Thursday, 4 September 2014

Between the Mountains and the Sea: A Cumbrian Trilogy by Ruth Sutton

A Good Liar

I knew from the opening sentences that I was going to like these books - something to do with the voice of the narrator - you know that you’re going to enjoy listening to it.  I was also intrigued by the situation and full of sympathy for the feisty young protagonist, Jessie Thompson.  From the first page, I wanted to know what happened to her. But it wasn’t entirely to do with plot or character construction - it was language.  The prose is effortless and a pleasure to read. I realised I was in safe hands.

The first book in the trilogy is A Good Liar, which opens during the first world war.  Jessie is very much in love with Clive Whelan and they plan to marry as soon as the war is over and Jessie has finished her teacher training course.  But Clive is killed in an accident in the shipyard and Jessie finds herself in the same predicament as many young women in the first decades of the twentieth century. They say that you can’t go back three generations in any family without encountering illegitimacy.  Jessie’s harsh mother is unsympathetic and Jessie eventually gives birth in what were once euphemistically called ‘mother and baby’ homes.  Her child is adopted and Jessie is expected to go back into the world as if nothing has happened.  For the sake of respectability, no-one must ever know.  It’s the beginning of a lie that will have repercussions for the whole of her life.

Jessie works in a factory for the rest of the war and then applies to complete her teacher training course.  She changes her name and relies on records being lost in the chaos of war.  Her past is conveniently buried.  By 1937 Jessie Whelan is headmistress of Newton School and a pillar of the local community.  She is part of a generation of single, independent women who lost their partners in the first world war. But she longs for a close relationship.  She begins a secret affair with a much younger man, knowing that if it becomes public she will lose her job.  At the same time her illegitimate son begins to track her down after the death of his adoptive parents.  Andrew, Jessie’s lover, becomes his new boss.  When John reveals his identity to Jessie, she is panic-stricken because she has so much to lose.  John agrees to say that he is her nephew in order to preserve appearances.


The second novel in the trilogy - Forgiven - opens in 1946.  There are big social changes all over Britain.  Men are returning from the war expecting women to give up their jobs for them.  The new vicar at Newton and head of the education committee, is an ex serviceman and resents the fact that Jessie, as headmistress of the school, occupies a family house even though she is unmarried and has no children.  He puts pressure on her to give the school house up for one of her subordinates - another ex-serviceman.  The vicar begins to hint that perhaps it’s time she retired and made way for others.  Jessie loves her job and doesn’t want to think about giving it up.  But she has begun to make a tentative relationship with a widowed doctor and sees the possibility of an alternative future.

However, Jessie’s lies are beginning to find her out. The moral climate is still cold and the liberal sixties a long way away.  Andrew has emigrated to Canada and asks her to join him, and make their relationship public.   Her son John has fallen in love and is going to get married.  He tells his new wife the truth about Jessie.  His fiancĂ©e Maggie goes to confront her, accusing Jessie of abandoning her child and being a bad mother.  Jessie is forced to make a difficult decision and we are outraged on her behalf.


In Fallout, the third of the trilogy, time has moved on ten years.  Jessie, having retrained as a secretary, has a responsible job at Windscale, the nuclear plant on the Cumbrian coast.  She now has grandchildren and leads an independent life.  Her relationship with her outspoken daughter-in-law is still fiery.  Jessie, uneasy about some of the things she sees at Windscale, is beginning to become involved with the anti-nuclear movement.  This brings her into conflict with her employer and her son, who also works at the plant.   Jessie leaves to devote more time to activism and takes a lodger to earn money.  Laurence is a physicist seconded to Windscale - a married man unofficially separated from his wife - and, though at first he and Jessie keep their lives separate, eventually the barricades come down and a dangerous friendship begins to develop between them.

We, the readers, know that there is a nuclear accident on the horizon, but we don’t know how Jessie and the community are going to deal with it, or how it will affect her friends and family. Ruth Sutton writes very clearly about Britain’s only major nuclear event - a reactor fire that could have been as serious as Chernobyl, but for the courage of several individuals.  She is also very good on the tug of loyalties within a community that has always been forced to earn a living from dangerous industries and where people have learned to take risks many of us would consider unacceptable in order to feed their families.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this trilogy.  The industrial communities of the Lake District so often get overlooked by literature - the Cumbrian west coast is a fascinating landscape ‘between the mountains and the sea’.  Ruth comments that, “most people’s impression of the Lake District and Cumbria is green hills, sparkling lakes and Beatrix Potter. For those of us who love the wild west coast, that image needs a challenge, and I think – I hope – that my three novels portray real life here, not some romanticised idyll”.  They certainly do, and - with Windscale transformed into Sellafield - there were some local shops who wouldn’t carry Ruth’s third novel with its graphic cover image of the original disaster.

The three novels are packed with interesting characters and they cover a crucial period of social upheaval - the aftermath of the first world war, the depression and the subsequent de-industrialisation of northern Britain.  Having followed Ruth’s characters through the good and the bad times I was very glad that Jessie, after a lifetime of struggle and concealment, finally gets a happy ending.  

Ruth Sutton is leading a writers' workshop at the Borderlines book festival in Carlisle this weekend. 11am at Carlisle Library on Saturday Sept. 6th.  More details here.....

