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Saturday, 29 March 2008

The Unnumbered

By Sam North

In this novel, Sam North has created an extraordinary sense of place. I only know the part of London in which it is set slightly, but nonetheless I could picture it vividly as I read.

I particularly liked the imagery used. Muswell Hill is described as ‘a pregnant mound sticking out of North London, growing whole families who fed off its good state schools, its flats and houses with gardens, its cleaner air’.

‘The Unnumbered’ is an emotive and honest look at some potentially contentious issues around immigration. The characters aren’t always likeable, but they are always interesting and by making them unlikeable, Sam North has made them very real.
Among the flawed but fascinating characters are fifteen year old Mila, who desperately tries to use sex to get her own way but finds that it is, in the end, her undoing; and the horribly sinister Lucas Tooth.

By setting the novel in the communities of displaced people, North has opened up a new and perplexing world and let the reader in. He uses the trick of retelling a scene more than once from different viewpoints in order to accentuate the issue of language barriers and to put the spotlight on different perceptions of the same situation.

There is a very uncomfortable subplot involving middle class student Anjali, and her descent into despair. For me, this story didn’t work quite as well as the rest of the novel – it felt a little forced as though the character had been introduced solely to show another aspect of alienation – but it did provide one of the novel’s most interesting surprises.

‘The Unnumbered’ is not a comfortable read, but ultimately it is a very rewarding one.

‘The Unnumbered’ was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2004.

reviewed by Helen M. Hunt

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

The Outcast

By Sadie Jones

This is a gripping and accomplished coming-of-age novel from a first-time author.

The setting is 1950s, middle-class England and the story opens with 19-year-old Lewis Aldridge’s release from prison, and subsequent return to his emotionally rigid father, Gilbert, and immature step-mother, Alice.

Lewis has never recovered from his mother’s accidental drowning ten years earlier. A lack of understanding resulted in his transformation from a happy child to a brooding, self-destructive teenager, whose behaviour eventually resulted in a prison sentence.

Moving between different viewpoints, we see Lewis’s earlier life and the carefree times he shared with his mother whilst his father was away during the War. When Gilbert is demobbed it becomes clear that there are problems within the family.

We meet the Carmichaels, who have a dark secret at the heart of their family, and whose daughters, Tamsin and Kit, play an important part in Lewis’s eventual coming of age.

As Lewis struggles to re-adjust to a community he never felt part of in the first place, it becomes increasingly clear he’s not the only one who has been corrupted.

This is a moving, often harrowing story of grief, loss, hypocrisy and redemption, but it’s also a love story. Despite his behaviour it’s somehow impossible not to feel sympathy for Lewis, or to root for Kit Carmichael who has idolised him from an early age.

The prose is spare and compelling, yet the author has perfectly captured the repressive social climate of the time. She also exposes the terrible consequences that can result from the denial of love, and it’s perhaps not surprising that comparisons have been drawn with Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

All in all, an impressive debut from an important new writer.

reviewed by Karen Clarke

Editor's footnote: since this review was written The Outcast has been longlisted for the Orange Prize.

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Book news - Arthur C. Clarke

The veteran and prolific science fiction writer, who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in collaboration with Stanley Kubrick, died on 19th March, aged 90.

The shortlist for the 2008 Arthur C. Clarke award, the UK's top prize for science fiction originally established by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, had been announced just nine days earlier.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Mother London

by Michael Moorcock

Michael Moorcock is well known as a writer of science fiction and fantasy. Perhaps too well known as that tends to put people off his more ‘mainstream’ work. It shouldn’t. Not only is his fantasy writing sassy and sharp, it has a darker questioning edge that is absent from most works in the genre. And that approach to his work is to be found in Mother London his most ‘conventional’ and certainly his most autobiographical novel.

On the surface this is the story of a group of Londoners, patients in the same clinic. The intricacies of their lives are carefully unfolded and we see how they relate to one another and to the city in which they live. Indeed, it is through them that we come to know the personality and biography (from the Blitz to the 1980s when the novel was written) of the most important character, London itself.

