Thursday, 5 December 2019

He Wants by Alison Moore

A while ago - a long while, actually - at the launch for Alison Moore's novel Missing, I picked up a copy of one of her previous books, put it on a shelf, and half forgot about it. I have quite a stack of my own personal books which tend to get neglected in favour of review copies, but this last month or so I've been trying to take time out to read them. So here I am, over a year later, to tell you about He Wants.

Lewis is a retired school teacher. He's had an uneventful life, and retirement is even less exciting. Now a widower, he still lives in the village where he grew up. His daughter visits regularly, bringing lunch that he doesn't really want, and making sure he's okay, but there seems to be little love or companionship between the two. This isn't the middle-age he wanted, in fact much of his life he seems to have just drifted along the easiest path rather than make active choices. With time on his hands, Lewis wanders through his memories, regretting chances he never took, wishing he'd done things differently. He's made to feel worse by the return of an old friend, Sydney, who seems quite glamorous in comparison - he's traveled and seen the world, and seems to have generally made a success of his life.

As with Alison Moore's other work, this is a gently-paced, quiet, contemplative story, focusing on the inner turmoil and hopes of her characters.

I read this at a point when I was feeling very low, and although, with its themes of loneliness, regret and missed chances, it's hardly what you might call a cheerful book, I found it soothing. It's not all doom and gloom though. There are many instances of Moore's wry humour, and the ultimate message is one of hopefulness. To me it said 'it's never too late; if you've got an unfulfilled dream, give it a go'

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

A couple of years have passed since the events of Red Sister (the first book of Mark Lawrence's The Book of the Ancestor trilogy) and Nona Grey has been living comparatively quietly at the Convent of Sweet Mercy. She's not, as you might expect, spending long hours in prayer, or working on calligraphy or needlework, for this is a convent with a difference. One where, under the supervision of Abbess Glass and the sisters, novices are trained in martial arts - both practical hand to hand combat and the subtler ways of poison and mind manipulation.
Nona is now leaving many of her friends behind and moving up a level to Mystic class; making new enemies there, to add to the powerful ones she already has outside the convent. Combined they're determined to see her thrown out of the convent, preferably killed. Fairly obviously, Nona isn't going to co-operate - and a lot of other people are going to end up dead.

The second book of a trilogy is always tricky - the characters have been introduced, the world building is done, but the reader needs to be reminded of things they may have forgotten from the first book, while the action has to move forward to keep us engrossed. Despite a slightly slow start with a little too much emphasis on the 'school' aspect of Nona's life for my liking, I really enjoyed this return to Nona's world. As the story progresses the pace picks up with plenty of fight scenes and danger, but I also liked the less violent, sly, political manoeuvring of the abbess.

Something I hate about fantasy series is the hiatus between books as the next is written, edited and finally published. It's taken me an awfully long time to get round to reading this, so I'm lucky in that the third and final book, Holy Sister is already published.

Just a couple of warnings - despite the school style setting this is NOT a children's book (don't confuse it with Harry Potter or The Worst Witch) and you DO need to have read book one, Red Sister;without it little will make sense.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Harper Collins (Harper Voyager)
Genre -
 Adult fantasy

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Faces on the Tip of my Tongue by Emmanuelle Pagano

translated by Jennifer Higgins and Sophie Lewis

I'm not sure whether to describe this latest book from Peirene as a novel or a collection of short stories; the thirteen stories which make up the English version of Emmanuella Pagnano's work read like something falling between the two. Although each can stand alone, they link together to bring to life the inhabitants of a remote community high on a plateau in rural France. 

Some of the shorter pieces are more vignettes than stories, capturing a moment or mood rather than telling a tale, but I found a sense of loss - of happiness, or innocence - pervading them all. They aren't stories of 'happy ever after', more of the things that can go wrong in life - whether devastating like the accidental death of a small child, or the dark comedy of a random stranger turning up at a wedding instead of the expected relative. A childish prank goes wrong, an elderly man whose only purpose in life is automatically trotting out the tales of the district, another who waits everyday at the spot on a mountain road where his family died, a woman weighed down by life trying to commit suicide but thwarted by random strangers.

The plateau itself seems a slightly other-worldly place - the weather is always colder to that in the valley below - and somewhere that 'misfits' can find a home. In some of the stories there's a feeling that life is simpler there, that people are more in touch with themselves and nature, but maybe they're just more inured to pain and suffering.

At first the stories appear to be a random selection linked only by location, but as the reader progresses the relationship between them becomes apparent. Characters, while not appearing in every tale, show up again here and there, often seen from a different point of view, or at a different point in time; the child in one becomes the parent in another. Noticing this, seeing how the stories fit together, has the satisfaction of spotting that strangely-shaped jigsaw puzzle you've been searching for and seeing the whole picture come together as it slots into its space.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Peirene Press

Genre - Adult Literary Translated Fiction

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Supernatural reads

For Halloween I thought I'd look round the bookshelves and see what I had sitting waiting to be read in the way of scary supernatural reads - and these were the first to come to hand; Bram Stoker's Dracula (unbelievably, perhaps, I've never read it!), and a short story collection, Oxford Twelve Tales of the Supernatural edited by Michael Cox. I thought I'd have time to read both before Halloween, as neither are very long, but things didn't work out that way.

