Monday, 9 December 2013

Orkney: Amy Sackville

Literary Fiction

After reading Peter May's dark thrillers set in the Hebrides, I was definitely in the mood for more about remote Scottish islands.  I bought Amy Sackville's Orkney a while ago, but (after one or two false starts) I hadn't got round to reading it.  The night of the Great Storm over Britain definitely provided the right atmosphere - the TV screens, even in Italy, were filled with images of surging tides and wild winds.

I loved Amy's first book, The Still Point, and really rate her writing - poetic, atmospheric prose of the kind that isn't fashionable in main-stream publishing these days.  Fortunately Amy's published by Granta who like the experimental and unashamedly 'literary'.

Orkney has no plot, only 2 main characters (a few walk-on parts) and feels as though it's written in real time.  But the prose compels and draws you in the further and further you go - rather like the sea around the island.

Richard, an elderly academic, has married one of his students after a very short acquaintance.  She has no family he is aware of and no friends.  But we only have Richard's word for that - he is obsessed with her and can't see anything very clearly outside what his young wife calls 'the frame' he has drawn around her.  In Richard's first person journal, her name is never mentioned.  She has no identity other than the one he creates for her.

Richard has brought her for a honeymoon on the Isle of Orkney - to a remote cottage where he is going to make endless love to his wife and work on his book about mythologies.  They are his speciality - particularly where they relate to women:

'Transformations, obsessions, seductions;  succubi and incubi;  entrapments and escapes . . . Curses and cures.  Folk tales and fairy tales retold.  And all the attendant uncertainties, anxieties and aporia. Do I wake or sleep? Fantasy and phantasm.  Beautiful terrible women. Vulnerable lonely cursed women.  Strange and powerful women.  It's an old obsession.'

And it's one that should worry his wife.  Everyday she goes to sit on the beach to watch the sea.  And Richard watches her from inside the window.

'She's staring at the sea now.  My young wife.  There she stands on the barren beach, all wrapped up in her long green coat, among the scuttle and clatter of pebbles and crabs.'

Gradually more information about her past emerges - her father had disappeared when she was a young child - perhaps lost at sea.  She is fascinated by tales of Selkies and Finfolk - men and women who come from the sea to land, but must always go back again.  She can't swim and dreams of drowning, night after night.  The novel creates a real intensity and claustrophobia as the relationship between the two is exposed within the four walls of their tiny cottage buffeted by wild Atlantic gales.

'I lay awake for hours, on my back, listening, eyes open or closed, I could not tell, an equal darkness within and without.  Our bed a berth in a boat, below deck, the sea pressing up at the window and rolling and moiling below us;  the fish swimming by the glass indifferent;  tiny shrimp coiling and stretching in meaningless Morse code;  all the sightless, glowing life of the ocean floating past. A Leviathan's eye, filling the portholes, peering in.'

I won't spoil it by writing about the ending, but I'm still speculating about just how reliable Richard is as a narrator - he has a tendency to see everything one way and can't be contradicted.  The clues to what is happening are in the fairy tales, re-told by firelight, the myths and superstitions that inhabit the abandoned hearths of the island.

by Amy Sackville
Published by Granta

Thursday, 5 December 2013

River of Shadows and Blood Sisters - Two Italian Thrillers

River of Shadows

by Valerio Varesi

This novel is set on the foggy plain of the Po, and the river is rising after intense rain - the wide, placid summer river becoming a winter monster of churning currents and relentless spread. In the darkness, a barge casts off from its mooring mysteriously on the flood tide and no one knows if the owner, Tonna, is on board.  At the same time there's an apparent suicide leap from the window of a local hospital.

Commissario Soneri is called in to investigate.  He finds himself unraveling a nightmare that involves conflicts between Communist and Fascist that date back to the atrocities of World War 2, but which still divide parts of Italy today.  How can the Commissario know who is telling the truth, while avoiding the distractions of local food and wine and his barrister girlfriend, Angela, who likes high-risk sexual encounters in public places?  There's a slightly comic undertow to the darkness of the main plot.

The book is beautifully written, the characters and the location vivid and real, and the dialogue pitch-perfect.  I'm not sure that I completely understand the fine details of the plot yet, but the complex political nature of Italian daily life is one hundred per cent true to what I see around me.  

Top quality crime fiction - and I've just downloaded the next in the series.  At £2.57 for the Kindle edition it's cheap as chips!

Blood Sisters

by Alessandro Perissinotto

I'm a great fan of the Montalbano novels, also Donna Leon, and always on the lookout for a new Italian thriller writer to match my favourite locations with some good suspense.

This book was recommended by a friend and it's an enjoyable read with a good protagonist. Anna Pavesi is a psychologist by profession, newly separated from her husband and rather short of money. Having successfully tracked down the missing son of a rich Milanese, Anna finds herself being persuaded to look for a missing body. It's set in Bergamo and Milan, on the foggy plain of the river Po - an area I know well, having driven across it through fog and freezing fog many times! It adds considerable atmosphere to the book. 

There are some interesting characters in this novel and a couple of nice twists at the end. It didn't have quite enough edge for me and either the writing, or the translation, seemed to lack sparkle. But I would definitely read another of his novels, though at over £5.00 for a Kindle edition it's not a cheap read.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The Blackhouse, by Peter May

The Blackhouse,

by Peter May

Published by Quercus

This is the first part of the Lewis Trilogy and the only one I've read so far, though I have down-loaded the others.  The Blackhouse is Tartan Noir - very, very Noir, so be prepared for some gruesome twists and turns.  A man is discovered hanged and mutilated in a boat shed at a small village on the Isle of Lewis.  Fin Macleod is sent to investigate, partly because it's a copy-killing of a murder he's been investigating in Edinburgh, and partly because Crobost is his home village.  The timing is bad - Fin is grieving for his young son, killed in an accident, and for the marriage that couldn't survive the loss.

Fin has rarely been back to his roots, for reasons that gradually become very clear in the novel.  But, as he investigates the brutal murder, he has to confront the fall-out from things that happened in his childhood - a youthful obsession with Marsaili, now married to his old friend Artair - and the strange events that happened on a coming-of-age trip to cull the 'guga' on a remote rocky island - events that have had long-reaching consequences.

The claustrophobic nature of the Hebridean island is perfectly evoked in the novel - you can smell the peat and feel the constant Atlantic wind tugging at your hair.  The roots of the crime lie in the nature of the island community, with its gossiping tongues and bleak Calvinist values, as well as strong codes of honour that protect both the innocent and the guilty.

Peter May is a Scottish author, born in Glasgow, who has written literally hundreds of television plays and episodes for series and also has a dozen best-selling thrillers on the shelves as well.  That kind of experience shows in the taut dialogue and the spare writing - not a wasted word. Definitely a must-read!

