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recent publications and classic reads revisited
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Sunday 21 December 2008

Back soon

Apologies for the recent hiatus in postings, which was due to unforeseen personal circumstances.

We will be relaunching in January, but in the meantime you might like to visit our Wordle, based on recent reviews here, to give you a flavour of what this blog is about.

Friday 17 October 2008

Book news - Books to talk about

Once again, to celebrate the upcoming World Book Day in 2009, Spread the Word has selected fifty books which the team believes are deserving of a wider readership.

The full list can be seen here and the public is invited to vote for their favourite. The list will be narrowed down to the ten with the highest votes by 2nd January 2009 and a new vote on the shortlist will commence on 30th January, with the winner to be announced on World Book Day, 5th March 2009.

For full details see the Spread the Word website and use your vote now!

Tuesday 14 October 2008

Book news - Man Booker winner announced

The Man Booker prize has been won by first time novelist Aravind Adiga for The White Tiger.

Sunday 12 October 2008

Boy A

by Jonathan Trigell

I am not a bleeding-heart Liberal (anything but). Nor am I even remotely a fan of the current fad for tragi-biogs, where one crime after another is committed on the innocent for the voyeuristic delectation of the reader. No, these are not the places I wish to go for entertainment. So why did I pick up this book: the story of a child who was a child-killer, and of his attempts to be newly born after fourteen years of being locked up?

Peter Mullen, mainly. The book has been made into a film, (and the young actor Andrew Garfield who played Boy A won a BAFTA for his performance.) I have not yet seen it – but if Mullen has chosen to be in it, then the chances are high I will enjoy it, or at least get something positive from it.

And oh, what a positive experience it is. Not the story – no, the story is so sad, so UN-graphic that I occasionally found myself closing my eyes to try to avoid the words. Trigell manages to write nothing offensive, nothing descriptive, and yet… The pain is all there to be felt. That is where the positivity of the book comes from. The beauty of the writing, so simple and yet so elegant. We care for Jack very quickly. We always know what it is that he did, and yet he is painted so cleverly that we care deeply for him. As readers Trigell doesn’t cheat us, but oh boy… does he make us think.

Jonathan Trigell has a second book out, called Cham. The birthday vouchers are going to be taking another hit.

reviewed by Alison Watson

Monday 6 October 2008

Black Boxes

by Caroline Smailes

In her latest novel, Caroline Smailes has created a stunning and enticing journey using startling imagery and an incredibly original use of language. I started to read it on a train and was actually pleased when the train was delayed, because it meant I could carry on reading.

’Black Boxes’ is a novel which requires more of an input from the reader than just reading. Its narrative engages on a number of levels including the intellectual, the emotional and the artistic. At the heart of the story, the novel explores the themes of desire, loss and despair. In her usual unflinching way Caroline Smailes has tackled subjects that are uncomfortable and challenging.

The novel tells the story of Ana and her descent into depression and emotional inaction. Ana is complex and damaged, trapped within her black box of inertia and isolation.The use of the concept of the black box to tell the story of Ana is captivating, intriguing and challenging. It is a story-telling device which allows for the examination of narrative from a number of different angles and adds vivid layers to the telling of the tale.

The narrative is enriched by the use of sign language which is an integral part of the plot as a means of communication between two of the characters. A secret backwards language has also been introduced which reflects the perversity and emotional distance of the characters who use it.As always with Caroline’s writing, the mastery of language is breathtaking and the poetry of the text creates beauty even where the subject matter is ugly.

‘Black Boxes’ is also the story of Pip, Ana’s denied daughter. Like Jude in Caroline’s first novel, ‘In Search Of Adam’, Pip cries out to be heard. She needs the reader to listen to her – because the adults in her life will not.
Like ‘In Search of Adam’, ‘Black Boxes’ is a stark warning of what can happen when children’s voices are not heard.

For me ‘Black Boxes’ is, ultimately, the story of Pip and the way she is failed by those who should have protected her. Like Jude before her, Pip will live on in my heart for a long time.

reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Tuesday 9 September 2008

Book news - Man Booker Prize shortlist

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize 2008 was announced today.

