I am delighted to be today’s stop on the blogtour for this delightful book.
William Woolf is a letter detective. He’s worked at the Dead Letters Depot in East London for eleven years, one of a team of thirty, dedicated to finding the right home for all the letters and packages that arrive with missing, torn or smudged address labels, wrong destinations, unreadable handwriting. William is one of the most efficient of the detectives, which gives him time to indulge his passion for what they call ‘the Supernatural Division’ – all the letters sent to God, Elvis, Yoda and the like:
These messages in a bottle, trails of bread left in the forest, obsessed William. Who were these believers and how long did they wait for a reply? Was the writing more important than the response? Did the writers tell anyone that they had written these letters? Were they relieved or saddened that their unanswered players had fallen on deaf ears?
For some time, William had wanted to create a volume of these missives for public record. He felt there was a cast of thousands currently speaking into the void but who deserved to be heard.
William is married to Clare, whom he met at university when he tried to start a book group and she was the only person who came. She is a successful barrister; William had planned to be a writer, but ended up at the Dead Letters Depot. They live in a small flat in East London – with Clare’s salary they could afford more, but William has always insisted on paying his half of the mortgage. Clare escapes their small home on a succession of night classes. Their marriage seems to have stalled lately, making them both sad and, uncertain how to rekindle the flame, they end up not talking.
Then on St Valentine’s day, when to colleague Marjorie’s delight, they are overrun by misplaced greetings cards, William happens to pick up an envelope.
…it was midnight blue. The colour just before blue becomes navy; the darkest, most mysterious shade on the spectrum. And his favourite.
The handwriting on the front consisted of curls and spirals, dramatic capitals, carefully crafted lower-case letters, all in a dripping silver ink. There were just three words: ‘My Great Love’. William held the envelope close to examine the grooves in the darkness of the pages, and smelled the faintest trace of vanilla. Something stirred inside him. He ached to open this envelope. Not here, though. He slipped it inside his shirt pocket and felt it radiate hot light through the cotton and on to his bare skin. He had never taken a letter home before.
This letter changes everything, and William has a new obsession. A woman called Winter is writing to a man she hasn’t met yet. William hopes she’ll write again, and she does. He makes sure he gets the letters, which contain small clues about their author, increasingly wondering if he could be her ‘great love’. But what about Clare?
There are echoes of Denis Thériault’s book The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman here, in which Bilodo, a postman, steals letters from a woman called Ségolène in Guadeloupe which consist of haiku. He falls in love with her, and the story turns a little sinister when he takes over replying to them. William doesn’t have the twisted motives of Bilodo though, so in this respect the story more resembles Jean-Paul Didierlaurent’s charming The Reader on the 6.27 in which a young man who works at a pulping plant, rescues found pages including the diary of a lonely young woman, Julie, with whom he falls in love. In both of these novels, the protagonists are single, and there is a real danger that their love will be unrequited.
That’s not the case for William though – he has Clare, he has experienced love already. This reminded me of the situation of Fred and Mary in Paul Torday’s Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, however William and Clare haven’t quite reached the state of living separate lives together that Fred and Mary have, they’re pretty close though.
I couldn’t possibly tell you what happens to William and Clare, or whether William finds Winter, suffice it to say that there is resolution. William and Clare are both drawn very sympathetically, they’re very real characters. Clare is frustrated, William is a dreamer, but you really want them to work things out. There is a lot of heartache along the way, but for the most part, debut author Helen Cullen keeps things light and breezy and the right side of being sentimental. The most heart-warming moments though, are when William undertakes special deliveries, returning precious lost photos and objects to their intended addressees by hand.
Our Royal Mail does have a Dead Letters Depot – officially known as the National Returns Centre in Belfast, where 300 letter detectives work to redirect the lost mail. The service was centralised there back in 1992. This old article from the Guardian tells more about its work – and William’s work is not so different. This is such an engaging novel, I thoroughly enjoyed it. (9/10)
Do see what the other stops on the blog tour thought too.
Source: Own copy – Michael Joseph, 2018, hardback, 328 pages. Now in Penguin paperback.
Last night was a very special event at Mostly Books – the first time I can remember that four wonderful authors crammed into this small shop with as large an audience as could be fitted in! They were:
William Shaw – author of the excellent Alexandra Cupidi series of Kentish crime novels (and the Breen & Tozer 1960s crime novels) – his latest, Deadland, is reviewed here.
