Monday, 23 April 2018

Guest review by Paula Knight: THE OUTRUN by Amy Liptrot



Paula Knight is an author, illustrator and comics creator. She has illustrated over 60 children’s books and written three picture books.

Her latest book, The Facts of Life, is a graphic novel memoir for adults, published in 2017 by Myriad Editions after six years in the making. An extract of it reached Myriad’s inaugural First Graphic Novel competition in 2012, chosen by judges including Ian Rankin, Corinne Pearlman and Steve Bell. She was awarded an Arts Council England grant for the work.

Paula is currently exploring new ways of working within her limits of being semi-disabled due to chronic illness. She is also an enthusiastic amateur photographer interested in nature, wildlife and abstraction. The former and latter are likely on a creative collision course - albeit tethered in sketchbooks waiting to be set free.

IG (Illustration): @paulajkstudio
IG (Photography): @paulajknight
Twitter: @Paula_JKnight
www.paulaknight.co.uk


As a city dweller who nurses romantic notions of living somewhere less peopled, I’d been meaning to read this for a while. I’ve long been interested in ‘overcoming adversity’ memoirs since reading Maya Angelou’s autobiography in my twenties. I’m also a wildlife lover and bird-fan (albeit not a fully fledged twitcher), so there was much to absorb me in this book.

Liptrot’s memoir is set in Orkney and London, and springs from a backdrop of extremes: her father’s mental illness; her parents’ separation; her mother’s subsequent religious fervour; and the author’s struggles with addiction. The opening pages take place on Mainland’s airstrip: Her father is waiting to be taken to a mental institution in Aberdeen as her mother arrives to introduce his newborn daughter (Liptrot). This sets the tone and premise for her story - one of leaving and returning, excess and retreat.

The book continues with Liptrot’s return to the island after a young adulthood spent partying in London. A mingling of childhood memories with exposition of the island’s landscape and wildlife is not only a backdrop to her story but the very fabric of it. The prose is pure without being flowery or too sentimental, and her close knowledge and respect for the wild Orcadian landscape is evident. She recalls memories of rural life and how, as a teenager, she yearned to spread her wings. Migrate she did - and the book tells of her chaotic life in London descending into alcohol addiction, difficult relationships, lack of direction and a distressing adverse event that is the catalyst for her return to Orkney in search of healing.

The narrative structure moves between how she spent her time on the islands and how life unfolded then imploded in London, including time attending AA meetings.

What I found most gratifying about this book was how Liptrot makes sense of her life in the seamless connections between nature and the human condition, and the enlightenment that can be gained from recognising these introjections of states. She likens the destructive action of ‘shoaling’ waves eroding the cliffs to the physiological effects of alcoholism on her body, which exacerbated seizures; and how geological tremors felt by islanders were tied up with the myth of the destructive Stoor Worm. Facts about Orkney are intertwined with folklore, mythology and stories of shipwrecksm suggesting that Liptrot is similarly washed up in this landscape from her own personal storm. Although some metaphors are explicitly explained, there is plenty of room for readers to make their own connections. For example, Liptrot engages in conservation work counting the elusive corncrake by listening for their calls at night. I interpreted this as a metaphor for personal desolation - a casting around in the dark for reassurance from at least one solitary voice confirming that life is still thriving in the gloom. The corncrake doesn’t want to be found, but it is a human need to know that the world is in order with everything in its rightful place. This is the crux of how Liptrot sets anchor - by engaging in nature; in what is real.

The tug of love between urban and rural life is what stitched me into the core of this book. The damage wreaked by alcoholism in the wilds of a heaving city versus retreating back to the expansive skies of her Orkney homeland in search of recovery is perhaps a cliche. However, Liptrot explores this in a way that throws out assumptions of rural romanticism as healer and city life as destructor. I appreciated how nature was not offered on a plate as a magical cure-all and that she makes clear that recovery is an ongoing process.

Liptrot writes about being drawn to ‘the edge’, and throughout the course of the book she at once moves geographically closer to it and metaphorically further from it: By eventually choosing to inhabit one of Orkney’s most northerly islands, Papa Westray, her deep immersion in the natural world facilitates her turning away from a life lived on the edge of self-destruction. It’s truly a human/ nature story - one that defines how the two are in no way separable.