The Blackhouse, Peter May, Quercus

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Brian Moore by Patricia Craig

Brian Moore
by Patricia Craig
Published by Bloomsbury

The first adult book I ever read, (apart from classics), was Brian Moore's Feast of Lupercal when I was 12 years old.  It was my mother's library book and I read it secretly, the explicit sexual content giving me hot flushes.  But apart from the thrill of the illicit, I was aware even then of the quality of the prose.  It was set in a school and schools and school-masters were familiar territories.  The novel laid bare their secret lives. Even to an innocent 12 year old (and I was) the atmosphere of claustrophobia, thwarted lust and the humiliation of sexual inadequacy, was vividly conveyed.

After that I read quite a few of his novels, though they were all so different from one another that I didn't always like them.  The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, The Black Robe, The Temptation of Eileen Hughes were the ones I favoured, but my absolute favourite by a  mile was I am Mary Dunne, which I still think is a masterpiece.  A day in the life of a pre-menstrual, unstable woman who isn't sure who she is - at the time I read it, the psychological profile fitted me like a glove. I couldn't believe it had been written by a man.

So I pounced on this biography of Brian Moore in a second hand shop, wondering why I hadn't noticed its publication.  Published by Bloomsbury, written by a respected journalist and editor, it held out high hopes which were quickly dashed.   How could a respectable publisher like Bloomsbury allow such a badly edited book?  The prose inclines to the academic, serious in tone, but contains phrases such as 'After the exhibitions  and gold-medals and what-not obtained during his schooldays ....'  'Socially, her background seems a bit of a hotch-potch . . .' etc etc.    

The first couple of chapters are an impenetrable maze of three (or was it four?) generations of Brian's family tree before he was born.  The families are large and many of the names are the same or very similar. Confusion had set in before the end of chapter one, but I pressed on.  The justification for this seemed to be that Brian drew heavily on his family for the characters in his novels, so I would need this information later on when the novels came up for discussion.  That didn't seem to happen.

I did learn more about Brian Moore's life and his complicated family politics, but never felt that Patricia Craig got close to his essential character, even though she knew him and he had given her hours of interviews before he died. He had a triple identity - Northern Irish Catholic, Canadian citizen, but living in America. Mind-boggling! She never gets to the heart of his novels quite, and this is a pity - I wanted to know and that's why I carried on reading. Most of the biography is concerned with Brian up to middle age - the last half of his life seems to be crammed into the final chapters of the book in something of a hurry, yet some of his later books are his most important. It was also the period when he was living shoulder to shoulder with members of the 'jet-set' - there's a brief glimpse of Bianca Jagger and David Hockney dropping in for an impromptu party, and a dinner with Hitchcock, but I'd have liked more.

She also skipped lightly over the period when he wrote about a dozen best-selling thrillers (under a pseudonym) in order to pay the bills and buy time to write the serious novels.  This was something I didn't know about and it must surely have been very important in the process of learning his craft.

The biography also infuriated me by referring to events before they'd actually occurred, giving vital information which, when the event did happen I had to skip backwards to re-read. Sometimes events weren't referred to at all until they were long-gone.  I only discovered that Brian had been a creative writing fellow at UCLA for 17 years, when his letter of resignation was referred to.  Time-hopping, I believe, is something the biographer should try to avoid for the sake of clarity.

This book is such a lost opportunity - a fascinating subject and one of the most important novelists of the twentieth century.  The author had all the material -  it just needed a good editor!

Note to self - must read The Emperor of Ice Cream.......

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Opened Ground: Seamus Heaney

Opened Ground:  Poems 1966-1996

Seamus Heaney

Faber and Faber

I love Seamus Heaney's poetry and I have a few scattered collections - Stations, Death of a Naturalist - but I've recently treated myself to this because it covers most of Seamus' collections, from the first in 1966  right up to The Spirit Level in 1996.  This gives a wonderful overview of the development of his work and it also includes his Nobel lecture 'Crediting Poetry'.

Seamus chose the poems to be included himself, weeding out ones he was no longer happy with and some of the poems were re-written, though the alterations are so minor it's difficult to find any differences.

All my favourites are there - The Forge, Digging, The Barn, Churning Day, and his prose poem The Stations of the West, which describes how he was sent to the Gaeltacht to learn Gaelic and hoped, perhaps, to learn something of the Celtic mysteries.  These visions are denied the child, but there are other kinds of revelation. It ends:

'Neither did any gift of tongues descend in my days in that upper room when all around me seemed to prophesy.  But still I would recall the stations of the west, white sand, hard rock, light ascending like its definition over Ranna-fast and Errigal, Annaghry and Kincasslagh;  names portable as altar stones, unleavened elements.'

Other favourites are the poems about his childhood home, Mossbawn, political poems such as The Ministry of Fear, Oysters, The Skunk - his erotic poem to his wife, peeling potatoes with Mary Heaney in 'Clearances', then the beautiful Postscript, and finally Song -

'There are the mud-flowers of dialect
And the immortelles of perfect pitch
And that moment when the bird sings very close
To the music of what happens.'

Yes, that's it exactly - that's what the poetry does. Words like 'big, soft buffetings' that come at you sideways 'And catch the heart off guard and blow it open'.

Opened Ground: Poems 1966-1996
Seamus Heaney
Faber and Faber

Friday, 20 September 2013

The Dream, by Sophie Nicholls

The Dream

by Sophie Nicholls
Everyday Magic #2

Romantic Fiction
My E-book of the Month

I read Sophie Nicholls first novel, The Dress, and loved it (see review here).  So I pounced on the sequel, but with a little apprehension – I’ve read so many sequels that were a let-down.  But The Dream didn’t disappoint. Iranian Fabbia and her half-Italian daughter Ella still had a lot of story to tell, and I finally got to meet the mysterious Maadar-Bozorg.

The Dress told the story of Fabbia and Ella’s arrival in northern city of York and Fabbia’s struggle to open a vintage dress shop and make a living for herself and her daughter.  It also described the teenage Ella’s quest to find an identity for herself – and the difficulties of fitting in to the close-knit northern community – with an Iranian mother and an Italian father who died before Ella was born, it was never going to be easy.  There are also family secrets that Ella hasn’t been told and she has never met Maadar-Bozorg, the woman who brought her mother up in Tehran.

As the sequel opens, Ella has achieved her dream of running a bookshop and becoming an author; she’s married to Billy and has a lovely 2 year old daughter Grace.  Everything should be perfect, shouldn’t it?  But life running a business, looking after a child, and trying to write a book, isn’t easy.