I started with the collected stories. Hmm, that didn't go well. I've said before that a lot of supposedly scary stories leave me cold, but in a bad way, and these did that. Despite some big names among the collection - LeFanu, and M R James, for example - they didn't seem spooky or tense to me. Maybe back when they were 'new' there was an element of surprise to them, but I found them dreadfully predictable.

On to Dracula ... although I haven'r actually READ this before it's difficult to not have some idea of the plot from films, even if they aren't entirely 'as the book'. It's hard therefore to put yourself into the mindset of someone reading the book with no idea of what will happen, of why the Count can only see his visitor at night, of why it's probably best for all concerned that Jonathan Harker does as the Count tells him and stays safely in the rooms assigned to him. I was also afraid that like some of the short stories it would just be so predictable. It was, as obviously I'd an idea of the plot, but it was still very readable. The writing conveys a definite feeling of growing dread, but having reached a high point, instead of attempting (and possibly failing) to maintain it, moves back to the more prosaic world of daily domesticity - and manages to pull this off several times. The Count of course moves to England and attempts to continue his vampiric ways here, but a group of young men, aided by vampire-expert Van Helsing, strive to put an end to him. Towards the end, I felt the story became more 'thriller' than ' 'supernatural tale' but was perhaps better for it.
It's a bit slow at time, especially when Van Helsing is explaining something, and there are dodgy attitudes towards women and 'foreigners' but in all it's a good read.

For some of my favorite Halloween reads see here over on my Other Thoughts blog

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Eleanor Fitzsimons - guest post - Socialism in the Stories of E Nesbit

Today I'm delighted to welcome Eleanor Fitzsimons, author of a new biography of  E Nesbit, to tell us more about a relatively unknown side the Nesbit's life - her strong Marxist beliefs and their influence on her stories


Nowadays, we know E. Nesbit as the author of wonderful stories for children and a source of inspiration for writers from C.S. Lewis to J.K. Rowling. Yet poetry was her true passion. As she told one friend “only my socialist poems are real me”. Nesbit’s close friend and fellow Fabian Society member George Bernard Shaw described her as “a committed if distinctly eccentric socialist”. Her commitment to a fairer society was informed by her experience of genuine hardship when, as a newly married mother, she decorated greeting cards and sold simple illustrations to earn a living for her unorthodox family. She raised three children with her husband, Hubert Bland, and two more he fathered with her friend Alice Hoatson. Although she wrote what the market demanded, Nesbit promoted social reform in her stories for young readers who she regarded, with good reason, as far more open to reforming ideas than their parents.

Before she wrote the books we remember her for, including The Wouldbegoods, The Railway Children and Five Children and It, Nesbit and Bland co-authored The Prophet’s Mantle, a socialist novel inspired by the arrival in London of Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The Russian exile in The Railway Children is also based on him. Nesbit was keen to fulfill the Fabian society mission, which she defined as “to improve the social system – or rather to spread its news as to the possible improvement of the said SS”. When the children in The Wouldbegoods form a society, Dora describes its aim as “nobleness and goodness, and great and unselfish deeds,” adding: “We wish to spread our wings and rise above the kind of interesting things that you ought not to do, but to do kindnesses to all, no matter how low and mean”.

Nesbit includes a particularly inflammatory public speech in The Story of the Amulet:
Comrades and fellow workers, how long are we to endure the tyranny of our masters, who live in idleness and luxury on the fruit of our toil? They only give us a bare subsistence wage, and they live on the fat of the land. We labour all our lives to keep them in wanton luxury. Let us make an end of it!
Here, her fictional children travel forward in time to a utopian London where school is delightful, mothers and fathers share the burden of childcare, and everyone dresses in comfortable clothing. When the Babylonian Queen time travels to Victorian London she assumes that the workers she encounters must be slaves on the verge of revolt since they are so poorly treated. The children explain that these workers are free and have the right to vote for their government yet they cannot justify why misery persists. Nesbit often exposes the flaws inherent in government policy by having children attempt to explain it.

Elsewhere in The Story of the Amulet, the Psammead points out: “You’ve got your country into such a mess that there’s no room for half your children – and no one to want them”. In The House of Arden, Richard refuses to return to Victorian London, declaring “they make people work fourteen hours a day for nine shillings a week, so that they never have enough to eat or wear, and no time to sleep or be happy in”. The children in The Wonderful Garden persuade an indifferent landlord who owns a castle and a mansion in Belgrave Square to protect one of his tenants, a vulnerable old woman. In The Magic World, when the enchanted crows that inhabit ‘Justnowland’ are changed back into men, they vow “in future we shall not be rich and poor, but fellow-workers, and each will do his best for his brothers”.