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimar McBride

I've been resisting this much-talked-about book for a while.  I've sometimes been disappointed by 'experimental', 'literary' novels, too often finding them pretentious and over-written.  So I approached Eimar McBride's Bailey's prize-winner with caution.  I was intrigued, I must admit, and finally gave in and down-loaded a sample from Amazon fully expecting to be disappointed again.  But I was hooked from the first sentences and when the sample ended I pressed the Buy Now button without any prompting.

When I read the description of the book I never thought I'd get further than the first page - but I'm 50% through it and hurtling along!

This is Joycean stream of consciousness. Prose-poetry, written in that lyrical way that only the Irish seem to manage.  It doesn't matter if individual phrases or sentences don't make sense - you have to read with the flow and let the sense seep into you.

The girl, growing up without a father, alongside a disabled brother with a mother who can't cope, experiences life without any filters.  Rebellion, religion, reproduction - the three big R's - clatter and crash through her mind and body.

Eimar wrote it in six months, but spent nine years trying to find a publisher. I'm not surprised, given the state of publishing at the moment, that Eimar couldn't get a deal from the big 6 (or even the smaller presses).  It was published in the end by her book-seller husband and a friend (Galley Beggar Press). After the accolades and the prizes, it's been snapped up by Faber.  From Indie to Faber - now that's a story!  But it just goes to show that some of the best and most innovative work is being done in the Indie sector, or published internationally (I'm a Peirene Press addict) beyond the reach of the Big 6, who will shortly only be publishing pulp fiction and celebrity crap. Traditional publishing is in crisis.  As Anne Enright (another brilliant Irish writer) put it "Who forgot to tell Eimear McBride about the crisis we are in and about the solution to that crisis: compromise, dumb down, sell your soul?" Fortunately nobody did. Thank whatever-you-swear-by for the Indies!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Water, Paper, Stone by Judy O'Shea

Amazon Link

Water, Paper, Stone

Judy O’Shea

In 1991 Judy left her job as a senior executive in the USA for a sabbatical year with her husband Mike, who had taken early retirement at 51 to fulfill a lifelong dream to become an artist.  They made a bucket list and one of the items on it was to spend time in Europe and learn another language.  After several false starts, they found themselves in the south of France in the Haut Languedoc on a touring holiday and fell in love with a village on the Tarn river.

Back in the states and ready to go back to work, Judy discovered that her sister Linda was critically ill following a cardiac arrest.  She had sustained significant brain damage.  ‘Linda’s courage and struggle to recover gave me the guts to get off the treadmill of my high-pressure career,’ Judy writes.   The book is written as a series of letters and emails to Linda as well as extracts from Judy’s personal journal.

Driven by a new sense that time was running out, Judy and her husband retired to France and bought a derelict water mill on the Tarn river - totally uninhabitable - and began to restore it and live their dream.

The memoir reminds me a little of ‘A Year in Provence’ - I could taste the cheese and the wine and share the drama of every catastrophe.  Living without mod-cons stretched Judy to the limit - ‘I learned I can pee in positions unknown to womanhood’.  They had a backhoe in the living room, no bathroom, rising and falling damp, rats, and incompetent builders, but they were reassured by their neighbour that ‘Avec l’argent tout est possible’ (with money anything is possible).  And so it proves.

I got involved with the fortunes of the Blanc family, where Judy goes to learn how to kill a sheep and make duck au confit.  I learned about the process of making Roquefort, the marital difficulties of the local restaurateur, and the plight of Christelle - a mail-order bride from Madagascar imported by one of their workmen -  who consults Judy about his lack of personal hygiene (how do you tell a large Frenchman that he needs a bath?)

Judy learns carpentry, stone masonry and the art of paper-making and discovers her own creativity as well as her husbands.  Before long she is being asked to take part in exhibitions in France and the United States and is setting up fascinating installations. It’s an amazing achievement.  How much personal creativity is wasted in corporate culture?

I enjoyed the glimpse into someone else’s life - the book is honest and well-written.  But it is also, for someone whose views are well to the left, an illustration of what has happened all over Spain, Italy and France, where wealthy colonisers have moved in from outside - Russians, Germans, Scandinavians, English, Americans - and driven prices up beyond the threshold for the local population.  It’s a dilemma - ruinous buildings are rescued and restored, but it often has a negative impact on the local community.  There are both pros and cons.  Judy’s book gave me much food for thought.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Harvest - by Amanya Maloba


by Amanya Maloba

Amanya was a guest on Roz Morris's Undercover Soundtrack blog and I liked what she said about her book of short-short stories.   I don't read much flash fiction - so much of it reads like cryptic jokes you might find in up-market Christmas crackers, or like prompts for a creative writing class.  But the best Flash Fiction reads like prose poetry, which I do have a taste for.

I also fell in love with the cover of Harvest, the contrasting colours and the image - covers are very important for me - they have to attract and I often buy a book for its cover.  In this case, the cover didn't lie.

Amanya's stories centre around food and appetite and they have quite a bite! 'We are what we eat' and so much of our lives revolves round food and its rituals. The stories are written in lyrical prose (the author is also a poet), sometimes with an edge, sharp observation and memorable lines.  "The sizzle of beignets frying in the back of the outdoor cafe has more timbre and raw emotion than any note to come out of Christopher Breaux's larynx.  The shake of powder sugar over the nearly square pillows of dough is sweeter than any kiss wrapped in foil or on lips." [Beignets and Trumpets]

Coffee becomes a series of associations and character changes.  "A cup of coffee, skidding tires of an airbus, and the frigid temperatures of a window seat, shift me into someone I don't know, someone fragile, someone that terrifies and kills me, exposing me to all my possible selves and all of yours. . . . What does the coffee in Tokyo taste like?  Bali?  Accra?  And why doesn't the coffee I brew in my place, whereever it is, always taste like shit, flat and fundamentally lacking?"

