Rounding Up and Looking Forward ~ June~July 2020

woman sitting while reading a book

Looking back over this past month has actually proved to be a very dispiriting experience. It’s not so much that I am discouraged by the amount I’ve read or the quality of what I’ve read but rather the quality of the way in which I’ve read it. At the beginning of lockdown I seemed to be able to engage with books in a far more thoughtful and detailed manner, but over these last few weeks I feel as if I have been reading with less attention and ending up with fewer worthwhile comments to make about books that I’m sure deserve better. I suppose that back in March there was novelty in having as much time to read as I wanted, but now that novelty has not only worn off, it has begun to drag. I am used to having long conversations about the books I’ve been reading and receiving stimulation from the other readers in the five groups I run during the course of any one month. Online conversations are great, and I wouldn’t want any of you for a single moment to think that I don’t appreciate my friends in the blogging world, but I think I’m missing having to be prepared to justify my opinions about what I read in the immediacy of face-to-face conversation. So, with that in mind, my apologies  to M W Craven, Catherine Fisher, Roz Watkins, Kate Grenville, Noel Streatfeild, Michèle Roberts and Katherine Applegate, writers to whom I have done less than justice during the month of June.

used red coffee cup and saucer

I suppose I should also apologise to those writers who I am expecting to read in July, just in case the same thing happens! However, most of the posts going up next month have already been written, and one of the things I want to give some thought to is the number of books I’ve been taking for review. Because, having once accepted an ARC I really do feel obliged to write about it, and consequently, they have been dictating my reading to far too great an extent. I’ve always maintained a list of forthcoming publications that I know I’m going to want to read and I think in future that I shall have to limit myself where NetGalley is concerned simply to the books that are already on that list. With that in mind, where I do have spaces this month I’m going to try and write a series of combined shorter reviews to work my way through as many of the books that I have committed to as I can and then keep a tighter rein on my requests in future. Even so, I think it will be several months before I’ve finally caught up with myself.

One way of dealing with this would be simply to dedicate the whole of July to reading review copies, however I’ve very much enjoyed dipping back into the world of children’s literature and also to reading from earlier in the last century than I would normally have done. So, I’ve drawn up a preparatory list for the forthcoming weeks which I hope will allow me to mix-and-match across a number of genre and a number of periods while still working my way through my review commitments. Some of these, I know, were on my projected list for June so maybe I should prioritise Lucy M Boston’s, The Children of Green Knowe and Alison Croggon’s The Gift, both of which are excellent children’s novels. Some of you may remember as well a very good televised version of the former, which I think was made in the 1980s? Mark Billingham’s Cry Baby and GR Halliday’s Dark Water are both on my to-read list and so that’s two review copies easily dealt with and in addition I’ve added Kate Weinberg’s The Truants and Rhiannon Ward’s The Quickening from my ARC pile to try and make something of a real dent in it. Peter Lovesey’s The Finisher is there as well, so that makes five that with luck and perseverance I will have cleared. To complete the list I’ve added Anne Enright’s Actress, Excellent Women by Barbara Pym and the fifth Campion novel, Sweet Danger.  There was a time when only reading ten novels in a month would have seemed paltry, at the moment I’m hoping I’m not being wildly over optimistic.  Oh well, at least there are thirty-one days in July!

 

The One and Only Bob ~ Katherine Applegate

black and white ceramic mug

Back in 2012 anyone and everyone on my birthday list  received the same book, Katherine  Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan.  The book tells the story of Ivan, a silverback gorilla captured at birth and brought to America where, for twenty-seven years, he has lived a caged existence in a shopping mall which, as he points out, is not as easy as it looks. There he is befriended by, in the dog’s own words, a mutt going under the name of Bob. Together they battle against the odds to protect a small baby elephant, Ruby, and the book has a moderately happy ending when both she and Ivan are taken into the local zoo and are able to become part of families of their own kind. If you haven’t read it then go out and buy a copy immediately because you are missing one of the great children’s books of all time.

So, what, I can hear you asking, happens to Bob? Well, he goes to live with Julia and her parents, George and Sara. George works at the zoo and so, as long as he is prepared to suffer the indignity of being pushed into Julia’s backpack while they go through the entrance gate, Bob is able to visit his friends on a regular basis. And they are doing fine. Ivan has found himself a lady friend. Girlfriend? I’ve never been sure what they call it in gorilla. As for Ruby, the elephant family have taken her to their hearts and are keeping her excesses of enthusiasm under control. Much easier for them than for a human. You try putting a two-hundred pound baby elephant in time out. Bob, however, while he is happy living with Julia and her family, still has, well I suppose you’d have to call them issues. You see Bob and his puppy brothers and sisters were placed in a cardboard box and thrown out of a moving car onto the side of the road and as far as he knows Bob is the only one who survived. While the world might think that men and dogs are each other’s best friends, Bob is not so sure; Yes, he definitely has trust issues.

And then there comes the day when there is a storm warning and the town is threatened by a tornado. The zoo is devastated, animals are injured, some escape, and for a time Bob is unsure about the safety of both his adopted human and animal families. But what is that voice he hears? That woof so well remembered, so longed for, but surely gone forever. Could it possibly be the voice of his true sister, Boss? Bob has to find out and in doing so he also has to learn a great deal about trust and about forgiveness. I figure if I’m going to forgive myself, I better be ready to cut everyone else some slack too.