The shortlisted books are:

Aravind Adiga - The White Tiger
Sebastian Barry - The Secret Scripture
Amitav Ghosh - Sea of Poppies
Linda Grant - The Clothes on Their Backs
Philip Hensher - The Northern Clemency
Steve Toltz - A Fraction of the Whole

The judging panel is chaired by Michael Portillo, former MP and Cabinet Minister. Other judges are Alex Clark, editor of Granta, novelist Louise Doughty, James Heneage, founder of Ottakar's bookshops and Hardeep Singh Kohli, the TV and radio broadcaster.

Monday 25 August 2008

Before I Die

by Jenny Downham

I rarely read books twice. I know I will read this again, and again. I also know I will cry each time and that once more I will be affected by it long after I put it down.
The title (and indeed the cover picture of the edition I read) give a fairly big clue as to how the book might end. But the journey towards what becomes clearly inevitable is so beautifully written that it is impossible not to want to accompany the central character, sixteen year old Tessa, every step of the way, no matter how sad. It is written in her teenage voice and I think that is part of the magic of the book. Because you see, feel, hear even smell the situation through her eyes it is impossible to step back. The book doesn't patronise; it is uncompromising and unrelenting in facing up to her terminal illness and yet it is more about life and living than it is about dying. It is also filled with much humour which makes it feel all the more poignant

Tessa has a list. The list includes most of the things that teenagers feel they have all the time in the world to do. She wants to do everything on the list before she dies but the prognosis is bleak. She may not have much time. She asks her best friend Zoe to help her. Zoe agrees but refuses to allow Tessa's illness to redefine their friendship, and refuses to feel sorry for Tessa. Their friendship is not cute and girly it is gritty and real. It is what Tessa clings to as she watches the fear in her parents' eyes increase, as the doctors run out of the right things to say. And then Tessa meets Adam, the boy next door. With time of the essence their relationship takes on an intensity few of us may ever experience.

I won't give away any more. You must read it. Even thinking about it as I write this review is giving me goosebumps. It is extraordinary, poetic and perfectly heartbreaking.

reviewed by Lynne McAllister

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Not the End of the World

by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson has entitled this collection of short stories ‘Not the End of the World’. It is ironic then, that in the first story in this collection it evidently is the end of the world.

‘Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping’ is a story which makes full use of Atkinson’s deeply sensual and evocative language. It is full of visions, tastes, and sounds which explode onto the page and echo the bombs and sirens that are hidden behind the vivid tapestry that she has woven.

Like every good collection of short stories, this book has contrasting light and shade: from the deep sadness of ‘Tunnel of Fish’ to the rage of ‘Dissonance’ via the intrigue of ‘Transparent Fiction’.

One of my favourites in this collection is ‘Sheer Big Waste Of Love’. In this story we get to hear about the experiences of Addison, whose family give a whole new meaning to the word dysfunctional. In Addison, the author has created a subtly sympathetic character that we see through his own eyes as both child and adult.

Atkinson is arguably at her best in ‘The Cat Lover’, a truly astonishing tale with a startling premise and an ending that is both shocking and inevitable. This story also shows her at the height of her descriptive powers as she creates a world with elements of the real and the normal counterpointed with fantasy. She has also created some of her most beautiful imagery. ‘The queen of the north country visited the city … ice-crystals trembled like diamonds on her furs and when she shook out her cloak she left a storm of snowflakes in her wake.’

My only reservation about this volume is that the worlds that Kate Atkinson creates in her fiction can be so complex that they really need a whole novel in which to be explored. Some of them seem to burst the seams of the format of the short story. Anything that promotes the cause of the short story has to be a good thing though, and here we have a master of the art of fiction showing how it should be done.

reviewed by Helen M Hunt

Friday 11 July 2008

The Daughter Game

by Kate Long

Kate Long's books always keep me reading. I read Swallowing Grandma on a transatlantic flight and it entertained me for the whole journey. I especially enjoy her witty, realistic dialogue, and sharply observed characters.

Her most recent novel, The Daughter Game, doesn't have so many laugh-out-loud moments as the others, but I still picked it up first thing in the morning in preference to my laptop.