Amanya is an American whose family originally came from Kenya, but she has also lived in Europe - these stories have a global reach and are full of colour, with characters like Mango, Persimmon and Lime and titles like 'Pancakes at the 2893 World's Fair', 'The Watermelon Man', 'Habanero Lips', 'Cookie Woman', and 'George Washington's Black-Eyed Peas'.  One of my favourite stories concerns the Avocado Whisperer.  'I squish and mash them into bowls of black beans, onions, and corn, throw the whole lot in tortillas for the kind of meal that sits at the bottom of your stomach like the coked-out kids on the Red Line at four a.m... I'm an avocado racehorse - a thoroughbred sure bet. . . nothing short of what God binged on when She got the munchies on the seventh day'.

I loved 'Termites' - the story of a childhood visit to Nairobi to visit relatives, but one story in particular continued to haunt me.  'Dinner is served (Karibu)', which is narrated by the animal on the plate.  'I am consumable.  I do not belong to myself.  I am designed solely for your gratification.  You can stuff your greedy minds with my words and lick my tears off your dry hands . . . I exist only for your gluttonous pleasure. . .  I will kill you with every bite you take, but you will continue to eat because I am the finest cuisine you've ever had.  I will be your last meal.  Dinner is served.'

If you like to try something different, then Harvest is definitely one to read.

You can find out more about Amanya Maloba at


"The food of coastal Africa has long nourished the bodies and fed the spirits of many as it moved, along with a people, from its original continent across seas. Harvest echoes this original journey as it follows a young girl recalling childhood and discovering adulthood all while navigating different spaces and times. Amanya Maloba’s debut collection of contemporary African American vignettes is told in a voice that echoes generations of these stories, but is resolutely her own—personal and raw. Maloba has watered the soil of her imagination with laughter, tears, and centuries of wisdom, and the harvest she has brought forth is every bit as rich and rewarding as those nutrients promise. Perfect to savour one at time, but you may find yourself devouring these sweet and sour vignettes in one sitting."

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Girl in Room 14 by Carol Drinkwater

The Girl in Room 14 

Carol Drinkwater

Kindle Single

This is an ‘old-fashioned’ romantic story that will please a lot of readers - a bit of escapism set in the idyllic countryside around Cannes and Menton.

Cecile is a beautiful woman who sells lemons in the marketplace in Cannes, but there’s a mystery surrounding her.  She appears to have no private life and even her daughter doesn’t know her story.  Cecile has been waiting for someone for more than 16 years.  This is a very good 'set-up' and the anticipation of what might happen draws you into the story.

To say more would be a plot spoiler.   It’s beautifully written and I enjoyed the read - perfect for a quick 'comfort read'.  The drawback for me was that I just didn’t believe the story's resolution.  It just didn't convince me. This is a number one best-seller on Kindle mainly because of good promotion and a celebrity author, but I've read much better short stories from Indie authors - stories with real emotional power and the tug of truth.

The Girl in Room 14 - link

Thursday, 15 May 2014

To the World of Men, Welcome by Nuala ni Chonchuir

To the World of Men, Welcome

by Nuala ni Chonchuir

published by Arlen House

This is one of the most original collections of short stories I’ve read in a long time.  And it’s by an Irish writer.  What is it with the Irish and their love of words and stories?

These are all about relationships with men - both weird and wonderful.  She focuses on the transitional moments - the beginning of an affair, or the end of it, and they are both romantic and bizarre.

In The Last Man, Francine is married to a man who no longer loves her, who is manipulative and controlling, but often away on business trips.  Francine begins a series of casual affairs to alleviate the boredom.  The last man has a tattoo on his back of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and he doesn’t turn out quite as expected.

There is also real horror here.  In The Trip, Edward is ‘a raw, open wound of a man’.  He and his male friend Pat go off for the weekend into the country to take Edward’s mind of the fact that his girlfriend has just dumped him.  ‘I should have given her a slap.’  Pat plans a lively break, but Edward seems to be determined to kill off any prospect of enjoyment for either of them.  His attitude to women also seems to leave a lot to be desired.  Pat realises that he doesn’t know Edward as well as he thought he did.  The ending is truly horrific.

Then there is the story of The Mercy Fuck - where a man persuades his girlfriend to take pity on their dying, virginal friend.  Things don’t turn out as expected there either.

Pascha from Chechnya is seduced by a painter who exploits his memories of violence, and, in One Hare’s Foot, casual misfortune leads to tragedy on a summer afternoon on a boat.

These stories are all so good and so different it’s difficult to single any of them out for comment.  Each narrator has their own ‘voice’ and they compel you to listen, like the wedding guest in the Ancient Mariner.  They also demonstrate superbly what can be achieved in the short story form. Just when you thought it had all been done!

Nuala ni Chonchuir is a poet - winner of the Templar Poetry Pamphlet awards in 2009 and published by Salt, and has several other collections of short fiction as well as two novels published by New Island Books in Dublin - You in 2010 and the Closet of Savage Mementos in 2014.  This is definitely a writer to watch (and read!).

She has a blog which you can find here.    

