Monday, 13 November 2017

Guest Anthony McGowan on writing THE ART OF FAILING: Notes from the Underdog

Anthony McGowan was born in Manchester, brought up in Leeds, and lives in London. He is the author of two adult thrillers, and seven award-winning young adult novels: Hellbent, Henry Tumour, The Knife That Killed Me, The Fall, Brock, Hello Darkness, Pike and, most recently, Rook. His books for younger children include The Bare Bum Gang series, Einstein’s Underpants, Leopard Adventure, and The Donut Diaries of Dermot Milligan. His humorous memoir, The Art of Failing, was published by Oneworld in September 2017. Everybody Hurts, a YA novel written with Joanna Nadin, also came out in 2017, and has, along with Rook, been nominated for the Carnegie Medal.

My latest book, The Art of Failing, is an odd fish. Or perhaps more a Chimera, that mythical monstrosity made up of more or less random parts collected from other animals. Part memoir, part journal, part essay collection, with a few scraps of light verse (could anything be more out of fashion?), with meditations, ruminations, complaints, jokes, puzzled reflections, whimsical digressions, it seems rambling, but there is a narrative of sorts concealed in there for those who have the patience to look.

It’s not quite right to say that The Art of Failing is my Facebook book, ie my old Facebook posts, tarted up, and offered to the world as an original work of art. Not quite correct, but not absolutely false, either. I signed up for Facebook towards the end of 2007. I can’t recall why – just a whim, I guess, blown along by the fact it was free. For a couple of years, I didn’t do much with it. The same with Twitter. I was on social media in the most nominal and passive way. I was there because people told me I should be.

And then I got stuck in Washington during the 2010 ash cloud. I recorded the experience on Facebook, accentuating various indignities – getting caught by room service washing my underpants in the hotel sink, that sort of thing. I discovered that I’d invented a persona – me and yet not me. Incompetent in the small things of life, ponderous, accident prone, neurotic, a little obsessive. Funny, too, I hoped. I found it was a voice that was very easy to write in. Perhaps because it was both me and not me – close enough for the act of writing to be organic, rather than fake, but far enough away for me to be able to go into areas I’d have turned away from if the ‘I’ had been more straightforwardly me.

I found that people enjoyed these posts, and so I continued with this ‘character’ after I returned. Facebook is, of course, collaborative and responsive – this was like having a live audience, and I soon found what sort of stories worked – in the sense of garnering ‘likes’ (my humiliations, occasional moments of poetic revelation, more stuff about my trouser-based catastrophes) and what didn’t (anything about cricket, my bitter attacks on more successful writers, my exultant crowing over small scale victories).

But there were other things going on as well – other, I mean, than my attempt to amuse the passing Facebook trade. One of my main goals was to show that ‘ordinary’, everyday life was full of drama and strangeness, that a fascination could be found in the junk and dreck that lies around us, that ordinary people – the characters I encountered every day on the streets of West Hampstead – were worthy of a kind of anthropological study. Just as van Leeuwenhoek made us see fleas and pinheads and water droplets in a new way, discovering in them the bizarrely beautiful, I thought I could turn my gaze on the mundane and make it … well, less mundane.

Almost from the start I thought that there might be something here I could turn into a book. Or at least that the Facebook posts themselves were a sort of literary or artistic production. Not simply a record of my life, but a thing that might have a wider interest or significance. My goal came to subtly change. Could I say something important about life in the 21st Century? Could I give the reader the sense of what it feels like to be me – both a particular human being living in a humdrum London suburb, and a universal type?

So I took my Facebook posts (more than half a million words), printed them out as a massive Word document, and had a look to see what was there. Much of it was dross. Perhaps a third was of only passing interest. But the rest had … something. My wife – always my staunchest critic, the Penicillin to the rampant bacillus of my ego was, despite her best efforts, impressed. I suppose it may have helped that she’s a major character – the dreaded Mrs McG of the text. Mrs McG is terrible, but beautiful. And who wouldn’t settle for that?

But the text still needed a lot of work. I slashed it further, and I wrote and rewrote, expanding it as much as I cut. Finally, it was ready, I thought, for my agent.

She hated it.

She said it would ruin my career, and damage hers. She suggested that the whole of publishing and possibly Western Civilization was in jeopardy, should it see the light of day.