Ella is still troubled by ‘The Signals’ – her strange flashes of what used to be called ‘second sight’ –  and they sometimes frighten her. But then a confused young woman called Bryony walks into the bookshop, picks up a book called Miss Mary’s Book of Dreams and things begin to change.

Fabbia is living in California with David, the doctor she met at the end of the first novel, and though her relationship is going well and her vintage clothing business is thriving, there’s something missing.  She senses that Ella is in trouble and doesn’t know what to do.

Sophie Nicholls is a published poet as well as a novelist and the writing is beautiful.  It reads as effortlessly as any romance should, but it skates lightly over deeper water – so much wisdom and knowledge was thrown out as superstition and paganism – women were burned alive for knowing how to cure people with herbs – we have been taught not to listen to our ‘intuition’ but to put our trust solely in science – as a result we have lost many of the skills we need to survive.  In this novel, Ella and Fabbia learn to trust their intuitions in order to make sense of their lives.

This is a lovely ‘feel-good’ read, which will probably be a best-seller like it's predecessor.  Perfect for an afternoon when you're feeling a bit depressed and need cheering up.  Now I’m waiting for number three in the trilogy!

The Dream by Sophie Nicholls

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Elizabeth of the German Garden: Jennifer Walker

Elizabeth of the German Garden
by Jennifer Walker
Published by The Book Guild

I was struck, reading this biography, by the number of parallels between ‘Elizabeth’ von Arnim and her cousin Katherine Mansfield.  Both were writers, both lived in permanent exile, and both struggled with questions of identity and belonging. ‘Elizabeth’ was born in Australia to an English father and an Australian mother, christened Mary Beachamp, and brought to England at the age of three, but her father had a habit of wandering around Europe, so she saw quite a bit of Italy, France and Switzerland during her childhood.  Like Katherine Mansfield, Mary Beauchamp was a musical prodigy who played the piano and the organ to high professional standards.  She studied at the Royal College of Music and, on a visit to Italy,  played for Liszt’s daughter Cosima Wagner.

It was here that she met the German Graf (Count) Henning von Arnim who made love to her on top of the Duomo in Florence.  She married him without realising what her life as a member of the ‘Junker’ nobility in Germany would entail, and the level of rigid formality did not suit her temperament.  With her husband’s encouragement Mary left Berlin for their country estate, where she began to create a garden and a book, as well as another persona for herself. ‘Elizabeth’ was initially a fiction, but eventually she signed her letters with that name - even to her family.

The book, Elizabeth and her German Garden was an unexpected runaway success to the extent that all her subsequent books had the author-line ‘by Elizabeth of the German Garden’.  Henning von Arnim features in the book as the ‘Man of Wrath’ - which gives us a glimpse of the state of their marriage.  Before the days of contraception, many relationships were ruined by a woman’s fear of pregnancy and childbirth.  The ‘April, May and June’ babies feature in Elizabeth’s books, but Mary had five children altogether, a boy and four girls.  Two of them were born without the comfort of chloroform, because the Germans didn’t believe in alleviating the suffering of birth.  After her first two, difficult, confinements, Mary insisted on having her children in England, but each birth was accompanied by dread, anxiety and depression.  She told H.G. Wells later that she only had to think about sex to become pregnant and had had to insist that she and her husband were not in the same house to avoid conceiving again.

Between babies, Mary wrote compulsively.  This biography is excellent on the novels that ‘Elizabeth’ produced in regular succession. I sometimes got lost in the discourses on ‘Elizabeth’s’ unfamiliar novels, but they are fully justified in their aim to re-establish Elizabeth’s reputation as an important writer in the first part of the 20th century.  Most people know Enchanted April (inspired by a holiday in Portofino) and Elizabeth and her German Garden, but other novels were more controversial contributions to the literature of the period and have long been over-looked.

Henning von Arnim had debts and money troubles (he was arrested at one point) and soon his wife was the major earner of the family - not easy for a German Junker to accept.  It put a strain on Mary too. She became a workaholic who sometimes neglected her children. One of her daughters, the inaptly named Felicitas, felt uncared for - packed off to boarding school and denied the opportunity to study music as a punishment for bad behaviour.  She died at the age of 16, leaving Mary with a legacy of guilt.

Mary was so committed to her writing that she even took employment as a governess for six months - ‘feeling perhaps that her life lacked the immediate experience of lowly status and poverty’.  For another novel, The Caravaners, she went caravanning - a hilarious progression through the west country with members of her family and friends, begging beds in people’s houses whenever possible.

E.M. Forster and Hugh Walpole came to tutor her children.  Mary, swapping lives between England and Germany, made friends with many members of the English literary scene, including H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell.  When her husband died, she became embroiled in a love affair with Wells, who was married and also involved with another woman at the time.  It was all very complicated.

Mary subsequently married Bertrand Russell’s brother, the Earl Russell, giving herself yet another identity.  She was now Mary Beauchamp, Elizabeth of the German Garden, Elizabeth von Arnim, and Countess Russell.  Author and mother, wife and lover, she had almost as many identities as her cousin Katherine.  Their relationship and the links between them, both personal and literary, are very well portrayed in this biography.  It also fills many of the gaps left by Karen Usborne’s previous biography.

Mary’s marriage to Francis, Lord Russell, was catastrophic.  She knew, even before she married him, that he was controlling and a bully, but she seemed unable to avoid her fate.  He locked her in the house, refused to give her a key to the gate and treated her to violent displays of temper.  Mary had hoped for a soul-mate, someone who would look after her, but found only a tyrant who wreaked havoc in her life and prevented her from writing.  As they both depended on her income (Earl Russell was addicted to Bridge and cocaine) it was essential for her to carry on earning.

It seems incredible now that a strong, independent woman should allow herself to be dominated and bullied in that way.  The marriage lasted only a few months before Mary went to New York to visit her daughter Liebet and began the gradual process of detaching herself. Earl Russell sued the removal firm who took away her possessions while he was in London, but Mary had carefully kept all the receipts and an inventory of the items she had brought from her first marriage. There was a hilarious cross-examination about the origins of a hammock. But it could be established in court that everything belonged to her.  Despite all this, Mary never sued for divorce and remained ‘Countess Russell’ until the end of her life.  Her experiences resulted in a dark novel called Vera, reviewed favourably by Katherine Mansfield.

Mary owned a chalet at Montana in Switzerland, the Chalet Soleil, where she spent many happy months writing and entertaining friends.  Katherine Mansfield became her neighbour towards the end of Katherine’s life and the two women were able to build a relationship which, though fraught with misunderstanding, was underpinned by real affection and respect. It was one of Katherine’s regrets that the cousins had ‘missed each other’ earlier in their lives.