The most credible and socially aware of Nesbit’s books is The Railway Children, with its clear message of political criticism and social change. It seems likely that ‘Old Gentleman’ is included to reassure parents reading to their children that wealth and social position are not threatened by socially conscious behaviour. It is not necessary to cede your power, merely to make proper use of it. Victorian literature is not short of moralising tales but Nesbit was never hectoring or po-faced. She often poked fun at fellow socialists and utopian thinkers. The key characteristics of her stories for children are fantasy and humour. She spread her radical ideas on the benefits of a fairer society by embedding them in superbly crafted, gripping stories that continue to resonate with children to this day. 

Eleanor Fitzsimons is the author of The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit (Duckworth, 2019)

Tuesday, 29 October 2019

Seven Ghosts by Chris Priestley

Jake is one a group of children invited to a special tour of Grimstone Hall. It's a place famous for the number of ghosts sighted there, and the visit has been organised for finalists in a ghost story writing competition.
Mrs Fox, their guide, shows them round, taking them up to the roof and out into the gardens, telling stories of the ghosts associated with each spot, and as the tour progresses Jake realises he's seeing things that the other children appear to not notice - a flicker of coloured silks, something bright and shining moving across the lawn, a girl wearing odd, old fashioned clothing. Jake begins to think Mrs Fox is not telling the whole truth about the ghosts of Grimstone Hall.

Seven Ghosts is a great ghostly read for Halloween (or any other time). The seven stories divide the book up into nicely sized 'chunks' to be read at one sitting, while the link sections, following the prize-winners on their tour, keep the chill factor going as Jake's suspicions rise.
Chris Priestley is the author of one of my favourite ghost stories, The Dead of Winter ,which although intended as a teen read is spot on for me, and here he's written and illustrated a brilliant collection of stories for a younger age group. These tales are spooky and menacing, but without being scary - just right for the intended readership of 8 years and older. They're the stuff to grab a child's imagination and send a cold shiver up their spine, not send them to bed with nightmares.

As always with Barrington Stoke books, it's printed on cream paper in a dyslexia-friendly font to make it accessible to all, and, in addition, has full- and part-page illustrations throughout from the author himself, to bring the ghosts of Grimstone to life (if that's the appropriate word)

Publisher - Barrington Stoke
Genre - ghost stories, 8+, dyslexia-friendly 

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Stillicide by Cynan Jones

This latest work from Cynan Jones is something a little different - a series of self-contained but linked short stories set in the (probably not so far off) future. A future where weather patterns have changed; despite almost constant summer rain, water is in short supply. No more long luxurious baths, not even a quick shower in the morning or even flushing loos! Supplying London with water has become a major undertaking. Pipes no longer feed it to the city, instead it's transported from distant reservoirs by the Water Train, but the service is increasingly under threat of sabotage. As an alternative, a huge Ice Dock is to be built - icebergs towed south to it, and their melt water collected - but construction work will displace more of the population that originally planned for, and people are taking to the streets to protest. 
Against this grim backdrop the reader follows people going about their lives -  a journalist obsessed with his search for a big scoop, an elderly man facing death, a woman persuaded by nature's beauty that there must be more to life that her dull relationship with her husband, young boys playing with a dog in the rubble of waste ground, and Branner (the main character, if the collection can be said to have one), a police marksman protecting the Water Train, his thoughts dodging back and forth to when he first met his wife, to his shock and disbelief on hearing her terminal diagnosis, to how he can attempt to go on without her. Within the stories, they change positions, reappearing in different roles - the central character of one becoming a bit-player or walk-on part in another - so that, although each section reads as a standalone piece, there's a underlying cohesion between them forming a greater story.

This isn't just a story of doom and gloom. Despite the bleak man-made conditions, nature is showing its resilience, its capacity to take hold and flourish in even the most inhospitable places, reclaiming waste ground and construction sites. People too are trying to improve their lot with rooftop allotments and small 'new-farms'; a personal way to overcome shortages from the 'mass-produced' sector.

It's all brought to life with Jones' familiar precision, his attention to detail, and ability to get under his characters' skin - focusing on the small things of life to build an image of the whole. Butterflies dancing in the park, the shape left as a bird darts away, the feel of limpets being prised from the rock, or the guts spilling out of a fish.

It's breath-catching, heart-wrenching, stunning. If you haven't discovered Jones' work yet, then do; you're missing a treat. And don't anyone try telling me that dystopian fiction can't be literary

Although the concept had been mulling around in the author's mind for a while, it was a commission from Radio 4 which brought it to life. If you prefer to listen rather than read you can still (October 2019) find it online

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Granta Books
Genre - Adult literary fiction, dystopian