Monday, 27 February 2017
I can't think why it's taken me so long to get round to reading Louisa Young's engrossing First World War novel. It was widely publicised, having been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and also chosen for Richard and Judy's Book Club, guaranteeing a wide readership. This thoroughly involving story includes an area of the war and social history which isn't - as far as I'm aware - much covered in fiction, namely the pioneer work in facial reconstruction undertaken by Major Harold Gillies. It stands alongside Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy as a powerful exploration of the physical and psychological effects of injury and trauma.
We first meet Riley Purefoy as a boy of eleven, when he's hit by a snowball in the face (neatly prefiguring the far more serious injury he'll receive ten years later while fighting in the Ypres Salient). This incident introduces him to the bohemian Waveney family, including daughter Nadine, and through them to an elderly pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Alfred, who promptly recruits the boy as a model and then general assistant. Thus the clever, enterprising Riley is introduced to the artistic middle class of Kensington, and begins to see a future for himself beyond the more limited expectations of his working-class parents.
By the time Riley joins the Army, still only eighteen, he is in love with Nadine, aware that her French mother discourages their association because of his lowly origins. His wit and adaptability soon lead to him being commissioned, however; and Nadine herself, loyal and spirited, scorns her mother's doubts. Their growing love is set against the decline in trust between Riley's Commanding Officer, Peter Locke, and his beautiful but vapid wife Julia. Julia wants nothing but to be a good wife to Peter, but finds him increasingly remote from her, both in his letters and in person when he comes home on leave. Longing to receive and offer physical solace she is dismayed by his perfunctory, almost brutal, embrace in bed. Lacking much purpose, even after giving birth to a son, Julia becomes obsessed with the need to preserve her looks. Her experiments with eyebrow tattooing and facial peeling treatments are set against the more drastic remodellings being attempted at the nearby Queen's Hospital, in Sidcup, where her VAD sister-in-law Rose works under the supervision of Harold Gillies. (Alongside Gillies, another real person we glimpse here is Kathleen Scott, Louisa Young's grandmother, a former student at the Slade School of Art who assisted the surgeon by making models and casts of patients' disfigured faces.)
Inevitably, Riley Purefoy arrives at Queen's for treatment. "The young man who had been the arrowhead of the system of destruction now became the epicentre of an industry of reconstruction. He who must destroy had become he who must be mended.' Some writers, describing terrible injuries like Riley's, veer too close to sensationalism and even relish, but Louisa Young strikes just the right balance: there's enough stomach-turning detail to make the reader aware of the huge and painful adjustments faced by Riley and his fellow patients, but not so much as to seem gratuitous.
The relationship between Riley and Nadine - now a nurse herself, serving in France - has till now been characterised by openness and honesty, which makes the letter that gives the book its title all the more heartbreaking. Two letters from Riley to Nadine begin in this way: the first sent from the Casualty Clearing Station on a standard form; the other from the Queen's Hospital, enlisting the help of Rose Locke. Both letters include lies. The first is understandable and probably not unusual. The second is devastating.
The Armistice comes before the novel ends, and we see the uncertainties it produces. 'No one ever wins a war, and wars are never over.' For Riley, 'Before, while it was still on, I was Captain Purefoy, wounded soldier. Who am I to be now? Mr Purefoy, disabled ex-serviceman? His age rang through his head like the tolling of a bell. Twenty-two, twenty-two, twenty-two. There was an awfully long time ahead of him.'
What sort of life can these characters rebuild? Where has the war left them? These questions clearly intrigue Louisa Young, as she has gone on to explore them in a sequel, The Heroes' Welcome. I hope that among other things there will be a fulfilling role for Rose, who is pivotal in the plot of this first novel, supporting all the other main characters and even keeping her patience with the exasperating Julia, while assuming that she'll never find a loving relationship of her own. Maybe she'll be proved wrong.
Monday, 20 February 2017
If everyone were fully literate, there would be no more wars. Okay, that's overstating it. Of course it's not true, but it's near enough to the truth to be something worth saying. If there were Universal Literacy, our prison population would be very much smaller. If girls were educated properly all over the world, then the terrible things that happen to them would not be done with such horrifying impunity. If the people who don't read were to start reading (and I don't exempt the President of the USA from this, by the way) their lives and the lives of everyone in their sphere would be immeasurably improved. There is nothing, not one single thing, to be said for ignorance and illiteracy, or you may be certain someone would have said it by now. Even the nastiest of politicians pays lip service to education and indeed, it's a fine thing. But Literacy is different. It's impossible to navigate the world without it. Even if you don't want to read Dostoevsky, you do want to be able to decipher labels in the supermarket and enjoy the shiny magazines that tempt you from the supermarket shelves. You want to be able to read letters sent to you from your daughter's school. And perhaps more than anything, everyone in the world should be able to share the pleasure of reading a story to a loved child. People need to read and for many reasons, there are those who can't.