This is another wonderful tale from Katherine Applegate. I cried and I laughed and I cried again as I read it. It is full of kindness, warmth and real love shown on the part of both the humans and the animals in the story. Be warned, if you’re on my birthday list you are definitely going to get a copy! And for everyone else, may I leave you to ponder this very profound thought, which might just possibly have a lot to say to bloggers: peeing without a potential audience is like talking to yourself.

With thanks to HarperCollins Children’s Books and NetGalley for a review copy.

Noel Streatfeild ~ Ballet Shoes & Saplings

white ceramic teacup with saucer near two books above gray floral textile

I have just spent a very pleasant long weekend in the company of Noel Streatfeild, first rereading her children’s classic, Ballet Shoes, and then exploring for the first time her adult novel, Saplings.  I thought it would be interesting to consider how the work of a writer for two contrasting audiences might be seen to both differ and to bear similarities and Streatfeild proved to be an excellent choice in this respect.

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know Ballet Shoes.  I’m not sure why I was so fond of it as a child, because the world that was being described was completely alien to me; perhaps that’s why I found it so enticing. It was first published in 1936 and reading it now I have to wonder how much of it was wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. As I’m sure you all know it tells the story of the three Fossil girls, Pauline, Petrova and Posy, each of whom has been “collected“ by great uncle Matthew (GUM) and deposited with his niece Sylvia in a large house in London. When GUM fails to return from his travels, the money begins to run out and so Sylvia takes in boarders, one of whom, Theo Dane, suggests that the three girls be trained for the stage so that eventually they may also contribute to the family purse. For two of them this is an absolute delight, but for Petrova it represents something akin to one of Dantes’ circles of hell. Into the breach steps another of Sylvia‘s lodgers, Mr Simpson, who, with his car and eventually his garage, provides the outlet that she needs for her own talents.

In many respects it’s possible to read this as almost a proto-feminist work, given that what we have in the end is three young women who are able to dictate their own futures. But, as I’ve suggested, this may be wishful thinking on Streatfeild’s part. I wonder just how many young girls in the 1930s were able to manipulate their responsible adults in the way that the Fossil sisters do? Of course, the fact that those adults are not the girls’ actual parents is important. Already the significance of being able in someway to isolate children and thus give them a certain amount of independence is making itself felt in children’s literature.

The relationship between Pauline, Petrova and Posy is very tight, possibly idealistically so. The children at the heart of Streatfeild’s 1945 publication, Saplings, are perhaps a more realistic portrayal of sibling interaction. When we first meet them in the summer of 1939 Laurel, the eldest, is eleven, the two boys Tony and Kim, nine and seven and the younger daughter, Tuesday, four. They are spending a last idyllic holiday at Eastbourne and while they may not be aware of the dangers lurking on the horizon, it is clear that both their father, Alex Wiltshire, and the writer are. In his afterword for the Persephone edition, Dr Jeremy Holmes suggests that Streatfeild’s primary concern is the psychological damage that war does to children. Certainly the final words of Mrs Oliver, I was saying to my daughter only yesterday, “we got a lot to be thankful for in this country. Our kids ‘aven’t suffered ‘o-ever else ‘as” have to be seen as ironic given the trauma that at least three of the Wiltshire children have endured. And, it is true that while one of the chief issues for the adults in the novel is the question of physical safety, of where the children will live, questions initially to do with evacuation and eventually, given that we are dealing with a nice middle-class family, where they should spend the holidays when their boarding schools are closed, the consequences of the decisions that they make in this respect are given very little thought at all. And yet, they are frequently disastrous, especially for the mental well-being of Laurel, whose distress at being moved from pillar to post is rarely taken into account. However, it seems to me that Streatfeild is every bit as interested in the relationship between the children and the adult women in their lives and frequently the young Wiltshires are let down by the very people you would expect to offer them the most support.

There are many women, relatives and teachers for the most part, who are influential in the children’s experiences, but the primary contrast is between the children’s mother, Lena, and the governess, Ruth Glover. For Lena the children are darlings, charming decorations, but they must not interfere with her real life:

she was not a family woman, she was utterly wife, and, if it came to that, a mistress too, and she meant to go on doing just those things.

Lena is not used to having to accommodate herself either to other people or to circumstance. The war hits Lena hard.

Ruth, on the other hand, has had a difficult childhood:

she was highly strung and acutely sensitive and, to defend herself drew away from her childhood, studying it with detachment, waiting patiently to be grown-up. As a legacy of these bitter school years she possessed a profound understanding of children.

As the war progresses and the children are successively sent away to boarding school, Ruth joins the ATS and from what we are told has a remarkably successful career there, but it is still to her that the children, Laurel in particular, turn in times of crisis. Lena, almost literally drowning in her own misery, is of no help to them at all, prepared to have them home only when it suits her needs. Not that she is capable of recognising this; she is a victim of muddled thinking, a problem from which the Fossil household suffers as well. The children’s grandfather defines this for us during a conversation about two young evacuees, Albert and Ernie, whose mother has demanded that they return to London, explaining

she didn’t get them home because she thinks the danger’s over but because she’s lonely without them…the reason isn’t the one she thinks it is…very important not to fool yourself.

Lena may think clearly at the beginning of the novel, but by the time the war has taken its toll she is incapable of doing anything other than fooling herself and damaging her children in the process.

