Friday, 23 December 2011

The Best of 2011

So what has stayed in my head after a year of reading?

Of the fiction I read, I'm still thinking about Sue Gee's 'The Mysteries of Glass'  and Maggie O'Farrell's 'The Hand that First Held Mine' - both fabulous novels.    'Sex and Stravinsky' by Barbara Trapido is up there too with Michael Ondaatje's 'Divisadero' (though I'm still mulling that one over).

The most memorable of the light romantic reads is Linda Gillard's 'House of Silence', though it's certainly more than romantic fiction and Avril Joy's 'The Orchid House' runs it a close second. My favourite short stories were the Raymond Carver collection 'What We Talk About When We Talk About Love'.

I've read a lot of poetry this year and the ones that have 'stuck' are Selected Poems by Carol Ann Duffy and the collected poems of Tomas Transtromer.  Of the new collections that have come my way this year I've loved Isobel Dixon's 'The Tempest Prognosticator' and Tim Jones' 'Men Briefly Explained'.  Both would have to be up for the 'Title of the Year' prize!

Top of the list for crime fiction has to be 'Snowdrops' by A.D. Miller, the Montalbano novels of Andrea Camilleri, the latest Anne Zouroudi and, of course, Kate Atkinson.  It's been a good year for crime novels.

Best non-fiction has to be Matthew Hollis's biography of Edward Thomas (though it never went deep enough for me), and the wonderful biography of Raymond Carver, A Writer's Life, by Carol Sklenicka.

The most disappointing book of the year, for me, had to be John le Carre's 'Our Kind of Traitor', which was so structurally flawed I was consciously re-arranging it in my head as I was reading.  He's a wonderful writer, but this was way below par.  

Unfinished Reads:    I haven't managed to finish The Crimson Petal and the White, so that's my main aim for 2012.  This year has been so busy, long books have been at a disadvantage. 

Looking forward to seeing what's on my Christmas Kindle (I have a wish-list 3 pages long on Amazon!)  -  and hoping for a hardcopy of Julia Blackburn's Thin Paths in Italy.  She lives just over the border from me in Liguria, but in the same mountains and I can't wait to see what she has to say about this area.

Tanti Auguri for Christmas and New Year to everyone!   And happy reading!

Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Orchid House: Avril Joy

I made a resolution quite a while ago to read (and hopefully review) one self-published e-book a month.  This month my chosen read is Avril Joy's 'The Orchid House', with its luscious cover -  positively inviting you to pick it up.  Sadly on Kindle it comes up as black and white - but maybe soon Kindle will get its act together and discover full colour!

If you love romantic fiction with a darker undertow, gardening and garden history then the Orchid House will please you.   There's a lot of (very good) sex in the book too - and it takes real talent to write about sex well.  Gardening, when you think about it, is all about sex - breeding plants, fertilising seeds, earth, nurturing fruit and flower.  I have to say that this is one of the most erotic novels I've read for a while.  From the steamy tropical ambience of Sri Lanka to the hot-houses of Trescombe in England, the reader is treated to sensual prose unfolding a plot that is both tragic and compelling.

The heroine, 27 year old Roma, has just lost her lover, who drowned  while body-surfing in rough seas off the coast of Sri Lanka.  She returns to England, unable to move on with her life, until she takes up a project, illustrating the 19th century diary of the head gardener at Trescombe - a stately home in Cornwall.  She begins to make a relationship with Will, the current head gardener, though neither of them seem able to commit to each other.  He is curiously withdrawn, and his real passion is for rare orchids, the most beautiful and mysterious of plants, and he spends a great deal of his time in the hot-houses where they grow.  But the orchid house conceals a terrible secret, and there has been another death by drowning ......

Into Roma's emotional twilight comes the sadistic Max, owner of Trescombe, and sexually irresistible to both men and women.  The whole situation becomes explosive and the lives of Roma, Will and Trescombe itself are all put in jeopardy.  But, of course, as a romance, all is healed in the end, the heroine gets the right hero and all is well.   I really didn't know how it was all going to work out and was very happy with the way the story was  concluded.

This is Avril Joy's second published book - the first was The Sweet Track, published by Flambard Press and very well received.   The story of  how it got into print and the reasons why she decided to publish her second novel herself are told on Avril's blog here.   The Orchid House nearly made it to Headline and Bloomsbury.  You have to ask yourself why they didn't take the plunge, since this is a very good read that's pleasing many people at the moment (8 four or five star reviews on amazon).   Are publishers going mad at the moment?  Or just lost in the new landscape of BookWorld?  They do seem to be turning down some very good reads. 

For me, there's only one little niggle - as with most Kindle books (even - alas - the top publishers) there are a few typos and formatting errors,  but these are easy to overlook when the story is so good.  What all e-published authors need is a good editing service at an affordable price - it's quite a different art to the usual kind of copy-editing.  Having fallen foul of the conversion process myself, I'd be first in the queue to sign up!

Avril talks about her life as a writer in prison 'Twenty Five Years Behind Bars',  and her writing, over on the Authors Electric Blogspot. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Helen Rappaport: Magnificent Obsession

The Death that Changed the Monarchy

I'm not a Royalist, in fact I'm a rabid Republican (you can always get rid of a President, royalty's a bit more tricky)  and in 1792 I would probably have been out on the streets of Paris cheering the tumbrils - though I like to think I might have been a bit more humanitarian!  So, my reading of Helen Rappaport's beautifully written book on Victoria and Albert, 'Magnificent Obsession', has been a little biased.  

Victoria is revealed as a spoilt and self-obsessed young woman who retreated into hysterical grief on the death of her husband at the age of 42, completely neglecting her children and her role as head of state.  This, to me, is not magnificent - it's appalling that she was allowed to get away with it.  But, under the protocols of the time, only Albert had been in a position to put limits on her behaviour.  

He wrote Victoria a letter shortly before he died, when she was grieving hysterically for her mother (an ominous precursor of what was to follow),  exhorting her  to 'try to be less occupied with yourself and your own feelings'..... Pain was 'chiefly felt by dwelling on it and can thereby be heightened to an unbearable extent....   this is not hard philosophy, but common sense supported by common and general experience. If you will take increased interest in things unconnected with personal feelings, you will find the task much lightened of governing those feelings in general which you state to be your great difficulty in life.'

Her children, the youngest only 3, had their lives plunged into gloom by Victoria's obsessive mourning, forbidden to play with friends or go to parties or other social occasions.  Her eldest son, Bertie, was rejected for being the cause - in her eyes - of Albert's demise.   Victoria's children gave her no comfort.   She told a visitor that 'she had never taken pleasure in the society of her children as most mothers did.'  Albert had been her entire world.

The book focuses on what Victoria's retreat from public life did to the politics and economy of the country -  it is a fascinating study of how the private behaviour of a head of state can have far-reaching effects on the public health of the country.   Her obstinate refusal to 'do her job' did not make her, or her family, popular, especially when she expected Parliament to dig deep into its pockets to fund her growing brood.

