin. A Britain that, for me, evoked reminders of more recent wars too, such as those in the Balkans.

In this story Arthur is dead and his one remaining knight, an ancient (almost Pythonesque) Sir Gawain, wanders the land on his faithful horse, Horace, feeling it must be he who is tasked with Querig’s end. It is on Horace that the book’s two main characters, the elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice finally reach their destination of the river and its waiting boatman.
The story begins with Beatrice and Axl preparing to leave their communal, but not especially friendly, Hobbit-like burrow; they set off to find their son, absent for some years, planning to travel on foot to his village, despite the hazards of the wild landscape. Essentially, it is an archetypal journey story, fraught with both helpers and hinderers. They and everyone they meet, carry an unsettlingly vague notion of the past that both inhibits and protects them in their present life. Beatrice is nursing a pain that she tries to hide from Axl, but it is clear to him, and to the reader, that it is no trivial matter and at one point, en route, the two elderly Britons seek out a monastery where a monk may be able to offer help to Beatrice, but where other dangers await. Meanwhile, they have met with Sir Gawain, Wistan, a Saxon warrior on his own quest and also his Saxon boy companion, Edwin, rescued from ostracism in his village because of a wound (apparently caused by an ogre) and also on a personal mission, to find his mother. The four of them come together, encounter dangers and frights, are separated and re-united; however, the binding thread running through the story is the abiding power of love between Axl and Beatrice. Throughout, Axl tenderly refers to his wife as “princess” as he encourages and nurtures her during their exhausting and challenging journey. And it is this love, with all of its past imperfections, that mirrors the buried anger and resentment of the people in this mist-covered land. What is raised here is the question of the seductive enticement of repressing memories of past violence (of burying the giant) and how, once uncovered, the dangers implicit in lifting the lid on possible revenge and retribution. Near the end of the book as memories begin to clear, there’s a moving plea from the elderly Axl to the young, newly fired-up, Edwin: “Master Edwin! We beg this of you. In the days to come, remember us. Remember us and this friendship when you were still a boy”.

With so much upheaval, displacement and distrust caused by ongoing conflict in our current world this is indeed a story for our times: a story for all time and one that demands many readings. I loved it.   

Monday, 1 May 2017

NATURAL SELECTION: A YEAR IN THE GARDEN by Dan Pearson, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival in March, Dan Pearson said that his love of writing developed alongside his passion for gardening from an early age, and he illustrated his talk with some of the lists and stories, journals and notebooks he has kept from childhood. Now one of the most influential garden designers working today – his Chatsworth garden at Chelsea in 2015 won both a gold medal and Best in Show, and his design studio has worked on prestigious projects in Japan and Italy and many others including Maggie’s Centre in London and Lowther Castle – he somehow still makes time for writing alongside the many other demands of a busy career.

Until 2015 he wrote weekly pieces for the Observer magazine (where his page was the first I’d turn to, and still miss …) and his new book, Natural Selection, brings many of those articles together as a year-book companion, following the seasons’ progress. But while progressing through the months we move back and forth in time and through many different settings – his own plots in Peckham and now Somerset; his childhood home; deserts, forests and coasts he has studied on his travels; a visit to George Harrison's extraordinary Friar Park garden - while other sections compare the merits of various roses or magnolias or planting combinations, or simply look at the joys of a particular season or day: “The garden is a sanctuary of sorts and one that allows me to combine mindfulness with the purely physical.” Although there's a fair bit of dirt-under-the-fingernails detail on semi-ripe cuttings, seed harvesting and growing salads for succession, this isn’t a how-to gardening book so much as an appreciation of plants, landscapes, seasons and the effects of light and shade.

Dan Pearson credits both Christopher Lloyd and Vita Sackville-West as his writing mentors, and yes, his writing gives the sensuous pleasure he admires in theirs. This is a book to relish for the eloquence of its description as much as for the information it imparts. Here’s a camellia he saw in Japan: “… There it was in the gloom, a white, autumn-blooming Camellia sasanqua. Its delicate branches had formed a perfect dome four metres high and swept down to knee height to fan out as if it was doing a curtsy. Each leaf, a slim twist of the darkest, most lustrous green, reflected what light there was left in the afternoon, and along its branches was the peppering of flower. Pale and pure glistening white, the five-petalled blooms flared informally away from a golden boss of stamens.” Walking in Greece, he came across “a bowl-shaped valley giving way to oaks with juniper clinging to the cliff faces. The dark shadows at their base were lit by a surf of moon daisies, and a hush descended for a moment as my ears adjusted from the waves to a roar of bees feeding in a sea of Lavendula stoechas.” At home, on writing days, he brings a posy of flowers indoors, to notice “the way a flower is put together and how it sits on the stem …  You can witness the passage of bud from opening to demise, see how the colour is infused and then diluted, or in some cases intensified by ageing. The seed and the berries and even the skeletons, come the winter, are of just as much interest.” 