I understand that this is the only one of Streatfeild’s adult novels available in print, which is a shame. Saplings is by no means a flawless work, but nevertheless it’s one that I enjoyed very much and I would have liked to have been able to explore more of her writing for this audience. It’s clear that her main interest is still children, how they interact with each other, and how they grow through childhood into young adults. Perhaps when it came to writing just about adult relationships she found herself at a loss, I’m not in a position to find out, but perhaps some of you have read other works by her intended for an older audience. If so, I would be very interested to know what you thought of them.

 

 

Cut To The Bone ~ Roz Watkins

Research tells us that one in a 100 people is a psychopath.  If you start to explore specific jobs then apparently 21% of managing directors are psychopaths. I wonder if anybody has ever made calculations about headteachers? I reckon I might of met a few. Anyway, the point is that if you look round society in general many very successful people, not necessarily nice people, but successful people, may well have psychopathic tendencies.  You would do well to remember that as you embark on Roz Watkins’ third novel featuring DI Meg Dalton, Cut to the Bone. As the novel begins Meg is still recovering from the death of her beloved Gran and worrying about her mother. who is about to embark on a trip to El Salvador to support women in their fight for sexual freedom. Possibly the last person she is concerned about is her father, who hasn’t been on the scene for a very long time, however, one of the things that this novel is about is the damage that fathers can do to their children and so we might expect when the missing parent turns up on Meg’s doorstep his motives will not turn out to be as pure as he declares them to be.

Set in what sounds like the long hot summer of 2018, the Derbyshire countryside, which forms the vast majority of Meg’s stamping ground, is as parched and tinder dry as the rest of the country and so, when she and her partner, DS Jai Sanghera, receive reports of a missing 18-year-old girl, Violet Armstrong, their search begins to a background of concern about wildfires sweeping across areas of open moorland. Violet has made something of a name for herself on social media platforms as the “bikini – barbecue – babe”. Advertising the benefits of meat products, she has become a target for militant animal welfare groups; one in particular, Animal Vigilantes, has been especially virulent in their condemnation, threatening to slit her throat. However, while the actions of violent extremists offer one line of investigation, it soon comes apparent that Violet, who is adopted, has been asking around in Gritton, one of the local villages, trying to identify her birth father; is it possible, therefore, that someone doesn’t want the truth to come out?

The investigation takes Meg and Jai to the local abattoir, where Violet had a job cleaning. It seems that the last time the girl was seen was on her way to the factory for her nightshift and she has been reported missing when, the following morning, her car was still there but there was no sign of her. The police are faced with the horrific possibility that not only has the girl been murdered, but that her body has then been fed overnight to the pigs awaiting slaughter the following morning.

The factory is owned and run by Anna Finchley, with the assistance of her brother Gary and Daniel Twigg and the pigs they process come from a local farm in the hands of the Nightingale family, whom we meet in the person of Tony, something of a local grandee, and his daughter Kirsty. Tony seems agreeable enough, but it very soon becomes clear that Kirsty is someone that you would not wish to cross. It is perhaps troubling, therefore, that Violet has also made contact with them, claiming that her birth mother, whom she has been told is dead, was in fact Tony’s younger daughter, Rebecca.

And what about Violet’s claim to have seen The Pale Child, a creature of myth who it seems appears whenever the water levels at Ladybower Reservoir sink sufficiently for the old drowned village to become visible? Legend has it that if The Pale Child, said to be an ancestor of the Nightingale family, sees your face then you will die. Has Violet’s fate been foretold? And, if it has then there are others who should also be very worried because the drought has indeed lowered the water level and The Pale Child is undoubtedly stalking the village and the woodland roundabout.

Attacked on social media by both sides of the animal welfare argument and then physically by animal welfare extremists, the last thing that Meg needs is to have to deal with her father who, for the reader at least, is clearly after the money that her Gran left her, money that Meg had hoped to use to finally buy a home of her own. But fathers and their relationships with their families, misguided and/or self-seeking, are at the heart of this story.  If Rebecca, whom we come to know as Bex, truly was Violet’s mother then who was her father? And why did Tony Nightingale send his three-year-old daughter to live with her aunt, not seeing her again for 13 years? Did you know that psychopaths can also run in families?

I enjoy Watkins Meg Dalton stories, not the least because I know the area she’s writing about very well indeed. When she talks about driving down Winnats, my immediate thought is “did she have to remove a sheep first?” Not an every day occurrence on Winnat’s Pass, but certainly something I’ve had to do on more than one occasion. Sitting in the middle of the road is, apparently, a favourite ovine past time. As with most serial police procedurals, I do think it’s better if you start at the beginning and jumping in midway will leave you with questions about elements of Meg’s background.  However, if you are new to the series that just means you have three books to enjoy rather than one, if not, you won’t be disappointed with this latest instalment.