I shared the country's outrage when Parliament was asked to vote £100,000 a year out of tax revenue to fund Bertie and his Danish wife Alex, in a life of luxury and idleness, at a time when a skilled labourer might earn 30s a week, a housemaid £12 a year, and even a bank clerk only around £90 per annum.  There were people starving in Lancashire at the time due to a shortage of cotton caused by war in America, but Victoria, locked into her grief, was oblivious to anything happening outside her darkened room.

She was, at the time, paying £200,000 for the mausoleum at Frogmore and complaining that English, instead of German, was being spoken too often at court.  Her insistence on finding all her children German wives and husbands, was to have lasting consequences for Britain.  Kaiser Fritz, her favourite, in particular, though Victoria never lived to see the result of her dynastic manouevres.

Helen Rappaport writes lucidly and impartially on Victoria's  great obsession, and brings the woman vividly alive, as well as making very clear just how much Albert did for Britain and how much we lost when he died.  It's a book I'm enjoying very much.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Stanley Plumly: Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me

Stanley Plumley sounds more like a Yorkshire shop-keeper than an American poet, but names are deceptive. He’s one of their best. Plumley is Professor of English at the University of Maryland and published by CCC - an imprint of HarperCollins publishing. Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me is a collection of new and selected dating from 1970 to 2000. It’s arranged in reverse chronological order because the publishers want you to read from the new poems back to the ones he started out with. I tried to read it like that, but found myself giving up and going to the back of the book, reading through his life from young man to old man (he was born in 1939). My favourite poems are from the early period - his first collection ‘In the Outer Dark’.

Many of the poems are autobiographical - which is probably why it makes more sense to start at the beginning. His relationship with his mother is told in personal, affectionate detail as in ‘My Mother’s Feet’

                 ‘How no shoe fit them,
and how she used to prop them,
having dressed for bed,
letting the fire in the coal stove blue

and blink out, falling asleep in her chair.
How she bathed and dried them, night after night,
and rubbed their soreness like an intimacy.
How she let the fire pull her soft body through them.’

his alcoholic father,

‘I watched you humble a man in a fight once -
he went down like an animal whose spirit
world has suddenly collapsed and all that’s left
in the wounded moment after is not quite
animal nor man. He was big, which made
his humility that much larger, and there
was blood but so little that it seemed less like
a fight than a conversion. You had his right
arm at the wrist in your right hand and simply
turned him down onto the floor, which stank of wear
and sawdust. I’d seen you break the back of wood
like that. The man wept, he was drunk, you were drunk
and at the same time sober. He was my size
now. And in his eyes I could see his children .......’

Many of the poems are personal observations of the relationships around him - trying to make sense of them.

‘People are standing, as if out of the rain,
holding on. For the last two blocks
the woman across the aisle has wept
quietly into her hands, the whole
of her upper body nodding, keeping time.
The bus is slow enough you can hear,
inside your head, the traffic within
traffic, like another talk.’

There are prose poems, and beautiful exercises in observation, such as ‘In Answer to Amy’s Question What’s a Pickerel’

‘Pickerel have infinite, small bones, and skins
of glass and black ground glass, and though small for pike
are no less wall-eyed and their eyes like bone.
Are fierce for their size, and when they flare
at the surface resemble drowning birds, .......

But through all of it, the poet’s voice, with a quiet tone of enquiry and exploration, is steady and consistent and extraordinarily likeable. My favourite poem, even after I’d read the whole collection, remains the title poem ‘Now That My Father Lies Down Beside Me’.

We lie in that other darkness, ourselves.
There is less than the width of my left hand
between us. I can barely breathe,
but the light breathes easily,
wind on water across our two still bodies.

I cannot even turn to see him.
I would not touch him. Nor would I lift
my arm into the crescent of a moon.
(There is no star in the sky of this room,
only the light fashioning fish along the walls.
They swim and swallow one another.)

I dream we lie under water,
caught in our own sure drift.
A window, white shadow, trembles over us.
Light breaks into a moving circle.
He would not speak and I would not touch him.

It is an ocean under here.
Whatever two we were, we become
our falling body one breath. Night lies down
at the sleeping center - no fish, no shadow,
no single, turning light. And I would not touch him
who lies deeper in the drifting dark than life.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

E-Book - Wendy Robertson; Paulie's Web

I’m pledged to read one E-published book a month and this time it’s Wendy Robertson’s novel ‘Paulie’s Web’.  Wendy is a much-published author with more than 25 titles on the bookshelves.  Paulie’s Web is the novel her publishers didn’t want because they thought it too ‘difficult’ for her readership because it’s about women in prison and the challenges they face when released.  It came from several years spent working as a writer in prisons, an experience Wendy describes as ‘challenging and life-changing.’  

‘It has taken me ten years to digest the extremities of my experience in prison,’ Wendy says, ‘and write my novel as true fiction in a way that pays tribute to the many  women I met while working there. If, by the by, it goes some way to cracking the absurd stereotypes of women in prison it will be an extra delight.  While there are dark passages here I make no apologies for the ultimately optimistic tone of this story which is a true reflection of the humour, stoicism and kindness that I was witness to in my prison experience.’

The novel tells the story of 5 women locked in the same white van to be taken off to the remand centre.  One of them, Paulie, has been wrongly convicted and when she’s released, 6 years later, she’s determined to track down the other women and find out what’s happened to them. 

Paulie is a great character.  Wendy says that ‘If you are interested in the experiences of people on the margins of our comfortable lives, you will like Paulie! She is great – clever, resourceful and capable of surviving the hardest challenges that life throws up at her.’  In the prison, Paulie has become a writer and the women’s stories are interspersed with extracts from Paulie’s notebook. 

This is an honest novel - neither a misery memoir - which so many prison books are - or a romanticised version of unimaginably hard lives.  It offers a picture of a sector of society most of us know nothing of - except what we read in the papers.  I grew to love some of the characters - particularly Queenie, the elderly schizophrenic given to wandering and having visions, locked up in prison (like so many people with mental health issues) because there’s nowhere else to go.

There’s an underlying message in the book - Paulie finds redemption through the prison education system - through literature.  Wendy intended the novel to confront the issues of  ‘justice and injustice in ordinary people’s lives’, but it does more than that.

Wendy is an expert story-teller and wordsmith and Paulie’s Web is a delight to read, even though the subject matter is dark.  Hanging and flogging members of the House of Commons should be made to read it.

Wendy has an excellent blog on

If you're interested in E-books and authors doing it for themselves, check out

Monday, 17 October 2011

Now All Roads Lead to France: Matthew Hollis

I'm always happy when I see a biography of a poet written by a poet.   Matthew Hollis is one of the 'poetry whizz-kids' in Britain - someone who has won all the prizes going and has now ventured into biography with this study of Edward Thomas.

It's one of the new breed of biography - that tackles one aspect or one period of a life rather than ploughing through the whole thing.  This one is very cleverly done.  Edward Thomas's whole life is reflected and discussed in consideration of the most important five years of his life - the years just before his death, when he began to write poetry rather than prose.