J P Delaney – author of the mega-bestselling psychological thrillers The Girl Before and Believe Me. I’ve recently finished The Girl Before (review soon) – it kept me up to read it in one sitting! His third, The Perfect Wife will be out in August.
Cara Hunter – Oxford author of the DI Adam Fawley books – the fourth, No Way Out, was published in April. She lives in a street not unlike that in her books.
Olivia Kiernan – an Irish writer, living locally, author of the DCS Frankie Sheehan books set in Dublin – the second, The Killer in Me, was also published in April
Chairing the discussion was performance poet Tina Sederholm who is a serious crime addict – she did a wonderful job. She started off, after introducing the authors, by asking why we read crime? Olivia said, “The monster looks like all of us,” anyone could be a murderer – and there is the “survival impulse” that compels us to keep reading. Cara added that she’d recently read some research that found that the people least affected by crime are middle-class women, but the people who are most afraid of crime are middle-class women, which is maybe why so many women read crime novels. JP added that the genre has been made more vibrant in recent years – there was a “Sea-change after Gone Girl“.
Moving on to talk about the main characters in the author’s current books, Tina asked about their responses to the “troubled male DI trope,” – something which doesn’t feature in any of these author’s books. Cara’s detective is Adam Fawley – but she started writing the first book, Close to Home, without gender in mind – her protagonist narrates some parts in the first person, and the DI’s gender is never specified. However, she realised she wouldn’t be able to keep that up in subsequent books, so made DI Fawley a male, but one who is in touch with his feminine side. Olivia’s lead is a police superintendent, so for Frankie, she is first and foremost an utter professional. William added that many people didn’t like his female DI Alexandra Cupidi when she appeared as a subsidiary character in The Birdwatcher. Whereas these author’s main characters are all reliable, that’s not the case with JP’s – Believe Me was inspired by the murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common and the undercover operation to entrap the man they thought did it. JP’s protagonist is the woman who acts the part, and turns out to be rather unreliable! Moving to secondary plots, William Shaw told us how he loved writing the teenagers Tap and Sloth in Deadland “who steal the wrong phone. Your heart goes out to them – then you put them in extreme danger!”
Moving to locations, William talked about the wild allure of Dungeness which gives his books such a sense of place. Cara asserted that there was plenty of room for more murders in Oxford after Colin Dexter’s Morse – especially to show other parts of the city. Shaw also explained how he got Alex’s surname from a chap he didn’t know who tried to friend him on social media, whereas Cara has included family ‘winks’ in her books for fun! Cara also includes documents, tweets, newspaper articles, website screenshots etc to break up her books – there may be clues in them, they may be red herrings… JP switches to ‘filmscript’ mode occasionally in Believe Me as the actress feels she is on a set. Olivia has researched police interview techniques, finding it fascinating how they use psychology to get confessions, although sometimes, particularly in the USA, they can go too far. William said he was ultimately less interested in the killers than the detectives and the effect that their job has on them – many suffer from PTSD.
It was a wonderful evening, and the four authors and Tina were lovely to talk to once the formal part of the evening ended. Having lugged a bag of books with me, and topped up buying more on the night, the photo at the top of the page shows all the signed copies I now have! William Shaw also drew a little bird for me – “to annoy the birdwatchers”, he quipped!
The only thing to mar the event, was that I didn’t take my phone with me, so when I found I’d left the memory card of my camera in my laptop at home – I couldn’t take a photo. Grrr!
It was great to see the four authors interacting so well together for a most enjoyable event. I am so looking forward to reading more by William Shaw and JP Delaney, and am sure I will enjoy Cara Hunter and Olivia Kiernan’s books too – I have great crime and psychothriller reading ahead of me.
I’m so behind on my reviews, here are two shorter ones…
Tony Hogan Bought me an Ice Cream Float before he Stole my Ma by Kerry Hudson
This debut novel was our book group read this month. The title is rather off-putting, sounding like a C&W ballad, but it is apt – for the main theme of this book is things given then taken away. The first paragraph certainly sets the tone:
Get out, you c**ting, shitting little fucking fucker!” were the first words I ever head. The midwife, a shiny-faced woman who learned entirely new turns of phrase that night, smoothed Ma’s hair.
This is young Janie Ryan’s story, it begins in Aberdeen and travels from there to Canterbury, Sunderland and Great Yarmouth as her Ma moves her family to escape a succession of wrong men, and paying the rent. Janie’s is a life of poverty, living on benefits, living in awful council flats or B&Bs that take DHSS, eating the cheapest foods, always changing schools. It is totally grim, yet throughout it all Janie has optimism and hope and belief that her life will be different. You feel so much for Janie’s mum stuck in the poverty trap, it’s all too real. In Janie though, Hudson has created a resilient, fiesty and loveable young heroine.
