Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Hamnet - Maggie O’Farrell

I received an early proof of this book from the wonderful Georgina Moore and while I was reading it I was wondering what the Bard himself might make of such a story. Then, seemingly unbidden, the thought came into my head that I should write my review in Shakespearian style. And once that idea took hold I couldn’t let go of it. Apologies to Shakespeare devotees everywhere. I mean no harm!!

Act One
Scene 1 HEAVEN

HAMNET: Father, father. I have news!

SHAKESPEARE: You are well met, beloved son. What news?

HAMNET: Sire, a lady who doth dwell upon the earthly plain hast composed a history of myself and divers others in our family.

SHAKESPEARE: Zounds, you jest, you bulls puzzle. Know you not how it doth hurt my heart to consider those days. When you passed though nature to eternity this thought was as death to me.

HAMNET: But father, verily, t’is good! She has captured the humours of our family with a pen as swift as a kestrel’s flight. Her words do dance gladly upon the very parchment whereon she consigned this full and virtuous account of our doings…… and our undoings.

SHAKESPEARE: What name doth this wench bestow upon herself?

HAMNET: Sirrah. She is named Maggie O’Farrell. 

SHAKESPEARE: T’is a name I know not, my son. A language unknown to me. What tell you of her?

HAMNET: Father, her writing flows like the streams in spring, the snows in winter and the leaves of the rowan tree. She is resplendent with words of wisdom and wonder. She doth paint the most comely word pictures. Mine mother is brought to wondrous life and I confess I shook the water from my heavenly eyes.

SHAKESPEARE: Ah, sweet Agnes. My son, permit me to weep. For to weep is to make less the depth of grief.

HAMNET: And, my lord, she dost speak of my sister, Judith, with words so real I felt the tremors of that day haunt me once more.

SHAKESPEARE: Where is this book, my son? For to pore upon a book, to seek the light of truth…….

HAMNET: Here, father. Take. 

SHAKESPEARE: O heaven! that one might read the book of fate, and see the revolution of the times.

Exit Hamnet. Stage right.

SHAKESPEARE: But soft, what manner of woman is this who dost know me so well having never met?
Truly I am undone at the knowledge she dost possess of mine and mine life.
Verily she hath studied well and studiously those details wherein my life doth takes its course.
Why tis as if I am some spirit floating, witnessing the passage of my days.
My father? She has surely some witch’s insight to see him so clearly.
And my sweet mother, how doth this earthly lady know of her toil and many tribulations.
I seize upon Mistress O’ Farrell’s words and wonder at her skill.
For here, too, are my brothers and sisters, 
Sweet brethren, you walk upon the earth again
Brought to life by this sharp, sweet pen.

Exit Shakespeare. Stage left.

Scene Two HEAVEN. One day later.

HAMNET: How now, Father, how art thou?

SHAKESPEARE: My son, my son, I am undone. This book hast opened my heart. The Lady Maggie has weaved her words into the fabric of my soul. How is’t she knows that when I left Stratford for London the parting was such sweet sorrow? For she has given word to my feelings such as I should be hard pressed to do for myself.

HAMNET: If reading be the food of love, Father, read on, have excess of it!

SHAKESPEARE: Forsooth! Think you not that I could put this book down? I have read each word ten times and more besides. My heart is replete with thankfulness. This lady hast granted me vision to see outside mine and myself. 

Exit Hamnet. Stage right.

SHAKESPEARE: Alas poor Hamnet, I knew him. 
A plague upon our house did take him.
My son, his earthly passing did harm my heart.
He could not hold mortality’s strong hand.
And I did hide inside myself.
Oft forgetting the sorrows that did torture the mind of mine dear Agnes.
And I, a man of naught but words, sought solace from my pen.
I did seek to bring him back to life.
For me, his sisters and my wife. 

I would just to say that I agree with all Will said and thought it was a very good book! 😜

Saturday, 28 March 2020

How to Carry Fire - Christina Thatcher - BLOG TOUR

In my life as a book blogger I find that it is primarily fiction and non-fiction that offer blogging opportunities. To date I have only reviewed three works of poetry; two anthologies and a crime story set in verse! It’s a challenge and that’s great. I was really excited to be invited onto the blog tour for this immersive collection of poems by Christina Thatcher. 

 Shortlisted for the Bare Fiction Debut Poetry Collection Competition in 2015 and a winner in the Terry Hetherington Award for Young Writers in 2016, Christina Thatcher’s poetry and short stories have featured in over 40 publications including The London Magazine, Planet Magazine, And Other Poems, Acumen and The Interpreter’s House. Her first collection, More than you were, was published by Parthian Books in 2017. 