Central to the story is Thomas's meeting with Robert Frost who had sold up all his possessions and come to England in a gamble to launch his own career as a poet, feeling overlooked in America.  For 5 years the two men talked, corresponded, shared their work and encouraged each other.  There are echoes of their conversations in each other's poetry - compare Thomas's 'The Signpost' with Frost's 'The Road Not Taken'.  The book is very good on their relationship.  But I don't always agree with Matthew Hollis's analysis of the poems.

In the background is the (one can't help but feel) tragic relationship between Edward Thomas and his wife Helen.  The youthful marriage he came to regret so much that he sometimes treated his wife with considerable emotional cruelty, and which seems to have precipitated  long episodes of depression.   Thomas had love affairs with 3 other women (one a very young girl) which may or may not have been platonic, but all deeply troubling to his wife.  One feels pity on both sides.

There is always a narrative hook at the end of a life abruptly terminated.  The question mark -  what would he have written/done/said if he had lived beyond the war?  We can't know.   The question mark hovers in the concluding lines of his own poems and is one reason we are so drawn to them - the other reason is the poignancy of the foreshadowing - the poet's own haunting uncertainty - matched with our own reading of the poems with the knowledge of how the story really ended.

Edward Thomas's poetry is better, much better, than I remembered from reading it years ago.  Let's pass over the much quoted Adlestrop, and his poem 'To Helen' (the meaning of which changes once you know the background).    Thomas's collected poems are available to download in a number of formats, free, at the Gutenburg Project.   Read Bright Clouds, The Long Small Room, Liberty, It Rains, In Memoriam,  Lights Out (written after he went to France, believing he would die), There's Nothing Like the Sun, and the poem that he wrote last to finish the collection 'Words'.  Then read the biography.

Lights Out (excerpt)

I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.

Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.

There is not any book,
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.

The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way
And myself.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Under Storm's Wing: Edward Thomas

A Memoir of a life with Edward Thomas
Helen and Myfanwy Thomas

I’ve been reading this as an introduction and another perspective to Now All Roads Lead to France - Matthew Hollis’s account of the last 5 years of Edward Thomas’s life, when he began to write poetry seriously and enlisted in the war that was to kill him with such casual cruelty.

Helen Thomas’s memoir is a personal and passionate account of her relationship with the poet - how they met as teenagers, and became lovers in spite of their parents’ disapproval.  Her frank accounts of their youthful, innocent love making in the open air are quite beautiful, marking her out as a writer of talent in her own right.

They married (secretly) while Edward was still at Oxford, because she was pregnant and, although she was happy to live in a free relationship, Edward wanted to protect her reputation.  It was hard for the two young people.  Edward Thomas found it difficult to get enough free-lance writing work as an essayist, reviewer and hack biographer.  He suffered from depression and often had to go away and live by himself, leaving Helen to cope with the children alone.

 He fell in love with other women, or they fell in love with him - Eleanor Farjeon was one - and, although Helen skims over this - it must have been hard for her to cope with.  Behind her careful sentences there lurks the suspicion that there were times when ET wished that he was free and single and not burdened with the task of supporting a wife and three children. But Helen’s account asserts that they loved each other profoundly and this held them together, like trees strongly rooted in the ground, whatever storms were blowing in the branches. 

Helen writes of ET’s friendship with Robert Frost, who encouraged him to write poetry seriously - though it was never commercially published while he was alive.  The good thing about this edition (bought second hand)  is that some of the letters between ET and Robert Frost are included in a separate section.

The poem ‘To Helen’ was, apparently, written for her and given to her the night Edward Thomas left for France.  He died, not in action, but quietly smoking his pipe outside the observation post, when a shell whistled past him so closely, the blast stopped his heart.

Now to read Matthew Hollis’s biography which, I suspect, since both Helen and her children are long dead, may tell a slightly different story.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Divisadero: Michael Ondaatje

I love Michael Ondaatje's writing - lose myself in the prose like a horse rolling in the grass -  lost also in admiration of the close accumulation of detail that builds a fictional fabric you can almost put out your hand to touch.   Every object has a history - every character a genetic code.

Divisadero is Spanish for divided/division - and the novel concerns a loose collection of individuals, only two of whom are genetically connected:   a father who is a widowed farmer, Anna - his motherless daughter,  Claire - an orphaned baby brought from the hospital to be reared with her,  and Cooper - the son of murdered neighbours taken in by Anna's father, who works on their farm, both like and not like a brother.   They operate just like a family, but when Anna is 16 there's a wreck  - the group falls apart and their lives spin off in other directions.   The father is left to manage the farm alone as they become Coop the gambler, Claire the legal detective, Anna the writer, and the second part of the book follows the threads of their now separate lives.

Anna is in France, researching the life of the French author Segura, his wives and lovers, the strange gypsy 'family' he adopts - a web of relationships and broken families whose stories are compelling.  Segura's story forms the third part of the novel which makes parallels with the first.   Families, Ondaatje seems to be saying, are made, not born, and genetic connections are perhaps less important than we think.  In the end we're all alone in pursuit of our own lives.  We're all orphans.

I haven't quite worked it all out yet - the structural pattern the author's drawn - which is obviously deliberate, but isn't completely clear to me.   This is one to read again when there's less going on in my life.  Somewhere in all the interruptions - putting it down to pack boxes and drive on/off car ferries or revise Italian grammar - I feel I've missed some important point in the novel that would have made it all clear.  Dove Grey Reader identifies the Eureka moment as being on page 142, but there are no page numbers on Kindle .......   and maybe I did get the point, maybe I'm just looking for more significance or structural coherence than there is - Ondaatje is a writer who, after all, likes to play with form and genre.

The New York Times Reviewer  (Erica Wagner) called it 'a series of narratives that calls itself, perhaps for convenience’ sake, a novel ....... three tales loosely braided together like slack rope'.  Erica is also seduced by the poetry - 'He is a poet as much as (or even more than) he is a novelist, and the crosscurrents of his writing flow and ripple against each other as poems might.'    And, after all, what do you expect from a novel called 'Division'?

At the moment I'm happy to have read it for the characters and their stories and the prose that is almost poetry.   And it's on my re-read list for the next bout of flu, or anything else that keeps me in bed long enough to need it!

Friday, 23 September 2011

Anne Zouroudi: The Whispers of Nemesis

'It is winter in the mountains of northern Greece and as the snow falls in the tiny village of Vrisi a coffin is unearthed and broken open. But to the astonishment of the mourners at the graveside, the remains inside the coffin have been transformed, and as news of the bizarre discovery spreads through the village like forest fire it sets tongues wagging and heads shaking. Then, in the shadow of the shrine of St Fanourios (patron saint of lost things), a body is found, buried under the fallen snow - a body whose identity only deepens the mystery around the exhumed remains. There's talk of witchcraft, and the devil's work - but it seems the truth, behind both the body and the coffin, may be far stranger than the villagers' wildest imaginings. '

I'm a great fan of Anne Zouroudi's immortal detective Hermes Diaktoros.  I love the Greek setting and the writing never disappoints - in fact she seems to be growing in confidence.  This is detective fiction of a very literary character.  Her latest plot concerns a poet who, tired of the poor returns of his profession, decides on a drastic course of action to boost his sales.   That is, until the Greek gods decide to take an interest.  Nemesis will always find you out.