Some have been overlooked at school. They've managed (and don't ask me how, because it's one of life's greatest mysteries) to sit through years and years of formal education without being able to decode the language they need. Others have reading difficulties, like dyslexia, but even these can be helped enormously by the right choice of book. Take a bow here, Barrington Stoke: the publishing house which has made books for dyslexic readers somewhat of a speciality. [Linda Newbery's latest title, UNTIL WE WIN, comes from them.]
There are, in addition to children who've slipped through the net, an enormous number of people who are fluent readers in their native languages, but who haven't yet learned English to a standard which will allow them to read say, Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood. They need short, easy books which will lead them on to other books when their language skills improve. These books have to be interesting and gripping and grown up. They need to be written in simple words, but those words still have to pack an emotional punch, or be funny, or exciting or interesting.
Enter Quick Reads. The brainchild of Gail Rebuck, then of the House of Random (Random House) and now of the House of Lords, they are short books for those who find reading hard for some reason and who are intimidated by bookshops. Nowadays, Galaxy sponsor the books and the best thing of all is: they cost £1.00 each. This means that it's easy for libraries, literacy classes, prisons etc to buy them in large numbers and they've been enormously successful in all those places.
I must confess an interest. I've written two Quick Reads: LILY: A GHOST STORY in 2006 and OUT OF THE DARK in 2016.
When this year's books were announced, I was cheeky on Twitter and asked to read them because I wanted to write this piece. I'm passionate for the cause, and I thought that this year's crop looked very enticing. I was right. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them. In the picture below, you'll see them displayed, except for the one non-fiction book, which is a Quick Reads version of a classic by Susan Jeffers: FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY. That's hidden by the other titles.
The books, in alphabetical order of authors, are:
Harry Bingham (editor) Dead Simple (8 Killer Reads from 8 bestselling authors) ISBN:9781409169123 Orion Books
Rowan Coleman: Looking for Captain Poldark
ISBN 9781785033189 Penguin
Jenny Colgan: A Very Distant Shore
Amanda Craig: The Other Side of You
Dreda Say Mitchell: One False Move
The stories in Harry Bingham's collection are perfect for the intended audience. They all set up a situation which resolves itself by a neat twist in the tale. There's a widow who is not what she appears to be, a game of Scrabble played in prison which ends in an unexpected way, a scary tale which involves caged birds as you've not met them before and an unusual confidence trickster who gets more than she bargained for. They're written by experts in grabbing your attention, like Mark Billingham and Clare Mackintosh. Antonia Hodgson has a very good story set in the past, and Harry Bingham's own contribution leaves a (deliberately!) nasty taste in the mouth.
Rowan Coleman's book has a group of online chums drawn together by their love of the Poldark series on a very unusual road trip. They're intent on meeting Aidan Turner and their adventures are both funny and touching. There's a love story here which I saw coming, but that's no bad thing. Indeed, it will make the diffident reader feel clever when they spot it, and introduce them to one of the great pleasures of reading: feeling you're in some way in cahoots with the writer. It's a lovely story and lots of people will enjoy it hugely.
Jenny Colgan's very moving story of a young woman on the Scottish island of Mure is particularly relevant today. It concerns Saif, a Syrian doctor, who's found himself part of a small community who are not quite sure what to make of him. Lorna, our heroine, is taking care of a very sick father and while the story is romantic in many ways, it doesn't shirk the difficult stuff. Said is 'not free' to kiss Lorna when she would like him to. He helps her enormously when her father dies. Each of them is part of the other's grieving and healing process and the landscape of Mure is an important part of the book. I think this story will be helpful to many people. As Saif says of Lorna's father's death: "It happened in the right order." From which sentence we can deduce that there are deaths in his past which did not. There's a lot here which a sensitive teacher could discuss with a class of adults or older pupils.
Amanda Craig has done something miraculous with the word count allowed by Quick Reads. She's managed to combine three different strands in her book: a fairytale strand, an urban adventure strand and interwoven with both of these, a story about the Third Man Syndrome. She explains to us in a note at the end of the book that many have seen someone beside them when they were in difficulty who turned out not to be real. Shackleton saw an apparition like this. Some people would call them guardian angels. In this book, the Other Person helps Will who is on the run and fearing for his life. Craig's book is about many things: drug dealing on the worst estates, knife crime, survival, and city life on the one hand, and on the other, love and roses and Beauty and the Beast and angels being there for you when you most need them. Best of all, one of the two happy endings is totally unexpected.
Dreda Say Mitchell's book is about what happens when you're trying to put your life together after serving time. This makes it an especially good book to read with young offenders. Hayley means well but gets sucked in to trouble anyway. It's not her fault, but things take turns that she often can't cope with. The Devil's Estate is no fun. She has a child to look after and when she's robbed of the money she collects on the Estate, we get a Ticking Clock scenario which always makes for speedy page turning. I can't imagine readers not being caught up in Hayley's problems and willing her to be okay.
These books are the 2017 Quick Reads and I recommend them heartily, and not just to readers who find reading a problem. Do spread the word about a fine initiative which deserves the widest possible publicity.