The hallmarks of Dan Pearson’s designs are the subtlety of his response to place and atmosphere and the inspiration he takes from wild landscapes. Beth Chatto was an early influence, from whom he began to learn the art of “achieving a delicate balance between steering nature and being part of it rather than trying to dominate,” and “gardening with wild plants rather than overworked cultivars”. He knows the importance of quiet moments of appreciation, whether in exotic locations or in his own garden. Of his planting for Maggie's Centre for cancer care and a friendship that developed with one of the patients, he writes: "I have always instinctively known that intimacy, sensuality and sanctuary in a garden are key to creating a sense of wellbeing, but it has been made so much more vivid seeing it through the eyes of someone who is seizing life with a new intensity."

Natural Selection is a beautiful object to hold, printed in dark green rather than black ink and with endpapers, cover design and an illustration for each month by Clare Melinsky. It’s a book to read twice at least: first to devour the lot in one go, as I’ve just done; then returning to each section in its own month. And I recommend keeping a plant encyclopaedia or i-phone handy as you read, as you’re sure to want to look up some of the plants and gardens mentioned and add to your wish-list.

To keep in touch with Dan Pearson’s journal, and the development of Hillside, his Somerset smallholding, you can follow his regular blog and newsletter, Dig Delve. There's also an interview there with artist Clare Melinsky.

Natural Selection is published by Guardian Books / Faber.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Guest review by Catherine Johnson: THE LONG SONG by Andrea Levy

Catherine has written many books for young readers, including her most recent, Blade and Bone, the continuing adventures of young surgeon and anatomist Ezra McAdam and his friends first encountered in Sawbones. Blade and Bone finds Ezra in Paris just as the terror begins. Another recent novel, The Curious Tale of The Lady Caraboo, was shortlisted for last year's YA prize. She also writes for TV, film and radio.

One book I return to again and again is Andrea Levy’s masterpiece The Long Song.

It’s not just the central narrative, which breaks your heart more than once, in several ways, it’s the way the different characters frame those narratives. It’s a writers’ book about stories and how we tell them depending on who we are talking to, about how some stories are just too painful to be told and about how changing those stories is sometimes the only power we have.

I cannot recommend this book enough.

It is set across the nineteenth century, mostly in Jamaica although Victorian Hornsey gets a look in.  The story of Miss July, born into slavery, fathered by a white overseer, living through the upheaval of the Baptist Wars and eventually becoming free.  A woman who gives up her son to a white couple for his own betterment.

In July’s old age, her son, Thomas, returns from his upbringing and education in London to set up a printing press in Kingston.  July agrees to set down the story of her life. But as anyone in any family knows, there is always more than one story.

I can imagine you might think – Another slavery narrative! Save me from Twelve Years a Slave or another remake of Roots! And I will nod my head; I could not watch Roots again. But there are a million reasons why you should read this, not including the experience of a time so often overlooked, and histories that are ignored.

Due to limitations of space and time I will outline just two…

Firstly it’s hugely funny. July, our main narrator is very dry and very unreliable. The horrors of how she came to be and how she exists, often descend into a kind of farce.  And after all isn’t it a ridiculous, unbelievable situation? People arbitrarily owning other people?

Secondly it’s the actual writing of it. The structure of a story framed within a story. Of how we all shape our own history in order to be able to live and in order not to hurt those we love.

As someone who has scraped a living from writing for the past twenty years it is fascinating to see how artless and clever the structure of this book is.

It was on the Booker shortlist in 2010 and won The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction.

The Long Song is published by Tinder Press.