This was a blow. She was, without doubt, one of the finest and most powerful agents in the children’s book world, but beyond that, I loved her, and she’d been great for me over the years. But I’d gone this far, and there was no turning back. My friend Charlie Campbell took me on, helped to further refine the text, and finally hand-sold it, talking the ears off anyone who’d meet him. It was a brilliant piece of agenting – he sold the unsellable. He was greatly aided by a very kind quote from Nick Hornby – someone I knew only through Facebook. Without his sweet words, it might never have got the few minutes' attention every book needs, if it’s to squirm its way out of the slushpile.

In the end the book went to Oneworld – a wonderful indie, riding high on the back of consecutive Booker wins. My editor at Oneworld, Sam Carter, was fantastically committed to the project, and gave the manuscript the best editing I’ve ever had.

And now it’s out, a thing in the world. It means more to me than any book since my first, back in the early noughties. It’s always impossible to know, as a writer, what people really think of your books. People are kind. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. They might want you to review their book generously next year. But I’ve genuinely felt that those few people who have read it have derived amusement from it. Maybe more.

Several people have pointed out the paradoxical fate that awaits the book. If it’s successful, then it refutes the theme. If it fails, it triumphantly confirms its own prophecy. Really, I can’t lose. Or win.

The Art of Failing is published by Oneworld.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Guest review by Rachel Ward: crime round-up

Rachel Ward has written five thrillers for young adults, the first of which, Numbers, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize. Her first book for adults, The Cost of Living, is a cosy crime story set in and around a supermarket, recently published by Sandstone Press. Rachel lives in Bath where she also paints and takes photographs.
Twitter: @RachelWardbooks  Facebook: Rachel Ward Art

Over the last couple of years, I’ve pretty much only read crime. There’s something comforting about having a puzzle set at the beginning of a book and knowing that there will be some sort of resolution by the end, however dark the story. Here’s a round up of the books I’ve been reading. My tastes are fairly mainstream and I don’t like very violent or disturbing books, but I’ve picked up some more unusual books and recommendations at Bristol CrimeFest for the past two years.

Ann Cleeves – the Shetland and Vera Stanhope books. I was led into these by the television adaptations. Vera started off as my favourite, but the Shetland books now have an equal place in my estimation. Cleeves creates believable characters, whose own story arcs develop slowly and convincingly through each series. I actively look forward to each new book from her.

Ian Rankin – I’ve dipped in and out of the Rebus books, alas not reading
them in order. No introduction needed from me, but I did see Rankin speak at Bristol Crimefest in 2016. He was treated like a rock star by the audience and who could really complain about that? He writes cracking books.

Elly Griffiths – I first bought two Stephens and Mephisto books (The Zig Zag Girl, Smoke and Mirrors) at Bristol CrimeFest after several panels recommended her. I enjoy the setting of Brighton shortly after WW2, and the police/theatrical ‘mash up’. Next up, I’m going to try the first of her Dr Ruth Galloway books, The Crossing Places.

Jorn Lier Horst – Horst is a stablemate at Sandstone Publishing. I only needed to try one of his William Wisting books to be hooked and am happily reading all the novels so far translated from Norwegian (When It Grows Dark, Dregs, Closed for Winter). They are conventional detective stories, given an extra twist of realism from Horst’s previous career as an investigator in the Norwegian police.

Ragnar Jonasson – there was a real buzz on Twitter about Jonasson and I saw him speak at CrimeFest in 2016. His Dark Iceland books are very readable. I particularly enjoy the setting – an isolated settlement, Siglufjordur – and the relative youth of his main character, Ari Thor Arason.

Henning Mankell – the Wallander books are among my favourites and I’ve enjoyed the Swedish and English TV adaptations. I haven’t read all the books yet as I am deliberately rationing them, to eke out the enjoyment. For some reason I find these particularly scary, I’m not sure why. It may be that sometimes Mankell switches to the killer’s point of view, which ratchets up the tension for me. I was very sad to hear of Mankell’s death in 2015. A great loss.

James Runcie –  the Granchester books are lighter in tone than the television adaption, with more humour and a good dollop of philosophy thrown in.

WHS McIntyre - from another stablemate at Sandstone, the Best Defence series is fast-paced and witty. It took me a while to get used to McIntyre’s wisecracking style but once I ‘got’ it, I really enjoyed Good News, Bad News and the plotting was very neatly done and satisfying.

Donald Westlake, Drowned Hopes – I started reading this out loud to my husband when he first came home from hospital. We ran out of steam but I think we’ll try again this winter as it was a brilliant set up.