The volume is a collection of 73 poems linked by the common theme of fire, both physical, metaphorical and analytical. Each of these poems I have read aloud which has certainly set me on fire to say the least! The words leap off the page at me as if they are all flames dancing and writhing their way into my consciousness. Poetry is emotion, pure, raw. But how do you set about conveying in a few hundred words exactly what lies in these depths of image and metaphor? Poetry is so much more subjective than fiction that the art of the reviewer seems inadequate. 

You think about the image conveyed by the title, you think about carrying fire and I had images of ancient man with his precious torch of fire symbolising a potent for survival. I also thought about the Olympic torch and the journey it makes and I thought about beacons being lit across a coastline to warn of imminent danger.

Thematically - fire is dominant, the collection explores love, broadly and specifically, trauma of loss and addiction and the delicate balance of emotion, and emphasises the elemental nature of this being we call homo sapien. Each poem in this collection is a flame in a fire, dancing, reaching out to us, the reader. The paradox of fire, survival and destruction. Comforting warmth yet lung searing devastation.  As a group the poems convey a fusion of the physical and emotional effects of fire. Maybe we all carry fire within us? As might be expected some poems spoke to me more than others; some for their searing honesty and flayed emotion, others for their piercing insights. 

But I have too many favourites! So I must practice selectivity. Let’s start with the first in the collection, first impressions and all that! Insurance Report - blazing in its simplicity, it asks us to question the sentiment and nostalgia contained within artefacts, how they affect our emotion, and their worth in every sense of the word.

We cried out for these totems:
Who are we without them? Who are we?

Only the inspectors answered back:
But what were they worth?
What were they worth?

An Improper Kindness - The opening stabs you. Two words:

Leave rehab.’

Then follows an elegy of love, memory and unrequited hopes.

‘But you are so tired and the light
of the halcyon place is getting brighter
and warmer, coming just into reach,
and so I tell you to go, open the door:

be happy.

Ode to Ottsville - Oh I could quote this in full! A litany of innocence and childhood simplicity lost in the march of time. 

‘…..I want 
that time again when geese were a child’s only enemy,

when fear was just bast emerging form the paddock barn.

And if it seems we are straying from the fire theme let’s return with the titular How to Carry Fire - which, it seemed to me, was trying to unite the strands of the entire collection using fire as a wider metaphor, the physical burning as a destructive force, fire in the belly as the life force. It’s powerful.

‘…..Take what those flames
can give you. Feel heat enter your stomach.

Stay wary now. You must never let the light
go out. Keep it lit until you learn to glow.

What Comes Next - giving voice to that unnerving fear that love can provoke: the safety and continued fidelity and existence of a loved one, the unspoken acknowledgement of the fragility of life. 

‘….Even writing this

makes it more true
and so I am afraid, always
of what comes next
and the fear of fearing this.

And similar in mood to that poem is What If - the poet fears for the safety and well being of her addict brother returning to the fire theme seeing the issues of their lives as fires. Another poem that is expansive in its simplicity.

What if you forget the fires we’ve seen,
how we fought them, and I am left
here to remember it all
on my own?

I could continue with more. Reluctantly, I won't. And, maybe I should allude to metre, rhyme as it’s poetry? But I won’t. I can't. My heart is full up to overflowing with the immensity of the emotion contained within these verses. I’ll say no more except that, I wonder? Will there be future collectors by this exceptional poet in this elemental cycle - How To Carry Water, How to Carry Air and How to Carry Earth?!

I feel absolutely privileged to have experienced these poems and to be invited to participate in the blog tour. These are just my feelings. Please read what my blogging colleagues have to say.

Thank you to Isabelle Kenyon from Fly on the Wall Press for this opportunity. 

Thursday, 26 March 2020

A Long Way Off - Pascal Garnier translated by Emily Boyce

I thoroughly enjoyed C’est La Vie; Garnier’s subversive wit can have you gasping at the irreverence but also guffawing at the audacity. So I was excited to read another of his ‘mid life crises’ books, which is what I like to call them. This story is somehow more poignant, more emotional. Marc is in his sixties, he has a partner and a grown up daughter who lives in an institution. We are never told why. Along the way he acquires a cat and with his daughter embarks upon a spontaneous road trip.

It’s not a usual kind of road trip but you wouldn’t expect that with Garnier at the wheel! I guess it begins normally enough but soon spirals into an almost surreal trip, double entendre intended. It’s as if the trip is a metaphor for Marc’s life where he needs to come off the map to find himself and examine his relationship with his daughter.

It’s one of those books where at some points you just can’t believe what you’re reading and you flick back to read again just in case you’ve lost the plot, literally almost! I sometimes wonder if the intention is to shock, to push the reader out of their comfort zone?  Some of the events are off colour, yet the absurdity just suckers you in. I’m always amazed at how much punch Garnier achieves in such a slim volume. Yet you never have  the sense of a rushed or hurried narrative.  