Friday, 25 April 2014

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir, by Winifred Holtby

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir 

by Winifred Holtby

Published by Continuum International

Winifred Holtby, although herself a successful novelist, was very afraid of Virginia Woolf.  So much so that when she began to write her memoir she talked to everyone but Virginia, until she received a royal command to appear at Hogarth House to take tea.  Holtby was right to be nervous. Virginia Woolf’s first impressions of her were typically caustic;  ‘a Yorkshire farmer's daughter, rather uncouth, and shapeless’.  In a letter to a friend Woolf called her ‘an amiable donkey’. But if Woolf had ever troubled to read what Holtby wrote, she might have been very surprised indeed at the way her contemporary had understood what she was trying to achieve in her novels, as well as the contradictions of her character.

Winifred Holtby
The book is constructed as a series of essays on various aspects of Virginia Woolf’s character and writing. Written by a clever novelist, they are light and easy to read. The first, called ‘The Advantages of being Virginia Stephen’, focusses on Woolf’s birth and upbringing.  Winifred Holtby quotes the portrait of Katherine Hilbery in Night and Day, drawn from Woolf’s own childhood as the daughter of an eminent scholar and critic living at the heart of literary society.  ‘Again and again she was brought down into the drawing room to receive the blessing of some awful distinguished old man who sat apart, all gathered together and clutching a stick’.

Woolf  lived her life at the centre of the literary hub - Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin were among the formidable old men who sat in the parlour. Later she was a contemporary of TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey - the Bloomsberries, as Mansfield called them.  For Woolf, literary legends were people you met at dinner alongside Cabinet Ministers, judges and titled aristocrats.  It was a world apart, but it was also an education - as Holtby says, Woolf ‘lived among people before whom the whole range of European literature is spread like a familiar map’.

Virginia Woolf
The fact that Woolf didn’t have a conventional education (she was home-schooled) and allowed free run of her father’s library, shaped her future as a writer and critic.  Holtby, for once, gives Woolf’s critical writing equal status with her fiction.  For Woolf theory and practice were closely tied together; more people have read A Room of One’s Own than have read To the Lighthouse or The Waves, and her critical essays - Three Guineas, Letter to a Young Poet, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, have had considerable influence on her successors and are still relevant.

But Holtby, writing in 1931, is quick to point out their underlying prejudices - ‘Every second Englishman reads French’, was a ridiculous thing to say, at a time when only 15% of the English were educated beyond the age of 14.  Woolf  didn’t understand the uneducated.  Whenever she tries to draw a working class character, Holtby writes, ‘she loses her way. They are more foreign to her than princes were to Jane Austen.’

Holtby also writes about Woolf’s complex relationship with suffragism.  Many women involved in the Suffrage movement were her friends.  They appear in her novels and their ideals are expressed in Woolf’s non-fiction. Characters like Orlando in the novel of the same name change gender, revealing prejudice and hypocrisy.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf  coined the expression ‘reflecting men at twice their normal size’.  But she did not take part in the campaign herself and, in most of her essays and reviews, she uses the male pronoun as convention demanded. The artist/writer is always ‘he’.

Winifred Holtby not only discusses Woolf as a woman and a writer, but also Woolf as a reader - the author of pithy reviews and essays of writerly instruction. Even though her own books were consumed by a literary elite, Woolf knew who the ‘Common Reader’ was, though she erred on the gender.  ‘The Common Reader differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge.’  This is the person that we are all writing for - someone of only average education, neither a scholar nor a critic, reading for pleasure, and sometimes also a woman. (Statistically more often than not)

According to Woolf there are strict rules.  Ideas, morality, historical lessons, can only be presented in terms of character and plot.  Any research has to be invisible.  ‘Whatever facts, emotions and experiences the artist tastes, he must digest completely . . . There must be no foreign matter unconsumed.’  And she hates novels with a message that seem to encourage people to ‘join a society’ or ‘write a cheque’. The ‘business of the artist’, Woolf says, ‘is to provide one with a vivid and complete experience’.  There must be a reality - and reality is ‘what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of the past time and of our loves and hates ...  It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us.’

Form must always serve the material - and here Woolf was extremely subversive.  ‘Mrs Woolf does not really like plots’, Holtby observes.  Nor does she like traditional ways of establishing character by description.  Woolf asks the Edwardian novelists how she should present her character Mrs Brown and gets this answer:
‘”Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate.  Ascertain the rent.  Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878.  Discover what her mother died of.  Describe cancer.  Describe calico.  Describe . . .”  But I cried “Stop!  Stop!”  And I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico, my Mrs Brown, that vision to which I cling . . . would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.’

Woolf threw plot and narrative out of the window too and explored new ways of telling stories, taking ideas from Katherine Mansfield and adopting the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique developed by Dorothy Richardson.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Winifred Holtby’s short memoir is a real delight (which is probably why it’s been re-issued) and, if I had my way, I’d put it on the list for every creative writing student in the country.  It’s one brilliant writer’s take on another - illuminating and useful.  Woolf apparently told her friends that it had made her ‘scream with laughter’, but there’s no evidence that she ever read it.

Kathleen Jones  

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt by Kathleen B. Jones

Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt

by Kathleen B. Jones (the Other Kathleen Jones!)

This is the story of my thinking journey with Hannah, a tale at once political and personal, singular and common.  Diving below the surface of her writing, the narrative arches and bends, assembling vignettes about Hannah and me into a collage of life stories, a kind of intellectual and emotional scrapbook.