This is the first of the series that I've read on Kindle - very reasonably priced.  But I'll also be buying the printed version because I love the covers!

Buy from Amazon or on Kindle.

Buy from the Book Depository in paperback or other E-book formats - postage free internationally.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

E-Books, Linda Gillard and The House of Silence

Another respectably published author whose publisher didn't think her latest book was 'commercial' enough, so Linda took the business into her own hands and has already sold 12,000 copies of her novel over the internet without any hype, reviews, or marketing campaign.

Linda Gillard is one of my fellow authors over on what used to be 'Kindle Authors UK' before Amazon complained and is now 'Authors Electric'.

I liked the plot summary of House of Silence (Rebecca meets Cold Comfort Farm) so I downloaded a sample and was soon captivated enough to buy the book.   Like a lot of E-books, it's an affordable bargain at £1.90, unlike the outrageous £11.49 you have to pay to read Philippa Gregory on Kindle - twice the price of her paperbacks. How do they justify that?

This is a very well written novel, easy to read with a fascinating plot.  Gwen,  an orphan, meets Alfie, the actor, on the set of a BBC TV historical drama and begins an affair.  Things get a little sticky when he goes home for his annual Xmas visit and Gwen insists on being taken along too.

Alfie's mother is a famous children's author who has written a best-selling series based on her son.  She has four daughters, all outrageously neglected and is currently a senile figure confined to her bedroom (the mad woman in the attic).   Home is a 17th century manor in Norfolk (the aptly named Creake Hall)  and the family turns out to have more secrets than the Pentagon. 

I enjoyed every minute of  this book.  It's written with considerable panache and humour, despite the fact that there's a very serious underlying thread to the book - how do we, as individuals and families, deal with tragedy?

If publishers are going to turn down sure-fire bestsellers like this one (as they seem to be doing) then I'm afraid the industry is in for a crisis.  Authors don't need publishers any more.  Not when they can do it for themselves as successfully as this.

If you're interested in E-books and authors doing it for themselves, check out

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Minor Characters: Women and the Beat Poets

Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson

The girl friends of the beat writers (Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs etc) didn't really get a look in at the time - usually off camera and in the small print.  On the book cover, you can just see Joyce deliberately blurred to the left of Kerouac in this iconic image.  But, they were poets and novelists in their own right, pioneers of female liberation, often with tragic consequences.   Unlike the men, the girls weren't having the swinging, brilliant time we might imagine, but instead trying to have relationships with lovers who were commitment phobic, and leading lives maimed by drink, drugs and abortion. Joyce's best friend, the poet Elise Cowen, finally jumped out of a seventh storey window after several failed relationships, including one with Ginsberg, and a botched abortion.

Joyce Johnson, now a successful  award-winning author, but not the household name of her lover, Jack Kerouac, tells the story of those lives with insight and compassion.  Of her own life she says:

'If time was like a passage of music - you could keep going back to it until you got it right.'

But there are no rehearsals - you just have to improvise and learn to live with the wrong notes.

This book is a very good read if you want to know the flip side to the romantic story.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Some Light Summer Reading

I’ve been working quite hard recently, have Italian exams looming and so not had much time for books that need a lot of concentration.  So I’ve been enjoying a bit of frivolous reading.
I read about Dee Weaver’s novel ‘The Winter House’ on the Strictly Writing blog and was intrigued enough to download a sample and then buy the book at the generous price of £2.14.

Dee is one of a new breed of Indie authors by-passing the publishers and going straight onto Kindle and other E-book platforms.   The Winter House is a gothic romance with elements of the supernatural and the pagan.  Dee is a pagan herself and knows the world of alternative relation well.  While not a believer in religion of any kind, re-incarnation, or the supernatural, Dee made me suspend my disbelief for the duration of the story.  It brought back the rather guilty pleasure I used to feel reading my mother’s Victoria Holt novels  - but Dee’s are very, very, much better written and the comparison should probably be with the Mysteries of Udolpho, Castle of Utranto, Northanger Abbey and others in that genre.   I notice from my trawls around the book world that novels with elements of the paranormal are coming back into fashion again.

The plot is quite complicated, involving a haunting and a state of possession, but begins when two people glimpse a house through the bare winter trees and become determined to own it.  Both are convinced that they have been there before, and then .......  very strange things begin to happen.

The Glassblower of Murano,  (a much pricier £4.67 on Kindle) by best selling author Marina Fiorato, was recommended by DoveGreyReader, so I approached it with great anticipation.  It had all the ingredients I like - a 17th century Venetian story of mystery and suspense involving a famous glass blower called Corradino Manin, and his beautiful 21st century female descendent  who goes from England to Venice in search of a new life.  The novel weaves back and forth between the two stories and quickly lost my interest.  I found the structure a bit clunky and the writing less than satisfying.  There was a distinct absence of rich historical texture and an unwillingness to go deeper into the issues and ideas the subject matter raised (unlike the Venetian novels of Michelle Lovric for instance).   The plot was just a bit too much Mills and Boon for me (another blog reviewer has described it as historical chicklit!) and the writing nowhere near as good as Dee Weaver’s.    Mainstream publishing really lost out here against the Indie E-book and I won’t be buying any of Marina’s other books.    Apparently she secured a £250,000 advance for her Venetian series, so my small abstention won't make any difference to her at all!

Saturday, 27 August 2011

John Banville as Benjamin Black

Booker prize winner John Banville also writes crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black.   His detective figure is a taciturn, hard drinking, consultant pathologist called Quirke and the novels are set in 1950s Dublin, which Banville/Black remembers as a dark place.
I've never been convinced about writers using pseudonyms to write in another genre - when the reader knows who the author really is, it seems pointless. But Banville makes a case for this - believing that Benjamin Black is another persona who allows him to write in a very different - much less literary - way. It's odd to hear John Banville admit that (as Black) he has suddenly been drawn to story-telling 'on the brink of old age' and that the crime novels came out of a fascination with the character of Quirke -  during the interview Banville/Black says;  'John Banville has never been much interested in his characters', whereas Benjamin Black apparently is.  The whole interview can be found at

In the first of the series, Christine Falls, Quirke is drawn into a baby-smuggling racket between Ireland and America through the involvement of his brother-in-law. Warned not to pry, Quirke finds himself a the centre of a criminal network using the Catholic Church's orphanages, which in the 1950s were vast. It was relatively easy in those days to make a donation to the church and adopt a baby privately - my own cousins were adopted that way.