His two main characters Marc and Anne are not typical. As the book progresses it becomes clear that Marc really doesn’t know his daughter as well as he might have believed he did. Certainly her moral compass seems awry to put it mildly. and I have to put it mildly for I do not wish to give anything away! At one point I did fear for his safety let alone his sanity! The there is Chloe, Marc’s partner, who has not been informed of his whereabouts and you feel for the poor lady wondering what the hell is going on.

Overall it remains an entertaining and capricious read. My thanks to Gallic Books for a copy. 

Saturday, 21 March 2020

A Body in the Bookshop - Helen Cox - SOCIAL MEDIA BLAST

The second of the Kitt Hartley Yorkshire mysteries,  this ‘down south’ blogger is happy to be aboard the blog tour for the latest story.

There’s something inordinately comforting in reacquainting yourself with characters you ‘met’ in a previous story. For one thing you feel like you already know them and are keen to further your ‘friendship’ with them. I was pleased to meet Kitt and Evie again but also delighted when Grace showed up! She was one of my favourite characters from Murder by the Minster. And I remember speculating as to how the dynamic between Kitt and Inspector Halloran might be developed. And boy, it HAS developed.  ;) I’ll say no more. Best you read the book. 

Kitt remains as feisty as ever, smart, perceptive and assertive.  She needs to be for when a bookish crime is committed and people she is close to are involved there is pressure to unravel the strands of this fascinating mystery. However she shows a softer side in this story. There may be a good reason for that but I’ll not do spoilers. Best friend Evie, still recovering from the trauma of book one finds herself taking the initiative as the pair seek to bring the perpetrators to justice. 

It’s cosy crime with many light moments and a smattering of romance, some unexpected. In some ways it’s like Enid Blyton for grown ups. But don’t be fooled for it IS most definitely a crime story and some nasty things happen and there are dead bodies popping up. But inasmuch as portions of the story line are cosy the bulk of the plot wouldn’t be out of place in a series like Line of Duty.

Kitt’s standing as librarian and bibliophile are never far from the surface as she compares situations with books she has read and given that it is a crime and detection tale both Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes get a mention. Her logic and cool head guide her towards a solving of the crime. 

There is a consistency in the narrative style which is most necessary to render a series credible and the characters are sustained and also developed. I think there is a risk when writing a series of books that the characters remain static almost with nothing new for the reader to discover. Development is necessary to keep that spark going no matter how subtle those developments are.  There’s an attention to detail that endures throughout the story and whilst it is possibly an advantage to have read the first book it is no detriment if you haven’t. 

This is developing into an entertaining series.  Already I’m wondering what’s going to happen in the next one! Not in terms of the crime, no, I’m sure that will be subtle, puzzling and involved, but what’s ahead for our trio of ladies! 

My thanks to Ella Patel last Quercus books for  copy of this tale and the opportunity to take part in the social media blast. 

Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Bell in the Lake - Lars Mytting translated by Deborah Dawkin

Let us commence with all matters blurbish - 

The first in a rich historical trilogy that draws on legend, by a literary craftsman and the author of The Sixteen Trees of the Somme

Norway, 1880. Winter is hard in Butangen, a village secluded at the end of a valley. The lake has frozen, and for months the ground is too hard to bury the dead. Astrid Hekne dreams of a life beyond all this, beyond marriage, children, and working the land to the end of her days. Then Pastor Kai Schweigaard takes over the small parish, with its 700-year-old stave church carved with pagan deities. The two bells in the tower were forged by Astrid’s forefather in the sixteenth century, in memory of conjoined twins Halfrid and Gunhild Hekne. They are said to hold supernatural powers.

The villagers are wary of the pastor and his resolve to do away with their centuries-old traditions, though Astrid also finds herself drawn to him. And then a stranger arrives from Dresden, with grand plans for the church itself. For headstrong Astrid this may be a provocation too far.

Talented architecture student Gerhard Schönauer is an improbable figure in this rugged community. Astrid has never met anyone like him; he seems so different, so sensitive. She finds that she must make a choice: for her homeland and the pastor, or for an uncertain future in Germany. 

Then the bells begin to ring . . .’

The first in a trilogy? Thank goodness! For I need to know what happens next. Lars Mytting has constructed a bewitching tale of Norwegian cold and legend creating an atmospheric landscape that transports  the reader back to a nineteenth century village freezing in the fjords and its stave church. I had never heard of a stave church before I read this book. I’m such an anorak I googled them and I looked at the pictures. Now all  I want to do is see one, feel one, experience one with all its mystical carvings and portals that make religion seem almost magical! Quite an achievement! 