That is how Kathleen B. Jones describes her unusual biography.  I read it with great interest - not only because it’s by my American name-sake, a writer, feminist and academic who has often covered similar ground, but also because I've followed the progress of the book on the internet for a couple of years, particularly the fraught process of publication.

Kathleen B. Jones is trained in political theory and a Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at San Diego University, California.  But these days not even the phrase ‘leading academic’ means that you can get your work published by university presses, and the unusual structure of this book didn’t meet any of the academic norms.  Increasingly, ‘leading academics’ are turning to self-publishing to get their work in front of the public and it’s something to be grateful for.  One of the books I contributed to, published by Ashgate Press, is currently only available at a cover price of £56.00 - You can buy Diving for Pearls for a mere £7.97.

The book had its beginning in personal memoir.  Everyone wants to make sense of their lives, Kathleen B. Jones begins. ‘Some of us do that by telling a story’, but for Jones it was different.  ‘In the dusk of middle age, I chose a peculiar path.  Surprising myself by reversing directions, I took a road I’d abandoned, and found myself exploring again the thinking and life of Hannah Arendt’.

As a young woman, Hannah Arendt (1906-75) was a disciple (and lover) of the pro-Nazi German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  She was a Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany to live in America, where she established herself as an eminent contemporary philosopher.  It was a title she often denied, choosing to describe herself instead as a ‘political theorist’.  She became the first female lecturer at Princeton and a fellow at Yale and was the subject of a 2012 film in Germany.

David Strathairn and Melissa Friedman as Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt in Kate Fodor’s play ‘Hannah and Martin’.

Her views were often controversial - Arendt wrote a book on the Eichmann trial subtitled ‘A Report on the Banality of Evil’ which criticised Jewish leaders for their actions during the Holocaust and appeared to suggest that the Nazis were not necessarily the monsters of popular thought - they were ordinary people who acquired power and did evil things because they didn’t think enough about what they were doing, and neither did the people who put them in power.  Evil can arise from mere thoughtlessness, unthinking conformity and obedience.  According to Arendt ‘it was “ordinary people,” neither stupid nor necessarily ideologically motivated, who committed the great atrocities of the Holocaust’.

Defining herself as both a German and a Jew, Arendt wrote about identity and human rights. She was very clear-sighted and pragmatic. ‘The right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself.  It is by no means certain whether this is possible’.  But Arendt’s insistence on retaining her German identity, the events of her own life, and particularly her relationship with Heidegger, gave her critics a great deal of fuel for their opposition.  Arendt described love as ‘perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces’.

Arendt was, as Jones points out - ‘A brilliant political philosopher, who refused to call herself a philosopher, a woman who never considered her sex an obstacle in her life, a Jew who was called anti-Semitic, and a rigorous thinker who wrote passionately about hatred and love’.  As a feminist and a writer, Jones found herself fascinated by the apparent contradictions in Arendt’s writing ‘no matter how much I argued against her, I had to admit I admired her writing . . . I found myself circling around and then diving deeper into Arendt’s writing , each time retrieving some pearl of insight, which shifted my understanding and made me reassess my position’.   Hannah Arendt’s voice became particularly insistent when Jones began to write a memoir of her own unusual and complex life.  ‘She wouldn’t leave me alone.  Every time I penned a line bordering on an all too confident assertion, I’d hear her voice in my head.  “Dive deeper, you’re not really thinking,” it said.’

The form of both Jones’ biography of Arendt and her own memoir changed as they merged into one - ‘a disquieting dialogue between two women one long ago dead, about what and how the heart knows yet prefers to keep to itself.  I let my imagination go visiting, entering her life and her work, and began to see the world and my own place in it from an altogether different perspective’.

The result is an unusual book - a thoughtful, penetrating (and sometimes painful) account of a life lived that uses the insights of this life to illuminate that of another. ‘I began to retrieve anecdotes from her life and mine, finding meanings in them I believe are more universal than applied only to my particular case’. What Jones learns from her experience informs her view of Hannah Arendt both as a woman and a philosopher and what Arendt wrote about herself teaches Jones how to think about her own.

One of the things that Jones learned was that the past is not necessarily ‘a set of events determining my present, as if one’s life was fully fashioned at its beginning, as if only time and circumstance were needed to create the equation that produced a person as its inevitable result.’  She abandoned the idea of Fatalism and accepted that a human being must admit their own limitations and ‘accept responsibility’ for what is theirs to control. Human beings are much more than ‘a leaf in the whirlwind of time’.

When Jones re-read Arendt’s book on Eichmann, it made her think ‘about monsters and the hold I’d let them have in my life’.  Reading about Jones’ monsters made me think about mine too and some of the terrible relationships and bad decisions I have had to take responsibility for.  That’s one of the things about this book - it makes you think, as both Jones and Arendt intended.

Jones is also interesting on the bias of the biographer - how we interpret the lives of the people we study according to events in our own.  Someone called Elzbieta Ettinger had previously written about Arendt’s life and used her subject’s relationship with Heidegger to provide the biographer herself ‘with a thinly veiled means of self-laceration, a confession, never made public of ever having become such a man’s prey’.  Ettinger had had a similar relationship.  As biographers we bring our own lives, our own judgements and prejudices to the text.