Mary was having a love affair with a much younger man, Alexander Freres Reeves, the illegitimate son of one of her friends and the co-editor of Granta.  She employed him at first to catalogue her library in order to finance his university studies, but the relationship soon deepened.  It was scandalous at the time for a woman to have a much younger lover and ‘Elizabeth’ made it the subject of a controversial novel, Love.

Eventually Mary moved to the south of France, where she created another garden, and her love affair with Freres Reeves gradually burnt itself out as Mary aged.  She was by now over sixty and struggling to come to terms with her changing physical appearance. She had a face-lift and wore a curly red wig to conceal her thinning hair.  Like Katherine, she tried X-ray treatment, not for tuberculosis, but to reverse the signs of aging. The result was a small tumour beside one eye.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Mary, worrying about the fate of one of her daughters in Germany, went to America to live near another daughter, Liebet.  Mary died there in 1941, shortly after publishing her last book - Mr Skeffington - which controversially dealt with anti-semitism and was a big hit in America, where it was made into a film.

This is an excellent biography, giving much-needed consideration to ‘Elizabeth of the German Garden’s’ literary status and shedding light on aspects of Katherine Mansfield’s life too.  The wider Beauchamp family formed the context in which Katherine spent her early years.  Their views and their prejudices were important influences on the trajectory of her life as well as Elizabeth’s.  Also important is the extent to which Katherine may have been influenced by Elizabeth’s achievements. I personally believe that The Adventures of Elizabeth in RĂ¼gen might have been the book that paved the way for the Katherine’s In a German Pension stories.  Jennifer Walker’s book is a very welcome addition to the field of Mansfield studies, as well as an absorbing read about a fascinating woman.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Death Order by Jan Needle

Death Order

by Jan Needle

Historical Fiction
Published by Endeavour Press Ltd 2013

Churchill once said ‘There are a terrible lot of lies going about the world, and the worst of it is that half of them are true’.  History, as we all know, is a very unreliable narrator and the viewpoint of the story depends on who is telling it.

One of the great mysteries of the Second World War is the flight to Scotland, in 1941, of Rudolf Hess - Hitler’s deputy.  He came, apparently, to sue for peace, but was imprisoned in Britain, put on trial with the rest of the Nazi high command at Nuremburg and jailed for life as a war criminal in Spandau. Though he had never been part of the horror machine that unfolded during the later years of the war, he was never released and died, equally mysteriously, at the age of 93, in Spandau prison. 

Was the man in Spandau really Rudolf Hess, or was he - as many people claimed - a man called Albert Horn? Did he commit suicide, as the Allies claimed?  Or was he killed to prevent his real identity being revealed to create a Humanitarian scandal of epic proportions.

This is more than a conspiracy theory - of which there are trillions - this is a beautifully researched, well substantiated theory.  Jan Needle has clothed it in fictional form (or should that be factional?) to create a stunning novel. It’s as pacey and compelling as a Dan Brown and much better written.  The central male character - the burnt-out MI6 operator Bill Wiley, and the spy turned academic Edward Carrington - are utterly real.  The female characters - Erica, Hannele and Jane - are intelligent, feisty and equally believable.  There’s some fantastic sex!

But the best thing is the way that this book exposes the lies that governments tell that can’t be found out until the papers are released decades after the events.  The Iraq war, with its sexed-up dossiers and phoney weapons-of-mass-destruction, was only the latest in a long line of cover-ups and propaganda coups.  The Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon came out of nefarious doings in the Vietnam/Cambodian conflict.  We probably shouldn’t believe anything we’re told.  ‘History,’ as Edward remarks in the book, ‘is bunkum’.

Death Order by Jan Needle
originally published by Harper Collins as ‘Butcher’s Bill’

© Kathleen Jones

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Flight Behaviour

by Barbara Kingsolver

Fiction, Published by Faber and Faber.

 Whatever happened to Barbara Kingsolver? She is one of my all-time favourite authors - the Poisonwood Bible one of my all-time favourite books.  I read her last novel, The Lacuna, when it came out and was a little disappointed - though it still had some of the old magic on the page.  There were still beautiful passages to admire.

Flight Behaviour promised a return to form - an eco-novel with environmental issues integral to the plot.  But, oh dear, not very far into the novel, I became bored - really bored - and found it difficult to turn the pages.  Eventually, wading through virtual mud, I skipped to the end and found it as predictably dull as the rest of the book.  The only spark of magic was the moment when the heroine walks up into the woods for an illicit meeting with a lover and witnesses the leaves turning to flame.

It's sad to see one's favourite author losing the edge they had, particularly when their message has more relevance now than ever before.  And one does wonder how much authors' work is being influenced these days by what their publishers want from them, rather than allowing them to write what they want.  Please can I have Barbara Kingsolver back?

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

James Martin - The Change Agent, by Andrew Crofts

James Martin:  The Change Agent

by Andrew Crofts


Very few people have made as much money predicting the future as James Martin.  First of all it was computers, then it was the future of the human race in the 21st century.  According to him, we are facing the biggest crisis in human history, but also our biggest opportunity.  We can turn the world into a utopia, or plunge into a terrifying ‘Dark Age’ taking the world’s fragile eco-system with us.

James Martin, who died very recently, was one of those who believed that the crises of population explosion, climate change and water shortage could be solved by technology.  But then, he was a computer buff who lived on an island in Bermuda with computer powered waterfalls, and a dazzling technology controlled house. He believed that eco-affluence was possible and that there is nothing morally wrong with it.  So long as we’re not screwing the planet to get rich, then it’s ok to have more of it than other people.  A few years ago he gave more than a hundred million pounds to fund a multi-disciplinary research institute at Oxford University into ways for the human race to survive the 21st century.

James Martin was currently predicting the ‘Singularity’ - a moment in history when computers will overtake the human mind in capability. We will be able to communicate with computers through thought alone and, as the computers will all be connected to each other in a gigantic international web, we will all be connected to each other, and the way we live our lives will be irrevocably changed.

The economic and climatic catastrophe that is looming on the horizon can be avoided by education of the masses, computer technology, clean energy, birth control and stem cell medicine.  What’s needed is education of the young in order to convince them that it’s all possible and that the future is in their hands.  Particularly women.  When you read James Martin’s work (latest The Meaning of the 21st Century), it all sounds very attractive.

He was an optimist, not a doom merchant - he held out hope.  But I was not convinced.  He may have been one of the greatest brains of the 20th century, but I think he was politically naive.  To implement his proposals there would have to be a political cataclysm so extreme it would confound history.  Human nature is conservative - we are not evolving as fast as our technologies and we are sadly lacking in that evolutionary skill ‘common sense’. Our old instincts have long since been bundled into a cupboard and the key turned in the door. The human animal is living on a fragile construction of falsehoods, and since technology has been our nemesis, I’m not sure we can be relied on to make it our salvation.