This stave church is at the heart of this extraordinarily rich and layered story with a congregation of characters. Conjoined twins are the catalyst, Halfrid and Gunhild set the scene. Astrid Hekne, with a family history that she allows in part to define her , but more to complement her and her intuitive perceptions regarding the place of women in this faintly homogeneous  community. Kai Schweigaard the new pastor, young , patiently restless with a desire to improve and in possession of a keen ambition to make his mark. Gerhard Schonauer, ostensibly an architect, but with an artistic talent that allows his work to speak to even the casual observer. Schonauer from Germany seems to be everything Schweigaard is not, a metaphorical representation perhaps of the sociological ambience of the time. Astrid, intelligent yet not overly educated intuits those fundamental  differences and, without divulging too much of the plot, ultimately has to make a choice.

With a substantial narrative that possesses all the flavour of trilogy and history resplendent with rich detail and almost palpable atmosphere, you can smell the wood of the church, feel the cold of the frozen and icy lake, hear the ghostly tolling of the bells. see Gerhard’s drawings, be moved at Kai’s funeral services and feel Astrid’s dilemmas. No surprise, then, that this book has been a best seller in Mytting’s native Norway. 

It’s an impressive work and I’m excited for the next instalment. It has the potential to metaphorically explore the development, perhaps, of Europe examining the differences and the ‘progress’ of society.

Thanks to Quercus Books and MacLehose Press of a copy of this book. 

The Man on the Street - Trevor Wood

It’s getting harder and harder to come up with a new variation for contemporary crime thrillers. Plots are one thing and there appears to be no shortage of good ones in the ‘crime fiction biz’ but detectors and investigators?  Trevor Wood has come up with a new and unusual investigator in the form of a homeless man. It’s unique and without wishing to make a ‘big issue’ out of it, (I’m SORRY, okay? ), it has to be a good thing to draw attention to this sector of our society in a sympathetic but not sentimental way.

Jimmy’s our guy; ex military, ex con, PTSD, untreated. He hears and sees something one night that is the catalyst for the rest of the book. Here’s the blurb -

It started with a splash. Jimmy, a homeless veteran grappling with PTSD, did his best to pretend he hadn't heard it - the sound of something heavy falling into the Tyne at the height of an argument between two men on the riverbank. Not his fight.
Then he sees the headline: GIRL IN MISSING DAD PLEA. The girl, Carrie, reminds him of someone he lost, and this makes his mind up: it's time to stop hiding from his past. But telling Carrie, what he heard - or thought he heard - turns out to be just the beginning of the story.
The police don't believe him, but Carrie is adamant that something awful has happened to her dad and Jimmy agrees to help her, putting himself at risk from enemies old and new.
But Jimmy has one big advantage: when you've got nothing, you've got nothing to lose.

Okay. But be careful when you pick up this book to read, as I’m sure you will, because you will not want to put it down. Wood has constructed an absorbing tale set in Newcastle, that glorious city that appears here as another character almost, which gives a positive slant and reeducation on some maybe stereotypical ideas of homelessness. As well as the unravelling of a crime Jimmy’s story is unraveled too and the reader is enlightened as to how someone can end up homeless, there but for the grace of God etc. It’s humbling. The skill with which the characters are drawn ensure that the reader roots for them, cares about them, likes them. Hopefully next time readers of this book come upon anyone who is homeless they will remember Jimmy, Gadge and Deano and see the people as well as their circumstances.

The title’s dual meaning is potent too, Jimmy is on the street but that does not mean that Jimmy, as a person, doesn’t think like most other people, thinks like ‘the man on the street’. Conscience plays a part in Jimmy’s motivation to do the right thing but ultimately his doing the right thing leads him to do everything almost! But it is not one of those crime stories that has you realising who did what and when and where and why, no, it’s a complex set of circumstances with some red herrings to be sure that I feel the reader will struggle to second guess. 

Jimmy’s dynamic with the police is interesting. I think the book illustrates how members of the constabulary are ‘just’ people doing a job and bringing their personalities and motivations to that job. There’s good ‘uns and bad ‘uns just like anywhere else including the homeless. 

And if all of that isn’t enough, there’s Dog. ;) No, I'm not going to tell you. Read the book!

I’m wondering if this is going to be a series? I think it has the potential.

My thanks to Quercus Books for a proof of this book.

Tuesday, 17 March 2020

Social Distancing - A Diary - COVID19 2020

I've decided this has no place on a bookish blog so I have set up a separate blog for this diary. If you are interested you can find it here......


Social Distancing  - Day 1

Funny, how a phrase so newly coined, becomes part of the common vernacular in such a relatively short space of time. And here am I practising it at the behest of my government. I am over 65 but not quite in the age bracket that suggests self isolation and high risk consideration. That's one of the first things that has struck me -  a confusion between the two terms. Some are seeing social distance as social isolation. But I get that. I can see the confusion. 