The Curator ~ M W Craven

black and white ceramic mugWere you disappointed with a Christmas present you received last year? Was it not quite what you been expecting? Perhaps it was even something that made you feel slightly queasy? Whatever it was, I shouldn’t imagine it had quite the shock value of Barbara Willoughby‘s secret Santa gift, which turned out to be a mug with two severed fingers in it. When two further pairs of unrelated fingers are found, one in a baptismal font and the other on a butcher’s cooked meats counter, Detective Superintendent Jo Nightingale of the Cumbria police seeks support from the Serious Crimes Analysis Section of the National Crime Agency, better known as SCAS or, to readers of MW Craven’s previous two novels detailing their investigations, DI Stephenie Flynn, DS Washington Poe and the indomitable Tilly Bradshaw. Just so we’re clear about this before I go any further, Tilly Bradshaw is my hero. Born with an intellect that would have left Stephen Hawking standing with his mouth open, there is very little that Tilly can’t do with a computer and she absorbs new information at a rate that leaves others gasping, seeing patterns where other people simply see confusion. However, understanding nuance in the real world is not her forte and if a rule seems to be nonsensical then she just walks past it as if it didn’t exist. Can we skip ahead to where we’ve had the argument and I‘ve won but Tilly does what she pleases anyway? asks Stephanie Flynn at one point. And that sums the situation up nicely.  When I grow up I want to be Tilly Bradshaw.

As it happens, at the beginning of this investigation Tilly is really the only member of the threesome firing on all cylinders. Flynn is eight months pregnant and Poe still suffering from the aftermath of a bug that sounds almost as if he had managed to contract Covid before anybody else got round to it. Calling in the terrifying pathologist Estelle Doyle to examine the fingers it becomes apparent that not only are they from people who have definitely been murdered but also that they have been removed in three very different ways. Have there been three different murderers? Is it the work of someone who is, as it were, perfecting his trade as he goes along? And how are such apparently different victims being selected? One of the first theories to be considered is that there is only one true victim and the others are being simply randomly selected to muddy the waters. That there is no apparent connection between the three might seem to endorse this.

Then Poe gets a phone call from one Melody Lee, an FBI agent sent to work out in the sticks for having had the temerity to suggest that a young man convicted of murder was in fact set up and that the murder had been committed by someone calling himself the Curator who, for a price, would solve a problem for you, like getting rid of your unwanted business partner, while making sure that the blame could never come back to either you or him. The Curator’s modus operandi consists of involving vulnerable young people in a series of online challenges that start innocently enough but soon escalate into violence. He has, however, chosen his victims well because each of them has some secret that they are desperate is not made public. Although he then goes on to commit the final act of murder himself, they have become the fall guys and he is able to lay the killing at their door because they are terrified of being exposed.  The scheme that agent Lee has uncovered in the US has disturbing similarities to the evidence that is slowly coming to light in Cumbria and when a link is finally discovered between the three victims it points to one individual who may well be the ultimate target and the race is on to locate him and to protect him, even though he wants neither.

But is this really the what lies at the heart of the case? Or is this man simply another pawn, to be played and sacrificed in order to manipulate the chessboard to the Curator’s liking so that he can make a final swoop in a completely unexpected direction. And who is the money behind the Curator’s actions? Who is it that has hired him to take out one particular individual? When Poe discovers that, he realises that nothing can ever be the same again.

Craven is, without a doubt, one of the best crime writers around at the moment. His plots are complicated and intriguing. They never go in the direction that you expect them to but they never cross the bounds of believability either. And, while they are frequently very bloody and very disturbing there is also a lightness of touch and an element of humour in his writing that brings moments of relief to what might otherwise be unmitigated horror.  As is the case with many police procedural series, there is an ongoing development in terms of the relationships between the different characters and consequently, if you haven’t already met Flynn, Poe and Bradshaw, then I wouldn’t suggest that you start here. Go back and read The Puppet Show and Black Summer, the two preceding novels, and then catch up with this, the latest. You won’t regret the time spent.

 

 

 

 

 

The Snow-Walker Trilogy ~ Catherine Fisher

beverage blue breakfast brownCatherine Fisher is one of the children’s authors I most regret not having kept up with since I retired. Her works always explore the darker side of human nature in worlds that, while differing from our own in many ways, are nevertheless recognisably similar to the one that we inhabit. I’ve just been sent a review copy of one of her most recent books (I’m not quite sure why it’s being made available for review at the moment, given that it was first published in 2018, but nevertheless!) and I thought that before I read that I would reacquaint myself with the earliest of her works that I remember reading, the three books which make up The Snow-Walker Trilogy.

Set in a world of snow and ice that, with its sea coast and fjords, inevitably brings to mind Norway, the trilogy opens with The Snow-Walker’s Son and introduces the main character, from whose point of view most of the action in all three books is seen, the young girl, Jessa Horolfsdaughter. Jessa and her cousin, Thorkil, both of them orphans and the last in their family’s line, are banished from the court, ostensibly by the Jarl, but in reality as the result of the antipathy towards them of his wife, the witch, Gudrun. They are sent to the far north, to Thrasirshall, following in the footsteps of Kari, the son of the Jarl and Gudrun, a child reputed to be a monster, who lives there accompanied only by his guardian, Brochael Gunnarsson.  In fact, Kari, is no monster at all, facially he and his mother appear to be identical. However, the runes have said that Godrun’s own reflection will destroy her, so, as well as avoiding all mirrors, the witch has dispatched her son to a place from which she thinks he can never return, the land where the White People, the Snow-Walkers live.

Jessa and Thorkil both belong to the family of the Wulfings, the true rulers of the land,  and this appears to be the reason behind their banishment. However, there is one other who has an even better claim to the title of Jarl, Wulfgar, and along the way they meet up both with him and with a man who appears to be a peddler, but who turns out to be Wulfgar’s skald or bard, Skapti Arnsson. With their arrival on the scene, the main characters involved in the trilogy are almost all gathered together.