The book starts with a scene where the main character, Anna, melts her headmaster with a flamethrower – letting us know that she has a good line in imaginary vengeance, and setting the tone for this lively, warm, and funny though sometimes disturbing book.

Anna is a successful school teacher, but her apparent confidence hides conflicts. She has a history of miscarriages, and is increasingly dissatisfied in her childless marriage to an ex-teacher who is now a full-time writer. All of the pressures lead her to question everything about her life, from her relationship with her dead mother to her longing for a child.

She has an affair with her brother-in-law, but he wants more from her than she can give. In school a friendship with a promising new female student becomes too intense as Anna sees her as a daughter figure.

Anna’s journey takes us from classroom to staff room, from her middle-class home to a rented caravan to a run-down slum, and I travelled with her all the way.

I have to admit I was rooting for a different ending, but the one in the book makes sense, and I guess it shows I was involved with the characters.

Reviewed by Alison Merricks

Thursday 10 July 2008

Book news - Best of the Booker

Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children has won the public vote for Best of the Booker prize, as widely tipped.

I'm afraid I never managed to get more than twenty pages into that one.

Friday 4 July 2008

Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks

by Christopher Brookmyre

If you took all the profanity out of a Brookmyre novel it would be half the size and read like a telegram. His prose is not for the faint of heart or the weak of character; they are all full of lyrical passages that make you feel the characters can see you and that they know you. It is for this reason that Rubber Ducks is Brookmyre’s stand out work to date. While it doesn’t have the wing walking thrill of Be My Enemy or the character subtleties of Sacred Art of Stealing, it is a master class in narrative structure: the reader sees what s/he is supposed to while being shown everything.

It will come as no surprise, then, to find out it is about the world of magic, psychics and spiritualism. You will be forgiven for assuming that the book is pro-woo after reading the first person narrative of the first character but this is only the first of many things you will be wrong about (and I’m not just talking about the plot). We hear Jack ‘toddler in a supermarket’ Parlabane’s voice first hand (along with many other’s, in more than one sense of the word) and it is no less vibrant or visceral than usual.

Rubber Ducks will keep you guessing what’s on the next page while you wonder about what was on the last page so you will miss the hidden piece of the jigsaw on the page you’re reading. It’s the most fun you can have without feeling guilty for laughing; and if you do find the only impossible event in the book, you went one better than me.

reviewed by Alison Roughsedge

Thursday 26 June 2008


by Joe Dunthorne

Fifteen year old Oliver Tate is the narrator in this first novel by an author who is already known for his poetry. I don’t know why, but I have a sense that he – the author – would be irritated to have his creation compared with Adrian Mole; but that character does provide a useful point of reference. The difference is that, some years on, it’s Oliver’s parents who are of the same generation as Mole, and are just as ineffectual, and filled with the same self-doubt and angst. Not so Oliver, whose patient attempts to nudge them into line comprise one of the many irresistible and perfectly judged threads of comedy.

While Oliver is not scouring the dictionary for obscure words to add to his already outlandish vocabulary, he is cutting a swathe through the life of his staid provincial town, armed with a lethal combination of knowingness and naivety. He is nothing if not candid, and some readers may feel there is too much information on offer in places – particularly in his determined campaign to rid himself of his virginity, “before it becomes legal.” But his shell of adolescent cynicism is never quite opaque enough to hide an attractive character. In the presence of a girlfriend’s parents, he describes himself as “appalled by my inability to seem anything other than pleasant.” I found his teenage preoccupations authentic and sharply funny, and the writing wincingly observant. I’ll be looking out for more from Joe Dunthorne.

reviewed by Christopher Bazalgette

Thursday 19 June 2008

Book news - chick lit prize

Chick lit has been rapidly growing in popularity ever since the publication of Bridget Jones's Diary, as a quick look around any book store will testify. Described as a 'guilty pleasure' by a BBC reporter yesterday, chick lit now has its own awards ceremony, just as other genres such as crime or science fiction do, with a prestigious panel of judges including Joanna Trollope, Jo Brand and Alan Davies. Joanna Trollope's take on the genre can be read here.

The Melissa Nathan Award for Comedy Romance was inaugurated in 2007, in memory of the best-selling chick lit author who sadly died of cancer at the age of 36 the previous year.