The structure of the book is unconventional, as are the characters, but it reflects the fragmented nature of their lives and is not difficult to navigate. In fact it is a tribute to Moorcock’s skill as a writer than he can tackle such a vast and chaotic subject whilst keeping his readers with him. It is much like a map of London – not always easy to see how the pieces fit together, and as you travel through the city you move from mediaeval alleyways and Victorian slums to broad thoroughfares and raised railways that track through minimalist skyscraper parks. And in that environment, people live and are influenced by their surroundings, the great mother city.

Moorcock captures all this in a vast epic of a book that is rich, lively, never conventional, and always surprising. He clearly loves the city in which he was born and lived for many years, and he clearly loves his characters. They are drawn with a sure hand and eye for the things that make us unique in a world growing ever more homogeneous.

If you want a rich, almost Dickensian work (but without Dickens’ sentimentality); one that takes you by the hand into and through a wonderland of magic in the everyday; one that shows you the modern mythology and legends of London; one that takes you on a tour of the psychogeography of the sprawling mass that sits astride the Thames; then this is the book for you. A veritable feast.

reviewed by Graeme K. Talboys

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Book news - Orange Prize longlist

The longlist for this years Orange Prize has just been announced and it includes Lottery by Patricia Wood, which Rachel has already reviewed for us.

The shortlist is due to be announced on 15th April and you can find the full longlist here.
Update: We have a review of another longlisted book to post shortly. Keep watching this blog.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Nella Last's War

edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming

I want to review this because it was such an unusual and compelling reading experience, and has stayed with me since. Nella Last was a volunteer for the Mass Observation Diaries, a project which started just before the war and continued for nearly 30 years. Many such diaries were collected in order to build up a wide-ranging document of social history.

This book is compiled from the diaries kept during World War 2 by Nella, a housewife who lived in Barrow in Furness. It was recently dramatised on TV as Housewife, 49 by Victoria Wood, who took the part of Nella. Although this was very watchable, it couldn’t come near the experience of reading the diaries. It becomes clear that Nella, who had previously suffered with “her nerves,” as they used to refer to depression, found the writing a great emotional support, and the reader becomes her confidant. At the same time, she has a writers gift for picking out details that bring a scene or a character alive. You constantly feel yourself to be looking over her shoulder as she describes her struggle to maintain a household through the privations of the war, the worries and tragedies as deaths occur around her, or the politics of the local WI. She has a slightly edgy relationship with her husband, whom she distances from the reader by referring to him throughout simply as “my husband” - unlike her sons, Arthur and Cliff, one in a reserved occupation, one away at the war. Her feelings and reactions to events are human, unselfconscious and genuine, and it’s impossible to reach the end without developing a great affection for her.

It’s a great irony of the book that she sometimes mentions that she would like to be a writer. As someone said, the poignancy is that she will never have known that she really was one.

reviewed by Christopher Bazalgette

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Book news - Galaxy British Book Awards

The shortlists for the Galaxy British Book Awards 2008 have just been announced and you can find the full shortlist details here.

Who do you think should win each category?

One Good Turn

by Kate Atkinson

In ‘One Good Turn’ Kate Atkinson has spun a story of compelling complexity. The plot is a patchwork of breathtaking episodes cut from the lives of a wide cast of characters.
What did Kate Atkinson do with this novel? Well, she made me fall in love with her hero, Jackson Brodie. He’s irresistible and the most sympathetic character in the novel.
Then she made me cry. You'll have to read Chapter 49 to find out how!

The plot is well structured and has a satisfying conclusion, and it provides a framework for some beautiful use of language and intriguing literary touches.

This passage illustrates her brilliant powers of description.
'Martin looked in horror at the glass of orange liquid that Paul Bradley came back with but felt obliged to say 'Thanks', and take a drink. He was sure there were cells in his liver that were committing suicide rather than deal with Scotland's two national drinks together in one vile cocktail.'
There are a huge number of characters in the book, but Kate Atkinson has made every single one of them real. She’s got under their skin and picked out the telling details that make each person what they are.
Though emotional, the story telling is never without humour. The predicaments of Martin Canning – crime writer – and his creation Nina Riley, give plenty of opportunity for amusement and also a thought provoking twist at the end of the novel.
As I read the book I wondered for a brief time why Kate Atkinson wasn't writing another novel just like 'Behind The Scenes At The Museum'. Until I realised that she wasn't because she couldn't, because she's moved on and this is ultimately a more satisfying book because of that.
‘One Good Turn’ is the second book featuring Jackson Brodie. He first appeared in ‘Case Histories’.

reviewed by Helen M. Hunt

Tuesday, 11 March 2008


by Margaret Forster

Over is not a book full of action, but rather a convincing psychological study of grief and how individuals react in different ways.