After a series of adventures the first novel ends with Gudrun’s defeat and Wulfgar coming into his own with Kari by his side. However, Gudrun’s final act is to curse Kari with the knowledge that no one will want him or trust him because they will always see her in his face and at the beginning of the second book, The Empty Hand, we see that this is indeed the case. Now a monster truly does haunt the land, a monster built by the exiled Gudrun out of runes, a magical being that is driven by hunger and which grows more substantial and more dangerous with every kill as it inexorably makes its way towards Wulfgar’s hall and its inevitable final prey. Only Kari has the wherewithal to defeat this monster and even he cannot accomplish this without the help of Jessa, Wulfgar, Skapti, the faithful Brochael and newcomer, Hakon, the Empty Hand of the title. Hakon, having been cursed by Gudrun and consequently losing the use of his right hand, is thrall to a nasty piece of work, Skuli Skulisson, who is in league with the villain of the piece, Vidar, Wulfgar’s councillor. Vidar tries his best to turn the Jarl and those around him against Kari and when he fails, takes desperate action. Subsequently, despite the worst that his mother and her followers can throw at him, Kari manages to defeat the monster, at which point Gudrun realises that she is going to have to take even more decisive action and live up to her other name, The Soul Thief.

The Soul Thieves, the third book in the trilogy, brings the conflict between Kari and his mother to a climax after Gudrun steals the soul of Signi, Wulfgar’s bride-to-be and sets in motion a curse that will eventually engulf all those who live under Wulfgar’s protection. Jessa, Kari, Skapti, Brochael and Hakon set off for the farthest north, the land of the Snow-Walkers, where they will either defeat the witch and free those caught in the enchantment or perish themselves, knowing that they are playing directly into Gudrun’s hands by bringing Kari to her.

I really enjoyed going back to these books, which I would suggest you give to any nine, ten or eleven year-old readers that you know. They recall many aspects of Norse legends, for example Odin’s ravens, Thought and Memory, they have forceful things to say about the importance of loyalty and friendship and perhaps most interestingly they have that which is still very rare in fantasy novels, an impressive young woman who is the strongest and focal character.

 

Negative Capability ~ Michèle Roberts

beverage blue breakfast brownIn 1817, in a letter to his brothers, the poet John Keats wrote

it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—

When Michèle Roberts’ most recent novel is turned down by both her agent and her publisher she is devastated. Entering what she calls a fugue stage she tries to grasp at something that will help her to make sense of the position that she is in.

The only thing I could think of doing was to make a narrative. Write. I hung onto this idea as onto a rope thrown to me where I was drowning in the sea. I would put the split, split, scattered images of the previous day back into time. The hours of the day, arbitrary in my present diffused state but meaningful for making a helpful pattern, would form the backbone to the narrative, and I’d marshal events and feelings towards that.

With that resolution behind her she starts a journal, in the early stages of which she recalls Keats’ letter and decides that Negative Capability is, for her, a country in which I had to live all the time. This current book is comprised of extracts from that journal, one for each month of the year. As she moves from entry to entry so we follow the progress of Roberts’ coming to terms with the need to practically re-write her novel and the struggle that she has both to find an agent to represent her and to convince her publisher to give attention to the reshaped work. We also gain an insight into her daily life, both in London and in France, her friendships and the ever present influence of the troubled relationship she had with her mother.

When I read the reviews of this book it seemed to be exactly the sort of thing that I would find interesting, if not actually enjoy. However, I had a very mixed reaction to it. I think it would be fair to say that while Michèle Roberts and I appreciate many of the same things, psychologically we are very, very different people and there were times when I found myself very much lacking in sympathy with what can seem to be a plethora of self pity.  If you work in academia you have to get used to the fact that you may put a great deal of effort, indeed a great deal of yourself, into creating a piece of work only then to have it rejected by either the funding body you’ve applied to or the journal to which you’ve offered it, and reshaping and reconsidering what you’ve written is a fact of life.  Because of this, I have to say that I found the early chapters really quite difficult at times and so decided that what I would do is concentrate on those elements of the writer’s life with which I could identify.

Principal among these would obviously be her enjoyment of books and of her friends from the literary world. The journal entries are littered with references to well-known people with whom she has spent time and not in a namedropping way; she is simply recording, with pleasure, occasions shared with people she has known for a long time and whose company she enjoys. Linked with this is the relish with which she describes the lunches that she prepares for and eats with her acquaintances. I hadn’t realised until I read this just how much satisfaction I get from sharing a meal, particularly lunch, with my friends and how much I’m missing being able to do that in our current situation. Another pleasure we have in common is walking through cities.

I caught the 68 bus, got off at Holborn Tube, took a backstreet route north, twisting and turning and doubling back. I got lost once or twice, which pleased me, meaning I just had to trust my sense of direction and guide myself back on track. Most of the time in cities I don’t get lost, I have a clear sense of north and south.

Me too. In fact the only time I haven’t been certain of where north lay was at the top of Glastonbury Tor and I was so disorientated that I practically fell down the slope in my attempt to get away from what was, for me, such an unnatural and disconcerting, feeling.

Finally, there is her recognition of the importance of narrative and of pattern, both of which have been at the very core of my personal and professional life.

Making a narrative of this past year, I had proved to myself that I could live inside time, think one thought at a time, link them in strings. My mind might often whirl like a Catherine wheel, I might often feel and think everything all at once, but I could also make patterns, make order, put one sentence after another.