Cass Green, In a Cottage In a Wood – Being a timid soul, this is at my limit for scary and twisty, but I really enjoyed it. It’s brilliantly plotted and a real page-turner, with very believable, recognisable characters – it hooks you in and doesn’t let you go.

CJ Skuse, Sweet Pea – This is a no-holds-barred, sexy, violent, rollercoaster of a book, recommended for those without a nervous disposition. I’ve seen it described as  Dexter meets Bridget Jones’ Diary and that’s about right … and then some.

Fleur Hitchcock - I must mention crime for younger readers. Hitchcock is a great storyteller and I really enjoyed Murder in Midwinter, which was shortlisted for an award at CrimeFest 2017. It's a genuinely exciting book for children of 11+ (?), or for much older readers, like me.

I’m always looking for new reads, especially series. If you have recommendations for crime reading, do let me know.

(Ann Cleeve's COLD EARTH was the choice of guest reviewer Jocelyn Ferguson. "Fans of Ann Cleeves have come to expect a compelling narrative, a powerful sense of place and atmosphere, acute characterisation and pared back prose, and with Cold Earth, her seventh novel in the Shetland series, she does not disappoint." Read the full review here. )

Monday, 30 October 2017

Guest review by Yvonne Coppard: TANGLEWEED AND BRINE by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughn

Yvonne is currently a Writing Fellow with the Royal Literary Fund and an Associate Fellow of Writing Project, which provides training in clear, respectful written communications with a human touch to commercial, public service and charity organisations. Her publications include Bully, Not Dressed Like That, You Don't and (with Linda Newbery) Writing Children's Fiction: a Writers' and Artists' Companion. See more on her website. 

There are so many fairy stories in the world. I have shelves full of them: traditional, ancient and modern; stories for babies, young children, teenagers, adults. Many are retellings with a new slant: political, feminist, satirical, humorous, therapeutic, dark, dumbed-down. Not to mention the critical commentaries, the analysis of form and formula, the exploration and explanation of human cognitive development, of why we need these tales.

All these I have loved. But I haven’t often been surprised or entranced since discovering Angela Carter. And now comes Tangleweed and Brine. It’s marketed as a Young Adult book for readers aged 15+ (Sullivan is an award winning author in this category). This only proves the idiocy of the book world’s prevailing fish-or-fowl determination to categorise and constrain. I hope this book finds its way across the divide.

Thirteen traditional tales from Grimm and Perrault are retold from the viewpoint of the female characters. Karen Vaughan’s moody black and white illustrations capture the spirit of the stories: subversive and dark; aching with loss and longing and a backbeat of anger.

You were a friendless child, a barrel chested, sturdy little thing who played alone. Who looked up through the branches seeking nests, needing something kinder than human…

You grew up soft, but still you learned to hide it. Piece by piece. The world’s not built for soft and sturdy things. It likes its soft things small and white, defenceless. Princesses in castles. Maidens waiting for the perfect sword. You grew up soft, and piece by wounded piece you built a carapace around your body. Humans are peculiar little things.

Sullivan digs right down into the character’s heart and soul, bringing the shadows of personal history into the light and challenging the reader’s preconceptions. Sometimes, I didn’t even recognise the original story until it was almost over (a tip: don’t read the contents page, just dive in.) Tangleweed and Brine is a lyrical beauty of a book. Leave plenty of time to savour each story, to let it sink in, before tackling the next. Let the women who have so often been portrayed as the small, white defenceless things reveal their secret power and the determination to pull themselves free:

Sometimes love is something more like rage. It makes you fight. You feel the future, wide and bright around you, kicking in your gut as though a child. The night spreads wide and you have flown, you’ve flown. The shape of you impressed in attic cloth is all that’s left. You wonder how long it will take for them to notice. It is an idle thought. You don’t care.

- inspirational, poetic and beautiful, though maybe not a bedtime read.

Tangleweed and Brine is published by Little Island.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Guest review by Cindy Jefferies: DEAD BABIES AND SEASIDE TOWNS by Alice Jolly

Cindy Jefferies has been writing for for various publishers since 2001, with her Fame School titles being continually in print for over ten years, and translated into 16 languages. In 2016 she was invited to be artistic director of the children’s part of the inaugural Stroud Book Festival in Gloucestershire. Out of that came the idea for a children’s festival, of which she is joint co-ordinator with Rick Vick. She lives in Stroud, and splits her time between writing, festival work, refugee aid and looking after her young granddaughter. She is a member of the Society of Authors and the Scattered Authors' Society. Apart from enjoying a glass of wine with friends she likes parking her mini camper van on the land she owns with her sisters, having a brew-up and enjoying the wildlife.