But there is more - Arendt’s position as an exiled German Jew makes Jones think about our own precarious position in an increasingly unstable world.  ‘We have all become refugees, wandering far from some imagined promised land of our ancestors, searching for a new way to be at home in a world where we might connect with and live with others with whom we have no evident or common ties binding us together as a people, except the shared fact of having been born.’ 

This book is indeed a thinking journey, written in beautiful prose, bringing together two women whose lives have made me think again about my own.  But beware, as Arendt warned, ‘There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is a dangerous activity’.

You can find more about Kathleen B. Jones on her website here.

And you can buy Diving for Pearls on

And in Paperback

And from

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Claude Michelet: Firelight and Woodsmoke - worth committing book murder for!

Firelight and Woodsmoke

Claude Michelet

This is a great doorstop of a trilogy, which I cut into its three component parts with a Stanley knife and have been carrying around with me on my travels, abandoning each section as I finished it. I’d like to think that they got adopted by a traveller on a train, a curious customer in Costa’s, or a bored passenger at Stansted Airport.

The Firelight and Woodsmoke saga was recommended to me by a friend who knows how much I enjoy European literature. Claude Michelet is one of France's most distinguished authors. The books are translated into English, but aren’t currently in print in the UK or available as e-books.  I managed to get an omnibus edition second hand for 82p. Worth committing book murder for though.  It’s the story of a village and four generations of the Vialhe and Dupeuch families, in the Limousin region of France. They are peasants in a community that still has a medieval structure - the Vialhes are relatively prosperous; the Dupeuchs at the bottom of the heap.

The first novel opens with three children tracking a wolf on the last day of 1899.  A few hours later, a baby girl is born, Mathilde Dupeuch - the first child of the 20th century.   The story takes the inhabitants from the oppressive (and often heart-breaking) observance of centuries old traditions and superstitions to a modern age of international flights and mechanisation.  We see the arrival of the first car, the first train, the first electric light, and observe the effects of two world wars and the ravages of economic boom and bust - all through the eyes of this small rural community.

It’s difficult to summarise such a wide ranging plot with so many different characters. The narrative focuses mainly on the children - Pierre-Edouard, Louise and Berthe Vialhe, Leon and Mathilde Dupeuch.  Pierre-Edouard and Leon are of similar age, but very different temperaments.  They are all the children of uneducated peasant farmers and their parents expect them to conform to traditions they believe to be written in stone.  But times are changing fast and there is considerable conflict between the generations.  Berthe escapes the oppression of her family to become a fashion designer in Paris; Louise runs away to marry the man she loves rather than accept the marriage her family have arranged for her. The friendship of the two young men soon turns to enmity in a clash over land and politics.

Pierre-Edouard stays on the farm, marries and creates a new generation of Vialhes.  His eldest son Jacques excels at school and quarrels with his father over the way the farm is being run - wanting to introduce more modern farming methods. Jacques marries Mathilde, the youngest sister of his father’s enemy, Leon Dupeuch.  Leon, whose father committed suicide when he was young, comes from a family who barely had enough to eat, sometimes living like gypsies.  As an adult, he becomes a successful cattle dealer, wealthy enough to buy out the local gentry who have been impoverished by the Great Depression.

Jacques and Mathilde quietly consolidate the family land as their neighbours, less willing to adapt to 20th century innovations, are forced to sell off their ancestral acres.  But the grandchildren they are preserving the land for want something different.  They are interested in other careers, not the back-breaking life of a rural farmer.

There is real poetry in Claude Michelet’s prose, and the narrative has the quiet quality of a French film.  It’s a beautiful account of how life changed forever in a dramatic fashion during the 20th century - how moving away from our roots in the land that ultimately sustains us has created a fractured society that, although economically more prosperous, is otherwise impoverished.  The Correze has wifi now, but there are no more wolves left to track.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

In the Beginning: Catherine Dunne

In the Beginning

by Catherine Dunne

Published by Fado Fado

£2.62 on Kindle

I'm a great fan of Irish writing - the tiny damp isle seems to have bred so many fine writers and poets. Catherine Dunne was recommended by an Italian friend who'd read her in translation and loved the novel. It's a great plot - Rose strives to be the perfect executive wife - immaculate home, pampered children, beautifully cooked meals - and she believes her world, though not ideal (what marriage ever is) to be stable and secure. But one morning her husband, off on a business trip to Europe, turns round at the door and tells her that he's leaving and he won't be back.

The shock of the announcement brings everything that Rose had believed to be rock-solid, tumbling in rubble around her ankles and there are a series of unpleasant discoveries waiting for her. What do you do if you put your card in the wall and no money comes out of the cash machine? How do you feed your children and pay the bills when the bank account is empty?

The novel also gives us the back-story of Rose's relationship, slices of narrative between the contemporary story which gradually reveal the layers of sand that her marriage had been built on.

But Rose is more resourceful than she realises and she's surrounded by loving friends. Day by day she grows stronger and, when she discovers the enormity of what her husband has done to her, she is able to deal with it. I loved the way the book was written - lived each episode with the characters and enjoyed every moment of Rose's revenge. I'm going to be reading more of Catherine Dunne's books.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Transatlantic: Colum McCann


by Colum McCann

Published by Bloomsbury
Kindle Price £3.08

The cottage sat at the edge of the Lough.  She could hear the wind and rain whipping across the expanse of open water.  It hit the tree and muscled its way into the grass.......