As an insight into the dilemma of one particular writer, and into the way of life that has fed her writing, this is an extremely interesting book. If I couldn’t always be as sympathetic as perhaps I ought, that doesn’t stop me recognising that many readers will find a lot to take from this work, especially those who, like myself, are of an age with Michèle Roberts and know of many of the people she writes about and remember many of the events that she recalls.

With thanks to Sandstone Press and NetGalley for a review copy.

Six Degrees of Separation: from Normal People to

book chapter sixThe Six Degrees of Separation meme is hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best.  Every month a book is chosen as a common starting point and each blogger then links to six other books to form a chain. This month’s chain begins with Sally Rooney’s massively popular Normal People.

As I write this I’ve just received an email from a friend saying how much she’s enjoyed the television version of this book and how it’s sent her to the novel which she has then enjoyed even more. I find this very reassuring, given that I introduced one of my book groups to Rooney’s work through her earlier novel, Conversations With Friends and without exception they all hated it! I haven’t watched the televised adaptation mainly because I enjoyed the book so much that I didn’t want to risk spoiling it. I spent a large part of my working life with young adults of Marianne and Connell‘s age and I thought the novel caught the academic environment, its pressures, and the consequent dilemmas that students can face, perfectly. One regret that I do have about not having seen the dramatised version is that I’ve missed out on the Dublin settings. So, as compensation I’m staying in Dublin for my second choice, the second of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books, The Likeness.

woman holding brown open notebook

The Likeness is linked to Normal People not only through location but also through the fact that many of its chief characters are studying at university in Dublin. In some respects, French’s series could itself be seen as a example of six degrees of separation in as much as each succeeding novel is linked to its predecessor by the fact that a subsidiary character in the earlier story becomes the main character in the one following. In this instance it is Cassie Maddox who moves into the spotlight. Traumatised by her contact with a psychopath in her previous case, Cassie has transferred out of the Murder Squad and consequently is surprised when she is called to the scene of a killing being supervised by her boyfriend, Sam O’Neill.  She is even more surprised when she gets her first view of the victim, a young woman who could be her double and whose ID names her as Lexie Maddox, an identity that Cassie adopted when working under cover. In an attempt to discover who killed ‘Lexie’, Cassie‘s old boss persuades her to resume her old disguise and integrate herself with the group of fellow students who are his main suspects. I don’t think this is the best written of the French novels, but because of its subject matter, its setting and its characters it is my favourite.

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Cassie and Lexie, although unrelated are so alike that they could be twins. Consequently, my next link is to Audrey Niffenegger’s novel Her Fearful Symmetry.  Niffenegger is much better known for her previous book, The Time Traveller’s Wife, but in some respects I enjoyed this one more. Identical twins, Julia and Valentina Poole, are left a London flat by their aunt on the condition that their mother is never allowed to cross the threshold. However, until the solicitor’s letter falls through the door of their suburban American home, neither Julia nor Valentina knew their aunt existed. Neither do they have any idea of the complicated personal entanglements that they are about to encounter when they make their way to London. These include the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives in the flat above them and their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below and who works in Highgate cemetery, which their flat overlooks.

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Unlike a friend of mine I am not absolutely obsessed with Highgate Cemetery, in fact, I’ve never been there, however it is the location which forms the next link in my chain. Tracy Chevalier’s novel, Falling Angels, begins in 1901 with two very different families visiting the cemetery to pay their respects at neighbouring graves. Queen Victoria has just died and the country is opening up to all sorts of new ideas. One of the families is very much Upper Middle Class and determined that life should go on as normal. The other, from a lower strata of society, is more forward-looking and when the wife becomes involved with the women’s suffrage movement that becomes one of the major themes of the novel. Interestingly, when I read this with a book group that was made up of very independent women, they felt that the way in which the subject was tackled in this novel was pretty poor and so there are two links between this and my next book, Helen Fields’ most recent publication, These Lost & Broken Things. 

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These Lost & Broken Things is set, for the most part, in London in the early years of the 20th century and is primarily concerned with the fate of a young woman who is driven by poverty into a growing addiction both to gambling and to murder.  The blackmailing blackguard for whom she works is very careful to keep his professional and home lives separate, so his wife, who seems to be a genuinely nice woman, is kept completely apart from his nefarious business activities. In fact, she is having her own little quiet rebellion by becoming involved with the suffrage movement. This forms one part of the link. However, the other side of the bond comes about because in neither novel do I feel that the suffrage aspect is fully developed.  In Fields’ novel, especially, it seems to be tagged on rather than integrated. The book doesn’t quite hang together as a whole; not something you could ever say about the writer’s more substantial body of work set in Edinburgh, a police procedural series that begins with Perfect Remains – the next link in the chain.

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Perfect Remains introduces DI Luc Callanach. Newly arrived in Edinburgh, having left behind a promising career with Interpol in Lyon, the half Scots, half French Luc finds it very difficult to settle into his new working environment. Forced to leave France because of an ill-founded scandal within his previous office, Luc is also concerned that rumours about his previous life may follow him to his new home. In fact, as it turns out, it isn’t just rumours that turn up in Scotland! The book also introduces DI Ava Turner, and later novels in the series concentrate as much on her as they do on Luc. Both of them are very engaging characters and I have to say that I much prefer Fields in this mode than when she ventures into historical fiction.