In the second book The Silver Swan, an old friend rings Quirke to ask him not to do a post mortem on his wife because he doesn't want her body to be mutilated. Quirke immediately suspects another motive and his secret post mortem reveals that her death might not have been the suicide everyone has assumed.

There are three more in the series to date, Elegy for April, The Lemur and Death in Summer (just out in hardback).

The books are very well written - as you'd expect - but I'm not enamoured of 1950s Dublin, which is portrayed as a dark and violent place, and I don't have much sympathy for the dour, rule-bending Quirke. What the books have is a kind of honesty - the ends don't tie up neatly and it isn't always possible to bring the criminal to justice particularly where church and state are involved. There is also that fascination with character rather than plot, which is often missing in the crime genre. Apparently John Banville admires Georges Simenon, and you can certainly make parallels between Quirke and Maigret.  Other bloggers (eg Kimbofo) have suggested that the books are outside the crime genre altogether and should be classed as 'literary mysteries'.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Christine Dwyer Hickey: Last Train from Liguria

I seem to be on an Italian reading kick at the moment and what’s even spookier, on an Italian/Irish mix which chimes perfectly with my own confused genetic make-up!

Christine Dwyer Hickey is a best-selling, award-winning, Irish author who has up to now slipped beneath my radar - I tend not to read the book review pages very often and rely on word of mouth and favourite book blogs to get ideas for reading.  This one came from Dove Grey Reader - love or loathe her brand of cosy, country cottage fireside, everyone’s favourite aunty, blog content, you can’t argue about DGR’s influence when it comes to recommending books.  And she is always fair - avoiding books she can’t give wholehearted support for.  As an author there’s nothing I’d like better than to see one of my books on her blog, and I find many a brilliant read from its pages.

Last Train from Liguria is the kind of novel you lose yourself in - so rich in character and dialogue you never want the journey to end.  And the language is equally rich - as if the novel was written by a poet.  Does Christine D-H write poetry?  I wouldn’t mind betting that she does.

The two main character have both gone to Italy for different reasons - Edward escaping from a crime he committed under the influence of Irish Whiskey, Bella propelled there by her father who is embarking on a new life and doesn’t want to be encumbered by a neurotic, anorexic, spinster daughter unable to recover from the death of her mother and the conviction that it is her duty and her role to look after him.  ‘You’re my daughter,’ he tells her.  ‘Not my wife.’

Edward and Bella are employed by the beautiful, but mysterious, Signora Lami to look after her autistic son.  But as Mussolini’s dictatorship begins to threaten genocide it becomes necessary to make a clandestine journey across Europe.

This is beautifully written and it keeps you reading for the beauty of the language alone. I read it on Kindle (ridiculously cheap at 99p!) and I’m now wishing that her other books were available in the same format.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Andrea Camilleri: The Montalbano Mysteries

I love crime fiction and have become addicted to the Italian detective Salvo Montalbano, created by the Italian author Andrea Camilleri.  The novels are set in Sicily and you can feel the heat radiating up from the arid landscape, and smell the sea - just right for someone feeling nostalgic about Italy.
At first glance the central character isn't particularly endearing - he's a complete bastard to work for, tetchy, jealous, egotistical, but one hundred per cent straight in a landscape where most people can be bought.  That's why his dedicated team stay with him.   Though why his long distance girl friend puts up with him is more than I can fathom.  He is totally commitment phobic and treats her even worse than his police officers.  But then, as I've observed over there,  Italian women seem to expect very little of their men.

What is good about the novels is the quality of their plots. The complex structure of the rival police forces in Italy allows for almost unlimited complication, and then there's the existence of the Mafia.   There's no lack of killing in Sicily and even the most extreme violence seems credible in that setting.

I've read the first 5 novels and so far each one of them has held my attention from beginning to end and I'm starting to develop a soft spot for the irritable Sicilian.  It's partly the food - he's addicted to good cooking - sea bream grilled with garlic and lemon, home made pasta with a delicate sauce made from octopus,  aubergines grilled with parmesan .......    I'm salivating just thinking about it.   The novels are  a combination of Morse and Masterchef and - judging by the number Camilleri's sold - it's a winning formula.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Sue Gee: The Mysteries of Glass

I have recently re-discovered Sue Gee. A couple of years ago I read ‘Reading in Bed’ after I heard an episode on BBC radio. It made me laugh, and I really enjoyed it. I marked her out as an author I should read more of. But somehow she had slipped from my view. Then I found her novel ‘The Mysteries of Glass’ on a second hand book stall and saw that it had been listed for the Orange Prize.

I was riveted from page one and read every word of the beautifully structured prose. It’s set in late Victorian England and the central character is a young, idealistic curate posted to his first parish in a remote country location. He is innocent, virginal, and is shocked to find himself deeply in love with a woman within a few days of his arrival. Especially as that women is the Vicar’s wife, trapped in a loveless marriage with a man twice her age.

This is how it begins.

‘Richard entered the room. He saw the cold winter light at the casement overlooking the churchyard; the faded carpet, and horsehair ottoman; the round table with a pile of Blackwood’s Magazine; the oil lamp. He took in the plainness and darkness of it all, the leaping flames of the fire almost the only colour in the room, for the cat asleep on the fireside chair was the most solid black, and the young woman standing by the mantelpiece had hair and skin as pale as milk, and her gown was as pale as a dove.’

In this country parish the Victorian double standard is rife and Richard is pitched into a world of such moral complexity his simple religious faith is inadequate to deal with it. There are no lurid sex scenes, or melodramas, just a quiet intensity building to an ending that is exactly right. I’m now going to seek out every other book by Sue Gee and take them off to Italy with me, particularly The Hours of the Night and Letters from Prague.

I was surprised to find that she is not a young writer - she’s been around, publishing novels, since 1980. Currently programme leader at Middlesex university and, like all of those writers who need to teach Creative Writing to survive, reading for the necessary Ph.D in Creative Writing. A complete waste in my opinion - she should be writing another wonderful novel.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ali Smith; Accidental

Just every now and then you read a novel that really does knock your socks off.   This one is so experimental and off the wall that it genuinely astonishes.  Ali Smith's textual fireworks are amazing.  There's a section written in sonnet form (the character's whole life has turned to poetry) and most of the narrative is stream of consciousness, inside the head stuff though refreshingly written in 3rd person.   And it convinces.  Each character's thought process is unique.  Only the central character - the hub around which all the others revolve, is missing from this.  We see Alhambra/Amber from every point of view except her own.  She is a Mystery.  But she is also a magical, healing, and sometimes destructive,  force.

The family is in deep trouble, though they are all in denial.  They have taken a holiday home in Norfolk and are playing at happy families.  But the step-father, Michael, a university lecturer (or more accurately lecher)  is running away from complicated affairs with his students; the mother, Eve, is trying to pretend that she is writing a book, but is suffering from writer's block; the son, Magnus, is suicidal because he believes he has caused the death of a girl at school; and the 12 year old daughter, Astrid,  has withdrawn into a silent, obsessive world because she is being bullied.   No one is telling anyone anything.