A friend lent me this book and I was so hooked I had to buy it on Kindle when I gave the book back.  It’s written in lyrical Irish prose that is almost poetry - a style that accommodates both internal monologue and external observation. There are several strands to a story that moves backwards and forwards in time across five generations of a family and from one side of the Atlantic to another.

It touches on the anti-slavery movement that became connected to women’s suffrage and the Irish republican cause. There’s a brief, but important, meeting between a former US slave and an Irish serving girl. Every detail is significant.  But it begins with the historic flight across the Atlantic made by Alcock and Brown, observed by two women - a journalist and a photographer. One of them gives a letter to Brown and asks him to post it when he reaches Ireland.  He agrees, but it is a very long time before the letter is ever opened.

At first I thought it was a series of linked short stories, but the weaving of the different strands became tighter as the novel developed and the relationship between the different narratives became clearer and more compulsive.  It's good to know that publishers are still publishing novels of this quality.

I really loved this book and it gets an extra star for the ‘wow’ factor.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Cauldstane by Linda Gillard


by Linda Gillard

Since I discovered The House of Silence, I've been reading Linda Gillard's novels and wondering why on earth her publisher ever allowed her to go 'Indie'. They must be kicking themselves. She's providing exactly what readers seem to want - a rattling good story, interesting characters, romance, real dilemmas and traumas we can all empathise with, and an original mix of genre elements.  If you like this recipe, you're never going to get bored.  Not all Linda's books are to my taste, but the writing is always impeccable.

I've followed the genesis of Cauldstane via Linda's Facebook author page and been intrigued by the little snippets she's shared.  I also admired her determination to press on with the book through the long recovery process of a serious brush with cancer.  Her honesty and integrity in sharing her journey gave me a greater respect for her skills as an author.  This is someone who writes about traumatic human situations with personal knowledge.  It's this compassion and empathy that inform the pages of this unusual novel. Think Northanger Abbey meets Daphne du Maurier and Bridget Jones with a bit of Downton Abbey thrown in. It's absolutely modern and gloriously gothic.

There's a remote and decrepit Scottish castle, (with a curse attached, of course), a wicked stepmother, a feisty but emotionally vulnerable heroine, more handsome men than you can shake a sword at, and a very dangerous ghost.  The main male character, Sholto, has made a career out of adventure, but is now getting old, short of money to keep the roof over his head intact, and wants to tell his sometimes scandalous life story.  He has chosen J.J. Ryan to ghost-write it for him, picking the name from a Society of Authors' list of recommendations without realising that J.J. is a woman.  Jenny falls in love with Cauldstane and its occupants and is totally committed to the project, until ghost-writing of another kind comes between her and the family.  To tell you more would be to spoil the plot, so I won't.

I'm not a great fan of the Gothic genre, though I did read quite a lot of it when I was younger, but this novel is a really good read and I was happy to suspend disbelief and just enjoy myself between the covers.  It could only be improved by being read with a stiff malt whisky in one hand and a plate of Mrs Guthrie's ginger cakes on the side!


by Linda Gillard

Monday, 3 February 2014

From Writing with Love by Avril Joy

From Writing with Love

Avril Joy

Published by Room to Write

This is not a ‘how to’ writing book in the usual sense, but an account of one writer’s journey from the first tentative words on the page, through self-doubt and crises of confidence, to eventual publication and a Costa award. ‘I came late to writing,’ Avril says, ‘and after a matter of only months found myself hopelessly in love’.  After some ‘early, modest success’, came a series of knock-backs, until in 2011 she ‘came dangerously close to falling out of love with the one thing that had changed my life’. Avril generously shares everything she’s learned in the process of becoming a writer - the heartache, the envy, the rejections, the apparent successes that turned out to be almost as damaging as the rejections, and the survival mechanisms she developed to cope with them.

The purpose of the book is to encourage and inspire, rather than instruct - to help an individual find their own voice, their own path through the jungle, rather than offer prescriptive advice.  Any advice that Avril shares is sound and well-tested. This is a skill-share, offering hard-won knowledge and insight from a clear-eyed author whose humility hasn’t been altered by her success.

What is necessary, Avril stresses, is to stay in love with writing.  Too often, for a professional author, all the fun goes out of it.  If what we do becomes too deadly serious, then our writing will suffer and so will we. ‘We should be in love with words.  We should swim in them, drown in them.... Be passionate about words; in the end they are all we have’.

She has some good quotes that reflect on the current state of publishing - this one from William Trevor: ‘In the end, only the books matter. Nowadays, books tend to be shovelled into a chat-show wheelbarrow, more talked about than read.’

Avril went down the road of self-publication, though she still has a foot in both camps and a very pragmatic attitude. ‘It’s very easy to get seduced by the possibilities of success and the lure of agents and editors,’ she warns.  ‘It’s not difficult to find yourself losing your way and writing something that’s not true to who you are.  I’ve done it.  I’ve written more sex into a book to please an agent.  I’ve written crime fiction, invented a serial killer, ditched one book and moved onto the next, and more . . . Being new to writing I was vulnerable to such persuasions (which I have no doubt at all were made from a genuine desire to help me get a book deal). I wouldn’t do it like that a second time round because in the end if you’re not writing from your own truth the writing is not truly yours.’

One of Avril’s good ideas is that of having a ‘writing buddy’ - someone you can trust to share work with and give feedback.  Avril meets hers on a regular basis for a writing and reading session giving each other mutual support.  You can talk through a particularly difficult plot twist, get feedback on a piece of writing you’re not sure about.  I’d love a writing buddy - though I think it’s probably difficult to find someone you’re completely in tune with.  Avril adds a quote from E.B White - ‘It’s not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer’.