And how are we ever going to get the leaders of diverse political systems in Asia, America, Russia, Africa and Europe, to agree to put aside the politics of greed and power?  Looking back through history it seems that only a catastrophe would get them round a table to begin to talk. And once the catastrophe has happened, it might just be too late.

Andrew Crofts went out to Bermuda to stay with James Martin and interview him for this fascinating account of his life and beliefs.  It’s a very well-written book, but I would have liked a more rigorous questioning and discussion of the issues raised, though if I'd been a privileged guest on James Martin's Caribbean island, I probably wouldn't have felt able to ask the questions either!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Cuckoo's Calling: Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling

The Cuckoo’s Calling

by Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling

Published by Bloomsbury

Crime Fiction

This book hadn’t even stalked across my radar, even though I’m a crime fiction addict, until I saw the controversy about the author.  Shock! Horror!  Robert Galbraith was a sock-puppet - supposedly a debut author with an army background. An unknown quantity who didn't actually exist.  Apparently the book had sold less than 500 copies in more than three months, despite having wonderful reviews, and bookshops weren’t stocking it.  This will come as no surprise to fellow mid-list authors of well-written, well-constructed books who don’t have the benefit of celebrity, a serial following, or their publishers' (strictly rationed) publicity machine, to sell their books.  Then, overnight, someone’s sister-in-law tweeted that the real author was JK Rowling herself in disguise.  Result?  A stampede to the cash tills.  Bloomsbury had to order 300,000 copies from the printers overnight!  It’s a depressing story, unless you’re JKR.

So, I thought, is the book really any good?  I was one of those who couldn’t get past the first pages of the Casual Vacancy, so I was dubious.  I downloaded a free sample onto my Kindle and thought I’d take a quick look.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a good read.  There are plenty of people out there willing to knock JKR - I’m not one of them, but neither am I a slavish admirer.  She knows how to tell a story and construct a plot and she can write persuasively.  Harry Potter was a stroke of genius that hit a nerve at exactly the right moment and created a world of magic that both children and adults could get carried off into.  As a mainstream author her books aren’t in that special category, which is a big problem for her. 

I started to read the Cuckoo in the evening just before I went to bed and when the sample ran out, I wanted to read on and so I bought the book.  Woken by a thunderstorm in the middle of the night and unable to sleep for the crashing and flashing, I kept on reading.  I found her characters believable and appealing.  Cormoran Strike, the private investigator, isn’t original, but he’s good to spend time with - just enough of the rough to appeal to women, but smooth and intelligent when it matters.  The temp who turns up on his doorstep at the wrong moment, Robin, is a woman who believes her life is already mapped out for her, but finds that it isn’t.  The case of the celebrity super-model who falls from a top floor window, takes us into the world that Rowling inhabits - running from the paparazzi, having your phone hacked, parties and night clubs and designer clothes as well as the normal ups and downs of human life.  I found some of the lengthy detail of the criminal investigation a bit boring sometimes, but this is Rowling/Galbraith’s first crime novel, so some leeway is allowed.

This is the literary end of the crime spectrum, with a lot of focus on character, motivation and psychology.  The plot is just a framework to hang it on. It’s not quite in the Kate Atkinson category, but I’ll be reading the next Galbraith. The real crime is the fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling wasn’t getting any attention because it was by an unknown author.

Crime Fiction you might not have discovered yet:
Avril Joy’s Blood Tide
John AA Logan:  The Survival of Thomas Ford

Monday, 29 July 2013

The Sea Inside: Philip Hoare

The Sea Inside

Philip Hoare

Published by Fourth Estate

We are 50% water - ‘we all contain the sea inside us’ - and evolution shows that life on earth originally crawled out of the sea.  But there is a theory that human beings may have emerged out of the ocean more recently than other life-forms. We still have vestigial webbed feet and fingers, almost the same ratio of fat to body mass as a dolphin, a natural instinct to hold our breath under water, and other adaptations that suggest a close connection with the mammals who live in the watery elements.  Was our ancestor a ‘watery ape’?

Our relationship with the sea fascinates Philip Hoare, who swims in it every day, often before dawn, and in every type of weather.  ‘The Sea Inside’ is a series of meditations on its mythologies, its biological and chemical complexity, its influence on our climate, and the importance of the oceanic eco-systems to our own survival. ‘The sea defines us,’ he writes, ‘connects us, separates us.  Most of us experience only its edges, our available wilderness on a crowded island’. 

Philip Hoare lives in these edgelands, on the fringes of the city of Southampton. ‘I didn’t choose to;  it chose me.  I might have found a more picturesque place, wild and romantic or urban and exciting; the kind of places people pass through here to reach.  A port city relies on its relationship to elsewhere.  Perhaps that’s why I like it so well, since it does not impose any identity on me’.  Living there, he is more aware than most of the dangerous foundations we have built our civilisation on. When he cycles to the shore every morning, he passes a forest of industrial installations; ‘tapering spires for a new place of worship; circular tanks as giant igloos... silos like newly-landed space ships ...  There’s no human scale to this petropolis ... it is brutal, practical, inevitable.’ 

In the book the author travels the world to swim with whales, explore remote shores, and record the sad history of human depredation.  We are not being kind to the ocean, but we need to change our ways, because our own salvation is carried in its deepest currents. 

A beautifully written book, as you'd expect from the author of Leviathon, who also lectures in creative non-fiction.  It's not quite in the same league as his last, but a moving, thoughtful read.

The Sea Inside
by Philip Hoare

PS - I was horrified to find that I had to pay much, much more for the Kindle edition than the paperback - it is extortion on the part of the publisher!

Friday, 19 July 2013

Country Girl: Edna O'Brien

Country Girl

by Edna O'Brien


Published by Faber and Faber

I was lucky enough to be sitting near to Edna O'Brien in the Green Room at a recent literature festival and she was holding the whole room spellbound with an anecdote about Philip Roth. She's a natural raconteur - the gift of the Irish, some would say.

I've always loved her writing - her first book The Country Girls (Country Girls Trilogy 1) was part of my growing up. But I haven't read anything of hers for some years. So this autobiography intrigued me. I found the first part of it gripping and saddening - the cruelty and emotional manipulation of young people in the name of religion makes me very angry. Her mother was a martyr and her father was an alcoholic. Between them and the nuns she grew up insecure and ill-equipped for life in the real world.