Despite being left with no illusions as to the potential challenges of life in a remote and wild location, I still found myself searching Orkney house prices on the internet for a few weeks after reading The Outrun. The book confirmed a distinct notion that it’s as plausible to suffer loneliness living in close proximity to millions of human beings as it is on a far-flung island with mainly wildlife for company. The latter seems more palatable to me.

The Outrun is published by Canongate. 

Read our review of Paula Knight's The Facts of Life here.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Guest review by Sue Purkiss: IVY & ABE by Elizabeth Enfield


Sue Purkiss writes for children and young people. She has been a Royal Literary Fellow at Exeter and Bristol Universities, and has also taught English and worked with young offender. Her latest novel for children, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley, is an adventure story set in the Himalayas at the end of the 18th century, featuring plant hunters, a sacred mountain – and its mysterious guardian! For more information, see Sue's website. She also has her own literary review blog, A Fool on a Hill, and is a contributor to The History Girls, blogging there once each month.

Ivy & Abe tells the story – or rather, stories – of the eponymous characters. I almost wrote ‘couple’ there, and they usually are a couple, but not always. For this is one of those books that explores the idea that what happens is not inevitable, was not always ‘meant to be’. In a way, it’s a comforting notion, that if everything is fore-ordained – if Fate rules supreme – then we really don’t have to worry very much about the choices we make: everything will be as it will be.

This beautifully-written book begins in 2026. By chance, Ivy and Abe, both in their seventies, meet in a supermarket. They realise that they knew each other when they were children; they were the closest of friends, but then one family moved after a tragedy and they were separated. They get to know each other again, and become close in a way they were not with their previous partners: they feel that they are two parts of a whole. They marry, and have a precious, albeit very short, time together.

The next episode takes place in 2015, with the characters younger now. Once again, they meet and part. And so it goes on, moving backwards through the years, until they are children again and we learn why Abe’s family moved away. At each stage there's an encounter, sometimes intense, sometimes fleeting – in one, Ivy, distressed, is helped by a kindly stranger (Abe). He puts her into a cab and pays the fare, and gives her his card, while assuring her there is no need to get in touch. She intends to, but the card is lost and the chance for them to properly meet each other is lost. In another, there is a passionate affair, and so on.

Other motifs recur. There is a lorry carrying hay bales, which has an accident. This has varying consequences. One time, Abe is driving back from a meeting with Ivy and witnesses the accident. The police later contact him, and so his wife (always Lynne) discovers that he wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and that he is having an affair – and of course, her discovery has consequences. Another time, it is Abe’s mother who witnesses the accident, cradles a dying victim in her arms, and is so overwhelmed by the experience that the course of her life changes completely. We must all have thought at some time, What if? What if I’d left the house a moment earlier? What if I’d chosen to be somewhere else that day? What if the road hadn’t been icy? And so on. That’s one of the things this book is about.

Another motif is the hereditary illness which blights Ivy’s family. Another is Abe’s job: he designs fountains. One of them, which recurs several times, is modelled on a clock: it’s a sort of meditation on time. And very early on, the author introduces the concept of quantum entanglement:

“It’s to do with the behaviour of particles, tiny ones, like electrons, that have interacted in the past and then moved apart…they say that even if they end up millions of miles or galaxies apart, they still continue to be affected by each other. Tickle one and the other dances…”

Later, this is picked up when the eruption of the Icelandic volcano has kept Ivy’s husband, Richard, out of the country when she needs him with her for a significant hospital appointment – which in turn leads to that episode’s very brief encounter with Abe. She sees the ash on her windows, and wonders: could particles from another part of the world really settle here so quickly?

The concept of the book reminds me of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. That, too, explores the what if notion, by positing a number of possible futures if events had conjoined in a different way. It plays out on a different stage: instead of focusing on the lives of ordinary people, it considers what might have happened if, for instance, a certain girl had been in a certain café in the 1930s with the intention of shooting Adolf Hitler; and it plays out against a background of social change.

This book is quieter, perhaps. But Elizabeth Enfield explores beautifully the way in which so-called ordinary lives play out: she reflects on how relationships change at different times of our lives, on what shifts things from one direction into another.