Monday, 17 April 2017

OUT OF BOUNDS by Val McDermid, reviewed by Celia Rees

Val McDermid
I've been a huge Val McDermid fan since her Women's Press, Lindsay Gordon days. She was one of a number of women writers in the '80s who were taking crime genre in a new direction, putting women at the centre of the action, not as victims but as detectives, or in Lindsay Gordon's case,  journalists. These women were resourceful, clever and fearless. Their personal lives were often complex, even chaotic. That didn't interfere with the dramatic tension of the novels but it allowed these writers to explore gender issues, the position of women in society. The crimes they investigated were often crimes committed against women: domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and murder but having women in the position of investigator brought a different kind of attention to crimes against women, brought them into sharper focus, looked at male motivation and drew attention to how shockingly common these crimes are.  I found writers like Val inspirational. I was a teacher at the time with ambitions to write. I'd  always read crime fiction and these writers were a revelation. I remember thinking, why not YA? (or Teenage Fiction as it was known in those days). This was what I wanted to write and I didn't see why I shouldn't fuse the two. My first novels were YA thrillers with girls driving the plot. 

Out of Bounds is Val McDermid's 30th novel. Her heroine is Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie,  a cold case investigator with a penchant for artisanal gins and the kind of intelligent, independent frame of mind that inevitably causes clashes with her superiors. The unsolved cases that she investigates, suddenly sparked into life by new discoveries, might have been committed decades ago. The investigations are difficult, complex, often baffling, but Pirie is dogged in her pursuit of the perpetrator, or perpetrators, driven by the desire to bring justice for the victim, no matter how long ago the crime was committed. 

Her new novel sees DCI Karen Pirie suffering from a personal tragedy, the loss of her partner that occurred in a previous novel. She is in a difficult, dark place, unable to sleep, she roams the city. McDermid's novels have a very fine sense of place based in the writer's intimate knowledge. She knows her places and she knows her people. Her ear is pitch perfect. Her characters, major and minor are deftly drawn and vivid. 

Out of Bounds begins with a group of boys stealing a Range Rover. The teenage joy riders end up three dead, one in a coma. A routine DNA test brings Pirie into the equation.  The DNA sample seems to be the solution to a 20 year old murder case. On the surface, it seems open and shut but nothing is straightforward in a McDermid novel. Pirie and her assistant are led into an increasingly puzzling and complex maze of familial connections, none of which make surface sense. 

Meanwhile, a conversation over a gin or two with an old colleague alerts her to a mystery death which is likely to be dismissed a little too quickly as suicide.  A cold case aspect allows her to take an interest and she is drawn into an increasingly dangerous political intrigue involving powerful forces determined to keep hidden what really lay behind a terrorist bombing two decades ago which had been blamed on the IRA. 

Both cases twist and turn around each other in an increasingly complex way but Pirie pursues both with characteristic determination to bring justice to those who have been denied it. She allows nothing and no-one to stand in her way and this brings her into conflict, not only with her superiors but with others who will stop at nothing to keep the truth hidden. 

The cold case adds real complexity to the plotting and the need for forensic and painstaking detective work. It also opens up the possiblity of real threat from those who have hidden the truth for decades and want it to stay hidden. Pirie is equal to both, as is her creator. The plotting is faultless, the tension meticulously calibrated to wind to the maximum as the novel progresses. There are no gaps, unlikely leaps or plot holes here, no questionable motivation. Nothing stretches the bounds of belief. Everything makes sense - you just don't know how until the end. With Out of Bounds,  the reader is in a very safe pair of hands.  

Monday, 10 April 2017

Guest review by Catherine Butler: THIS EARLY DARK: MICRO-POETRY AND ULTRA-FLASH FICTION by Michael Cadnum

Catherine Butler is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University, where her academic books on children’s literature include Four British Fantasists (Scarecrow/ ChLA, 2006), and Reading History in Children’s Books (with Hallie O’Donovan; Palgrave, 2012). She has also produced numerous novels for children and teenagers, as well as some shorter works, of which the latest is Twisted Winter (A&C Black, 2013).

Michael Cadnum is a prolific author of both novels and poetry, and I’ve long been one of his admirers. As its title suggests, the contents of This Early Dark include both fiction and poems; however, since both are reduced to highly concentrated bouillon cubes, it is hard at times to say which is which. Very short poems and extremely short fictions, consisting of two or three lines apiece, are scattered through its pages. This is the slimmest of slim volumes, but it contains multitudes. Cadnum’s novels are poetic, and his poems, even when short, often contain a seed of narrative that could quite happily be coaxed to novel length. Just add water – or wonder.

Some of Cadnum’s work has a specificity that is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, or indeed the haiku tradition that so inspired the Imagists. They take a familiar and “ordinary” experience, and pebble-polish it:

How lovely, the wrinkled tablecloth now that everyone’s gone.