After the announcement yesterday my WhatsApp pinged into megabytes of busyness hitherto unexperienced. It hit me quite forcibly what a change this might make, not just to my life but the lives of my friends and family. Questions bounced back and forth;  Can we go shopping? I've got a funeral to attend tomorrow? What about our classes? My Dad won't stop going out? 

Today should have been my weekly Tai Chi class. But my teacher messaged me last night saying he would be cancelling the classes for 12 weeks. I felt a curious chill when I read that message. He's never cancelled, in all the years I've been going. 

Prior to yesterday's ministerial announcement I had put in my prescription request to my doctor's surgery online a few days earlier. I found myself stressing about whether I could go and collect it! Would the Social Distancing Police stop me and send me home?! I had my story off pat. I needed the medication because if I ran out I would then go on to the high risk list for my condition if I contracted  COVID-19. I needn't have worried. There were far fewer people about than usual. Still plenty of vehicles on the roads but crossing them was a doddle compared to pre social distancing.

The surgery was not as crowded as it might have been on a sunny Tuesday morning. I took my place in the queue which seemed to me to be the absolute antithesis of what we were trying to practice.  Try as I might I couldn't manage the 6 feet between the next person and myself. When I reached the receptionist, who had difficulty finding the 'scrip; she asked me my name a couple of times, she warned me that in future I could no longer pick the prescription up at the surgery. I would have to nominate a pharmacy where it would be relayed electronically and I would pick it up there. She was worried that had already happened even though I hadn't nominated one. Then she realised she had been holding it in her hand the whole time. 

I took it into the adjacent pharmacy which was, weirdly,  more crowded than usual. It's a small store and there was a sense of people wishing to distance themselves but not having the room to do so. Clutching my bag of meds I started on my return journey which takes me past a branch of Waitrose. I thought I'd 'stock up'. Not panic buy I must emphasise. I have not and will not do that. Several of the items I wanted were sold out. No, not toilet rolls or hand sanitiser, those shelves were bare. I found myself buying goods I wouldn't normally consider - a packet of sesame and poppy seed crackers - they look delicious I might add! Assam tea. Seriously? Some Tofu wieners! Why? That sense of 'supposing I can't get anything to eat?' I know, it's irrational.  I was so absorbed with my own maverick purchasing that I didn't really pay attention to others until I reached the check outs. Very crowded. I thought that perhaps people were doing a pre social distancing shop up. Trolleys were filled high but the atmosphere was peculiarly subdued. There was a latent anxiety as if people were worried that if they stayed out too much longer they'd catch 'IT'. Sadly there was no sense of camaraderie or pulling together. Everyone seemed to be in their own little bubbles. One customer said, quite, tersely, to the cashier, I see there are no toilet rolls, as if it was the checkout person's fault. 

Now I'm home. Much as I might be on any given day when I'd gone to the surgery to pick up my 'scrip and popped into the supermarket on the way back. But it feels different. It feels angular, edgy, unnnerving. I can't settle to anything constructive. I've had a long textual exchange with my sister where she expressed the same feeling. And this is just the start! 

I've no plans now to go anywhere. Although I haven't heard I'm presuming my other classes are cancelled. Two friends have respectively said they will see me 'on the other side' and 'at the end of the tunnel'. I have a friend, who is an author, hard at work on her third book but she expressed a sense of futility, about whether it mattered, this situation was triggering all sorts of adrenaline responses in her.  She calls me her Ideal Reader and insists I must keep reading and blogging or she may as well disappear in a puff of smoke. I told her I'd continue to read and blog, no matter how badly or unsuccessfully if that's what it takes to keep her writing. 

These are unprecedented times. History has had many of them. But I haven't! So I'm going to try and maintain and update this 'diary', for want of a better word, which will be a challenge as social distancing doesn't really suggest a dynamic of anticipation. But we'll see..........

Thursday, 12 March 2020

In Another Lifetime - Anthony Le Moignan

Sceptic: So, what are you reading?

Me: I’ve just finished a book called In Another Lifetime.

Sceptic: Yeah? What’s that all about then?

Me: It’s a love story, romantic fiction.

Sceptic: No way! I didn’t think you did romantic fiction. Who wrote it?

Me: Anthony Le Moignan.

Sceptic: Hang on a minute. Anthony? That’s a man’s name. And this is romantic fiction? 

Me: Yep.
Sceptic: But men can’t write romantic fiction.

Me: David Nicholls.

Sceptic: Yeah, okay. David Nicholls. But. C’mon. 
              What else has this guy done?

Me: Anthony wrote a book called A Long Goodbye, Amazon #1 debut. It was about early   onset Alzheimers. Very moving.  
Sceptic: So what’s he doing writing romantic fiction then?