An early, disastrous marriage to a control freak who was also an author almost destroyed her. When she wrote her first novel and it was a runaway success, her marriage ended. 'You can write, and I will never forgive you,' he told her after he had read her book. She had to fight a three year court battle to get her children back.

But after the intensity of these first chapters, the narrative slips away into reminiscence. Memories go backwards and forwards in time and the reader is left looking for connections. There are some wonderful anecdotes - seductions by film stars, Princess Margaret dropping in for parties, a close friendship with Jackie Onassis - but it lacks a structure. I loved the writing - she is as lyrical as ever and I can hear her voice as I read the prose.

A flawed book, but she's always worth listening to.  One of the twentieth century's iconic writers.

Country Girl
Edna O'Brien

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

The Hired Man

by Aminatta Forna

Bloomsbury Publishing

Contemporary Fiction

‘September 2007
At the time of writing I am forty-six years old.  My name is Duro Kolak. Laura came to Gost in the last week of July....’

I didn’t read Aminatta Forna’s first, Orange Prize-listed, novel, The Memory of Love, but may now go back and read it on the strength of The Hired Man’s quality.

This novel is set in post-civil war Croatia.  An abandoned house has been sold to a woman from England who arrives with her children for the summer and employs Duro as a handyman to do the repairs.   Her appearance, and the restoration of the house awaken memories, not only in Duro, but among the villagers too.  Unwelcome memories of a time when people as well as animals were hunted.  It’s told purely from Duro’s point of view, as he watches and remembers, and becomes a pivotal person in the lives of the family, who are oblivious to the ripples they’re creating in the scarred community around them.  Only the young daughter senses that things are not as idyllic as they seem and that the glorious scenery they inhabit has a dark history.

This is a beautiful, moving book, very well written.  I wanted a slightly different ending, but I think the book has the ending that is right for it. Nothing can be resolved.  Memories have to be lived with.  Broken love affairs can rarely be mended.  We can’t always have what we want.
Published by Bloomsbury

Thursday, 11 July 2013

I am Half Sick of Shadows (Flavia de Luce) by Alan Bradley

I am Half Sick of Shadows

(Flavia de Luce #4)

by Alan Bradley

Published by Random House

Mystery/Crime Fiction

I do like a bit of light-hearted stuff among all the serious books I read! This is the first novel that I've read of the Flavia de Luce series, and I'm absolutely hooked. It's set in rural England in the 1950s. Flavia, aged 11, amateur sleuth, precocious amateur chemist and expert on poisons, is a wonderful character. She lives with her father, two unsympathetic sisters, a house-keeper and her father's batman 'Dogger', in a large house, which is falling apart due to the fact that its owner, Flavia's mother Harriet, has disappeared in Tibet without leaving a will.

It's a totally dysfunctional family, and a totally off-the-wall plot. Desperate for money to keep the old pile, and the family, from complete ruin, Colonel de Luce has rented the house out to a film crew just before Christmas. Mayhem, madness and a huge quantity of snow descend overnight, locking everyone indoors just in time for a grisly murder. And Flavia, being Flavia, is first on the scene.

This is a YA book for adults and I'm definitely going to seek out the others - including the new one just out, called Speaking from Among the Bones. It reminds me of the Ladies No 1 Detective Agency - the same sense of humour and gentle escapism. 

Alan Bradley, like Alexander McCall Smith, is not a young author - born in 1938 - and didn't begin the Flavia de Luce stories until 2006, when he wrote the beginning of a story for the Crime Dagger Debut prize and found that he'd won!  It only goes to show.......
PS I found this book on Pinterest, browsing book covers and authors - proof that it is a good place for authors to be!

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Mr Darwin's Gardener, by Kristina Carlson

Mr Darwin's Gardener

by Kristina Carlson

Published by Peirene Press

I loved Asko Sahlberg's The Brothers, translated by mother and daughter team Fleur and Emily Jeremiah, so I picked up this book, by another Finnish author Kristina Carlson, translated by the same team, with some anticipation.  I wasn't disappointed.

It is impossible to describe this book - a novel, yes, but not in any conventional sense.  Poetry in prose?  Certainly that.  There's a concentration on language, observation, a polyphony of voices.  Kristina Carlson is also a poet, so it's no surprise to find her prose so rich and allusive.

Thomas Davies has lost his wife;  he has two children with congenital defects and is an aetheist;  he is Mr Darwin's gardener.  The villagers watch him, as they watch each other.  We move in and out of their heads, listening to their thoughts and opinions and most intimate concerns.

The doctor drinks and his wife cries.  Stuart Wilkes invents impractical domestic objects.  Jennifer Kenny brews herbal remedies;  her niece dreams of the novel she will probably never write.  Rosemary Rowe fears her violent husband.  Thomas Davies ponders the meaning of life and finds consolation in the garden;  'the most beautiful thing about plants is their silence'.

A stranger arrives in the village, but then he is recognised as someone whose identity stirs the men into violent action; 'revenge brings great satisfaction'.  But the body disappears, causing consternation and fear.

It is difficult for any writer to take the reader back past the two great watersheds in human psychology - Darwin and Freud.  How do you get inside the minds of people who believed that the world was created, complete with all the animals, in 7 days, and were not troubled by theories of self-consciousness?  Kristina Carlson,  writing very simply, about the day to day concerns of the people, their hopes and private tragedies, takes us back to a Kent village in the 1870s, very successfully.

Kristina is a highly regarded author in Finland.  I was lucky enough to hear her talk at one of the Peirene Press supper clubs, where she said that this novel is the one she had wanted to write since she was sixteen.  It's beautifully translated.  I noticed a lot of 2 star and 1 star reviews on Goodreads because people have found it difficult. If you try to read it as a conventional novel then, yes, it will not meet your expectations.  It's post-modern, experimental - a fluid, multi-layered, multi-voiced narrative that flows like music. You have to forget everything and immerse yourself in  the language and the voices.

For me it is like water in the desert to find a novel that hasn't come out of the Creative Writing Factory, a novel that is about language and image, that carries ideas and stirs the imagination. We live in the characters' minds, translated through time. I read it twice and will read it again.  It's the kind of book you can just dip into, like a collection of poetry. 

Mr Darwin's Gardener

Saturday, 29 June 2013

Touch me with your cold hard fingers: Elizabeth Stott

Touch Me With Your Cold, Hard Fingers

by Elizabeth Stott

published by Nightjar Press

It takes skill to create a sense of unease, to permeate the everyday with the surreal, but that’s what Elizabeth Stott has done with this story, published as a chapbook this month by Nightjar Press.

Nightjar has been issuing chapbooks for a while now, curated by Nicholas Royle, the editor of the Best British Book of Short Stories 2013, pub by Salt.  A novelist himself, and a lecturer at Manchester Uni’s Creative Writing department, he has the knack of recognising a good story and a good story-teller.