Profoundly moving, this memoir begins with a traumatic pregnancy and tragic stillbirth. But as Alice Jolly tells us, she has never had much time for the me, me, me, of memoir. This award-winning book, published by Unbound and winner of both the V S Pritchett Award and the PEN Ackerley Award, is many things. It manages to be uplifting and controversial, occasionally funny as well as tragic, and asks at least as many questions as it gives answers.

What is it that drives us on, as human beings? That is the question that remained in my mind when I finished the book. The simple answer is the desire to succeed, but when does that become unreasonable, or foolish? When is it admirable, understandable? Alice Jolly retreated to one seaside town or another, places she describes as the “ultimate act of defiance,” to recuperate between miscarriages. At one point she likens herself and her husband to gamblers. “We have become like gamblers who have lost so much that only a win can save them. Good money after bad.” She tries hard to come to terms with the situation. Unlike so many, they already have one healthy child. Surely they should be happy with that? Perhaps only those who have suffered the loss of a stillborn child will understand, or maybe no one can ever really, at the deepest level, understand what drives another.

At its simplest, this book is about a woman who refuses to accept that her family is complete. But it is also about money. With money, so much more is possible. IVF, donor eggs, adoption, surrogacy. Do these possibilities ameliorate the situation, or make it worse? Other questions arise. Morality, the law, mental health, the impact on others. This is a personal story, but it is also more than that, and I think, an important book. It is, too, beautifully written, honest, and without self pity. I shied away from reading it for a long time because I thought I would find it too emotionally difficult. When I found the courage, my fear was totally unfounded. Not only did the language draw me in, it is also just so darned interesting.

Jolly’s ability to write about tragedy without making it tragic is extraordinary. By managing somehow to stand a little outside her experience she shields the reader, without compromising the truth. This is, perhaps, the writer’s detachment Leonard Woolf describes so well in his autobiography, World Within World. However arrived at, the treatment serves this book exceptionally well. There are thoughts, too about how to process difficulties, and the role of emotional authenticity. Nowadays, “Everybody has to be allowed to feel what they feel, express, process…..But now I begin to realise that there may be events too big to process. Sometimes the only way to survive is to get up and walk on without looking back.”

Alice Jolly surrounds her story with place and time, with just enough detail to make us feel the seasons and years as they pass. Brussels, London and Stroud are all places that have been called home, while the coast is not somewhere to live, but a place to retreat to from time to time. And there is the beautiful house up high in the Cotswolds: a house so draughty that the heating is pointless. The house takes time and energy and emotion while it is renovated, but at last it is beautifully restored, and contains a family that eventually, touchingly, feels complete.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is published by Unbound.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Guest review by Jon Appleton: CARNIVORE by Jonathan Lyon

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor, having spent 20 years in-house in publishing. He works with writers through the Writers Workshop, the Arvon foundation and as private clients. For commercial publishers he specialises in books for early readers and crime and thrillers for adults. In 2016, he self-published his debut novel, Ready to Love, which is currently in production as an audio book. Follow him on twitter @appletonsbooks

Just over halfway through Jonathan Lyon’s debut novel, there’s a passage that’s both visceral and heartbreaking but to share it almost screams ‘spoiler alert!’ But since this dazzling novel will have played with your expectations of what it’s about long before you reach this point, I think it’s a permissible tiny spoiler, so I’ll share a little text here:

"I’m not invulnerable, I’m not some supervillain beyond conscience who toys with wills for sport. I’m lonely. I’m still a boy, Francis. I’m a – a boy with a wasting body. I’m not a carnivore – or, I am but it’s because I was made one – a carnivore of circumstance – anaemic, fiending and predatory, but without a predator’s power to choose."

There you have it – the carnivore of the title is Leander, our narrator, a man in his twenties who has long endured chronic fatigue syndrome, an invisible but debilitating illness which he keeps from the people closest to him, including the boy he quite probably loves.

There’s so much Leander cannot control about his life – the pain, namely – so where he can he continually dissembles – he has invented his own identity and history. Constantly, he shifts the boundaries between himself and other people. But he is not invulnerable, nor is he entirely disregarding of others. He is not immune to the consequences of his actions. Drugs don’t help his illness but they alter states for him and lead him to heightened pleasure but also deep depravity.