Me: Ah well that’s the thing, see. He tries to fool you at the start of the book into thinking it’s chick lit almost. There’s this girl, Tabitha who lives in Cambridge. She’s in her thirties but half the time she behaves like a petulant teenager.  On more than one occasion I could have given her a sound slapping.

Sceptic: Not sold so far. Go on.

Me: She seems to have the perfect boyfriend until something happens. I’m not gonna tell you what. Then she interacts with this Australian guy online and……

Sceptic: Yeah, yeah, I can see what’s coming……….

Me: No you can’t. That’s what’s clever. Because the story then moves up a notch from standard lovey, dovey stuff. It goes into another gear with a heart wrenching, sad section.

Sceptic: Ah, what happens?

Me: I’m not telling you. Go read it.

Sceptic. And that’s it, is it? Starts off as chick lit and then goes all sad and heart wrenchey?

Me: No! Because of the sad and heart-wrenchey bit a big secret gets revealed and Tabitha goes off on a mission.

Sceptic: What? So it’s not romantic fiction any more but a spy thriller?

Me: NO! The book then changes gear again and gets the reader to think about another life situation that Tabitha has to deal with,. And I stopped wanting to slap her and wanted to give her a big hug instead because it was immense. But I’m not going to tell you what it is because it will spoil it.

Sceptic: I see. Sounds as if you’re assuming I’m going to read it. But before I do that. Is there anything else you can tell me? 

Me: Well, there’s an amazing cast of characters. There's her ex boyfriend Rick. The Australian guy, Grant. Tabitha’s Dad gets himself into this funny situation with someone in his Tai Chi class. Tabitha meets this amazing lady, Filly, who has a chauffeur called Juan who drives a Bentley, when Tab gets to Jersey. And.......

Sceptic: Jersey? What’s she doing there? What happened to Cambridge?

Me: It’s insane! I can’t tell you, but it’s good! Rich people and secrets. 

Sceptic: You mentioned an Australian guy. Where does he fit in? 

Me: He turns out to be quite important but I can’t reveal any more than that.

Sceptic: Can’t or won’t? There's a lot you're not revealing.

Me: Seriously. Check this book out. By the end of the book I was turning the pages so fast because I couldn’t wait to see what happened! It started off in an ordinary way, like just another love story, and then it exploded with these other issues for readers to think about. You might cry, though. 

Sceptic: I see. Who is  this author then? 

Me: Anthony Le Moignan. He was a croquet champion. He loves classic cars and lives on Jersey. 

Sceptic: When can I get this book?

Me: Spring 2020. Oh, and check out The Long Goodbye too. 

Sceptic: Okay. Thanks Might. ;-)

(Exit Sceptic to nearest bookshop.)

My thanks to Anthony for an advance copy of this book. And my apologies to Anthony if this wasn't quite the review he was expecting. 

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

This Lovely City - Louise Hare BLOG TOUR

Piercingly topical with Windrush as a backdrop This Lovely City captures the mood and sensations of a post war South London. The title holds an ambiguity that leaves its reader pondering sarcasm or sincerity but this reader felt it was a little of both. Marvellously evocative and hard to believe that this is a debut novel the reader is immediately swept into this jazz soaked arena of racial tension. 

Already identified by The Guardian as one of the ten best debut novelists of 2020 Louise Hare has avoided eloquently the trap of bitterness and anger that could so easily accompany these characters and what they endure in the book. She has skilfully woven a thread of hope and optimism throughout the rich fabric of her narrative mirroring the emotions surely felt initially by the embarkees of HMT Empire Windrush.

Nestling within the broader issues dealt with in the novel is something of a murder mystery where, it seems, the police feel that few are beyond suspicion and will stop at nothing to reach an arrest. Several red herrings are thrown their way and ours but the truth remains elusive until secrets are divulged towards the end of the book. But I didn’t feel the murder aspect was intended as the dominant feature of the novel. It seems to be a device used to explore the racial  attitudes of the time. 

Whenever jazz is allowed to add its syncopated notes to a story you sense a rhythm and a beat that often suggests a metaphor for life. It’s subtle here and works as a soundtrack of words when Lawrie and the band plays. Something of a leitmotiv for crucial events and moods in the story. And jazz is a musical genre that encourages improvisation, musicians understanding each other implicitly. Here that serves as a metaphor for community which is a very strong features of this fiction.  

Lawrie and Evie are the two main characters. Young, hopeful, yet endowed with a wisdom that allows the reader to marvel at their dignity in the face of all the obstacles life is throwing at them. So as well as being a murder mystery this is also a touching and poignant love story. The path of true love never does run smooth to use a well oiled cliche and this particular path winds and weaves this way and that. 