Until a young woman walks through the door and takes up residence.  The family are so dysfunctional no one asks anyone else whether they have invited her.  And once Amber  has her feet under the table nothing can ever be the same again.  She is both the maggot in the apple and the good genie in the lamp - handing out wishes.

This has to be one of the most original novels written in the last decade - the pyrotechnics are wonderful, but its unconventional nature makes it very difficult to review.  On Amazon readers either thought it 'wearisome drivel' or 'the best thing I've ever read....  this book will change your life....'   For me it's a clever, post-modern exercise in playing with traditional ideas of narrative and a good example of prose poetry.  The writing is so original I was always hooked enough to read on.  The Accidental really deserved its Orange Prize listing and Ali Smith deserves to win a whole shed load of prizes!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Laurie Halse Anderson: Speak

This is classed as Young Adult Fiction, but is a good adult read too.  I read quite a bit of YA - all the classics as well as  JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Alan Garner, Michelle Lovric, Jackie Wilson, Judy Blume and quite a few more I stumble on.  Once I prowled through the bookshelves for my own children, now I do it for their children.  The quality always impresses me.  Writing for children and Young Adults has to be good.  You can't get away with a dodgy plot, masses of description, pretentious writing.  The story-line has to be strong and clear, the writing has to be exact and the narrative compelling.  Oh, and the characters have to be ones that you can recognise and have a conversation with.

Speak, (If only  I could find the Words) is one of the best I've read.  It's set in America, but isn't too american for an english audience.  The story is Melinda's.

'It is my first morning of high school.  I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomach ache .......  I am clanless.  I wasted the last weeks of August watching bad cartoons.  I didn't go to the mall, the lake, or the pool, or answer the phone.  I have entered high school with the wrong hair, the wrong clothes, the wrong attitude.  And I don't have anyone to sit with.   I am Outcast.'

Melinda has been cast off by her friends (because of something that happened at the beginning of summer) and has stopped speaking, even to her family. She is obviously deeply troubled. We find out why about half way through the book - and it isn't the obvious reason. The world, seen through Melinda's eyes, is disjointed and tricky. The book is often funny, sometimes dark, exploring the puzzling process of adolescence and the problems of developing sexuality. Melinda is a feisty girl - she gets her voice back and becomes a winner.

It's interesting that some recent prize-winning books began as YA titles - The Incident of the Dog in the Night, and Emma Donaghue's 'Room'.  I'm certainly going to be looking for more things by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

An Englishwoman in France: Wendy Robertson

I recently had a fantastic lunch at the Bowes Museum (a treasure trove hidden away in the Pennines) with my friends Wendy Robertson and Avril Joy.  It’s always such a pleasure to be able to talk about writing with fellow scribblers. We did almost more talking than eating!  And as we left, Wendy generously gave me a copy of her new novel ‘An Englishwoman in France’, excerpts of which I’d read, and been intrigued by, on Wendy’s blog.

There are many people who claim to have second sight (my grandmother did) and it is still being debated scientifically with claim and counter claim.   Though being generally on the side of science, I feel that there are things the human mind can do which science still isn’t able to quantify.  Telepathy, kinesis, being able to see/feel imprints of past events, so why not glimpses of the future?  Will science at some point demonstrate that the existence of parallel universes (which Quantum Physics claims to exist) enables us to ‘bend’ time and see round the corners?   A couple of times in my own life I’ve felt compelled to contact some member of the family because I’ve been convinced they were in trouble, only to find that the instinct (if that’s what it was) had been correct.  And twice, inexplicably, I’ve ‘known’ that something was about to happen.   How do we, as rational, practical human beings explain these things?

I was always fascinated, when I was a young child, by a story -  which my grandmother told as fact - about two women who were respectable teachers, who went to visit Versailles and stepped inadvertently through some kind of door in time directly into the court of Louis XVth.   Did they really do that?  Or was it what Wendy calls simply the ‘shimmer’ of history - being acutely aware of the layers of time and human movement through it that being in ancient places allows us to feel.

Starr, the heroine of Wendy’s latest novel, is just such a girl, with the gift of second sight, and of being able to see through the veil and move backwards and forwards in time.  When her daughter is killed she knows that they ought to be able to make contact, but there is simply a silence she can’t understand.  On a visit to France to try to repair a foundering relationship, she stays at the Maison d’Estella in the ancient town of Agde   It’s a house and a town that Wendy herself is very familiar with and the historical context is beautifully evoked. 

In the novel Starr finds herself becoming part of someone else’s story, which she eventually realises is also her own. Wendy said that ‘structurally, this novel has been perhaps the most subtle task I have given myself.  The challenge was to make the two stories merge then part and make it seem simple and natural rather than supernatural.’  The time shifts are very well-handled and I found it quite credible.   This is another good read by an accomplished story-teller.  It's currently available only in hardback, but I'm sure the paperback won't be far behind.   Wendy must now have published around 24 novels - not sure of the exact number, but it's awe-inspiring at a time when getting a novel published seems as impossible as one of Houdini's great escapes!
Wendy also presents a  radio programme on writing, called The Writing Game, broadcast on Bishop FM, but also available as podcasts.  There's a good link on her site (I tried putting one in here, but it didn't work very well!)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Snowdrops: A.D. Miller

This was my first Kindle book and, because I bought it after seeing a review on a Book-blog, it seems to epitomise everything about the New Age of publishing. We publicise on the internet, we buy in the cyber-sphere and we read on the electronic page.

Initially I downloaded the book onto my computer via the free’Kindle for PC’ application that Amazon offer - it was perfectly readable on my net-book, but when I bought Neil a Kindle for his birthday present the novel became something different. For one thing I could read it outside in the sun; secondly I could read it without glasses because you can select a comfortable text size; and thirdly, it’s easier to hold than a book if, like me, you have Writer’s-Wrist syndrome.  (I'm not being paid to advertise Kindles, just in case anyone is wondering!)

I had a lot of worries about the electronic read, but it was very enjoyable - page turning in an instant and automatic book-marking (am I going to miss those random train tickets, envelopes, post-cards etc that fall out of the books on my shelf as mnemonic surprises?)

The title - Snowdrops - comes from Russian slang for the bodies that reveal themselves when the snow begins to melt after the long winter.  The novel itself is well constructed, with a strong narrative voice - a thirty something male lawyer called Nick, in Moscow at the height of the post-Glasnost feeding frenzy that created the new class of oligarchs. Nick is engaged in facilitating finance for an oil project headed by an ex KGB entrepreneur, and learning to cultivate the required level of moral blindness, when he meets two beautiful Russian girls, Masha and Katya, in the Metro. He is instantly attracted to Masha, the older of the two. Lonely, although he can’t admit it, he is easy prey for what he thinks are two innocent girls using him only for some great nights out and uncomplicated sex.

But neither are what they seem, and his habit of not asking questions means that he is soon morally compromised, plunging deeper and deeper into what he eventually realises is a dangerous game involving the murder of an innocent citizen.