I liked this book very much - so much of what Avril says resonated with me.  It gave this rather jaded, post-biography, writer a definite injection of enthusiasm.

From Writing with Love

Avril Joy

Published by Room to Write 

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Death Comes to Pemberley: P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley

by P.D. James

P.D. James confesses, in her essay on the genesis of the novel that she is 'ambivalent' about sequels. 'The greatest writing pleasure for me is in the creation of original characters, and I have never been tempted to take over another writer's people or world'.  But that is exactly what she has done in setting her new murder mystery in the heartland of Jane Austen's world - Pemberley, the home of Darcy and his wife Elizabeth Bennet. James goes on to explain that 'Austen's characters take such a hold on our imaginations that the wish to know more of them is irresistible'.  James is not the first to enter Austen's fictional domain with her own take on it - and currently another novel 'Longbourn', by Jo Baker, is exploring the upstairs/downstairs world of Elizabeth Bennet's family home and there is also 'Georgiana Darcy's Diary' by Anna Elliott and Laura Masselos.  There is also the very entertaining 'Lydia Bennet's Blog', by Valerie Laws.

In 'Death Comes to Pemberley', Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years and have a young son.  Pemberley is a tranquil, idyllic place - Mr Bennet is a frequent, welcome visitor, and Bingley and Elizabeth's sister Jane have established themselves nearby.  The one source of disharmony is the youngest Bennet daughter Lydia, married to the dissolute Wickham.  Lydia is 'received' (though scarcely welcomed) by her sisters for occasional visits, but her husband is barred.  Both are impecunious and dependent on their more fortunate relations and Lydia has an attitude of grievance towards her sisters.

It's hardly surprising, given Austen's portrayal of Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, that James has chosen Lydia to be the messenger of an event that is going to break the tranquility of Pemberley for ever.  On the eve of the annual ball, a carriage comes to a violent halt at the door and Lydia tumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered.  Someone has indeed been murdered, but it is Wickham who is arrested for the crime.  Darcy, Elizabeth and their friends must now come to aid of a man they despise, but who is publicly part of their family.

I found the novel rather slow and the style more ponderous than Austen's - particularly the dialogue. But the plot is absorbing and the beautifully researched details of 18th century criminal procedure are fascinating, particularly to someone who once studied law with a view to being called to the Bar. It gives a very clear picture of how the law worked in small rural communities.  Darcy, who is a magistrate, is also a reformer, arguing for an appeal court to review the decisions of juries.  'Could it not be possible to have an appeal court consisting of three, or perhaps five, judges to be convened if there were dissension over a difficult point of law?'  His friend, Alveston, a barrister, comments that the jury would be outraged if they felt that their decision was to be challenged by a judge.  Public opinion, he proposes, is the best court of appeal;  'I can assure you there is nothing more powerful than the English when seized with righteous indignation'.  And so it proves.

I enjoyed this excursion into Jane Austen's world - I hope I'm still around at the age of 90 and still capable of writing such a complex novel as this one!  I wonder what she's plotting now?

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Founding: Cynthia Harrod Eagles - Morland Dynasty #1

The Founding

by Cynthia Harrod Eagles

If you like Philippa Gregory, you'll love this.  I read another writer's blog (Random Jottings - The End of a Dynasty?)  recently lamenting that Cynthia Harrod Eagles' publishers had 'dropped' her because sales of her cult historical novels weren't as high as they would have liked.  The blogger raved about the Morland Dynasty and the Kirov novels (the latter set in Russia) and I was intrigued.  Here was a writer with a long track record of rave-reviewed historical fiction and I'd never stumbled on her before.  Why?  Under-promotion, the blogger suggested - all the publisher's fault.  So I hopped over to Amazon and downloaded the first of the Morland Dynasty saga - The Founding - set in the 15th century world of Richard III, Elizabeth Woodville, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses - Lancaster and York.

I was immediately gripped by the central character - Eleanor Courtenay, impoverished ward of Lord Edmund Beaufort (grandson of John of Gaunt) - who is sold off in marriage to a wealthy Yorkshire sheep farmer and wool merchant who wants to trade his money for a bit of spit-and-polish and some aristocratic influence.  The gently born and educated Eleanor is transported to a filthy northern farmhouse and bears four children in three years.  Eleanor's courage and sheer bloody-mindedness win in the end, but the influential connection she brings with her also carries obligations that are not always comfortable.  She and her husband find themselves caught up in the civil war and torn between allegiance to the Lancastrian Beauforts or to Richard of York.  Eleanor's private loyalties prove costly.

It's been a very good read with accurate historical detail - a wonderful insight into the way women had to live - enduring superstition and prejudice and almost continual child-bearing.  I also liked the way that Eleanor's character developed through the book as she aged and was changed by circumstance. I'm off now to down-load the next book, The Dark Rose, to follow the fortunes of Eleanor's grandchildren.  There are 35 books altogether, bringing the family's fortunes up to the present day, so I expect to have to pick and choose a bit, but there are some readers who have read every one and are totally addicted!

I might also follow Random Jottings' suggestion and write to the the publishers to protest about their actions - it's time Readers started to make publishers aware of what they want.

You can get The Founding in paperback second hand for 1p or on Kindle for £4.72.