This year's winner, announced last night, is Lisa Jewell's novel, 31 Dream Street.

Monday 16 June 2008

Tangled Roots

by Sue Guiney

The myth of first novels is that they are autobiographical, coming of age stories about young people, with lots of domestic detail, dysfunctional families, and not much room for ideas. Sue Guiney’s first novel, Tangled Roots, has families, kitchens and coming of age moments, but beyond that it is a book about mortality, about the criss crossing of histories and the ways in which they flow together and apart. It is a book in which time itself is a central character. To quote the book’s epigraph: ‘If there is symmetry in our universe then who is to say that the stories of the past cannot coexist with the present, that the arrow of time can move in one direction only…’

John is a scientist who has come to a crisis point in his life, a point at which he must travel back in order to move forward. His story alternates with that of his mother, Grace, who re-lives her personal history and the history of her time. She is a woman who ‘survived tragedies and infidelities only to cheat death and rediscover life.’ These stories are intertwined in crystal clear prose that allows the reader to be the more moved in that it dos not dictate the response. The theme of mortality is present in both stories: the understated but heart wrenching death of a child, the end of a marriage, the maiming of a young woman. It is there in a rush of tenderness, a surge of anger, the inability to say the right words until the moment has passed. Grace says ‘ …everyone has a childhood. But you see perhaps it is not in the having. Perhaps it is in the remembering. Perhaps history is nothing more than everyone’s childhood all linked together.’ And in the remembering, time shifts again.

The minor characters are beautifully drawn, the settings , of Boston, Russia, London, Martha’s Vineyard and New York are skilfully and economically evoked, the Russian scenes being particularly vivid. I also enjoyed the descriptions of baseball, which are among the best pieces of writing in the book; the game creates a vivid sense of life and acts as both mirror and metaphor of the lives of the characters . This book engaged me on many levels, both as an engrossing story and as a thought-provoking meditation. An outstanding debut.

reviewed by Kate Beswick

Friday 6 June 2008

Book news - Orange Broadband Prize

The winner of the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize has just been announced... Rose Tremain for The Road Home.

The winner of the Award for New Writers is Joanna Kavenna for Inglorious

Tuesday 3 June 2008


by Melvin Burgess

A scorcher of a novel aimed at teenagers and young adults, this is an honest, pull-no-punches account of homelessness and the descent into drug addiction. It blew me away from the first page.

I had heard about this novel a long time ago, but avoided reading it because I thought it might be sensationalist and upsetting. Then I read some books by Melvin Burgess aimed at younger readers and admired the clear, lucid prose and the unsentimental heart beneath the stories. Junk turned out to be a very realistic and believable account of the adoption of a very different kind of lifestyle for two underage runaways. The writing is so textured you can smell the incense and the fag smoke. You can feel the sticky floors beneath your feet. The prose is sharp and edgy, totally compelling.

Tar is escaping an abusive, drunken household, Gemma is bored and seeking thrills. Their relationship begins unevenly, with shy innocent Tar adoring his spiralling-out-of-control 14 year old girlfriend. What follows is utterly compelling, full of amazing character and place detail. It is at once heartbreaking and full of hope. It is the anatomy of a relationship between maturing teens, between kids and drugs, between responsibility and danger. It is searing. I can’t recommend it highly enough to kids or adults.

reviewed by Annie Smith

Tuesday 27 May 2008

Mister Pip

by Lloyd Jones

The setting is a primitive community on a South Sea island which fears being caught in the conflict between a ruthless militaristic government and rebel guerillas. The community deals with the lack of any educational provision by inviting the community’s only white man – one of the principal, beautifully drawn characters – to stand in as teacher. The narrator is Matilda, a 15-year old girl who is one of his pupils. His main standby is to read to them from a battered copy of his favourite book, Dickens’ Great Expectations. While feeding Matilda’s hungry imagination, this ultimately has unthought of consequences.