The book is written in the first person, as a confession to the woman he is about to marry. It contains some of the most evocative descriptions of Moscow I’ve ever read, and conveys the heady, morally confused atmosphere of post Glasnost Russia with complete credibility.

The hero sins (as most of us do) by omission, and the message is that weakness can do more harm than positive action because it can facilitate evil. Not that any of the characters can be said to be evil - they are fully rounded individuals all looking after their own interests at the expense of everyone else in direct contrast to the old Soviet ideal.

Andrew Miller was a foreign correspondent for the Economist in Moscow for several years, so he knows the world he’s writing about. I will definitely be watching out for more books from this author.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Maggie O'Farrell: The Hand that First Held Mine

I bought Maggie O’Farrell’s novel when it came out in paperback in February and have been saving it up to read while in Italy. I’m always a bit suspicious of books that win lots of prizes, particularly the Costa book awards, which sometimes seem to be a bit of a compromise choice. But not this book - ‘The Hand that First Held Mine’ deserves every prize going. This is an enthralling book - the characters are well-rounded and interesting (even the minor ones), the plot never takes a predictable route, and the ending is as satisfactory as you could ever wish (though I would have liked to inflict some kind of unpleasant punishment on Felix!).
Above all the story-telling is superb, right from the very first paragraph:-

‘Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.’

What is about to happen is that Lexie, the young girl at the centre of the story, is going to bump into Innes Kent, an art collector and magazine owner, leave her suffocating family and go to London to seek her fortune in the 50s and 60s. Feisty and talented, she defies all the conventions of the time, lives openly with the man she loves, becomes a journalist and gives birth to a child as a single parent.

In the parallel plot, set  more than 30 years later, Elina is a young Finnish woman, an artist, who has just given birth to her first child. The birth was traumatic and Elina almost died. As she struggles to recover from the trauma, she realises that her partner, Ted, has been seriously disturbed by the birth and seems to be having some kind of breakdown, associated with flash-backs and dreams he can’t explain. Ted’s parents can’t answer any of his questions and in the end it is Elina who finds the truth.

This book is definitely one of my ‘best books’ of the year and one I want to read again.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Kate Atkinson: Started Early, Took My Dog

I love Kate Atkinson’s novels - it’s not often that you get good prose writing and intricate characterisation in a thriller. Usually they’re plot-driven. But in hers you know you’re in for a feast of good writing as well as an interesting plot.
Started Early,  Took My Dog  is another novel in the sequence of her Jackson Brodie books and this time he’s on the trail of an adopted child’s birth family. Jackson witnesses a small dog being beaten in a park and snatches it from its owner. On the same day a retired police officer, now working as a security guard at a shopping mall, impulsively acquires an abused and neglected child at a bus stop. Add into the mix an elderly actress featuring in a northern soap who is in the early stages of dementia, stir thoroughly and allow to settle. The result is fascinating and unpredictable. It involves the solution of a 30 year old crime, several corrupt police officers, an incompetent social worker and three women desperate to have a child. To say any more would be a spoiler!

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall

I owned this book for a year before I managed to find the time to read it and I've spent a month or so thinking about it afterwards.  I still can't make up my mind about it.  The whole, vast book is a magnificent wallow in history - Hilary Mantel gives you such a rich authenticity - the smell of it, the feel of the fabrics, the taste of the food and a glimpse of the almost casual brutality of the age.   It was slow to get into, but once in I kept on reading.  She's a fantastically skilfull writer.   Yet, at the end, I felt  (ever so slightly) dissatisfied.  Did I expect too much?  My only reservation was that I didn't quite believe the character of Thomas Cromwell - the loving husband and father (his affection beautifully evoked) somehow didn't fit credibly with a man who was widely feared by his friends and associates, a devious manipulator, ambitious entrepreneur, Henry VIII''s hitman and Mr Fixit, but apparently with a heart of gold.  It was as though the novelist liked him too much to give him the shades of darkness he needed for the plot to work.  In Tudor times, you didn't get from being a butcher's son on the wrong side of the social divide to being the Earl of Essex without getting your hands dirty.
Some people have found the structure difficult, but I didn't mind the time shifts - I felt I could trust the novelist to lead me through the story in an interesting way.   It was Thomas Cromwell himself who eluded me.  And the whole novel reads curiously like the prelude to something - Wolf Hall is still outside the narrative frame, a visit planned to fill an inconvenient gap in the king's summer progress.   It is all just about to happen.  I will have to wait for the sequel!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

The E-Book creeps in .....

I have done something quite earth-shaking - I have just bought my first Kindle book.   I saw a review of a thriller on DoveGreyReader's book blog and really fancied reading it.  When I looked at the price online it was going to cost me almost ten pounds with postage for the paperback, but the Kindle price was only £2.39.   As I consume thrillers like chocolates (and pass them on to the charity shops) I didn't think I could justify the price of the paperback.  But I don't own -   can't afford  - a Kindle!  
Then I noticed that you can download the Kindle software 'for PC' free from Amazon.  So I did just that, downloaded the book onto my little netbook and now I can read it on the sofa, in bed, or on the train.  Don't know how easy it will be on the eye, but it's an experiment.  Oh, and I got three free e-books from Amazon at the same time.  Great!
And The Book?  It's called Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller, set in Russia.  Apparently he was a journalist - correspondent for the Economist in Moscow, so knows his subject.   Had a peek at the first pages before I bought and it looks good.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life

By Carol Sklenicka

‘I don’t know what I want, but I want it now.’ Raymond Carver copied this quote into his notebook just after the mid-point of his truncated life and it hints at the internal divisions that tore him apart. In one sense, it was a lie, because what Carver always wanted, from adolescence, was to be a writer. As a working class boy whose family slaved in the saw mills of Oregon, he could never see how you became one and spent the rest of his life trying to work it out. Even when he finally made it, he could never reconcile how it felt with how he’d imagined it might be. Most of the time he felt a fraud.

This big, compendious biography illuminates the division between the strict, controlled form of his fiction, and the unstructured, chaotic sprawl of the life he mined for its content. Married with a child while still a teenager, his 17 year old schoolgirl wife pregnant again six weeks after giving birth to the first baby, they both worked full time as they struggled to get educated, pay the bills and be happy in a welter of family crises, exhaustion and debt. Carver’s father had been a depressive alcoholic and Carver too began to take refuge in the bottle, consuming vodka in industrial quantities, in common with writer friends who believed in the mythology of drink and creativity. He and his friends had mammoth drinking sessions in bars, were sometimes too inebriated to give readings, or lectures (Carver had to be removed from the stage on one occasion) and fell in and out of rehab. It was the era of Hemingway, Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas. Carver was violent towards his wife and neglected his children.

But in the face of the enormous personal challenges that he had to meet, you can’t help but forgive him. He was a vulnerable human being, born on the wrong side of the American tracks, who surmounted huge obstacles to become a writer at all. You can’t help but realise in this book, that if Carver had been born Ivy League, there would have been no struggle and his career would have been stratospheric. But, on the other hand, he might not have had so much to write about.