The end of the book is conclusive and redemptive. It is an historical work so it is not hard to examine it within the context of today’s attitudes and to consider how much progress we have made as a society. Of course it can be enjoyed simply as a story without recourse to deeper scrutiny but I, personally, feel the book demands we think and consider.

My thanks to Harper Collins and HQ stories for both a copy of this book and an opportunity to participate  in the blog tour. My opinion is but one. Please explore what my blogging colleagues feel abut this impressive debut. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

The Confession - Jessie Burton

I’ve read all of Jessie Burton’s books now. You might say that I am a fan; one of those writers whose books I seek out on blind faith alone. And I’m never sure exactly what my expectations are when I do this. Am I seeking a similarity in style, in theme, in genre? Although Ms. Burton’s books are sometimes described as historical fiction - this current book is too, I guess, set in the 1980’s - I don’t think of her as an historical novelist. I think of her as a contemporary novelist. Maybe that’s because of the universal themes. The Confession I see as more in parallel with The Muse;  typist and art historian in The Muse, personal assistant and novelist in The Confession, never straying far from creativity in either book. Where The Muse explored artists and their motivations , The Confession looks at the world of the novelist and imagined personas and realities, the Hollywood setting for much of the action reinforcing that.

Blurb -One winter's afternoon on Hampstead Heath in 1980, Elise Morceau meets Constance Holden and quickly falls under her spell. Connie is bold and alluring, a successful writer whose novel is being turned into a major Hollywood film. Elise follows Connie to LA, a city of strange dreams and swimming pools and late-night gatherings of glamorous people. But whilst Connie thrives on the heat and electricity of this new world where everyone is reaching for the stars and no one is telling the truth, Elise finds herself floundering. When she overhears a conversation at a party that turns everything on its head, Elise makes an impulsive decision that will change her life forever.

Three decades later, Rose Simmons is seeking answers about her mother, who disappeared when she was a baby. Having learned that the last person to see her was Constance Holden, a reclusive novelist who withdrew from public life at the peak of her fame, Rose is drawn to the door of Connie's imposing house in search of a confession . . . 
From the million-copy bestselling author of The Miniaturist and The Muse, The Confession is a luminous, powerful and deeply moving novel about secrets and storytelling, motherhood and friendship, and how we lose and find ourselves.

The dual chronology device is used again to good effect here. 1980 and 2017, enough of a gap to render it historical? But set in the US and the UK which adds a dimension that emphasises the need to consider reality with imagination. 

The characterisations, too, are beginning to show a definite style; Marjorie Quick and Constance Holden, two women of paradox where arguably they use their strength to hide their weakness. Utterly compelling characters to read about. 

The Confession, perhaps more than Burton’s previous two novels subtly explores relationships between women in an understated but poignant and compelling way. Deeper maybe than that is the need to find an identity, beautifully explored through the character of Rose. Another theme running through the book is honesty. Honesty not just to others but to one self. It’s delicate yet powerful. These characters are human with frailties that we can all recognise. They make the mistakes we all make and flounder in the whirlpool of confusion that so often accompanies our life’s decisions.

Burton writes with an ease of pace, a flowing narrative that isn’t short on detail but it’s relevant and evocative. smell the spray as Elise surfs with Matt, feel the superficial veneer of Hollywood parties. It’s accomplished writing. There were times when I felt the situations were a tad contrived but they were pivots leading to situations of absolute depth so that as a reader I tended to ignore the contrivance for it seemed necessary to reach a point that needed to be reached. As a story it’s far more understated than the previous two books, more cerebral than outright ‘action’. 

And having read it, will I remain a fan of Jessie Burton? Oh yes. I think so.

Thank you to my local library for giving me the opportunity to reserve and borrow this book.  

Sunday, 8 March 2020

The Invisibility of an Ageing Woman - A Fragment

I never really understood when older friends and colleagues spoke of how invisible they felt they’d become as they aged. I do now. I experience it on an almost daily basis. The number of times I’ve been apologised to because ‘Sorry, I didn’t see you there.’ and I’ve been incredulous because there’s a lot of me to not see! And I could tell from the chagrin on the face of the apologiser that it wasn’t intentional. 

So what happens? My sister-in-law’s mother, R,  is in her mid 90’s and despite the fact that she is blind and cannot move safely or easily is adamant she doesn’t want to go into a home. This has caused conflict within her family. My brother and his wife use their life savings to pay for her to have a live in carer. My sister-in-law’s brother and his wife feel she should go into a home. That’s more the wife’s view as she states quite emphatically that R has had her life and they should be free to live theirs without having to worry about her. And I wonder if that is the crux? Once you’ve reached retirement and pension age are you viewed as someone who has had their life? Therefore you no longer ‘count’ as a viable and vital human being? Hence you don’t need to be seen therefore you are invisible. (As an aside, if I extrapolate that back was I, when younger, guilty of treating older people as invisible? I certainly don’t remember doing so, if I did I cannot apologise sufficiently.) As if ageing isn’t difficult enough?!