Monday, 13 February 2017
Review by Anne Cassidy
ELIZABETH IS MISSING centres on Maud an elderly lady who has dementia. Written in the first person it is Maud who tells the story of the present and her concern for her friend, Elizabeth, who is missing. Elizabeth is not at her house and Maud struggles to solve the mystery of what has happened to her. The character of Maud is completely convincing. Her struggle with dementia is outlined in every scene. She lives her life through making notes about things and then is confused when she reads those jumbled notes. Through her eyes we see her frustration at not being taken seriously by her carer and her daughter who both seem bewildered at her inability to do things right; her insistence at boiling an egg until the pot is burned; her trips to buy cans of peaches even though she has a cupboard full of them. The reader is bewildered too. Why can’t she just follow instructions; how is it that she can’t find a name for those things you drink out of. Anyone with any experience of dementia in their family will recognise these stages.
It’s a powerful and poignant representation of an illness. Maud’s grief at not knowing what has happened to her friend turns her into an amateur and confused detective, looking through windows, placing adverts in the local paper, facing the wrath of Elizabeth’s son.
Amid Maud’s confusion about the present are her crystal clear memories of the past, when she was a teenager and her married sister, Sukey, went missing. These passages of the book are triggered by events in the present and a story emerges of post war life, a family still on rations, the older daughter married to a spiv and idolised by her younger sister. Then Sukey disappears and is never found. Maud, the teenager, goes through the grief of someone missing and the desperation to know what happened to them.
This is a novel about two missing women, Elizabeth and Sukey. There is also a third though; Maud’s illness is slowly erasing her personality so that she will be the missing person in her family.
Monday, 6 February 2017
Because I often review books by people I know, I sometimes have to start my pieces with a kind of disclaimer. A few words saying that yes, I do know this person but really, honestly, I’d never bother with writing a whole review if I didn’t sincerely believe that the book is a good one and worth drawing to everyone’s attention. If there were acres of coverage for books, and children’s books in particular, maybe I wouldn’t do this, but there isn’t and so I persist in talking about books written by my friends and acquaintances.
Jane Harper’s case is slightly different. I saw the beautiful cover displayed on Twitter. I love books set in Australia. I love thrillers and this one was getting noticed by the critics and so I cheekily asked for a copy to review. Just before the book arrived through the post, I was tweeted by the author herself who said something like: “I expect you won’t remember me, but I knew you back in the 80s in Manchester.” I remembered her, or rather her mother, at once. We (my daughters and I) used to go on what are known now as playdates at the Harper house, which was only a stone’s throw from where we lived in those days. There followed much exclamation and an email from me to Jane’s mother, renewing our long-ago acquaintance. I was briefly worried about one thing: what if I read the book and hated it? What would I say? I couldn’t review it in such a case. I was worrying needlessly. The Dry is what is known in proper academic critical language as ‘a corker.’
One of the things I love most about books is their ability to transport you to other places. Writing about place is very important, I think, in conveying to a reader the sense of a world quite unlike their own and in which they are going to live as they progress through the book. The town of Kiewarra has suffered a drought for more than two years. The weather is blisteringly hot and Harper never loses sight of this for a moment. We know that tempers are short in hot weather, but added to the discomfort here is the knowledge that the town might be doomed. If the drought continues, many people won’t be able to make a living there. What will happen to them? Where would they go? This threat hangs over everything and colours the action.
The plot ( and I don’t like giving too many details of this for fear of spoilers) concerns the return to Kiewarra of Aaron Falk, who grew up in the town, but who had to leave it under a serious cloud. He’s now a policeman in Melbourne but has returned to attend the funeral of his childhood friend, Luke Hadler, Luke's wife and one of their children. It seems that Luke is the killer in a family annihilation, but after being drawn reluctantly into the investigation, Aaron is pretty sure that things aren’t as simple as that.
You will think you have guessed what has happened at several points along the way, but you will be wrong. You will think you know from other novels what goes on when terrible secrets from the past are revealed, but you won’t, not quite. When you do learn the truth, everything will hang together very satisfactorily. Along the way, you will become part of Kiewarra and meet some of its most attractive as well as some of the most horrible inhabitants. I’m predicting that Aaron Falk will be appearing on your screens at some time in the future. Australian tv thrillers are very good and I really hope there's a network waiting to adapt this book.
The writing is very good indeed. Sharp and clear (Harper was a print journalist for many years) but also excels at conveying both landscape and character and catches very well the cadences of different voices. The dialogue is terrific. The pace never slows, in spite of flashbacks. The flashbacks are printed in italics, of which I’m not overly fond, but I stopped minding about that editorial decision after a few pages.
This is just the book to read while the weather is chilly in the United Kingdom. Even at a time when you’d think a bit of heat would be welcome, this book makes you feel grateful that you live in a temperate climate.
I’m very much looking forward to reading Jane Harper’s next novel. I never imagined, while she was building towers from Sticklebricks with my girls, that she’d be writing such a super book, many years later.
THE DRY is published in hardback by Little, Brown. (£12.99)