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Fields is one of many crime writers to base their police procedures in Edinburgh and it is another Edinburgh based novel that forms the final link in my chain, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox. Set over two different time periods, the book tells the story of a young woman unable to find her feet in middle-class 1930s Edinburgh society. Uncomfortable among her peers, just like Rooney’s Marianne, and outrageous in the eyes of many adults, she is spirited away and the truth about what happens to her only becomes clear sixty years later when another young woman, Iris, receives a very unexpected letter asking her to offer her grandmother a home.

So, from one European capital to another and from one and comfortable teenage woman to another, my June offering for Six Degrees of Separation.

 

Rounding Up and Looking Forward ~ May ~ June 2020

book stack books contemporary cupI’m sure no one will need to ask why if I say it’s been an unsettled month. Halfway through I suddenly found that the speed at which I was doing everything had been cut by half and so a lot of the reading that I projected at the beginning of the month came to nothing. In addition, given the freedom to go out more than once a day, I’ve been walking five or six miles just because I can and also because it’s something I don’t normally have the opportunity to do. It does cut into the reading time however, and so I’ve only managed to get through seven books – almost unheard of for me. Five of these were Arcs and thus the reviews will not appear for some time, however, I can recommend, once they’re available, the latest novels by Olivia Kiernan (If Looks Could Kill), Caz Frear (Shed No Tears) and Claire Askew (Cover Your Tracks) who each have the most recent instalment in their respective crime series forthcoming in the next few weeks. In children’s fiction I read Tracy Darnton‘s current offering, due at the beginning of next month, The Rules. This was quite scary, given that the main character is the daughter of a Prepper, who has been planning for ages how he is going to survive the very type of situation we now find ourselves in. Perhaps someone should give the author a crystal ball and she if she can foresee how we’re going to find our way out of our current position. However, by far and away the best of the arcs that I read this month was Emma Straub’s new novel, All Adults Here, due out in the UK in the middle of July. I only picked this one up because it had been recommended by Elizabeth Strout; if I just read the blurb I would have assumed it was the sort of book that would never appeal to me. It’s typical Strout territory, set in a small town in the Hudson Valley and focusing on the relationships between parents and their children and I have to say that I loved every word of it. I read it as slowly as I possibly could because I simply didn’t want to leave the world that Straub had created and given the opportunity I’d go straight back there just to find out what happened to her characters as their lives progressed. If you like Strout you must put this on your tbr list. I would say it’s my book of the year so far.

The other two books I read were both published long before even I was born: Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post and Margery Allingham’s Police at the Funeral.  As you will know if you’ve read the reviews I wasn’t particularly impressed by the Allingham, but revisiting the lives of the Walker, Blackett and Callum families as they scoured the Lake District hills for gold was a great pleasure and seem to bring back happy memories for many other bloggers too. This prompted a desire to return and explore some of the other children’s books that I had enjoyed so much when I was working in the field and so you won’t be surprised to find that there are a couple of tried and tested volumes in my growing pile for June. I have to say though, that I’m reluctant to make too many predictions about what’s going to happen over the next thirty days given the almighty mess I made of it last month. So please take what follows as a list of possible as opposed to a list of probable, reads.

flowers on opened book

I’m pretty much up-to-date with my arcs for July, but I notice I’ve got six that are due for publication in August so I’m going to have to read at least a couple of those. For once there aren’t any crime novels amongst them so it looks as though I’m going to be fairly short on my favourite genre. However, there are three new police procedurals due out in June that I haven’t been able to pick up for review which means that I will therefore have to speak nicely to Jolyon Bear and see if I can sweet talk him into letting me buy copies.  Our finances are not as tight as they were at the beginning of the lockdown, so I think that means we will definitely be seeing M W Craven’s The Curator, Roz Watkin’s Cut to the Bone and Jo Spain’s After the Fire, joining the pile. However, three in a month is very much shortcomings for me where crime fiction is concerned so that probably means that I will be digging into the fifth episode in Albert Campion’s career, Sweet Danger, which sees our intrepid hero off to a small Baltic country in order to restore its rightful rulers to the throne. I just hope that Lugg is around this time to leaven the dough. I haven’t had much success with the other Golden Age crime writers that I’ve tried, leaving aside the obvious Christie, Tey and Marsh, but I’m not averse to giving someone else’s work’s a spin.  Does anyone have any suggestions as to authors from that period that I might look into?

In the case of children’s books one of the arcs I do have is by an author called Catherine Fisher, whom I’ve always felt is not as well known as she ought to be. With that in mind I’m currently reading the earliest of her books which I remember encountering, The Snow-Walker’s Son. It’s the first of what was originally a trilogy and then was added to with a fourth novel later on, and is probably aimed at 10 and 11-year-olds. Certainly, I would have read it with my Year 6 classes. I’m very much enjoying it and will definitely  go on to read the others. I’ve also got two further old favourites sitting on the shelf, Lucy M Boston’s The Children of Green Knowe and Australian author, Alison Croggon’s The Gift. Again, both of these are the first novels in a sequence and if they live up to my memory then I will almost certainly read the later instalments as well.

Other than that, I have to say I’m a bit at a loss, especially as books that were due out in June have been pushed back by the publishers. David Mitchell’s new novel, Utopia Avenue, was expected towards the end of the month but is now advertised for July and the same is true for Ali Smith’s final volume in her seasons quartet, Summer, rescheduled for August. I said I would hang on and read all four books when the final volume was available, but given the complexity of her work I’m not sure I have the little grey cells to handle that at the moment. A question of wait and see, I think. Still, I’m quite sure that the book fairy won’t let me go short of reading material. I just hope that I managed to get through more this coming month than I’ve managed in the last.