I thought the strengths of the book lay in the rich evocation of the setting, and the convincing development of the very believable characters, some of whom show unexpected depths when faced with extreme – not to say horrific – moral situations. You may feel that Matilda displays more insight than you might expect from her age and backround; but this is of course written from the standpoint of her adult self, who can be allowed, I feel, a little licence here. It did nevertheless seem to me that the author’s very sure touch faltered a little towards the end, where there is a tendency to over-explain, to reveal the bare bones of every moral dilemma. It is the ambiguities in the story which have been one of its great strengths to this point, and readers should be credited with the ability to face these unaided.

However, Mister Pip passes the most important test: I read it almost in a sitting, and felt unable to put it down.

reviewed by Christopher Bazalgette

Tuesday 13 May 2008

Extra(ordinary) People

by Joanna Russ

For someone who is not a huge fan of science fiction, I have been reading a fair bit recently. Rather, I have been revisiting old favourites. And Joanna Russ’s work certainly comes into the category of favourites – of any genre. In fact, as far as I’m concerned she is one of the best writers I’ve ever read.

Her work is intelligent without relying on obscurity or cleverness; she writes with passion and clarity; tackles difficult subjects with ease, wit, and humour (which isn’t always the same thing); and has done more to stretch the boundaries of her chosen genre than most other writers.

Extra(ordinary) People is more than a collection of short works without quite being a novel. This, in itself, makes for an interesting and vibrant format where themes can be explored from different angles without creating the false or awkward situations that might be necessary in a single piece. These themes and ideas are carried forward in a way that unifies the pieces, even though they are outwardly disparate.

As well as the themes that are explored (of which more in a moment); there is a common underlying viewpoint that binds the stories.

A lesser writer would, perhaps, have made something of this structure, creating and peopling an elaborate back story, yet Russ has allowed the stories to do that through the voice of the central character(s). A sense of alien presence, of otherness, is conveyed through what is highlighted as absurd in humanity.

The stories in the book are about communication and about understanding what it is to be human, especially for one half of the human race. And this is why I have left the themes of this book until now. Russ is a feminist. And already I can hear the sound of hordes of sci-fi fans (and others) walking away. Which is strange and saddening. Yet it is no rare thing for sci-fi apologists to expound its ground breaking qualities whilst accepting books that are misogynistic, militaristic, or at best paternalistic without batting an eyelid or bruising their delicate consciences. Make one mention of the position of women in a future or alternative world and we are told this cannot be real sci-fi (unless of course the women in question are young, blonde, pneumatic and wearing skin tight space suits). The same holds for fantasy.

Yet some of the very best sci-fi and some of the very best fantasy has been and will continue to be written by, for, and about women. And long may it continue. I don’t want a literature that excludes half the planet’s population, or treats its members like a housewife in a fifties sitcom. That is degrading and downright unrealistic.

Russ examines the place and experience of women in the world. This world. Other worlds. She stands assumptions on their heads. She explores possibilities. She even discusses the nature of fiction. And she does it as part of a long and grand tradition of women writers in the genre. Yet it is not polemic. That makes for bad fiction. And if there is one thing that is certain, it is that Joanna Russ writes good fiction – extraordinary fiction.

reviewed by Graeme K. Talboys

Tuesday 6 May 2008

Book News - Short Story Prize

The longlist for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award contains 39 collections, including no less than eight published by the wonderful Salt Publishing and even one, Gilded Shadows by Mary Rochford, which has been self-published!

More details and the full longlist can be found here.

Monday 5 May 2008


by Justine Picardie

Justine Picardie’s novel takes you through an episode in the life of Daphne du Maurier, and into her home Menabilly (the inspiration for Manderley in her most famous work - Rebecca). As you follow the story, everywhere you turn, you bump into the ghost of Rebecca.

Justine has created a Menabilly/Manderley so compelling that you will be haunted by its ghosts as much as Daphne is. The plot roams along corridors and through doors, some open and some closed, reflecting the structure of the old house itself.
Manderley broods over the novel in the same way it broods over ‘Rebecca’ and it provides both a physical and a metaphorical structure for the novel. The narrative takes you backwards and forwards in time and into the house’s lost and forbidden corners. The writing is full of literary illusions and allusions that delight and capture the imagination. The plot is threaded through with tricks of time and place as Justine Picardie explores and punctures the barriers between reality and fiction.

Daphne tells the story of the life of Daphne du Maurier, woven around her writing and the labyrinthine journey it takes her on as she writes a biography of Branwell Brontё. Her path is littered with characters you will already know, some real and others of literary origin, such as Rebecca and Peter Pan.

She has also accomplished the neat trick of making all the characters sympathetic on at least some level. Many are deeply flawed – for example, Daphne’s husband Tommy’s alcoholism and depression mirrors that of Branwell – but in each case the reader can forgive and understand the behaviour and find a redeeming feature in the character.
I’m left feeling that whilst this novel must have been hefty and time-consuming to write – research underpins every page – it must also have been great fun.

About two thirds of the way through, I realised that although I wanted to get to the end to find out what happens, I didn’t want to get to the end because I didn’t want to leave this confusing and moving world that Justine Picardie has created. Fittingly, the end of the novel does indeed jolt you out of that world but the characters and their ghosts will stay with you long after the final page.

reviewed by Helen M. Hunt

Tuesday 29 April 2008

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

by Mitch Albom

Eddie is about to die. We read the countdown to his death as he tries to save the life of a little girl at the funfair he is in charge of repairing. When he reaches heaven, he meets five people who have each altered his course in life and are waiting to explain his existence to him…

Absolutely effortless prose – I felt like I glided through this book on a wave of absolute fascination. It is interesting, satisfying and intriguing. At first I worried that it might be saccharine or sentimental, but it is honest and genuinely moving. There is certainly no predictability to the storyline but there is a nice device of returning to Eddie’s birthday in different years to connect the various lines of narrative and punctuate the visits with his five people. Every action and every character rang true for me and I felt strongly connected to the story almost from the first paragraph. A genuine pleasure from start to finish.

reviewed by Annie Smith

Friday 18 April 2008

In the Dark

by Deborah Moggach

In London, 1918, Eithne Clay, widowed by the war, struggles to keep her dismal boarding house going in the face of unpaid rent and food shortages. The lodgers, all in the dark in their own ways – the blind Alwyne Flyte; Mr Spooner, who doesn’t leave his room; Winnie the housemaid who views the world from ‘below stairs’ – inhabit a dreary establishment where nicotine has drained all colour from the wallpaper, and the nearby railway blows smuts of dirt and soot through any open window. Into this cheerless scene strides Neville Turk, whose butcher’s shop blazes electric light into the foggy street. But there is something dark about him too, because despite the scarcities and privations of the war, Neville Turk seems to be a man with plenty to offer. ’People pressed their noses against the glass, gazing into his theatre of meat – shapely legs of mutton… glistening necklaces of sausages.’ Soon parcels of meat are arriving at Palmerston Road on a daily basis.

In the gloomy grip of adolescence, 14 year old Ralph Clay hovers on the fringes of boarding house life, observing the burgeoning love affair between his mother and Neville Turk. Ralph is both repelled and fascinated by their passion, unyielding in his dislike of the butcher. ‘I’m a vegetarian’, he declares, as Neville Turk woos not only Mrs Clay but the hungry lodgers with his munificence, ‘a platter of rump steaks swimming in rich brown gravy’.

The residents of Palmerston Road are as pitiable a cast as any drawn by William Trevor or Brian Moore. But as Deborah Moggach turns a spotlight onto each one, every character yields other dimensions. Mrs Clay, genteel and respectable, her dreams unfulfilled by her late husband, sees a lavish lifestyle beckoning, and cannot resist the advances of Neville Turk. Ralph’s clarity of vision makes for an enjoyable journey for the reader. Winnie’s vision of herself is poignant. This is a wonderful book, which will repay re-reading, not least for the Dickens-like naming of characters.

In the Dark was longlisted for the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction 2008.

reviewed by Máire Napier

Tuesday 15 April 2008

Book news - The Orange Prize shortlist

The shortlist for the main Orange Broadband Prize has just been announced here and our clever contributors have already brought reviews of Lottery and The Outcast to you ( with When We Were Bad currently high on my own to-be-read pile). The shortlisted authors are Nancy Huston, Sadie Jones, Charlotte Mendelson, Heather O'Neill, Rose Tremain and Patricia Wood.

The shortlist for the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers was announced earlier this month and the authors and titles can be seen here.

Monday 14 April 2008

Speaking of Love

by Angela Young

Obviously, a title should draw you to a book and it was very much the title – in my current state of raw broken-heartedness – which drew me to ‘Speaking of Love’, as though perhaps, it could teach me something.

A quick glance at the back cover synopsis helped: What happens to relationships when you don’t speak of love? Another plus is the suggestion that if you like Maggie O’Farrell, then you’ll love Angela Young. But the thing which most encouraged me to put the book into my pile of birthday-voucher-delights was the five line biog at the back: This first novel was written by a graduate of the MA Creative Writing course at Middlesex University. At only half way through a BA I have a long way to go, but sisters under the skin and all that.

So I opened the book with a fairly mixed bag of anticipation, expectation and caution. Only to be enchanted from page one. This is a story told mostly in flashback, from three different people: Iris, the storyteller, Vivie, her daughter, and Matthew, Vivie's childhood friend. Through their eyes and their memories we see how Iris lost her storytelling mother and her silent father, how she fell in love with Kit, the poet, and how he wouldn’t be owned. It’s the tale of how a mother lost her daughter, and feared she would never find her again, and of a daughter who has been terrified into not wanting to be found. It’s a book of heartbreak and sorrow, so how it becomes a tale of hope is beyond me, but fortunately not beyond the pen of Ms Young. This is her first novel, and it’s a true hope that it won’t be her last.

reviewed by Alison Watson

Friday 11 April 2008

Book news - Galaxy British Book Award Winners

The Galaxy British Book Awards ceremony was held this week, with an Outstanding Achievement award going to J.K. Rowling.

Other major awards went to Ian McEwan for On Chesil Beach and to Khaled Hosseini for A Thousand Splendid Suns.

The full list of winners and other nominees can be seen here.

Monday 7 April 2008

Black Plumes

by Margery Allingham

By the time Margery Allingham came to write Black Plumes she was well established as a first rate crime novelist. This was partly due to her creation, the much loved Albert Campion, but as this novel shows, she is a writer of great quality. A classical and well-crafted whodunit, this also happens to be a fine novel about how the atmosphere within an enclosed society can easily become soured by ambition, jealousy, and thwarted desire. It also proves that an Allingham book did not need Albert Campion to make it a success.

If I had any niggle, it was a slight over dependence on the ‘…in years to come X would remember this moment…’ device. Other than that it was a fine portrait of a claustrophobic situation, of fear and suspicion. There is an added piquancy to this, given that it was written in 1939, with dark clouds gathering over Europe for a second time in a generation.

The characters are well drawn and inhabit the story quite naturally, even though most are out of their natural environment. The plot is intriguing and contains some wonderfully dramatic set pieces. And always there is Allingham’s dry wit and wonderful observation, small touches of characterization that bring even the minor characters to life.

This would make a marvellous film. Rather, it would have made a marvellous film in the days when the British film industry was still good at this sort of thing – telling a great story with quality acting and highly professional cinematography. These days it would be done on television and treated as a lavish costume drama with some high profile adaptor changing the story for no apparent reason or it would be sent up in a treatment that producers would call ‘ironic’.

Given that Margery Allingham is a far better writer, I would contend, than Agatha Christie and given that her stories are far better constructed, more intriguing, and peopled with believable characters, it seems a crime that her books are not all in print and readily available.

reviewed by Graeme K. Talboys

Wednesday 2 April 2008

The House at Midnight

by Lucie Whitehouse

From the opening page, I was hooked on this brooding, psychological suspense story from Lucie Whitehouse. Even the cover is alluring!

After the suicide of his uncle Patrick, a successful art dealer, Lucas Heathfield inherits Stoneborough Manor, an isolated mansion in Oxfordshire. It quickly becomes a perfect retreat for his close-knit friends from London. Jo, the narrator, is thrilled when Lucas – who is her oldest friend - finally declares his love, soon after their first visit on New Year’s Eve. She’s always hoped they would get together. However, Jo soon starts to sense something malevolent and oppressive about the house. It seems to be having a strange effect on Lucas, who becomes haunted by the death of his uncle and obsessed by cine films of his mother’s friends at Stoneborough, thirty years earlier. The group is strangely similar to their own and the films reveal things about Lucas's family that he never suspected before.