Louise and Don’s teenage daughter Miranda has died in a sailing accident. Louise, a kindly infant teacher, slowly picks herself up and tries to move on, whilst supporting Miranda’s twin sister and younger brother, but Don becomes obsessed with searching for answers, with trying to find something or someone to blame. Louise tells the story of the inevitable disintegration of a family, with frequent time shifts between the new life she is building for herself and earlier events.

I read this book at the time that Mohamed Al-Fayed’s evidence from the inquest of Princess Diana was being reported and the grief of an unexpectedly bereaved parent, with a natural instinct to need to apportion blame, seemed all too familiar.

The novel is beautifully written in spare prose where every word counts and where much is left unsaid, for the reader to deduce. It has emotional authenticity in its depiction of how a tragedy can shatter ordinary lives yet, at the same time ultimately provides the impetus to rebuild and try to carry on. Despite the subject matter this is moving rather than overwhelmingly sad and at 200 pages, it is a perfect length for a book where not much actually happens.

reviewed by Catherine Walter

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

So Many Ways To Begin

by Jon McGregor

I hadn’t come across this author until now. He was born in 1976, and this is his second novel. The first looks more experimental, and I haven’t yet read it - but this one I found both compulsively readable and beautifully crafted. It chronicles the life of David Carter, a convincingly imperfect, but very appealing character who feels to the reader quite tangibly real, as does his wife Eleanor. He has one particular obsessive pursuit through most of his life, but I won’t spoil the book by saying exactly what it is. It seems connected, though, with his work as a museum curator, and his early interest in artefacts of the past which leads him to that occupation. The chapters are each headed with one such item, a relic of the period of his or his family’s lives that are being described.

What struck me about this book was the way that the author, on the one hand, describes the minutiae of the character’s lives with a close-up realism which makes you feel you can touch them - but on the other maintains a perspective of distance and a view of the progression of time which enables the reader to see them as if from high above. This is done partly by making carefully judged switches in time period during the narration, which I found made the development of the book all the more compelling. These jumps seem to complement the characters’ own memories, and their judgements on their own past, and uncertainties about their future. An absorbing book which I recommend highly.

reviewed by Christopher Bazalgette

Sunday, 2 March 2008

In Search of Adam

by Caroline Smailes

I first heard about this book on the internet last year and didn’t think I could bear to read it. The subject matter of child sexual abuse, suicide, mental illness and self harm seemed just too bleak. But then I read some reviews and realised that this book might be special. I bought it, read it and was blown away.

Jude Williams, aged six, wakes up one morning and finds her mother dead in bed, a note by her side which reads …gone in search of Adam… This is the beginning of a lifelong quest for Jude and a struggle to make sense of a world which treats her so badly. Caroline Smailes has captured the voice of an abused child to perfection. Along the way we understand so much more than Jude herself and we just long to hug and protect her, to tell her that someone is finally listening now.

It is, of course, not a comfortable read and you will need your tissues, but the innovative use of language and typography brings a touch which lifts the novel out of the ordinary and draws you right into Jude’s head. When you get to the end, you read the author’s thoughts and realise that there are further layers of meaning you had missed along the way.

Caroline Smailes has also recently published a complimentary novella, Disraeli Avenue, consisting of snapshots of the lives of the other inhabitants of the street where Jude lives. It is available here as a FREE download, with the option to make a voluntary donation to a small charity, One in Four, which supports adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. A charity that is so called because apparently one child in four suffers like Jude. Through Disraeli Avenue, we can all help to make a difference.

reviewed by Catherine Walter