 

Writers & Lovers ~ Lily King

IMG_0093Why have I not come across the writer, Lily King, before? I wouldn’t have come across her now had it not been for Susan‘s recommendation of her latest book, Writers & Lovers, and her comment that Elizabeth Strout had said it was “Gorgeous”. I trust Susan’s judgement anyway, but when you couple that with Elizabeth Strout’s recommendation any writer has to be worth taking a risk on and believe me, Writers & Lovers truly is gorgeous.

Casey Peabody is, as she tells a gathering of students at the very end of the novel, thirty-one years old and seventy-three thousand dollars in debt. Since college she has moved eleven times, had seventeen jobs and several relationships that didn’t work out. She’s been estranged from her father since twelfth grade, and earlier in the year her mother died. Her only sibling, Caleb, is three thousand miles away.  When we first meet her she is living in Boston and working shifts in a local restaurant in a vain attempt to make ends meet.  Home is what is described as a ‘potting shed’ attached to property owned by Adam, a friend of her brother. Adam, however, is no friend of hers. Actually, I’m surprised he’s a friend of anybody. Two pages in and I’m making a note to myself to the effect of ‘why hasn’t somebody biffed him one?’ The only thing that has been a constant in Casey’s life over the past six years has been the novel that she is writing. This isn’t something that has just come out of the blue, that seventy-three thousand dollar debt has been amassed while she was at college on what we in the UK would call creative writing programmes. While fellow students have fallen by the wayside, abandoned their writing and taken up other jobs, Casey has persisted.

Is Adam impressed?

Is he hell.

‘How many pages you got now?’

‘Couple of hundred maybe’…

‘You know’, he says, pushing himself off his car, waiting for my full attention. ‘I just find it extraordinary that you think you have something to say’.

Maybe ‘biffing’ is too good for him. I’m thinking perhaps extermination?

Actually, the key phrase in that passage is waiting for my full attention because Casey frequently finds herself being belittled or ignored by men who have been brought up to think that the world owes them recognition and should dance to their tune. One of the reasons she is estranged from her father is because he has tried to dictate her career, pushing her to develop her talent as a golfer and scorning her ambitions to write. The only time we meet him is when he and his second wife turn up at the restaurant, Iris, where Casey works, in order to get her to turn over a ring of her mothers, the sole possession she has to remember her by. Then there is Oscar Kolton, a widowed writer with whom Casey enters into a relationship. When she accompanies him to a book reading he cannot cope with the fact that a female author has been accommodated in a larger venue.

‘I am forty-seven years old. I was supposed to be reading in auditoriums by now…I know I have a better book inside me. I have something big inside me. I just. Ever since. Fuck’. It almost seems like he’s going to punch the bricks of the gift shop beside us. Instead he lays his palms on the wall and lets out some jagged breaths.

Nearly every guy I dated believed they should already be famous, believed that greatness was their destiny and they were already behind schedule. An early moment of intimacy often involved a confession of this sort: a childhood vision, teacher’s prophecy, a genius IQ. At first, with my boyfriend in college, I believed it too. Later, I thought I was just choosing delusional men. Now I understand it’s how boys are raised to think, how they are lured into adulthood. I’ve met ambitious women, driven women, but no woman has ever told me that greatness was her destiny.

But whatever you’ve been brought up to think, writing a novel is not something that just drops into your lap because it is your destiny, because it is something you want, something that you deserve; it is hard work. For Casey, it has been six years hard work, but it has been six years in which the act of writing has been that which is constant and steady in her life. It has been my home, the place I could always retreat to…the place where I am most myself. Casey, unlike those students with whom she studied, has stuck to what she truly wants to do. However difficult it’s been, she has remained authentic to who she wants to be regardless of what it has cost her and it is precisely that feeling of authenticity which resounds throughout the novel.  I don’t know to what extent Writers & Lovers is autobiographical, but the ‘Writers’ element of the book feels like a lived experience.

However, the book is not just about being a writer but also about being part of a relationship, and relationships have to be worked at as well. You can’t, like Oscar, just take the other person’s acquiescence for granted because they fit well into your life, or drop out for a couple of weeks, as Silas does, without telling them, because you’re having a bad time. Being in a relationship means accepting that the other person has needs and wants as well as you and respecting that; it certainly doesn’t mean being used as a one night stand. When Casey‘s brother, Caleb, visits and, having slept with Adam, realises that the encounter meant so much more to him than to his so-called friend, Casey consoles him by saying, he’s never going to allow himself the option of you or any other guy. He’s not that brave. And that is exactly what it takes to be in a relationship, to commit to it and work at it on a long-term basis, it takes bravery. This is something Adam will never understand, just as he fails to understand the commitment and sacrifice that writing her novel has meant for Casey. (Do you get the feeling I’m not impressed by Adam?)

It took me a little time to get into Writers & Lovers and that is something that I should remember as a reader; that the act of reading is one of forming a relationship with the writer to bring the actuality of the narrative to life and therefore it should be given the same sort of commitment on my part as the writer gave to it during the actual composition. Once you do give this novel that sort of commitment, it will repay you a hundredfold.

With thanks to Pan Macmillan and NetGalley for the review copy.