As the house’s energy starts to affect them all, Jo finds herself drawn to Greg, a newcomer to their group, and over a hot, sultry summer secrets are spilled and rivalries forged as friendships begin to unravel.

This is real Barbara Vine and Donna Tartt territory - an insecure group of people sharing an old house - and Lucie Whitehouse ratchets up the tension in this eerily atmospheric debut. Stoneborough leaps off the page in a Gothic manner, and the cast of characters are engaging and vividly portrayed. It’s an intimate look at growing up, changing group dynamics and how money can change people, but the real star of the story is the house itself.

As I live in the Chilterns I can also vouch for the author’s descriptions of the area, which are satisfyingly authentic!

reviewed by Karen Clarke

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

Friday 29 February 2008


by Patricia Wood

I’ve been reading Ms. Wood’s blog since its inception but this book never really appealed to me until I saw it for sale in the local supermarket

It’s set in modern day America – I had the feeling of Maine or Connecticut – and tells the story of a man, Perry L. Crandall who lives by his routines. His life is shattered when his grandmother, who looks after him, dies. The rest of his other family, who had given him up because he was ‘slow, swoop in and encourage him to sign away the house she left him. When, by lucky chance (“Gram always said the ‘L’ stands for Lucky”) he wins the state lottery, his friends rally round and try to protect him from his mother, his brothers and their wives who all want to wrest the money from him.

It is a sweetly written book, told from Perry’s point of view as he spends his winnings trying to make people happy. In the end it is Perry who is happy, as he realises that people should get what they want.

I enjoyed reading ‘Lottery’ although there was very little conflict. Perry has little understanding of death and copes admirably with the three in the book. The bad guys remain safely two dimensional and, like life, get away with their bad behaviour. Although the novel had none of the page-turning compulsion of Mark Haddon’s “Curious Incident” (where there is a similar character) I found it reminiscent of the gentleness of, say, John Irving’s ‘Hotel New Hampshire’ and I look forward to reading her next.

reviewed by Rachel Green

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Year of Wonders

by Geraldine Brooks

I was lent this by a friend with the recommendation; ‘I don’t read many books, but this one was just so beautiful, you’ve got to read it, I loved it.’

It is set in 1666 in a Derbyshire village called Eyam (pronounced Eem) during the Great Plague. Based on a true story, it shows how the villagers cut themselves off from the outside world to prevent the spread of the disease to the surrounding area. The book contemplates science and religion; grief, friendship and love, relationships under pressure and disintegration of the community as they face the devastation of an almost unstoppable disease. The growth of mistrust and even violence is shown to be inevitable and largely unavoidable and there are some fascinating twists and turns in the community’s behaviour and interactions.

It is a beautifully written book, the first work of fiction from its foreign correspondent author. The sense of place is evoked so clearly and the characters so truthfully, that I found I raced through it to find out what happened next. I would recommend the book heartily and would love to hear what other people thought of it.

reviewed by Annie Smith

Monday 25 February 2008

What Was Lost

by Catherine O'Flynn

What Was Lost was something of a literary sensation in 2007. A much-rejected first novel from a small indie publisher, Tindal Street Press, it won the Costa First Novel award and was long-listed for the Man Booker prize.

The novel centres around the mystery of a lost child, missing for 20 years. In the first part of the novel O'Flynn paints a touching portrait of Kate Meaney, a clever and lonely child engrossed in solitary detective activities with her toy monkey. The novel then moves to the present and revolves around the Green Oaks Shopping centre, where record shop manager Lisa and security guard Kurt are both drawn to try to solve the mystery of Kate's disappearance. The writer has managed to capture the life of a large shopping centre and the characters who work and shop there very convincingly, with plenty of period and regional detail.

What was Lost is not a long book and some critics have described it as a young adult crossover novel. The writing is consistently good, particularly in the first section about Kate, which makes it a quick and enjoyable read, though I didn't quite see it as a Booker winner.

reviewed by Catherine Walter