Recently, I went to a Magritte exhibition. Magritte was a surrealist, and I’ve never really ‘got’ surrealism. But as I wandered round, I came to see that it really didn’t matter whether I got it or not: I just needed to look. And then I saw what a marvellous painter he was. And my reaction to this book was a bit like that. At first I thought, yes – great fun for a writer to play with different possibilities in this way, to try out different stories for her characters, but really, for the reader, what’s the point? But actually, I think the point is that this is a structure which allows Elizabeth Enfield to explore and reflect on life and all its variousness – and what could be more worthwhile than that?

Sometimes, you want to experience waves crashing on the shore, or a waterfall tumbling over rocks. But if you’re in the mood for a still, quiet, clear pool, this is the book for you.

Ivy & Abe is published by Michael Joseph.






Monday, 9 April 2018

Guest review by Katherine Roberts - CAVE IN THE SNOW by Vicki Mackenzie


Katherine Roberts’ latest novel, Bone Music, invokes the spirit of the 13th century Mongolian steppes to tell the story of Genghis Khan’s rise to power… no Yetis, but it does have wolves! Published by Greystones Press.

In 1976, many years before Buddhism became trendy in the West, a fishmonger’s daughter from the East End of London retreated to a cave 13,200 feet up in the Himalayas, where she spent the next 12 years of her life meditating with only the wild creatures for company. Her name was Diane Perry, though today she is better known by her Buddhist name of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Cave in the Snow  is the fascinating story of Diane’s life up until 1998, when the book was published, by which time she had emerged from her cave with her new name to embark upon a fierce schedule of talks across the world to fund her new project: building a nunnery for young Buddhist girls. Happily, the funds were raised, and the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery now exists in the Kangra Valley of northern India, close to the seat-in-exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.


Diane Perry’s lifelong quest for spiritual enlightenment resonates with me as an author. We spend months, sometimes years, in our metaphorical caves working on our writing projects with only our characters for company, and then emerge blinking into the world to talk about our published books. The book ‘called’ to me from a local charity shop bargain box, not because of its cover (which on my edition is strangely prosaic with its photograph of Tenzin Palmo, dressed in her Buddhist robes, standing beside what I think must be the Tibetan flag), but because of its evocative title coupled with the interesting blurb on the back. How could a woman raised in the East End of London in the aftermath of the Blitz survive alone in a cave in the Himalayas for so many years? Why did she feel the need to retreat there? And what did she discover during her long and lonely years of meditation?

In Tenzin Palmo’s own words, referring to a period when she worked at the Department of Employment to raise funds for her return to India prior to entering her cave: “I felt very sad - there were all these middle-aged guys saying ‘What have I done with my life?’ and young married people with mortgages, already trapped.” Authors also tend to view society like this, from the outside as detached observer rather than as part of the group, and it can be dangerous to look too long or too deeply at what actually matters in life. Shortly afterwards, Tenzin Palmo entered her cave, but not before carrying out a few essential renovations with the help of the locals to give it some proper walls and a door she could close against the elements and wolves. As she says in the book: “It was a very pukka cave.”

Tenzin Palmo did not write in her cave. She read her Buddhist texts and meditated in her box-bed, which was not big enough to allow her to lie down. She grew vegetables outside in the summer months, and - like St Francis of Assisi - was visited by the animals and birds of the mountains. She conversed with wolves, saw the prints of the elusive snow leopard outside her cave in the snow in the depths of winter, and also a huge footprint that may have belonged to the legendary Yeti. It seems she also survived possible breast cancer, and a serious eye infection. And, through all these hardships, she thrived.

It must have been a profound experience, and I kept wishing that Tenzin Palmo had written this book herself, rather than having to read her story secondhand. But Vicki Mackenzie has written a clear and faithful account based on her interviews with Tenzin Palmo, and part of the allure of a spiritual quest is the difficulty of capturing such a mystery in words. Perhaps the best any writer can hope to do is sketch down the bones, and leave it up to the individual reader to supply the flesh and the colour. If you are curious to know more, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is still teaching - see her website for details.