We all agreed that the writing was great, and most of our book group really loved this book, only one found it too grim to enjoy. I loved it. (9/10)
Yes, this is the first book behind the hit TV series Killing Eve. I’m usually a firm believer in always reading the book before seeing the film/play/programme etc, so I’ve come about this the wrong way around, but I so enjoyed the TV series, adapted by the wonderful Phoebe Waller-Bridge (PWB), that I was intrigued to read the source material to compare and contrast.
The four stories that make up the first book were originally published as e-book singles between 2014-16. Before we meet anyone else, we meet ‘The Twelve’, a shady organisation that is obviously working towards world domination – they are the paymasters and we find out nothing more about them other than they order a hit on a Mafia Don. Villanelle will make the hit – which was one of two that appeared in the first episode of the TV series. On TV, PWB saved Villanelle’s back story for a later episode but Jennings mixes it in much earlier. Conversely, in the book, we don’t meet Eve Polastri until page 47:
Thames House, the headquarters of the British security service MI5, is on Millbank, in Westminster. In the northern-most office on the third floor, Eve Polastri is looking down at Lambeth Bridge and the wind-blurred surface of the river. It’s 4 p.m. and she has just learnt, with mixed feelings, that she is not pregnant.
Eve is younger and English in the book, but the rest of her life is moreorless the same. Konstantin, Villanelle’s handler, is portrayed very similarly too – particularly the sparky conversations with the hitwoman:
His expression hardens. ‘This is not how I want things to be between us, Villanelle. I don’t want to have to negotiate every decision.’ ‘I know you don’t. You want me to be your killer doll. Wind me up, point me at the target, bang bang and back in my box.’ She looks him in the eye. ‘Sorry, but that’s not how I function these days.’ ‘I see. So how do you function, exactly?’ ‘Like a thinking, feeling human being.’
There are many scenes you’ll recognise from the TV series, including that nasty one where she was a ‘nurse’ in a unique kind of brothel. The locations sometimes differ, and Eve’s new boss is male, not Fiona Shaw. Presumably, the events at the end of the TV series occur in the second book, No Tomorrow, for they’re not in this first book – or they may not appear at all! PWB’s adaptation certainly makes the TV series more feminine, although the two women are to the fore in the novel, they’re even more prominent on the telly, and the black humour comes over with that PWB touch on screen; it is there in the book, but more traditionally done.
I enjoyed the book a lot, will happily read the next, and a third is out next year – but I loved the TV series. However, as a female thriller lead, Modesty Blaise (see here) knocks spots off Villanelle in my book! (8/10)
Source: Own copy. Luke Jennings, Codename Villanelle (John Murray) paperback 217 pages. BUY at Amazon UK or Blackwell’s via affiliate links.
Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me by Kate Clanchy
Some of you may know Kate Clanchy’s work from her super comic novel Meeting the English (see here) or her earlier memoir Antigona and Me (see here), about a refugee who became her cleaner and nanny. She has also published books of poetry including Slattern and Newborn, written plenty of journalism, and is currently chairing the judging panel for this year’s Rathbone Folio Prize (see here).
What you may not know, is that she has done all this alongside her thirty-year career as an English teacher in the state system. She has been teaching at Oxford Spires Academy for ten years, where she is Writer in Residence, and her pupils have gone on to win many prestigious prizes for their poems – indeed Picador published a book of their work last year with an extensive introduction by Kate – England: Poems from a School.
Some Kids I Taught... is her memoir of that teaching career, and Kate came to my local bookshop Mostly Books to talk about the book and answer questions last week. She said that the book took her six years to write, teachers so often “give their creativity away,” it was good to be able to write. The book is a moreorless chronological journey through her teaching career, but each chapter has a theme: “About …” and the topics are wide-ranging from Exclusion to the Hijab, from On the Church in Schools to Poverty, Art and How to Choose a School, from Prizes and Selection to Being Well. Under each of these and more headings, Kate tells us about her pupils in short story / extended vignette style. Each story is a “child and a thing,” she explained.
She began writing the book with one of the stories in the middle in a chapter on nations, papers and belonging, one of the most emotional and shocking – ‘Shakila’s Head’. Shakila is from Afghanistan, a Shia Muslim refugee from the Taliban, and she wrote two poems on a sheet of paper. It was the one she crossed out on the back that moved – about her experience of a Taliban suicide bomber at a market when she was fourteen.