This one concerns a woman who thinks she has found her soul-mate - a very private, rather secretive man who has finally given her the key to his flat - the first woman to be given that honour.  But, visiting his flat for their usual Saturday night meal together, she finds someone, or something, else in her place.

Elizabeth Stott is a skilled author of short fiction She is a scientiest as well as an author and she admits to having a dark sense of humour.   Elizabeth captures exactly the quiet horror of what begins to unfold.  The prose is almost clinical - definitely a case where less is more.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

Indie Book of the Month: The Threads of Time, by Cally Phillips

The Threads of Time

Cally Phillips

Pub by HoAmPresst

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to wander around an archaeological dig and be physically whisked back in time?

Paul is taking part in a dig in Galloway, southern Scotland, one of the lowly muck-shifters.  But he really fancies one of the senior archaeologists - Diane - older than him, beautiful, out of his league. 

Strange things begin to happen.  Paul has dreams, but are they dreams?  And Diane begins to notice him.  Is she really interested, or is it a game she’s playing with their boss, the man in charge of the dig who has his own agenda and isn’t playing by the rules?

This is a time-slip novel with good, passionate characters and a thorough knowledge of archaeology and pre-history. As you'd expect from an experienced actor and playwright, the dialogue is excellent. It’s a little slow in parts, but apparently it was Cally Phillips’ first novel. Wonder too about this current fashion for brevity and galloping pace - perhaps we should have a new ‘slow book’ movement as in ‘slow food’?  Paragraphs of reflection and description are, perhaps, something we should give time to in our crowded lives. The Threads of Time is definitely a good read, a page-turner, and the ending is very unexpected.

I've also read Cally's Cuban novel 'Another World is Possible' - definitely worth checking out!  And I really liked her short story collection 'Voices in Ma Heid', written entirely in Scots - not easy for a sassenach to read initially, but when I got my ear in, the stories were moving and sometimes shocking.  Cally is a highly political writer and her books are a must-read if you're looking for something different.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

David Golder by Irene Nemirovsky

David Golder
by Irene Nemirovsky
Random House

There was a time when it was perfectly acceptable to write short novels without the danger of it being classed as a ‘novella’.  David Golder is short - 159 pages of large type in paperback, but it says everything that’s necessary - terse, efficient and unsettling.  It was first published in 1929 but it’s a modern parable.

The central character is a wealthy entrepreneur, who has made his money from oil and financial currency speculation (sound familiar?).  David had been born in Russia, on the Black Sea, in extreme poverty and had come to Europe and America, as many Jews did, to escape the pograms.  But it’s a long time since he has thought about his origins.  Now, David is in his late sixties, and his body is beginning to show the stress of a life spent amassing wealth by constantly taking risks.  He is overweight, physically unfit, driven, lonely and unhappy.  Taken to a small kosher restaurant in the poor quarter of Paris by an old acquaintance, he has a moment of recall. 

‘Outside, a man walked by carrying a long pole; he touched the street lamp opposite the restaurant and a flame shot out, lighting up a narrow, dark window where washing was hanging above some empty old flowerpots. Golder suddenly remembered a little crooked window just like it, opposite the shop where he’d been born . . . remembered his street, in the wind and snow, as it sometimes appeared in his dreams.
“It’s a long road,” he said out loud.’

David’s wife Gloria and daughter Joy live a life of luxury in Biarritz, supported by his money.  They have no affection for him and, as his life begins to collapse around him in the financial melt-down of the late nineteen twenties, he begins to realise that he may have spent his life in a hopeless quest.

 ‘What a fool he was!  He had really believed he could possess something precious on this earth . . .  To work all his life just to end up empty-handed, alone and vulnerable, that was his fate.’
But this isn’t just a moral tale of the Midas type. David Golder is the product of what poverty and despair have created between them.  It’s a very powerful novel - the first one that Irene Nemirovsky published, when she was only 26 and living in France. Quite a startling feat for a young woman to portray the anguish of growing old and the fear of death.  It is apparently a portrait informed by her father, who was a Russian refugee in Paris - forced to take a job in the same bank he had once owned, but destined to rebuild his financial empire again at the cost of his family life.  He is not an attractive figure: ‘Golder was an enormous man . . . he had flabby arms and legs, piercing eyes the colour of water, thick white hair and a ravaged face so hard it looked as if it had been hewn from stone by a rough, clumsy hand.’

David Golder’s wife Gloria is believed to owe much to Irene’s own unhappy mother, and this too is not a flattering portrait.  Gloria cares only for status and wealth - her diamonds, her house, her white Rolls Royce and her lovers - burying the memories of Havke, the impoverished Jewish girl, daughter of a money lender, who had left Russia with David Golder in search of a new life.  It seems that the only thing they ever had in common was a desire for material wealth.  Gloria and Joy are parasites who, when one host has gone, will re-attach themselves to another. Despite Golder’s enormity - he’s a monster - we are left, at the end of the novel, with a great sadness and sympathy.  That is the great achievement of the young Irene Nemirovsky.

David Golder
by Irene Nemirovsky

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

The Life of Irene Nemirovsky

The Life of Irene Nemirovsky

 by Olivier Philipponnat and Patrick Lienhardt

translated by Euan Cameron

The tragic story of Irene Nemirovsky has fascinated me since I read Suite Francaise.  I was working on the biography of Katherine Mansfield at the time and the knowledge that Irene had read and been influenced by Mansfield, and had been reading Katherine Mansfield’s diaries when she was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, gave me a deeper involvement in her work.

More recently I read her first, published novel, David Golder - an almost vicious portrait of her father and mother - and became more determined to find out about her life.  This biography was written by two people and translated into English by a third, so perhaps this has something to do with its difficulty.  The amount of information crammed into it is incredible, but also makes the book a battleground where the reader fights for clarity and a thread of chronological stability.  It doesn’t help that stories and novels not available in English are referred to and quoted without explanation, making it a bewildering maze of literary allusion.  The narrative facts of Irene Nemirovsky’s life are buried in it (as Katherine Mansfield once said of Frieda Lawrence’s good qualities) like a sixpence in a gigantic plum pudding.

Yet, as a study of Irene Nemirovsky’s work, it’s context and influences, the biography is invaluable.  Irene’s parents were Russian Jews, her father a banker and financial wheeler-dealer; her mother a vain socialite who was terrified of growing old.  ‘Fanny’ as she liked to be called, kept her daughter in children’s clothes even after she had grown up - and tried to keep Irene out of sight so that she wouldn’t give Fanny’s age away to her many lovers. Irene hated her mother and made her the subject of a number of vitriolic novels, including one called Jezebel.