Cave in the Snow is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Independent Bookseller feature No.1: Sam Barnes of BOOKS & INK, Banbury, picks IN THIS GRAVE HOUR by Jacqueline Winspear


This is the first post in a new occasional feature - we're inviting independent booksellers to tell us about their favourite books. A big thank you to Sam Barnes for starting us off! If you're an independent bookshop and would like to join in, please contact us - we'll be very pleased to welcome you.

Sam Barnes is the owner of Books & Ink Bookshop, an independent bookshop in Banbury with second hand, antiquarian and new books. Sam opened the shop in 2005 and runs it full time, with a bit of help here and there from family! When not cataloguing stock and running the shop, Sam’s a voracious reader, an occasional review writer, a collector of Edward Ardizzone books and ephemera, and loves to get out exploring the great outdoors with a pair of walking boots and a camera. The bookshop is open Tuesdays to Saturdays but the website is open 24/7.

Sunday 3rd September, 1939, 11:15 am: Neville Chamberlain declares that Britain is now at war with Germany. People across the country sit gathered around wireless radios to hear the pronouncement. Maisie Dobbs joins her dearest friend Priscilla and Priscilla’s family to hear the devastating news; adults, all affected in some way by the previous war, exchange anxious glances with one another, while Priscilla’s teenage boys react in a more excitable way.

This is the opening scene for the 13th Maisie Dobbs mystery from Jacqueline Winspear; a historical mystery series based on the eminently likeable psychologist and private investigator, Maisie. Turning back the clock to book one, the series begins with Maisie setting up her own private detective practice in London in 1929. An independent, self-employed young woman setting up in professional practice in the 1920s - brilliant; I loved Maisie straight away. From the beginning you sense in Maisie a sensitivity, spirituality and sadness - all lending to her interesting and empathetic character - and as the novels progress, she develops into an investigator with a talent for solving crimes where compassion and understanding of the human psyche are frequently involved.

In this novel, frequent mention is made of Maisie’s backstory; her time spent as a frontline nurse in France during the 1914-1918 war and before that, her time spent in service as a young girl before she met a mentor who steered her onto her career path as private investigator. Both elements are important in the story, as thoughts of the first war are uppermost in the minds of everyone old enough to remember, and Maisie’s time in service regularly proves useful to her in her detective work, with her unique ability to find common ground with people of all social backgrounds.

Maisie is called upon by the Belgian Embassy to investigate the murder of a Belgian national, a refugee in Britain from the first war. A police investigation has been launched but, because of the pressures on the security services, the police are content to conclude an open-and-shut case of violent robbery. The Belgian Embassy aren’t happy with the conclusion and hire Maisie to do further digging.

It’s a time of upheaval in London; streets and playgrounds are quiet as children have been evacuated to the countryside; the skies are filled with immense floating shadow-creating barrage balloons; people are nervous and many men and women who came through the first war at great cost and personal sacrifice are now having to endure seeing their barely adult boys sign up to the forces. Maisie’s father and stepmother, living in the Kentish countryside, have some evacuees billeted with them; one of whom is a nameless silent little girl who arrived on the train from London but who does not appear on any records. Amidst trying to solve the case of the Belgian refugee before more murders take place, Maisie and her assistants also take it upon themselves to try and find out the story of the lost little evacuee, to see if they can find a living relative and work out where she has come from and how they can best help her. Themes of loss and displacement are to the fore in this mystery, making the story feel very relevant today, with the plight of refugees, and refugee children in particular, being uppermost in the thoughts and hearts of many.

Jacqueline Winspear creates believable and empathetic characters and paces her stories just right for the theme - page-turning but not at the expense of characters, descriptive writing or historical interest. Maisie comes through each case with grace, humility and prowess - not always successful in her cases but always changed in some small or subtle way, developing with each novel into an interesting and warm human character. While not ‘cosy-crime’ exactly, the series are a light read and the crimes not dwelt up on in great depth - no gore, no terror or forensic uglies. I can’t read (or watch) that sort of crime; it leaves me with an ingrained fear for days. I’d recommend Maisie Dobbs to even the most crime-sensitive readers - and, in fact, all of the readers I’ve recommended Maisie to in the bookshop, have come back for more doses, so that’s a pretty good testament.

In This Grave Hour is published by Allison & Busby.