This image pulls our gaze to it, but does not ask us to look beyond itself. Sometimes, though, the poet notices himself noticing: “I realize the book is reading me and I close it”. Or, a little less unsettlingly:

If we could stay like this--
dawn rain
my neighbor
trying forever to
start his car.

The promise of poetry is that we can stay like this, that moments can be pinned like moths, or framed like photographs. Except that poetry works in more dimensions than two, drawing on all the senses and their attendant moods.

Memory, absence and regret are prominent in many of the pieces here, and rain seeps through much of the collection, far more than one would expect from a writer who has lived much of his life in California: “Years after the cat is gone shadows everywhere wash themselves”; “I found your cigarettes in the suitcase and wake with your cough”; “I thought you touched me but it was the rain”. Often, the particularity of experience gestures towards metaphor:

After dark I wish I had not cut off so many branches.

Is this the small-hours fretting of an overenthusiastic gardener, or of someone who has been too profligate with life’s possibilities? (Both, of course.) Occasionally, there is a proverbial quality to Cadnum’s lines, as well as an observational one:

Only when it’s gone does the passing jet whisper.

Cadnum is a novelist, and often the ghost of a story, or the embryo of one, peeps from his words, teasing us to wonder what happened just after, or just before:

Soapsuds across the carpet where you left the bath to watch him leave.

The pieces were written over a forty-year period, but it is not clear whether they are arranged in anything resembling chronological order: the quality of Cadnum’s perceptions appears consistent throughout. Intimate relationships with people, with nature, with things, thoughts and feelings wheel through its pages, winking in and out like stars. I am not certain of Cadnum’s working method, although perhaps it is expressed in one of the shorter pieces here: “I burn the words to make them happen”. In any case, This Early Dark is a valuable and inspirational collection.

This Early Dark is published by CreateSpace and as a Kindle edition.

Monday, 3 April 2017

WIDOWS AND ORPHANS by Michael Arditti, reviewed by Adele Geras

There are certain books - you will know the sort of book I mean - which catch the light. They bring forth reams of newsprint, both real and virtual; they gather prizes; they provide pleasing controversies; they divide opinion; people notice them. There are only a few of these because there's limited space for reviews and the world of those who read reviews is a little one, although also a very pleasant one. The really HUGE books which reach millions of people are the ones which  jump a kind of imaginary barrier and are taken up by those who would ordinarily never read a book, or call themselves 'readers.' I'm thinking of  Girl on the Train or Fifty Shades of Gray or the oeuvre of Dan Brown. 

Those books, the flashy ones that make tons of money and the less flashy but very much garlanded ones which win prizes and column inches, are very few in number. The bestseller lists are instructive in many ways, but what they do not show is the less-good sellers. And these, I have often noticed, are frequently more interesting than their more glittering sisters and brothers further up the charts.

Recently, I took a train across Europe, as is my wont whenever I go on holiday. I am flying phobic and Eurostar and trains through the continent is how I get about. This is an extraordinarily pleasant way to travel and I recommend it, but this is not the place to hold forth about free croissants and lovely scenery. It takes a long time to get anywhere and Kindle comes into its own on a trip like this. The book I read in February on my way to Switzerland and for a day or so after I'd got to my hotel was Widows and Orphans by Michael Arditti. I'd read a review in the Spectator (the only review I saw)  and it sounded just up my street.

I'm not sure that this book was widely noticed. I've not seen it in bookshops. Most people on Amazon enjoyed it very much, and I liked the fact (from the blurb) that it was about a newspaper in a small English seaside town and its editor. I'm fond of books/movies/TV/anything set in the offices of a newspaper. 

Also, I'd once appeared at a reading festival at a school in London and  Michael Arditti was speaking at the same event. I caught sight of him sitting in a Green Room eating sandwiches. I've heard him on Radio 4 from time to time on Saturday Review as one of Tom Sutcliffe's guests, but I've never met him, so for once this is a review from me of a book by someone whom I don't know.  

I realised that the title had a double meaning, too, and patted myself on the back for this. 'Widows' and 'orphans' are terms in printing, as well as meaning what we all know they mean. I thought it was a very clever title. Also, I was drawn to the rather retro cover.

This is a long introduction to what I want to do, which is to recommend this wonderful and unputdownable book to all those who like novels which are about, to quote someone very close to me, "Proper people in interesting situations." 