The Danish writer, Anne Cathrine Bomann, wrote in her novel ‘Agatha’,

 ‘Ageing…….. was mainly about observing the differences between one’s self and one’s body get bigger and bigger until eventually one awakes a total stranger to oneself.’

I found this to be acutely true for myself. From time to time  I catch glimpses of myself in a mirror and wonder who on earth that old lady is and I realise it is me. I see the skin on my arms resemble a crepe bandage and I see the age marks on my arms and hands as if a child has run rampant with a felt tip marker and dotted me while I was asleep. I see sagging everywhere. Wrinkles; smile lines and frown lines are now cruelly etched onto my visage. I let my hair change colour naturally, quite liking the pepper and salt effect initially, now the white coverage increases and I keep it short to minimise it. My hands do not feel like mine anymore. I do not recognise this alien shell I am inhabiting.  Certainly this body doesn’t work as well as it used to. As my joints, one by one, decide to seize up permanently and my poor, deranged spine screams out about the abuse and stress I put it under through years of so called healthy exercise I feel this sense of separation from mind and body. 

When I was a teenager I thrilled to the music of Simon and Garfunkel, possibly viewed as easy listening nowadays but back then they were innovators, one of the first artists to use synthesisers, for example. Their concept album, Bookends, looked at the stages of life and their views on ageing were poignant to me even then……

Can you imagine us years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy’

At seventeen I couldn’t imagine being seventy. I can now and I’m scared.My mind doesn’t seem to age at the same rate as my body. So far my memory lapses comprise of an often inability to instantly recall the right word or the right names, failing to recall quotations that I once had at my fingertips, forgetting what I came upstairs or entered a room for, but I continue to believe, that on the whole my intellect remains intact. My hopes, dreams, desires are still there but with an increasing realisation that most, now, will never be accomplished. The realisation that there are things I will never do again and I mourn the fact that on the last occasion I did some of them I didn’t realise it was the last time. There are some things that I bitterly resent probably not having the opportunity to do again. It hurts deeply. 

But, if I ignore this bodily deterioration and focus solely on the inner me, my spirit, my intellect I don’t feel much different! But it’s confusing. My body is giving me another story. People's reactions are too. For in mixed company however much I may wish to see myself as unchanged mentally I am still lumped into the ‘oldies’ category and am treated accordingly by the younger people. I remember attending the birthday event of a friend of mine whose son took my arm as we ascended a flight of stairs and I said to him, ‘You make me feel like I’m an old lady!’ He said,’But you are an old lady.’ That stung.

But there was one place where my shrivelling body didn’t matter. And that was the internet. Social media. Email. No one could see me. I could present as me and not be judged on my age. And it was fun. And I know, I just know, that with some interactions people had taken me for a much younger person. I liked it! But of course, that kind of deceit and subterfuge just isn’t me. There were a couple of occasions where I actually met with some of the people I’d interacted with online. Whether they were surprised by me in person I’m not entirely sure. They didn’t obviously show it. But subsequently online I felt that I was treated differently. There was a subtle shift in the dynamic. But for me as Terry Pratchett said in Moving Pictures -

…inside every old person is a young person wondering what happened.” 

Yet, ageing is something most people go through if some tragedy doesn't intervene. Is everyone as dissatisfied and despondent as I am? For me it seemed to happen too suddenly. I feel I never had time to prepare. I feel cheated. I wasn’t ready to be old. But is anyone? Part of me thinks that it isn't so much abut the numbers. I'm in my sixties, in case you're interested and there is that body of thought that affirms 60 isn't old. It is, though, when your physical body is playing silly buggers.I wonder of that is another crux of ageing. I attend certain classes and gatherings and there are people there, some older than me,  who appear to be content within their own skins. I’m not sure whether they really are or whether it is a front. I long to ask them but it feels like crossing a line. I have a friend, L, who goes to my Tai Chi class who is in her early seventies and I asked her about it once. She said she doesn't think about her age much!  I do wonder whether I’m in a transition phase? And I will reach a place where I’m comfortable with myself? I can but hope!

I wonder, too, as well as the physical thing whether it is circumstance. Maybe if I had kids and grandkids I would feel differently? On a day to day basis but also would I feel less fearful of the future? Knowing there were people who had my back. I’m terrified of getting to the stage where I can no longer live independently. The thought of living in an old folks home where I might be neglected and even abused fills me with horror. 

I’m being very negative, I know. What are the pluses of ageing? Senior discounts on events, cinema admissions etc. A bus pass. Free flu jabs. Free prescriptions. They don’t pacify me, I’m afraid. 

There’s nothing to love about being old.