Drugs and sex immerse him in an underworld of crime and corruption which lends the book it thriller aspect. To simplify the plot: the story becomes an exciting, page-turning chase across the vividly rendered dirty streets of south London to capture one man who has kidnapped another. (London emerges as another carnivore character – a city literally eating itself.)

It’s a playful book by its very structure – it’s divided into acts, and part of the action involves the creation of a film (which provides a lot of humour) as well as the filming of sex tapes which will disturb many readers and offend some. But everything, wherever it occurs on the spectrum between pleasure and pain is a performance, as we are constantly, delightfully reminded: people are directed and controlled, deftly manoeuvred by a talented writer in control of his material.

Carnivore succeeds entirely in being several books at once: an urban fairy tale, a literary thriller, a story about telling stories (Leander describes himself as a ‘master of fictions’), a comedy (you could even call it a farce), a tale of self-destruction.

Don’t be deterred if you think it all sounds a bit meta. Then again, surely we’re better than ever at coping with that kind of writing because there’s much more of it about in the mainstream? Many of Lyon’s ideas about truth and reality will be familiar to you. Here’s an example: ‘Stories that aren’t biographically true can still be true – if they reveal something about the teller’s psychology … a lie, as an evasion or a complication, is still a revelation of character – it’s a slanted truth.’ What I loved about Carnivore is that these ideas, however erudite or lofty or whatever are mired in the physical. You never forget that Leander is suffering. It grounds the reader. You emerge from the book feeling wrung out, knowing it was a physical experience.

It’s an entertainment but one, I’m sure, its author hopes readers will emerge from with a keener understanding of what it’s like to live in a state of chronic pain. And we do.

Carnivore is published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Guest review by Andrew Fusek Peters: CORDUROY by Adrian Bell

Andrew Fusek Peters is a poet, author and conservation photographer. His poems have been recordeded for the Poetry Archive. His books include Dip, Wilderland and Upland. See more on his website. 

I am currently re-reading Corduroy after a four-year gap. This time, I am using it as my country meditation before bed – sometimes ploughing through only a few pages before my heart sinks into a peaceful ease. This edition is a Slightly Foxed re-release of a classic nature writing adventure first published in 1930. The author, Adrian Bell (father of Martin) seemed to have two yearnings when young. He wanted to be a writer and, as a Londoner, he also wanted to escape the city ‘flying from the threat of an office life’ to delve deeply into the countryside of his dreams.

As an author and nature writer who left London at eighteen and finally married a Shropshire lass, it could be said I identify slightly! John Clare and to an extent Edward Thomas immersed themselves deeply in hill, field and forest. Theirs is the poetry of the insider looking out, so at one with nature that sometimes it is hard to separate the poet from the landscape. But Adrian Bell brought something different to the table. He was keenly aware from the get-go of his outsider-ness, his difference, his outdoor city boots sniffed at by his host Mr Colville, knowing that London leather will only survive a short while through the farming calendar.

Adrian pleaded with his father that his life ‘should be something in the open air’ - be careful what you pray for. As a paying guest, he began an utterly new life on the Colville farm. Even at that first meal of boiled batter pudding and roast pheasants, when contentment strikes it is tempered by ‘seeing myself in the wide looking-glass of the sideboard’ where he was not ‘large and rosy like the rest’ but ‘pale and thin, sitting like a ghost among them’.

This could have been an inauspicious start. The middle-class Londoner is properly a fish out of water. But Adrian had three great assets on his side – a wonderful thirst to learn alongside the willingness to work to a totally different timetable from the dawdling hours in suburban drawing rooms, and lastly, an attitude of respect for the people that still come to life in these pages. He did not play the outsider as a role, it was simply that the A-Z of farming life needed careful study, to which he applied himself henceforth, and on and off for the rest of his life.

Adrian was changed utterly by his experience. When he returned to town he ‘re-entered a world of nervous significances, where the very furniture was a complex language’. To his former friends, he is an amuse-bouche - or as he put it ‘a character part.’ Yet it is his willingness to embrace difference, to play his part as visitor or urban refugee that warms the text through and through.

‘Children gathered here also, and gazed upon the wonder of the fire, awed into silence as the sparks flew high, and an occasional passer-by paused and warmed his hands, exchanging some item of local news with the blacksmith. For in winter, the forge was a meeting-place second only to the inn, I discovered.

"I suppose these have made a difference to your trade," I said as a motor went by.