Duncan Neville is the editor of the Francombe Mercury, the local paper in a small seaside town. The paper has been in his family for generations and he feels a proper pride in it, and the way it has explained, described and recorded the life of the town for a very long time. The paper is now under threat. Because of the internet, all newspapers are feeling nervous. People no longer get their news in this old-fashioned way and Duncan is beleaguered. He's divorced from his wife. His ex-wife has married again and had a daughter, who is disabled. He has a teenage son, too, who gets into teenage-type trouble. His mother lives in the town and she's quite a character. He is friendly with the gay vicar. His enemy, Geoffrey Weedon,  from way back in his schooldays, is a rich, rather vulgar entrepreneurial type, who has always looked down on Duncan, even though Duncan is a much better person.

When Francombe Pier is burned to the ground, Weedon has a plan to open it again as a kind of adult entertainment centre: a sort of sex emporium on stilts. He has the Planning Committee in his pocket, according to some. Opposition to this plan forms one strand of the plot, but there are so many others that it's hard to list them all. Above all, it's Duncan's journey through a turbulent time in his life. We meet his close friends, his colleagues, his mother, and the woman he grows to love. I will not spoil anyone's fun by revealing the end, but it's a novel in which every single character is carefully taken account of. Arditti is interested in the life of the town, in the way the newspaper deals with 'all human life' and he structures the book brilliantly by starting each chapter with an extract from the newspaper itself. This means that by the end, we, too, have grown fond of this publication.

It's written straightforwardly, in plain language, with no posturing, no faux lyricism and this means that the emotional punch of the things that happen to the characters is all the stronger. We get to know and love Duncan through the book, and we are desperately wanting a good outcome for both him and his paper. 

If I were a bookshop, I'd stick a label on the cover saying: satisfaction or your money back, or some such. Please get in touch with this blog on Twitter if you read it and hate it. I'm betting that  almost everyone who picks it up and starts it will love it and thank me for putting them in touch with this brilliant writer who is  not sufficiently appreciated.

Widows and Orphans is published in paperback by Arcadia Books at £8.99. ISBN: 1910050644

Monday, 27 March 2017

Guest review by Dianne Hofmeyr: ABOUT GRACE by Anthony Doerr

Dianne Hofmeyr is the author of many novels for young people. A keen observer of the natural world, she has also written picture books mostly set in Africa. Zeraffa Giraffa, illustrated by Jane Ray, was selected for The Sunday Times Top Hundred Children’s Books in the past ten years and The Magic Bojabi Tree, illustrated by Piet Grobler, is the subject of a piece of music specially composed and played by the Worcestershire Symphony Orchestra. My Daddy is a Silly Monkey, illustrated by Carol Thompson, and The Glassmaker’s Daughter, illustrated by Jane Ray, will be coming out soon.

If grace is an elegance and charm of movement, or of proportion, or of expression, or even the divine power given to man for spiritual rebirth, you will certainly find it in Pulitzer prize-winner Anthony Doerr’s novel, About Grace. And if you were swept away by All the Light you Cannot See, his first novel About Grace will be a fascinating insight into what makes him such a force as a writer. The same moving compassion and intense attention to detail shines though.

It opens with Winkler. Doerr keeps a distance from his protagonist by seldom using the man’s first name, David, so the narrator seemingly becomes a mere observer of events. Winkler is on a plane setting out on a journey to find his daughter. He has run away from his previous life and abandoned both his wife and daughter and has been living on a remote Caribbean island for more than two decades. Why?

Winkler has strange premonitions, or dreams as he calls them – he can clearly see what is about to happen before it happens. He falls in love with his wife in Anchorage, Alaska (clever choice of city as it anchors him to his past) as if it has already been predetermined. They have a child, Grace, but because of his premonitions, he fears the future and what it holds for her. Twenty-five years later he finally has the courage to return to Alaska to discover his daughter’s fate. But the reader is left guessing right until the very end to know whether Winkler’s dream comes true.

The story is both about grace and redemption. Winkler is a flawed character and a reader might be frustrated at his refusal to face his fear of going home. But in abandoning his family, he has committed an unforgivable transgression and Doerr makes him work hard to regain grace, both in the concept of what true grace is and also his daughter, Grace.

The most striking aspect of the book is Doerr’s ability - rather like Annie Proulx's - to turn the natural world into a magical, almost mythical place. Icy cold is never colder than in Doerr’s hands. And the intensity of his landscape both in Alaska and on the tropical island turns landscape into character. Clearly Doerr has been influenced by his ecology teacher mother and everything from the fascinating detail of snowflake formation to the hibernation habits of insects is written about in such a way that one is sensually drawn into the world of David Winkler. 

And if you are looking for another dip into the world of Anthony Doerr, try his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector.