29 April 2016

Review: The Lubetkin Legacy by Marina Lewycka

The Lubetkin Legacy
Marina Lewycka
Penguin Fig Tree, 5 May 2016
HB, 386pp

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book, via NetGalley.

Berthold Sidebottom (yes, really) is a "resting" actor in his 50s who can't help comparing himself, bitterly, with George Clooney. Berthold had a wife, a daughter, a life - but now he's lost all of them and is back living at home with his elderly mother, Lily.

Lily is a redoubtable character, an old campaigner ("don't mourn, organise!" exclaims her parrot at one point) who fought for a better world - a world exemplified by the flat she still, just about, clings onto. Part of a block built by the visionary architect Berthold Lubetkin ("nothing is too good for ordinary people") in an age of benevolent municipal socialism, the flat is now threatened by the Bedroom Tax, Right-To-Buy and various iffy deals centred on the local planning department.

But then Lily is taken off, first to hospital ("How had this sudden change come about? It had crept up on her so gradually that I had not noticed the point at which my indomitable mother had become a frail old lady") and then to that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns (Berthhold is inclined to quote Shakespeare) and her son left alone to deal with the DWP, the Housing Department, and relatives keen to snaffle the flat. He bounces between the various powers that would see him out on the street and we gradually learn more about his own circumstances (tragic wouldn't be over the top as a description of them) and his family background (descended from a line of agitators and trade unionists and from a mother who had three very different husbands).  Berthold is far from hapless, cooking up a plan to block the bureaucracy he can see coming to dispossess him, but is hampered by the complexities of Lily's love-life (was she actually married to all those husbands? Did Lubetkin really promise her the flat? And how do Berthold's ne'er-do-well half brother and crazy sisters fit into the picture?)

As if that wasn't enough, Lewycka introduces Inna, Lily's Ukrainian neighbour in hospital, who agrees  to impersonate Lily to prevent Berthold losing the flat. Via her, Berthold comes to understand about the (also tragic) history of Ukraine. But Inna has her own train of dodgy connections - and her own agenda (what's really in the Ukrainian delicacies she keeps feeding him?)

But there's more! Newly arrived in the same block is Violet, a young woman of mixed UK and Kenyan background who's just started her first job in the City, in "Wealth Preservation". She's rapidly introduced to a shady world of offshore transactions, transfer pricing fraud and corruption ("Now at the end of her first month she is wondering whether she has chosen the wrong career") which parallels the goings on at Madeley Court.

Throw in a threatened cherry orchard, an incompetent funeral director's ("Wrest 'n' Piece") and a supporting cast of diverse neighbours, and one soon begins to reel at the sheer breadth of the book. Lewycka remains in command - just - of all this material, but I could have wished for slightly less at times. I felt there was enough of a meaty plot in Berthold's difficulties without a parallel African corruption scandal and that it was a shame the Kenyan angle seemed to serve mainly to highlight corruption, which seems a slightly stereotyped view of Africa. Put another way, Violet herself is one of the best realised and most sympathetic characters in the book, (Berthold being rather self-absorbed, not to say self-pitying, though he has his reasons) walking a tightrope between her European and African heritages, tying to find where she belongs, trying to do the right thing. A story about her alone would also be quite enough for a whole book. Put together, there seems to be a little too much going on.

It is a very funny book at many points, sharply observed - here's Berthold on Violet: "I knew I must take things slowly... a lovely girl like that is always surrounded by men wanting to get her into bed. Not me. I was different. I was caring, sensitive, a big soul, a good conversationalist, a good listener, a good neighbour and friend, a good... whatever it took." The humour is, as that example shows, frequently dark, the humour of people in impossible situations simply trying to get by ("What use history... in history, everybody slightly dead"). On the other hand, at times the commentary can be rather heavy handed, rather labouring parallels between the doings of the 'oliharki' in Russia and Ukraine, the scam that Violet's boss draws her into, the Kenyan corruption and the dodgy dealing in the Town Hall.

Overall, the book is perhaps at risk in places of throwing too much material at the reader, but nevertheless it's very entertaining and certainly thought provoking.

25 April 2016

Gender Balance and Blue Book Balloon

We have a problem...

I was listening to the excellent Breaking the Glass Slipper podcast earlier tonight, about gender balance in SFF and horror "best of" lists. It made me think and I decided to check the balance of this humble blog. (NB when I say "gender" here I mean traditional binary - I know the world isn't that simple, but that's where I'm starting from).

So I did a quick check and was surprised that for 2015, it works out quite well: of the reviews I posted, 26 were of books by women and 28 of books by men. (One was a woman writing as a man - JK Rowling writing as Robert Galbraith, and I've counted that as by a woman).

(Not all of the reviews I post are SFF/ horror - I also review crime and even some none genre (I know! I know! But I'm sure you follow what I mean) but this isn't an issue about genre, so i counted everything.

However, the stats for 2016 (to date) don't make such good reading. 18 men, and 8 women. Something is wrong. But before I go on and explain what i'm going to do about it, I will address a question some of you may want to put.

I don't care whether a book is by a man or a woman - as long as it's good!

It doesn't. It really doesn't. Books can be great whether they're by men or by women. I don't see anything that means either will be better writers.

But that actually makes it worse, surely - the good books should be evenly distributed. The same numbers of both should show up in my reviews. If they don't, something is going wrong. And it must means I'm missing some great books! It also means that anyone picking up recommendations from this blog is also missing out.

(OK, I know I'm not up there as one of the world's influential book blogs, but anyone can dream, right?)

What's going wrong?

I can see a number of possibilities.

(1) I am consciously selecting against women authors.

I don't believe this is the case. I'm not aware of doing this, and I certainly wasn't in 2015 as the figures show.

(2) I am unconsciously selecting against women authors.

This is possible, although again, it doesn't seem to have happened in 2015.

(3) My book sources are biased against women authors (and have become more so)

This seems more likely. I depend on reviews in papers and magazines, Twitter reviews and recs, online reviews, and what I see in bookshops. The world being a far from ideal place, all this is stuff is likely to be biased. (I also follow certain authors, which would amplify any bias. once they're on my list, as it were). To prove this I ought to record not only what I review but where I heard about the book - at present I don't do this (I love spreadsheets and stuff but there are limits).

One factor that may contribute is that - I think - the books I get offered for blog tours may have more male than female authors. I've had more of these lately so that may have skewed things a bit. I'll be keeping an eye on this in future.

What I'm going to do

OK, enough talk, now for the action. I'm going to plan things more carefully, looking at the books I accept and plan to read, and consciously try to balance things up. My reading plans tab shows intentions coming up, and I'm going to try and keep that balanced, over time - when I'm offered something I'll consider whether adding to the list maintains the balance of not, and I'll mix things up if they get out of kilter.

Let's see how it goes.

24 April 2016

Let us now praise famous people

"Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."
(Arthur C Clarke: The Nine Billion names of God)

I have been struck this week by the popular reaction to the unexpected deaths of the musician Prince and the actor, comedian, musician and writer Victoria Wood.  2016 seems to be a killer year for much loved celebrities: the stars do seem to be going out. We're told that this is inevitable given that the baby boomer generation is approaching mortality - but many people are still desperately sad that their heroes have gone.

Others complain that it's over emotional or self-indulgent to mourn the deaths of those you don't personally know. There's often an implication that this is only due to the social media age - although I think what that brings is simply the ability for ordinary people to express their sense of loss. The well known outpouring of grief when Princess Diana died in 1997 predated the widespread use of social media, but it still happened.

For myself, I'm sad that some act as though they want to regulate what emotions others may feel. I am now in my late 40s. Musicians like Prince and David Bowie have been popular all my life. I never paid much attention to them because - especially when younger - I was never into pop music. They weren't part of my formative years, so I have no particular angle here. I have though been impressed by the little stories I've seen on Twitter about what these performers meant to people: how they made some feel valued or gave inspiration or affirmation especially to those who saw themselves as being weird or outsiders. (Who doesn't, at some point?)

That is a positive thing. Maybe in some ideal world we'd all feel of worth and be confident based on wonderful parenting or some kind of innate inner glow, but we aren't in that world and I don't think we will be soon. People get comfort where they can and sneering at it is a mean mean thing to do.

There's another point, though. At risk of quoting a much abused phrase, we are all in this together. We come into the world the same way and go out the same way. It's appropriate to mourn when somebody leaves us. This has long been recognised, from John Donne's meditation:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
(words found here)

to the custom of tolling a bell in church to mark a death, to people stopping what they are doing - as they used to - and taking off their hats for a funeral procession.

These deaths do diminish us. I know there are lots of deaths going on all the time. For somebody - if only the person dying - they are all too soon. We don't mourn them all. We don't even know about most of them. Those, too, diminish us. We can mourn those too, and perhaps the celebrity ones can remind us of that, remind us that we're entitled to grieve.

Above all, though, these are people's honest feelings and they shouldn't be sneered at.

23 April 2016

Review: Treats by Lara Williams

Lara Williams
Freight Books, 2016
PB, 125pp

I bought my copy of this book from Waterstone's Oxford.

This is a very hard review to write. From time to time one finds a book that is so good you can only get the sense of it and understand why it is good by reading it. Any review will be a clumsy approximation to the thing itself and really ought to just say "go and read this!" but that's not really a very useful message. So here goes - this is why I loved these stories. And apologies to Lara Williams for mangling the sense of her beautiful writing.

The saying "don't judge a book by its cover" is often quoted and usually good advice. Covers can mislead - intentionally or by accident - and even where they don't, image and text are different media, so even a well done, honest cover may not help in signalling the content.

Sometimes, though, that saying is simply wrong and Lara Williams' Treats is a case in point. So I'm going to start my review of this wonderful, stunning book by describing the cover. Here is a young woman in a coat, sitting looking out of a cafe, thinking but not lost in thought. We are looking in (the reflection of the street is visible): she may be looking out or she may not. In front of her on the table are a cup of coffee, a phone, an open notebook and another book, Men Explain Things to Me, which is closed.

It's very clearly a moment in someone's life - a pause, I would say, perhaps, between two of the stories in this book - but also a detail. There's a powerful sense of this image as the small corner of a larger whole but one which carries the essential meaning of that whole. My first thought on seeing this book in the shop was that this was a very Edward Hopperish image. I love how Hopper captures a spirit of (not necessarily unpleasant) isolation in, especially, his urban, nighttime pictures.

That's the same feeling which, for me, comes off many of these stories and certainly the collection taken as a whole. They are, I think, the kind of stories that might describe the lives of the characters in Hopper's art: not necessarily the stories he'd have written but still a prose equivalent of his paintings.

The central figures here are - mostly - young women, shifting between jobs and partners, living in temporary places and temporary ways. There is always a sense though - a threat - that the temporary might, unlooked for, become permanent.

The stories are all short and some are very short, so that giving synopses risks telling too much. But for example, "It begins" (told in second person: you) describes coming back home after university, slotting into a disappointing life, settling for what's on offer. "A Lover's Guide to Meeting Shy Girls: Or; Break up Record" is about a young man, used to being the heartbreaker, who finds the tables turned. "One of Those Life Things" is another second person story (I wondered if all of these might have the same protagonist? It doesn't really matter) putting things together after a break-up. "Well if you don't want to live in hell" it ends "then I suggest you move." In "Both Boys" a woman manages not to choose between two friends but takes both - for a time.

My favourite (though it's hard to pick one - they're all good) is the titular "Treats", a slice of the life of a PA who has made a life for herself but wants more, specifically more kindness. She keeps on doing nice things for people, little unasked favours - paying for a cinema ticket for the girl behind her in the queue as she waits alone to celebrate her birthday, for example - but is slowly being disappointed: nothing comes back to her, she's still alone: but you can be kind to yourself, can't you?

William's characters negotiate life events - births, deaths, pregnancies, breaking up, getting together, moving in, moving out - with a degree of calm but also a degree of absence, an eye on the wider world: what comes next? Isn't there more than this? Her women cope better than the men, on the whole, but there's a sense in which everyone is sitting in that cafe, looking both in and out, waiting for the next thing. It's an essence of a very definite stage in life, mid twenties to mid thirties (and looking back at this period from later - where did all the time go?) counterpointed by the especial insecurity of that stage in the early 21st century.

I think these stories could be read by those passing through this period (here you are, there are lots of others doing this too!) or who, like me, are past that (look, this is how the new intern may be feeling) or more to the point by anybody who want to read about real people. They do, though, need to be experienced slowly and carefully - it's not a book to gobble but one to consume in nibbles: like the cover image the title is well chosen, these are good, if sometimes bitter, little rewards, perhaps.

So get a coffee, put down your phone, look away from the window for a bit and settle down for a treat.

22 April 2016

Teenage Reading Record(2)

Another couple of of pages from my teenage reading notes. (For the first part see here).

There's only one date on this - summer '84 - and I can clearly remember reading at least one of these books (The Mind of Mr J G Reeder) in gaps while I revised for my O levels that summer.

I can see that I was still reading some of the books on the list that my English teacher handed out (The Man Who Was Thursday, The Picture of Dorian Grey, the Maupassant short stories). I had just found my way into Dickens, with A Tale of Two Cities and Pickwick Papers). I was at a low point in reading Hardy, with Jude the Obscure which is just so miserable - I had enjoyed Under Greenwood Tree far more.

I can remember buying one of the books on this list - we went away for a family holiday, just me and my parents, staying at Lancaster University in the student accommodation (a tower block in the middle of their campus). It didn't occur to me at the time but it must have been an economical holiday. Anyway, I found the university bookshop and that's where I bought A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters. It proved a delightful book, despite the preposterous comparison on the cover to The Name of Rose (which I don't think I'd read then anyway). That was a great series and several years later I actually wrote to Peters asking about a detail of the history - and she replied to me - the first time, I think, I'd had any contact with an author. (While we were staying in Lancaster there was a mild earthquake in England - which I somehow missed, despite the fact we were 10 stories up).

I don't know what I was doing reading The Conquest of Gaul, really I don't. It was nothing to do with the having read the Shakespeare play and wasn't actually doing Latin. (Our French teacher tried to get a few of us to do Latin as an extra thing at lunchtime and we might have managed one term or so but it fizzled out and probably a good thing - it would have been far too much).

Another book in here that dates the selection is Another Heart and Other Pulses by Michael Foot, which was essentially his account of the 1983 General Election in which he'd been the leader of Labour Party and which was disastrous for them. (Anyone who things 2015 was a catastrophe for Labour literally wasn't born) and the Duncan Campbell: this was the age of CND, nuclear nightmares and paranoia. (When, in my English Language O level the previous summer, we were prompted to write a story by photo of people who'd got out of their cars to look at something in the sky, I of course imagined apocalypse and annihilation).

I'm struck now by how mixed this selection of books is. There are classics, non-fiction, humour (the Miles Kington), 20th century staples like Mary Renault, science fiction, horror, muscular and faintly dodgy English pulpy stuff like Dornford Yates (if you were publishing a new edition of that now I bet you'd have to introduce some of it very carefully...)

No sign of me settling down and reading particular things, I'm hopping around and trying this and that. Well done 16 year old me.

20 April 2016

Review: Abigail Hall by Lauren A Forry

Abigail Hall
Lauren A Forry
Black & White Publishing, 21 April 2016
PB, 374pp

I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher for review.

On a foggy evening in 1947, seventeen-year-old Eliza and her troubled little sister Rebecca are banished by their aunt and sent to work at an isolated Welsh mansion. But there are rumours of missing maidservants and a ghost that stalks the deserted halls... Wandering through the mansion's dusty rooms, Eliza finds blood-spattered books, crumpled photographs and portraits of a mysterious woman clues to a terrible past that might just become Eliza's future.

As Eliza unravels a mystery that has endured for decades, Rebecca falls under the spell of cruel housekeeper Mrs Pollard, who will stop at nothing to keep the house's secrets. But can the sisters uncover the truth and escape back to London before they meet a dreadful fate?

Roses and old books...

This is a dark and delightful Gothic fantasy, all the more so for being set in the shabby postwar period rather than some lightning wracked Victorian pile. The story takes us to  both a bombed out and exhausted London and a decaying country house in deepest Wales - and when I say "tales", I mean just that, Forry's writing is visceral, dwelling on the smells of overcooked food, unwashed bodies, coal dust, mould and soot. (As well as some other, more specific smells that are key in the emotional lives of Eliza, Rebecca and Peter.) It transforts the reader. One can almost feel the stiff, sweaty 40s clothes her characters wear and feel the hunger as they survive on thin rations. And she has a wicked ability to throw in the odd sinister detail, almost as an afterthought:

She escorts him though the house, making note of her chores as she goes: light the fire in the bedroom, order more coal for the east wing, scrub the blood from the floorboards. There is much to do in a large house such as this. 

The war and its aftermath play a large part in the book. Apart from the material deprivation, everyone here has mental scars. Peter's older brothers served and came back, variously, with Falstaffian stories of glory or shell-shocked and damaged ("[Michael] knew how dangerous leaving the house could be. Peter felt trapped. Michael said it was better being a moving target...") Eliza and Rebecca's parents died, leaving them damaged too, as did the experience of evacuation that the girls went through.

Eliza and Rebecca. There's something strange about those two. While not first person, most of the story is told from Eliza's point of view, and hers is a slippery viewpoint. Eliza is the strong one, left to look after her sister - poor, damaged Rebecca, whose behaviour was already odd before the war but seems even stranger here. Rebecca has an obsession with counting (to twenty three) and a distinct lack of affect. In modern terms one might perhaps categorise her as learning disabled. Perhaps: she remains an enigma. As readers of this blog may be aware I have a daughter with learning disabilities and I was drawn to Rebecca and very sympathetic to Eliza's situation, trying to do her best for her sister and yet suffering from feelings of guilt for not always being the saint she's expected to be.

Eliza is particularly afraid of what the enforced move to Wales may do to Rebecca. While her show of sisterly devotion is touching it becomes clear that it wasn't always like that. And Eliza is far from straightforward, showing distinct signs of OCD herself, forever cleaning her hands, fantasising about dust mites, coal dust and germs invading her body.  When she begins to suspect that something bad is going on at Thornecroft, rather than looking for the immediate threat that seems to be under her nose, she concocts a truly gothic fantasy - a fantasy within the fantasy - of ghosts, forced marriage and revenge. In some respects Eliza's hold on reality is weaker than that of Rebecca, who soon settles well in her new home.

Meanwhile, in London, faithful Peter, Eliza's would-be fiancé, falls into a world more like that of Brighton Rock than The Castle of Otranto as his search for Eliza leads him to a substratum of spivs, good-time girls, gambling dens and thugs. He's in as much danger as the girls - in some ways more, since he's unknowing, an innocent at home.

In a narrative that powers along, Forry piles on the tension until the final dramatic moments of the story, with surprises to the very end. A happy ending seems unlikely...

An exciting and gripping read. A few terms are out of place - "okay", truck for lorry - but overall the period detail convinces and the evocation of the 40s is so tangible that after reading the book you may well want to wash your hands - perhaps even 23 times...

16 April 2016

Review: When She Was Bad by Tammy Cohen

When She was Bad
Tammy Cohen
Black Swan, 21 April 2016
PB, 380pp

I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher.

This is a clever, atmospheric, creepy book.

It's almost two stories in one.

First we meet Anne. She has heard about something terrible on TV, reflects on her connection to it, going back years, decades, to how it all began. Anne, we learn, is a child psychologist, a professor who - a long time ago - was involved in dealing with the survivors of a horrific case of abuse.

She wonders if she made the right choices back then - and if the blame for what has happened will rebound on her now, destroying the life she's built for herself and her family. And as she does, she sets out her story - not only the events that she stepped into as a professional, but her background: the alcoholic mother, her own struggles in that direction (perhaps), self-doubt, career compromises. There's also the casual, ingrained sexism of the world (visiting a nursery with two male colleagues, they're immediately given the best chairs; her supervisor brought her into the case in the first place mainly because he didn't see her as a professional threat).

In the other story, we're introduced to a group of office workers - Paula, Gill (who's just been fired), Amira, Charlie, Chloe, Sarah, Ewan.

And Rachel. Rachel, the archetype of a heartless, driven boss.

Each has their own problems - money worries, divorce, loneliness, a difficult family background. We read about these in chapters focussed on each character except Rachel (the outsider, the threat). So we see different sides of the same events, and know more than any one of the characters. Cohen makes sure that while we might sympathise with all, we don't pick out any as heroes or villains - apart from Rachel. She's only seen through others' eyes and as a result, is the recipient of everyone's fear, loathing and hate. Indeed, Rachel and Anne are rather two poles of this book: one telling her own story (but is she telling all of it?) showing how she has limited her life to a degree, not gone for that top academic position (from self-doubt? family reasons? because of her struggle with alcohol). To know all is to forgive all... perhaps. We sympathise with Anne.

Rachel is the anti-Anne. We don't get much of her own story. She is brought in to lick the department into shape. There are hints of a disaster in a previous job, and she begins to shake things up, to set colleague against colleague, culminating in a team-bonding exercise which is toe-curlingly awful from beginning to end.

If there are no heroes in this book it's easy to cast Rachel as the villain. I think though you will sympathise with her by the end. (Certainly the way of things seems to be that managers brought in to lick things into shape as she clearly is soon move on afterwards, they aren't good at running what they've built).

Of course, these two threads collide in the end. I can't say exactly how that happens because that is really the mystery at the heart of this book. Cohen does a good job of planting red herrings and exploiting the ambiguity of her characters to keep you guessing right to the end what - or who - the link is. I certainly didn't get it. However, I did feel that the ending is then a little anticlimactic with the actual events (though ghastly) dealt with in a rather perfunctory way. I felt there might be more to be said, and perhaps there'll be a sequel that does that?

An excellent, character driven story that really skewers the drudgery of office life and shows the darkness that can lurk within the friendliest seeming colleague.

13 April 2016

Review: The Death of An Owl by Paul Torday

The Death of an Owl
Paul Torday (completed by Piers Torday)
W&N, 14 April 2016
HB, 304pp

Andrew Landford is driving home one night, along a dark country lane, when a barn owl flies into his windscreen. It is an accident, nothing more. However Andrew is in line to be the country's next prime minister. And he has recently been appointed to a parliamentary committee concerned with the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Barn Owls are protected species, and it is a crime to kill one. If Andrew acknowledges that he has killed the owl, he could be risking his political career.

With Andrew in the car is his old Oxford friend and political adviser, Charles Fryerne. An expert in communications, Charles has just joined the team that is masterminding Andrew's route to the Tory Party leadership, and from there to No 10 Downing Street. He has spent many years quietly building up a very successful career as a strategist.

But the death of the owl threatens to destroy not only Andrew's career, but everything that Charles has worked for too. Should they come clean, or hide the story and hope it goes away?

I read an advance proof copy of this book.

I enjoyed Paul Torday's very English series of books about politicians, financiers, farmers, ex-soldiers and other (apparently) plain men (largely) navigating the late 20th and early 21st centuries and encountering, sometimes even being, the odd cad or bounder. A dash of CP Snow, a touch of Buchan, the odd spooky touch, served up with Torday's knack for making a rattling good story out of the most seemingly unpromising idea. So I was glad to see there would be a final book, finished by his son Piers, also a writer.

And this one is fun, easily up to the standard of the earlier novels, showing no sign of being a composite production: my only slight qualm would be that its political background is pretty clearly 2010 or 11, when, presumably, it was started. (How much has changed since then!)

Charles Fryerne is a classic Torday figure, a bit of a technocrat but solidly rooted in a wealthy (though not super wealthy) and influential (but not ruling) stratum of British - or I had better say English - society. Brought up as a citizen of the world, Charles lives in New York, Switzerland and other such glamorous places as his father moves around working for a multinational pharmaceutical firm.

Returning "home" Charles tries to fit in - studying (of course) at Oxford where he joins an exclusive dining club, punts amiably, gets together with the odd girlfriend - but he always seems an observer, an outsider, something that emphasised when his parents die, one soon after the other, seemingly of disappointment that the country they remembered had gone forever. Charles takes up a career as first a journalist then a "strategic communications adviser", famous (and successful) for his honest approach. Still, though, an outsider, an interpreter of us to ourselves rather than someone in his own right. The lack of identity is highlighted by Charles's "title", inherited from his Dad: "The Fryerne of Fryerne Court". Fryerne Court is long sold to pay debts from ill-advised investments, but the extended family still gather - from around the world - for significant family events.

While this may sound far-fetched, it's really not. My wife is a vicar, and in one of her previous parishes, descendants of a former prominent local family (house sold, again, in the 1920s) would occasionally appear on the Vicarage doorstep, anxious to know if the family plot in the churchyard was being kept up as it should. Im sure they all had families, lives to go back to, but a key part of their identity was in a village hundreds - or thousands - of miles from where they had settled. Torday portrays the dislocation of such people well: it's a theme he often turns to in his books but nowhere, I think, does he nail it quite so well as with Charles Fryerne.

Fryerne's real trial comes, of course, with the death of the titular owl.  This doesn't come in till nearly half way through the book, and brings Torday's political sub-plot up against darker, older, forces, but by then Fryerne is established as a vivid, if slightly annoying, character and this serves the second part of the book well. (Yes, I did find myself questioning the man's oft-repeated claim to straight dealing and truthtelling. That's what he tells you, but what we're shown is him behaving in a decidedly twisty way - not just professionally but personally too - just like all those other spin doctors).

By then, Fryerne has, finally, tried to move to the centre of things, advising an up-an-coming Tory MP who aims to be the next Party leader. (In this parallel world, which, as I said earlier, Torday must have begun sketching out soon after the 2010 election, the Conservatives are in Opposition and their leader - never named - is about to be brought down as a result of his failure to win a majority).

It all starts to go wrong, of course, and  both Fryerne and Landford begin to disintegrate. Of the two, Fryerne is the more interesting character - the book mostly follows him and we see things form his perspective - and there's a real jeopardy for him and for his wife Caroline. Whether it's Paul, Piers or both, the writing really makes the reader care about what happens: and the outcome is ambiguous, provisional.

As a final slice of Torday's take both on the dishonesty of the world of business and affairs, and on that beautiful Northumbrian country his books so often return to, this deserves to be widely read and will certainly be devoured by his fans.

If you're new to his works I wouldn't though begin with this one: start at the beginning with Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and read them all in order (they build up one on another) and save this till last.

Guest post: Writing what you don't know

Today, as part of the blog tour for his new book A Tapping at my Door I'm honoured to host David Jackson. A Tapping at my Door is the first of a new police procedural series set in Liverpool.  David writes on "Writing what you (don't) know".

I'd better be careful - I have ancestors who came from Wallasey, just across the water from Liverpool. And Wallasey always considered itself a cut above... I don't want that tapping coming to my door...

A woman at home in Liverpool is disturbed by a persistent tapping at her back door. She's disturbed to discover the culprit is a raven, and tries to shoo it away. Which is when the killer strikes. DS Nathan Cody, still bearing the scars of an undercover mission that went horrifyingly wrong, is put on the case. But the police have no leads, except the body of the bird - and the victim's missing eyes...

Over to David...

Writing what you (don’t) know

There’s a snippet of writing advice that is trotted out time and time again. I’m sure you’ll have heard it. It goes like this: ‘Write what you know’.

I hate it.

I hate it because it’s a cliché that too many people interpret far too literally. It’s also something with far too many counter-examples for it to cling on to any validity. Did J K Rowling ride a broomstick and wear a pointy hat? How many times did H G Wells travel through time or meet an alien from Mars? Was Robert Graves somewhat older than he looked when he wrote I, Claudius?

What I really detest about this so-called ‘advice’ is that it hampers creativity: it makes already hesitant novices doubt the worth of the stories they would like to relate. It says, Have you ever been a fighter pilot or a spy? No, then how dare you write about such things? Stick to what you know: set all your stories in the stock room of Tesco. And that is no exaggeration. I have actually sat open-mouthed while listening to a famous author say on the radio that bakers have no business writing about characters who do not work in a bakery.

My latest novel is a crime thriller set in Liverpool. I’m from Liverpool, so I’ll probably be allowed to get away with that one (no hope for my previous books set in New York, I assume). I’m not a detective, though. Or a serial killer. Or a woman, even though I have the temerity to write from the perspective of female characters now and again.

And, of course, I’m not alone in this. Most crime writers have never seen a corpse. Many will not even have set foot in a police station. Does that make them bad writers?

See, the thing about writers is that we possess something called an imagination. It allows us to make stuff up. More importantly, other people (called readers) sometimes like what we make up. Heck, they’ll even pay for it.

How do we get away with doing that in the face of such a well-worn piece of wisdom?

Well, there is one sense in which every story-teller does write what they know. It’s this: we write about people. We write about what it’s like to be a human being. We write about hate and anger and humour and kindness and fear and greed and envy and prejudice and love and desire. That is the true essence of story. Everything else is fluff.

So, whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t write whatever it is you feel you want to write. It can be about detectives or it can be about spies or it can be about cowboys, and you don’t need to have been any of those. If it really is a story from the heart, infused with feeling and passion and painful honesty, then it’s a story worth telling.

A Tapping at my Door is published by Zaffre and available now in paperback, hardback and e-book. You can get it here or perhaps here or if you really want, here.

The Tapping at my Door blogtour continues - see the the banner below for more details.

6 April 2016

Spare me the Truth Blogtour: Guest post by CJ Carver

CJ Carver's new book Spare me the Truth is just out from Zaffre:
Dan Forrester, piecing his life back together after the tragic death of his son, is approached in a supermarket by a woman who tells him everything he remembers about his life - and his son - is a lie. 
Grace Reavey, stricken by grief, is accosted at her mother's funeral. The threat is simple: pay the staggering sum her mother allegedly owed, or lose everything. 
Lucy Davies has been forced from the Met by her own maverick behaviour. Desperate to prove herself in her new rural post, she's on the hunt for a killer - but this is no small town criminal. 
Plunged into a conspiracy that will test each of them to their limits, these three strangers are brought together in their hunt for the truth, whatever it costs...
CJ Carver (photo by Steve Ayres)
I'm excited that CJ herself has written a guest post in which she shares some of her secrets - so, over to CJ:

Five fundamentals that help me begin to write

(1) Know what the story’s about 

For some, it’s character first but for me, writing thrillers, I need to know what my book is about before I start tapping on the keyboard.  In Spare Me the Truth it’s a real-life drug that can wipe away single, specific memories while leaving other memories intact.

So, I had a memory erasing drug but who was I going to use it on?  I needed a metaphor for honesty and incorruptibility and this kick-started my search for my main character Dan Forrester.

I then asked: what does Dan want badly?  Everything he knows has turned out to be a lie, so who can he trust? Dan’s search for the truth became the real engine of the book.

(2) Get to know your protagonist

A character isn’t a human being - we read about them as if they’re real, but they are superior, larger than life and their motivation comprehensible; whereas people we know are difficult to understand.  We know characters better than we know our friends.  In fact, I know Dan Forrester better than I know myself.  Dan is taciturn and self-contained.  I’m neither.

(3) Get to know your protagonist’s opponent(s)

I have to know who my main character is up against before I can move further.  I need to know their adversary almost better than the protagonist himself and keep them in mind through every stage of the plotting process – what motivates them, how life has shaped them, and also what they want badly and how far they will go for it.

(4) Building the world(s)

Things start to get a little more detailed now, as I begin to dress my characters further.  Where they live, whether they’re married, have children, a dog.  Were they bullied at school or were they the bullies?  Teachers pets or rebels?  Or did they hide in the background?  I don’t write reams of biographies for them, but have a definite sense of each person.

I need to know the politics of my world.  What everyone does for a living.  What the values are. What the backstory is. All this takes time.  I don’t dream all this up and rush straight to the keyboard.  If it takes me nine months to write a book, six of those will be spent scribbling notes and mulling.

(5) Create a dramatic start to the story

This has to radically upset every aspect of the protagonist’s life.  As the story begins, the main character is living a pretty normal life but then an event occurs that turns everything upside-down.

For example, as the story starts in Spare Me The Truth, Dan is shopping for noodles in his local Tesco when a stranger approaches him saying he’s not who he thinks he is and that his family has been lying to him about how his baby son died.  He thinks the stranger’s crazy until he discovers they’re telling the truth.  His world as he currently knows it, suddenly ends.  Now, he has to react to it.  And that’s when the story starts and I can truly begin writing.

© CJ Carver 2016

Spare Me The Truth is out now and you can find it at your local bookshop or online here or if you must, even here.

The blog tour continues - see the poster below for the other venues!

5 April 2016

Review and Giveaway: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

This Census Taker
China Miéville
Picador, 2016
HB, 140pp

I bought my copy of this book. In fact I bought two (got a bit confused buying, doesn't everyone?) and I'll be giving away a signed copy - read on for details...

The first thing to say about This Census Taker is that it's a short book. The second is, despite that, it's not a quick read: it is difficult in places, allusive, with form conveying meaning as much as (or more than?) content. The narrator is tricksy - it's clear from one key passage that he's equally trying to conceal and to reveal, and what he's revealing is meant to be smuggled past layers upon layer of suspicious readers (including- perhaps - us).

Actually, it's books, not a book. A census-taker writes three: the text that is being explicitly formed here is his second, and the last to be made:

The manager of my line told me, You never put anything down except to be read. Every word ever written is written to be read... He said, You'll keep three books,

The framework seems simple enough. This is a story of boyhood, told by the man who was the boy. The boy lived up on a hillside above a small town. The man travelled with the "manager of his line", a census-taker, as apprentice, succeeding in that post to a woman whose notes and records he inherited. The book or books we have was or were written either at the behest of some authority (guards are posted outside his door as he writes) or as part of the census-taker's project, or both.

The wider background to the story is less clear. This could be our world after some catastrophe (conflict is mentioned but it seems remote) as there are modern concepts, diesel, a picture-house, generators - or it could be a different place altogether. This world also contains the fantastical:  children who angle for bats off a bridge, a man who makes keys that seem like magic charms, changing the weather, giving success in love or constraining lives in other ways. It is a brutal world in which people disappear and are not spoken of again.

More important than placing the action, though, is the atmosphere of weirdness that Miéville sustains, but which is frustratingly hard to convey in a review! Open the book at almost any page and you'll see what I mean. The people seem haunted, oppressed, going though motions that seem strangely circular - perhaps a bit like Gormenghast castle, but more democratic (there are no immediate authorities. When a crime is alleged, three citizens are deputed to investigate: a schoolteacher, a hunter, and a butcher). More than this, even the descriptions of everyday objects are stunted, warped, a bit off:

Houses built on bridges are scandals. A bridge wants not to be. If it could choose its shape, a bridge would be no shape, a space to link One-place-town to Another-place-town...

In part the book conveys this... I don't know... blankness through not naming anyone (not the boy, not his father or mother, not the census taker himself, not the teacher, hunter or butcher) apart from two other children, who become a refuge for the boy in trouble but can't ultimately save him. In part it's done through use of pronouns - the man telling the story refers to the boy sometimes as "I", sometimes as "you" and sometimes as "he". I've assumed that he is the boy, which makes sense in the frame of the story, and as the different pronouns are used even in a single paragraph, but who can really say? I think there may be other games here, meanings encoded at different levels.

At the centre of the story is, I think, memory. The book begins after the boy witnesses something terrible. He runs down to the town and tries to tell what he saw, but almost as soon as his word are spoken there begin to be assumptions, distortions

I didn't think she was describing what I'd seen, what I'd walked in on, but as she spoke I realised she was repeating what I'd told her.

The boy's stubborn recollection throughout the book - which sets in motion a whole train of events resulting in him being the man who is writing this book - then runs counter to his first words in this scene. But what is recollection and what is later reconstruction isn't clear: the rewriting is going on throughout the book, and the man - or the boy - is, as I said above, also playing games with meaning.

Is it possible to decode all this? I don't know. It's certainly a story that rewards rereading and re-rereading, working at the layers of meaning slowly and thoughtfully.

As I said, not a quick read - but such a rewarding one.

I promised a giveaway. I have a spare SIGNED copy of This Census-Taker. If you want a chance to win it, send an email with the subject line "This Census-Taker giveaway" to bluebookballoon at outlook dot com - I'll pick one at random on Saturday 9th April to get the book.  I'm afraid I can only post it to the UK or Ireland.

1 April 2016

Blogtour review: in her wake by Amanda Jennings

in her wake
Amanda Jennings
Orenda Books, 1 April 2016
PB, 366pp

A perfect life … until she discovered it wasn’t her own. 

A tragic family event reveals devastating news that rips apart Bella’s comfortable existence. Embarking on a personal journey to uncover the truth, she faces a series of traumatic discoveries that take her to the ruggedly beautiful Cornish coast...

I'm grateful to Orenda for a review copy of this book.

This wonderful book is tricky to review for two reasons.

First, while it's not a plot heavy, twisty thriller (...but see below...) there are aspects of the plot that you need to discover gradually as you read it, and which would be spoiled by a too detailed summary in a review. So you won't get much more detail than the above, I'm afraid.

Secondly, and I think this is very important to understanding it, this is not a book where you can just say 'it's a tense psychological drama', "it's a thriller", "it's a story about growing up and coming home" and then expound for a few hundred words on why it is one of those things and why it is a good example of the thing. That would be like saying "here is a tree... and here's another, smaller, tree... and here's a gap between some trees" when you're trying to describe a wood. The truth is that in her wake (capitalisation as on the cover ) is all of these things, and more, but none of those labels are particularly helpful.

So what can one say?

Jumping right in, I think it's about identity. The hero of the book - and I use the term carefully: she's a hero, not a mere protagonist, main character or anything else - is Bella, anxious, slightly crushed daughter of Elaine and Henry, bossed around wife of David (ouch), accustomed to be being looked after - and told what to do.

She is also Tori, the risk taker, a girl who doesn't mind getting into a bit of trouble, who'll have sex with a stranger on a whim at a beach party. And she's Morveren, daughter of the mermaid king, a creature of sea myth and legend, who comes and goes - and may or may not be real.

I don't think it's revealing too much to say that the centre of the book is the relationship between these three persons, these three aspects, and the struggle of each to be expressed, with everything hanging, as it were, on the achievement of some balance between them (or integration of them? is that the same thing?)

And a great deal is at stake. There is a mystery here (so yes, it's a mystery!) and although it seems to have villains and victims (there is crime!) as things are unpicked we gradually see everyone's motivations from various directions which even if it doesn't justify, helps explain, what happened. Bella/ Tori/ Morveren can't change what has happened - nobody can (and arguably it was a refusal to accept life as it was, not try and change things that led to a terrible thing, and set the events of the book in motion). But if she is to have a life in the future she needs to resolve the effect of that on her. Of the strict, controlling mother, home educating a lonely child in a remote house with high garden walls. Of the older man who married her and in many respects took over as her jailer.

There are others whose lives have been affected by what happened too but it would risk giving to much away to say exactly who they are and how they relate to Tori/ Morveren/ Bella.  They are, though, perfectly realised characters, indeed Jennings portrays all her characters with rare skill, with an eye for a telling detail that establishes who they are and what they're like. For example, look out for David's fussy checking of his wife's seatbelt, the attention paid by Henry to the locks and bolts on the door of his house and the bleachy cleanness of Dawn's house.

Jennings also powerfully evokes the landscape and atmosphere of Cornwall. I remember a childhood holiday in St Ives and her comments on the fudgy smell in the streets are spot on - not just as a description but as what a stranger would notice.  She's especially good on especially its weather, illustrated by a running dialogue with the coffee shop in who is trying to learn Cornish, most of which seems to be words for weather.

In short, this is a powerful and intriguingly different book. I can't and won't try to categorise it, but it hooked me and kept the pages whizzing by.

Strongly recommended.

For other reviews, see the dates and details on the tour poster below.