"Yes, they don’t need the kind of shoes I make," he replied. "There’s no hackneys kept today, no carriage horses; that’s how we’re hit…"'

This is the role Adrian played best, moving beyond mere nostalgia to a lament of modernisation. The book is full of tales of ancient squires and the last miller who worked the windmill, greasing the gears with tallow candles. By 1920, the world of humans was already in flux. One war over, another to begin, where it was known that many soldiers took Corduroy with them to remind them of the life left behind.

And I too catch glimpses in my second life as a conservation photographer, gradually getting to know some of the farmers and walking their land – being invited in for tea and biccies while we discuss curlews and the rare sightings of the leucistic white kite. Adrian is a good role model in his affection for the land and its people. He is a chronicler of a different age now falling into second hand echoes. My wife’s grandmother, when she was alive, told me how she remembered the coming of electricity to the Forest of Dean at the same time this book was written, when there were still carriages drawn by horse.

I leave Adrian, who went on to write twenty further books on the countryside, with the last word:

‘I had this pleasure of catching in the cloistral gloom of cowshed or stable those gleam-lit attitudes of strength and patience which the old painters turned into religious masterpieces.’

Corduroy is published by Faber.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Guest review by Miriam Moss: GRIEF IS THE THING WITH FEATHERS by Max Porter

Miriam is an award-winning writer of fiction - short stories, novels and picture books. She grew up in Africa, China and the Middle East before living in England. After graduating, she taught English until the arrival of her first child, when she began writing.

Her latest short story, Salvage, is published in the Fish Anthology 2017, and her novel, Girl on a Plane, a fictionalised account of a real life hijacking experienced while travelling alone in the Middle East aged 15, is published by Andersen/ Penguin Random House. Her next novel is set in Africa.

She has published many picture books, including Matty takes Off (Andersen), Bare Bear (Hodder), Wibble Wobble (Orchard), I Forgot to Say I Love You! (Macmillan) and Bad Hare Day (Bloomsbury). Her latest is Dr Molly’s Medicine Chest (Walker).

Miriam lives in Lewes, Sussex, has three grown up children and works in a converted triangular potting shed in the garden. See more on her website.

Behind the Emily Dickinson–derived title – her poem is called Hope is the Thing with Feathers - is a short, finely crafted prose poem. The wonderfully compact, moving narrative is a meditation on grief, but it’s also a surprisingly funny book, as well as a clever and highly original read.

A mother has died suddenly, leaving a grieving writer. the father of two young sons, bereft and in disarray. The father, who attempts to come to terms with his wife’s death, is writing a book about Ted Hughes (called Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis) when, one night, a huge crow bursts through the door of their London flat.

Crow, the mythic creature from Ted Hughes’ poetry, is a trickster, a philosopher of death and rebirth, who intends to stay, and he joins Dad and Boys in a trio of alternating voices, full of energy and unpredictability.

Crow, who has elements of the shaman, describes himself as ‘ … friend, excuse, deus ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst and babysitter.’ His relationship to the father is as chaotic and unpredictable as grief itself. He’s protective, predatory - and then suddenly sensuous: ‘I prised open his mouth and counted bones, snacked a little on his unbrushed teeth, flossed him, crowly tossed his tongue hither, thither, I lifted the duvet. I Eskimo kissed him. I butterfly kissed him.’

Though the book’s emotional landscape is desolate, there’s plenty of black humour that playfully derails the reader’s expectations. The writing shifts from tragic to uplifting, from Crow’s mocking hilarity to the awful sorrow of the father and the heart-wrenching sadness of the two boys.

The domestic landscape is never far off. Grief, we are told, needs time to heal, but from the father the boys have other more ordinary needs: ‘washing powder, nit shampoo, football stickers, batteries, bows, arrows, bows, arrows’.

The mother, whose life has been cut cruelly short, is evoked by the details of how she lived: ‘She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus)./She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm)./And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.’ And it is only at Crow’s leave-taking that we hear how she died. ‘Accident in the home./She banged her head, dreamed a bit, was sick, slept, got up and fell,/Lay down and died. A trickle of blood from an ear.’

Together, Crow and Dad work through his grief, and, during the final session, they look back: ‘You’ll remember with some of my early work with you,’ Crow says, ‘that what appeared to be primal corvid vulgarity was in fact a highly articulated care programme, designed to respond to the nuances of your recovery.’

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the story also becomes a meditation on the difficulty of writing. Porter, at one point, advises that the only way to write, in this case about love and loss, is ... to begin.

Summary: Grief is as unique as you are.

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is published by Faber.  

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


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 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.