The family spent a lot of time in France, living the life-style of rich Europeans - Irene’s preferred language was French.  But all this changed dramatically with the financial collapse that occurred at the end of the nineteen twenties. St Petersburg became unsafe for anyone of Jewish ethnicity. A cook saved Irene from the Russian pograms by hiding her behind the bed clutching a Christian, orthodox, cross. The Nemirovsky’s left Russia via Finland with their jewellery concealed in their clothes and settled permanently in France, but in much reduced circumstances.

In Paris, Irene tore herself away from her family and married the son of another Jewish Banker, Michel Epstein. She had started writing as a young girl and continued to write after her marriage.  Her first major novel, David Golder, was sent to the publisher just as Irene was about to give birth to her first child.  She had given a poste restante address because she didn’t want her family to know if the novel was rejected.  David Golder caused a great stir at the publishing house and they were desperate to find the author. When Irene did, eventually, arrive at their office, they were amazed to find a very young woman, olive skinned, dark eyed, modest, and could hardly believe that she was the author of such a brutal novel about male pride and the horrors of growing old and powerless.

As the banking sector grew steadily weaker, Irene became the family’s main breadwinner.  She and her husband were consistently denied French citizenship in an atmosphere of increasing anti-semitism.  Irene was one of France’s leading novelists, a Christian convert and her children were born there, but she would never become French. But she still believed that France was safe, despite German occupation, and refused to leave when she had the opportunity.  She and her husband were arrested and deported, separately, to the concentration camp at Auschwitz where they both died.  The children were saved by a friend who hid them until the war was over.  The eldest treasured the suitcase that contained her mother’s manuscript of Suite Francaise, but it was many years before she could finally bear to look at it.

The concluding chapters of this biography make you very sad, because they give a very clear picture of how genocide can happen without ordinary, reasonable people acknowledging what is going on.  It’s terrifying to think that immigrant-phobia can become genocide so easily. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Wanderer in Unknown Realms: John Connolly

John Connolly
The Wanderer in Unknown Realms

I’m having trouble with Kindle Singles - they’re either so short they’re barely a short story, or they really need to be a novel to do the subject justice.  You just don’t know what you’re getting.   The Wanderer in Unknown Realms is John Connolly’s much publicised Kindle Single, a horror story of novella length that should really be a novel.  He’s a brilliant writer, so I wasn’t surprised to be engaged with a world of Dickensian characters (the lawyer Quayle, the sinister booksellers Dunwidge and Daughter) all caught up in a spine tingling plot.  Soter - a world war one veteran, shell-shocked and bereaved, works as a private detective and takes on the case of missing Lionel Maulding, an elderly country gentlemen with a taste for antiquarian books.

Soters search takes him into the world of arcana and rare occult books.  Soon he begins to experience the occult world for himself and has moments when he doubts his sanity.  Lionel Maulding had been on the trail of a book so rare, so dangerous, that it has eluded generations of occult specialists.  The Atlas of Unknown Realms has the power to change the space time continuum and re-write the nature of reality.  Soter soon has reason to fear that the book has been found and opened when time begins to bend around him and horrific creatures materialise out of the darkness.
At this point I was really gripped.  I wanted to know what had happened to Lionel Maulding and how the world was going to be saved - hopefully by Soter.  But the novella’s ending is a complete let-down and unfortunately ruined the whole for me.  Maybe others will disagree. I’m not going to do a spoiler - but I think it was a cop-out!

There are wonderful, creepy illustrations by Emily Hall that make the production of this book a class act.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Long Delirious Burning Blue by Sharon Blackie

The Long Delirious Burning Blue
by Sharon Blackie
Published by Two Ravens Press

This is one of the most satisfying novels I've read in a long time - it really had me gripped and when I got to the end, I cried.  Not many books nowadays reduce me to tears, particularly ones that have happy endings.

The main character, Cat, is a 39 year old legal executive with an American pharmaceutical firm based in Arizona.  She's in a long term relationship with a nice guy, earns lots of money, has a beautiful home and is deeply unhappy.  Cat has begun to have crippling panic attacks which, at first, she believes to be the symptoms of physical illness and it is only when faced with a doctor's diagnosis that she realises they have their roots in anxieties that go back to childhood.

Everyone believes Cat to be completely in control and indestructible.  But it's only a mask to hide her vulnerability. Not even her partner knows how fragile she is.  Cat is afraid of flying, and when she has a massive panic attack on a business trip and is almost unable to get on the plane, she makes up her mind to deal with her fear the only way she knows how; by confronting it.  Cat decides to learn to fly and the terror and exhilaration she experiences become the key to understanding herself.

  'I have been asleep for forty years. This is what I need: this fear, this risk, this wind rocking my wings. This is what I have been missing. This is what it means to be alive – up here, on the edge of death.’ 

This is a novel about how fear can cripple our lives and prevent us living fully.  It's a novel about mothers and daughters - Cat's mother is an alcoholic and their relationship has been poisoned by guilt and blame and anger. But it's also a novel about the power of stories.  Our lives are a narrative and we can choose how to tell it - not only that, if we don't like the story we can change it.  As Cat does when she walks out of her career and her relationship into 'the long, delirious, burning blue'.

Cat's mother, Laura, is a story-teller, an author of children's books.  When the novel opens she has been sober for years, but has lost the ability to write.  Returning to the west-highland village where she had lived with her violent husband, she begins to work through her own story and, in writing it down, begins to heal herself and her relationship with her daughter.

One of my favourite bits from the book is the 'mission statement' Cat has to approve in a board meeting, which is the subject of her first rebellion against corporate America.  She can no longer swallow the meaningless jargon and the half-truths.  My other favourites were the flying scenes - so vivid I was up there in the cockpit almost sick with vertigo.  And I really fancied the flying instructor . . .

The author, Sharon Blackie, is the editor of Two Ravens Press, based on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Two Ravens publish poetry and fiction and the beautiful glossy magazine 'Earthlines'.  Their remit is broadly 'ecoliterature' but they state that they are looking for 'writing that is capable of challenging and unpicking the status quo, of shifting the worldview of their readers away from the creed of "Progress is Growth is Consumption".'  This novel certainly does that.  It's Sharon's first novel - and the only parallel I can think of is Barbara Kingsolver, who manages to combine ecological and political issues with beautiful prose. I'm now eagerly awaiting Sharon's second novel, The Bee Dancer, which is apparently coming soon.

The title is a quote from a poem called 'High Flight' written by 19 year old Canadian poet John Gillespie Magee, a spitfire pilot killed in a mid-air collision in 1941.