He was classed a ‘dirty realist’ by Granta editor Bill Buford, a ‘minimalist’ and ‘the American Chekhov’ by others. His stories are 20th century masterpieces of form as well as brilliant vignettes of human life at the bottom edge of the American Dream.

When his 24 year old marriage collapsed under the pressure of drink-related violence and bankruptcy, Carver abruptly went on the wagon and found another woman - the poet Tess Gallagher - to take care of him for the last ten years of his life. The only thing that sours the happy ending is the fact that he failed to provide for his children and the ex-wife who had sacrificed her own prospects to support him. Though his income was by then enormous, and he had considerable assets, he left them only $5,000 in his will and wrote, in an essay, that having children had ruined his life.  The people who had suffered most to ensure his success, were prevented from sharing the benefits of it.

A few lines of poetry, just titled 'Late Fragment', jotted in his notebook hint at the relative serenity he eventually achieved.

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

This is an excellent biography, written in the traditional style of literary biographies. There are some very careful chapters at the end, where you can sense the lawyer’s pencil in action. It is very marked that the only person not thanked in the acknowledgements is Carver’s second wife. She was never interviewed and is only quoted from work in the public domain. The omissions hint at another story I’d love to hear.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Barbara Trapido: Sex and Stravinsky

It’s a wonderful title for a wonderful novel. I’ve loved most of Barbara Trapido’s books - my favourite was Temples of Delight - but I didn’t like her most recent Frankie and Stankie. I was sent advance drafts by my agent (we shared the same) and was told it was a memoir. Something about the form of it troubled me, though I wasn’t brave enough to say as much. But when it was published it was subtly altered and classified as a novel. I still didn’t feel it worked as fiction and I didn’t think the writing measured up to some of her previous work either. Now I wonder whether perhaps that was because it was just too autobiographical. Anyway, I was disappointed, and so, when Sex and Stravinsky was published I didn’t rush out to buy it.

We were both supposed to be performing at the ill-fated Christchurch Literature Festival which was cancelled due to the earthquake last September, so I never got to meet the author, but the bookshops were full of the novel. I picked a copy up, read a few pages and was hooked. Too expensive (and too heavy!) to buy abroad, I waited until I got a good deal on the paperback in the UK - one of these 3 for 2 in W.H. Smith. The novel is an absolute delight. It is witty, ascerbic, lyrical and poignant, sometimes all at the same time. I read it twice.

There are 7 main characters; Australian Caroline, blonde, six feet tall, is a high achiever who can do her own plumbing, make designer clothes out of chair covers, but can’t cope with her own mother. She is married to sweet natured South African Josh who is an expert in mime, dance and Stravinsky but finds it difficult to say ‘no’ to anyone. They have a teenage daughter called Zoe who doesn’t get on with her mother, and they live in the south of England, in a converted bus, because all their money has to go to keep Caroline’s demanding mother - the ‘Witch-Woman’ and Caroline’s younger sister, ‘The Less Fortunate’.

Then there’s South African Hattie who once went to school with Josh, who currently writes ballet books for girls and is married (not happily) to wealthy entrepreneur Herman. She has an impossible daughter called Cat, and they live in Durban.

And then there’s Jack - or is he Jacques, or Giacomo? He is something of a mystery.

These disparate characters are all destined to be collected together in one time and place at the end of the novel where their complicated relationships are resolved with all the expert choreography of the dance.

When the novel opens it’s the 1970s and Josh has arrived in London and meets the exotic Caroline in a student house. It’s a collision of opposites that works well, until Caroline’s father dies and her impossible mother arrives in England with a one-way ticket. As the novel moves through time, Caroline will do anything to gain her mother’s affection and approval, including the sacrifice of her own husband and child. Barbara Trapido makes the relationship with the monster mother totally convincing, both tragic and hilarious at the same time. Josh, who puts up with everything for the sake of peace and his beloved daughter Zoe, thinks wistfully of his first love Hattie, who left him for the more forceful, ‘rugger bugger’, Herman.

Meanwhile in Durban, there’s a growing distance between Hattie and her husband and the daughter who takes after her father. Both despise Hattie and her love of ballet, the books for girls she writes so well and her chintzy, old world taste in furnishings and decor. Hattie thinks nostalgically of Josh and the budding relationship that never got a chance to form.

Things begin to change with the arrival of Jack/Jacques/Giacomo, who rents the studio at the bottom of Hattie’s garden, and the arrangement of an international conference in dance and mime in Durban, to which both Josh and Hattie are invited.

A complex back-story is woven together with a skill that leaves you breathless and you arrive at the denouement at exactly the right moment with a gasp of astonishment. Nothing is as it seems. My favourite part of the story is the moment when Caroline finds her mother’s will and undergoes a complete change of character. I wanted to shout ‘Yes! Yes,Yes!’ And when she crushed the antique porcelain into the kitchen floor with a mallet I was with her all the way.

Alongside Rose Tremain’s Trespass, T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, Amy Sackville’s The Still Point and Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, this has to be among my top ten books for the past year. And it’s a good reminder to authors that getting an attention grabbing title for your book is essential. It’s the starting point for that very important relationship. First, catch your reader .........

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A.S. Byatt: The Children's Book

In the age of the three minute sound-bite and novels designed to be consumed at a gallop, A.S. Byatt’s work appears to come from another world where the word ‘literary’ was regarded as a complimentary adjective. The Children’s Book is a Victorian novel - it’s intelligent, full of description, philosophical discussion, and discursive authorial comment. Forget tightly constructed plots and narrative hooks.   The story-line is linear, sprawling through space and time.  It’s a fascinating read - but you have to give it your full attention.

Living at the turn of the last century, the Bohemian Wellwood family are the central subjects, with a large cast of children and adults. They are at the centre of the arts and crafts movement and, just as in Possession, the worlds of William Morris and Oscar Wilde are vividly brought to life.  The men are bankers and artists;  the women are dabbling in the suffragist movement,  fighting for the 'life of the mind'.  The matriarch, Olive Wellwood, is an author, writing fairy tales for children.

Byatt said that when she wrote the book she was interested in the idea that people who wrote for children were often not very good with their own. ‘I noticed that the children of the great writers for children often came to unhappy ends - even suicide - and this interested me dramatically. Kenneth Grahame's son, for whom The Wind in the Willows was ostensibly written, lay down on a railway line when he was at Oxford. Two of the Llewellyn-Davies boys, for whom Barrie wrote Peter Pan, ended in suicide.’

In the novel, each of Olive’s children has his or her own book - a special tale she keeps in a cupboard and adds to as they grow. But there are dark secrets concealed in fairytales - children who are other people’s children, stepmothers who are forced to wear red hot clogs and dance until they die, pretty young mermaids willing to be maimed and dumb for love. This is the world that the novel explores - the children’s real lives above the water and their darker reflection submerged beneath. Things are never what they seem and everything has consequences.

I really enjoyed the book, but it isn’t for everyone.