However, not all of the stories are serious, there’s plenty of good humour too. In the first one, it’s 1992, Kate is in a temporary teaching post in Scotland and has to give sex ed lessons to a class of thirteen-year-olds:
“Mrs McClanchy?” said Callum. “Yes?” “Whit wis the name for men and men?” “That was homosexuality, Callum.” “Aye. And whit wis the name for women and men?” “That’s heterosexuality, Callum.” “Aye. Well, when I grow up, I’m no’ going to have either o’ them. Ah think Ah’ll just have a big dog.”
Whether the stories are serious, funny, or anywhere in between, what there is in this book is complete honesty, many words of wisdom, good teaching advice, and compassion for and understanding of the difficult lives and situations of her students, alongside snapshots of memoir. Clanchy’s passion for teaching creative writing – something the school curriculum just neglects completely after GCSE – her talent for getting the best out of her pupils through poetry just leaps off the page.
She cares deeply about all her students, who in her current school come from all over, an incredibly multicultural mix which she relishes. In their poetry group they compose some amazing poems – some of which are included in the book. Clanchy gives them a ‘frame’, a context or a verse to get them started and away they go – and we mustn’t forget that for most of them, English is not their first language – it’s an amazing achievement for these talented teenagers. Kate took great pains to only write stories which could show her students in a generally positive light. Those who could be recognised from the text read their stories before publication, others are amalgamations.
It takes a certain kind of person to be a great teacher, and part of that is learning from those you teach. From the ‘Inclusion unit’ she worked in with excluded kids in Essex early in her career, to the multicultural mix of Oxford Spires, Clanchy’s pupils have taught her well – as she has taught them. This book is essential reading.
Source: Review copy – thank you.
Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (Picador, 2019) hardback, 288 pages.
Plundering my capsule reviews from my pre-blog days on my master spreadsheet – a selection from 2007 for you this time.
Hullaballoo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai
A funny, gentle and very jolly satire on fake holy men and the followers they attract; almost an Indian Life of Brian! Sampath’s family despair of him; he’s useless at his job in the post office and they can’t find him a wife. All Sampath wants to do is commune with nature and dream – so he runs away to a guava orchard outside the town and installs himself up one of the trees. Of course he’s found and they won’t leave him alone. So he starts spouting phrases from private letters he read at the post office, and everyone thinks he’s holy. His family take up residence and set up the tree as a shrine and Sampath’s ‘wisdom’ becames famous and people flock to see and hear him. Things get more hectic after a troupe of monkeys join him too.
A delight to read! (published in 1998)
Always the Sun by Neil Cross
This novel starts off with a standard scenario – father and son move house after the death of his wife to start again. Jamie, the son, has some ‘problems’ at his new school, and the whole thing bumbles along for about half the book. It eventually takes off when his Dad confronts the father of the lad he thinks is giving his son ‘problems’ … then it gets nasty and ultimately tragedy happens. We initially sympathise with the father who is bound up in his grief, but when that turns to rage, the tables are turned completely.
A powerful piece of writing that is compelling, especially to any parent! (published in 2004 and longlisted for the Booker Prize that year)
Poppy Shakespeare by Clare Allan
Does institutionalisation make you mad? Can anyone be really cured after years in a care facility? How many are working the system to stay rather than face the outside world? Are people getting enough of the right treatment? These are just some of the issues surrounding mental health that Allan addresses in her first novel having seen life from the inside herself apparently. Written from the viewpoint of one of the saner day patients ‘N’ who, at the start of the novel, has learnt to work the system, but still couldn’t survive totally outside it. When a new patient Poppy arrives, who doesn’t seem very mad, N is assigned to be her guide, and gradually everything changes. Billed as a North London One flew over the cuckoo’s nest, that’s doing this book a disservice; it’s very different. There are digs at the politicians too, especially over the provision of ‘Mad Money’ – an issue that tends to overtake the human plot at times.
An uneasy read – you wonder if there was much poetic licence taken; or is this a true reflection on life in such an institution? (published in 2006)
Old School by Tobias Wolff
Set in a top boy’s boarding school with a history of encouraging writing, this novel had me gripped from the start. Unashamedly literary in style – but being a book largely about literary style, criticism and subtexts, this is how it should be. The school arranges a series of visits from great authors and corresponding competitions for the boys to meet them. First Robert Frost, then Ayn Rand and finally the biggie – Papa Hemingway. What wouldn’t a fledgling writer do to meet his hero? That is a question for that boys, and staff. Fabulous writing, a gripping plot, but I couldn’t quite give it five stars as I haven’t read all the books they talk about – Ayn Rand’s in particular [Never gonna read her! – Ed] to compare and contrast with Hemingway.
Highly recommended though. (published 2003)
Life on Mars: Runaways, Exiles, Drag Queens and other Aliens in Florida by Alexander Stuart
Journalist Alex Stuart goes to Miami to write a feature for GQ mag, falls in love with the place and stays. He needed to get away from London after the death of his son from cancer, and found Miami was a place where misfits and runaways can all fit right in. He soon makes friends and has a great time and experiences little of the violent Miami we all expect from the movies; the real-life Chili Palmer, self-styled John Hood, is a gracious philosopher, the drag queen puts his creations away in the closet for daytime, and Hurricane Andrew misses Miami Beach. This contrasts with the poverty and tyranny in Cuba on his first visit there to write an article.It all seems very nice, and great fun.
Did he manage to get under the skin of the real Miami? Partially, I think – and it was mostly good to read about.
On Presence: Essays | Drawing by Peter Reason and Sarah Gillespie
Recruiting Peter to the team of Shiny New Books reviewers was a bit of a coup – in fact he approached us. A retired professor, he has a deep interest in the natural world and humanity’s place in the ecology of the planet. His deeply considered reviews of books on nature, climate change, ecology etc. have given Shiny’s non-fiction offerings a welcome focus in that arena. Before Shiny, Peter has written two books about his sailing voyages, weaving ecology into them – and he’s currently sailing to Iceland!
In the interest of full disclosure, although we’ve yet to meet in person, I’d consider Peter a virtual friend now. So I couldn’t say no to receiving a copy of his latest publishing venture – thank you Peter. He has worked with his artist niece to produce a short book, On Presence, combining his essays with his niece’s drawings.
This beautifully produced slim book with its wraparound cover (above) by uncle and niece was a pleasure to read and examine. Peter’s essays dwell on nature and being in nature, The Orchard, The Nest and Silence are complemented by his niece Sarah’s incredibly detailed, almost photographic drawings. The fourth essay Art in a Time of Catastrophe is more of a conversation between the pair discussing their work and Sarah’s art techniques, again it is bookended by Sarah’s drawings.
Both art and essays beguile, but the underlying message is ecological, as presaged by the epigraph to the book from Jan Zwicky’s Learning to Die: Wisdom in the age of climate crisis, which Peter reviewed for Shiny here. I savoured this contemplative book and just adored the drawings.
A rare DNF: Village of the Lost Girls by Agustín Martínez
Translated by Frank Wynne
Being a fan of translator Frank Wynne, I was looking forward to reading this Spanish abduction thriller. But, although Wynne’s translation was excellent as usual, the book wasn’t – I only read 112 of its 487 pages before giving up.
It tells the story of a remote village in the Pyrenees where two eleven-year-old girls went missing. The village lived on in hope, and when, five years later, one of the girls reappears, the stakes are raised sky high to find the other. After a prologue in which the two girls play in the snow before their abduction, and a newspaper report of it – the novel itself begins with a car crash, the driver is killed, but the girl is alive. The girl is Ana. Where is Lucia?
From thereon in, the story jumps around all over the place – from person to person and location to location – some short vignettes, some longer sections. Presumably intended to illustrate the real-time nature of the case – but for me it had the opposite effect of making it rather bitty to read. The first twist came surprisingly early in the story, which destroyed some of the initial tension. However, I would imagine that there will twists aplenty to come – after all – this is a relatively closed community and everyone knows everyone else, they’ll all have secrets – but there are too many characters.
The main problem with the book was its waffle. I wish it had been edited down to say 350 or so pages (or fewer even). At 487 pages, the waffle continually diluted the urgency. Only the burgeoning relationship between local policeman Victor and imported major crime officer Sara, who manages to shoot Victor’s dog by mistake early on, kept me reading as far as I did. The rest of the plot was too diffuse and slowburn, (and potentially nasty in a paedophile way), to continue.
Source: Review copy. Agustín Martínez, Village of the Lost Girls, trans Frank Wynne (Quercus, Jan 2019) Hardback 496 pages.
The British Book Awards run by The Bookseller are the publishing industry’s equivalent of the BAFTAs and are affectionately known as The Nibbies. They celebrate the best British writers, books, publishers and bookshops. The Books of the Year are split into the following categories with one overall winner being picked too:
Harry guarding the book pile
Crime & Thriller
Children’s Illustrated & Non-Fiction
When asked if I’d like to feature one of the shortlisted categories on my blog, I said of course! There are some super books on the Fiction and Debut shortlists, and although I’ve only read a couple of them, I feel I know many of the titles rather well as several have cropped up so often in shortlists at the moment. Thus, I opted for Narrative Non-fiction because I’m trying to read more non-fiction in general. Thank you very much to FMcM publicists who sent me a set. It contains one book I’ve read, two I’ve been itching to read, two I am interested in, and one by a chap who I have no idea at all who he is!!! Let me introduce you to them.
The Language of Kindness by Christie Watson – this is the one I’ve read, (reviewed here). I’ve read many doctors’ memoirs, but this is the first by a nurse that I’ve encountered, and Watson covers her twenty year career in it including a long stint in intensive care. It is compassionate and caring, never boring, and often surprisingly funny. An excellent read indeed.
First Man In by Ant Middleton – Who? Turns out this chap is a former SBS (Special Boat Service) sniper having served two tours in Afghanistan. However, he is mostly known as having presented/led an SAS selection type TV series for Channel 4. While this book is sure to be quite blokey, I’ve not read any soldier’s memoirs, (luckily the TV career appears to be mostly incidental). Instead, it’s written as a series of ‘Leadership lessons’ with learning points at the end of each chapter. I could actually enjoy reading this – and the copy I received just happened to be signed!
The Secret Barrister by The Secret Barrister – I’ve been itching to read this book ever since I read Clare’s review here. An anonymous barrister’s memoir of ‘Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’, I’m sure it will be totally eye-opening, with some horrifying moments, and hopefully some hilarity to balance them out. This will be the top of my pile.
Everything I know about love by Dolly Alderton – I’ve read about this memoir all over the place. Alderton is a journalist and columnist for the Sunday Times, (and a judge for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction). It basically goes from her teens to turning thirty. Lots of short chapters punctuated by lists, the odd hangover cure recipe, there’ll be masses of booze, boys, men, sex, heartbreak, and female friendship. One of the quotes on the back cover calls it ‘Sex and the City for Millennials’. While I’m far from being a millennial, it’ll be fun (and nostalgic in a way, I’m sure).
Becoming by Michelle Obama – who doesn’t want to read this book? I was waiting for the paperback, but now I have the hardback at last and I just can’t wait to read about her extraordinary life.
Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff – I’m going to have to take the cover off this one! I can’t bear to have a picture of that awful man staring at me. I’m also not sure I will be able to read it very thoroughly – it’ll make me too cross I’m sure.
As shortlists go, this one is very heavy on the memoirs at five out of six titles, with Michael Wolff representing the rest of the wider world of narrative non-fiction. Reading the judging criteria for the Nibbies, sales success has to accompany literary merit, so these shortlists are bound to be dominated by bestsellers and in narrative non-fiction that really means memoirs. That said, I have no idea who will win this category – but it’d be particularly nice to see Christie Watson win. (Reni Eddo-Lodge won last year with Why I’m No Longer Talking About Race)
Anyway, as the prizes will be awarded on Monday 13th, I won’t have much time to read much of any of these books – so which should I start with? What do you think of this shortlist?
Thank you again to publicists FMcM for sending me the set of review copies. Much appreciated.
No sooner had I started reading my first novel by Joe Dunthorne, the rather fab The Adulterants (reviewed here), than I discovered he had a book of poetry coming out, and I was keen to see more. O Positive with its blood-red lettering on the front cover, is divided into four sections, one for each of the major blood types, A, B, AB and O. It’s telling that Dunthorne picks O+ as the title of the collection though – it is the most common bloodtype, 35% of the UK population have it – does Dunthorne? He doesn’t say – Ha!
The first section, ‘A’ begins with a superb poem – A sighting (right) which plays with the identity of the bear, whilst having a cracking opening line. This is followed by poems on unhappiness and happiness, facing each other on the page. Each of the four sections has poems varying in length, some a simple 4 or 5 line stanza, a few written as prose, but there are only a couple that spread onto a second page though. The first part ends with a shockingly visual poem called Old Days which begins:
Remember when everyone on earth was pregnant except for you which was a miracle
and the babies jangled down on their cords like masks during sudden cabin decompression
Dunthorne does genial darkness very well indeed! Almost all of the poems have some aspect of threat or menace in them. Veiled in sunny tones, the mood can turn on a sixpence. There are some parallels between the sections – ‘B’ begins with a poem in which owls carry off the author’s sleeping child, whereas in ‘O’ the narrator recovers his children in ‘Ransom tape.’ It also goes the opposite way, in ‘B’ the narrator gets searched at the airport but let go in Though the officer, in ‘O’ in At last I am chosen, the narrator actually wants to be caught and body-searched. – Ew!
I enjoyed his economy of style, the bizarre scenarios, I loved the black humour too, but was equally surprised by occasional moments of soppiness which was very endearing. A rather wonderful first collection. (9/10)
Source: Review copy – thank you. Joe Dunthorne, O Positive, Faber Poetry, March 2019, flapped paperback, 64 pages.
Williamson is the daughter of a printer, and from 2011-14, she was writer in residence at the John Jarrold Printing Museum in Norwich. Every poem in this 2016 collection takes its title from a printing term from Letterpress to Non-printing blue, via a more familiar pair called Portrait and Landscape, poems suitably shaped, she writes about the whole history of printing from Gutenberg to Digital, and a very helpful glossary of the printing terms used is appended. While many of the poems overtly refer to the processes and equipment of printing, others take their inspiration from the term used in the title and go off elsewhere, such as Coffin (an alternative name for the printing press bed):
We were in the car for seven hours driving home to Scotland, listening to the radio telling us over and over, between songs, that Diana had died.
There is life and dying, love and waiting, nature and nurture in these pages, amongst all the printing history. There are glints of humour, but Williamson doesn’t do throwaway endings. My favourite was a poem called Figure, (right) which captures the sense of resignation and acceptance and this being at one with the world. While I wasn’t as entertained by these poems as by Dunthorne’s collection, Heidi Williamson did make me think a bit more I think, and I’ve learned more about printing on the side. (8.5/10)
Source: Library. Heidi Williamson, The Print Museum (Bloodaxe Books, 2016) paperback, 72 pages.
It was thanks to Joe Nutt and his inclusion of one of McNish’s poems in his book (reviewed here) on how to learn to love poetry that I discovered her poetry on the page. I had heard of her, but had mentally – wrongly – grouped her as just a performance poet, not that I’d watched her perform then either. I vaguely remembered that she had been targeted, along with Rupi Kaur and Kate Tempest, in an essay by another poet in an establishment publication, as ‘amateur’. An article in the Guardian here tells the full story and Rebecca Watts’s essay and review of Plum is here, and they make for absolutely fascinating reading.
So, I was in the library and decided to borrow some poetry books – and Plum was the first I spotted. It’s a collection about growing up in mind and body, from childhood memories to trying to be an adult. It’s split into two parts, the first much larger one is called ‘mind’ and the second small set of eight poems is, of course, ‘body’.
It does have a certain conceit though – for McNish includes some of her younger self’s poems from the first, written when she was eight, moving gradually into her teens and twenties, finishing with Rules for Turning Thirty, written when she was 29. Some of the poems are thus adult responses to the childhood ones – but they weren’t the most successful ones for me.
I laughed a lot reading these poems, and Training Day at Boots the Chemist, remembering her weekend job made me guffaw – the second half captures her terror when her teacher comes to the till with a box of condoms perfectly. It may lack any conventional form, but it’s funny. In fact, most of her poems have a well-developed sense of irony, and many a deep throwaway final line like Orgasm (left).
Not all of her earlier poems were that juvenile either, Language Learning, written aged 24 had a marvellous blend of French and English, but never quite Franglais; the verse that got me compared the French words te deshabiller, te sucer, baiser, to their English hard-sounding equivalents, strip, suck and fuck.
Some though, are full of observations and are more thoughtful, such as Watching Miserable-Looking Couples in the Supermarket, which is more than just a list, it’s a litany rather, of why people stay together, miserably.
There was one poem that particularly resonated, given the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London and elsewhere; David Attenborough would be proud. Hiccups (right) not only has a great message IN CAPITALS but also lots of internal rhymes and lovely alliterative f-words. See, I’ve learned!
I hugely enjoyed this collection. Maybe the poems by her younger self were overdone, but, included as a way to respond as an adult, and now that she is a mum herself to respond to her child and the poems that that child may write, they have a place.
My response, as a 59 year old to the controversy I mentioned at the top of this post is that the author of that essay should get a life! This book of poems made me feel alive, it entertained, I certainly reminisced over my own equivalent experiences, I laughed a lot, I read them out loud to myself – I READ A BOOK OF POETRY FROM COVER TO COVER AND I WANT TO READ MORE by everyone. Thank you to Hollie McNish for making this jaded reader feel this way.
Presented on the page, McNish’s poems have one persona, but they do demand to be read out loud, and she is utterly brilliant at it. Here are links to two readings by Hollie – neither from this particular collection, but both rather brilliant – I hope you enjoy them.
Hidden Woods which is wonderful and celebrates Forest School and being in the woods.
Why Trilogies are More Satisfying Than Series or Mere Sequels
This post was inspired by Rebecca’s one about her general wariness of books that continue their stories (read here).
I too, am notoriously fickle in continuing to read novels in series even when I loved the first one or two I read. A case in point is the excellent Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch – I read the first two (see here and here) and I do want to read more having four on the shelf, but I just don’t feel the pressure to get through them. I know what to expect broadly, and I have too many other single books calling out to me! Long-running series are particularly prevalent in crime, SF and fantasy genres, and most have an underlying story arc alongside the episodes in each book.
There are many series I have loved getting into and hope to carry on with eventually – e.g. Michael Connelly – Harry Bosch books, Lawrence Block – Matt Scudder series and Charlaine Harris – True Blood. However, I feel no need to read any more Patricia Cornwell (should have stopped sooner with Scarpetta) or to go further with Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake vampire killer books or Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books for instance.
In fact, the only lengthy adult series I’ve read in its entirety in recent years is the 4000+ pages of Stephen King’s Dark Tower set. And why was that? Why did I persevere with this particular series over others (plus Harry Potter)?
The answer is because it had an end!
All these other series just go on and on and on! I like the finality of a series with an ending. And that is why I seem to have read a lot of trilogies (or parts of with the rest still to come). Trilogies just seem the perfect length for a series – we have the exposition of all the themes in the first book, they’re developed in the second, and then reviewed in the third with a coda – just like symphonic form.
The daddy of all the trilogies has to be The Lord of the Rings which I read (plus The Hobbit) for a third time back in 2010. Maybe my love of LOTR is why I’ve never been able to get into Game of Thrones – neither on page nor TV, I just don’t feel the need – although you can try to persuade me if you want.
Apart from LOTR, I have two particular favourite trilogies I wanted to highlight:
First: Jeff Vandermeer’s amazing Southern Reach Trilogy – which blends SF and horror with a bit of dark fantasy into a twisted mind-bending eco-thriller. Although the first book is the strongest, you do get (some) answers in the third! I was amazed by Vandermeer’s scope of imagination in these books, something he’s not short on as I loved his latest book Borne too.
Second: Pierre Lemaitre’s Verhœven Trilogy (translated by Frank Wynne). A trilogy of crime novels is a very rare thing and Lemaitre’s protagonist, Commandant Camille Verhœven of the Paris Brigade Criminelle is a wonderful creation. It all gets very personal in the final volume, which echoes the first. Incidentally, these three novels were first published out of order in the UK with the second, Alex, first. I’d recommend reading them in order: Irene – Alex – Camille.
Others I also loved include:
Alan Garner’s Weirdstone trilogy – in which Garner added a later adult conclusion to the pair of classic children’s novels he wrote in the 1960s.
G W Dahlquist’s Glass Books trilogy – a completely bonkers and slightly racy steampunk adventure.
Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown trilogy – the final part, The Van is my favourite, but all three books (The Commitments, The Snapper, The Van) are brilliant.
William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. I re-read the first part Rites of Passage for our Bookerthon at Shiny last year, I must re-read the other two.
Now, not one but three different trilogies by Robertson Davies: Deptford, Cornish and Salteron trilogies. I read all of these pre-blog. Lori of The Emerald City Book Review was planning to host a reading week in August – if it happens, I’m definitely in. I’ve been wanting to re-read Davies for years.
The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy – by Douglas Adams – a trilogy in five parts!
Then there is the wonderful SF world-building in Becky Chambers’ three volumes (see here 1, 2, 3) in her Wayfarers series – thus currently a trilogy (but I do hope she writes more!).
Trilogies are also popular in older children’s literature, notably Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – and its trilogy sequel, The Book of Dust – part two due this October. Also Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking, I read the first two parts (here and here), and must finish this one! There was also Sally Green’s Half Bad trilogy, which got quite adult by the end of the third volume, having started off rather Harry Potterish.
The one I’m really looking forward to for the final installment though is Vernon Subutex 3 by Virginie Despentes – (see my reviews of 1 & 2). Sadly it’s not due until March next year!
Do trilogies work for you? Can you recommend any others to me?