A Natural – Ross Raisin

Nailing colours to the mast here – I come from a family of West Ham supporters. However, I tend to get distracted from the actual football by everything else in life and don’t really keep up with teams, matches or much else. (Also, this season, I’ve been looking the other way because we’ve not had a very good year…). I’ll always root for Bradford City – who can forget that Cup run in 2015 – but West Ham is the team closest to my heart. For some people, however, football is an all-consuming passion – they know the players, the stats, the names of all the support staff, who supplies the best pies, where the reserve team train: everything. And this isn’t just for the big name clubs in the Premiership, Serie A, the Bundesliga or La Liga – small, local teams can inspire just as great an obsession. Possibly more since you are more likely to have either been to school with the goalie or bump into the Chairman at the local chippie. I, personally, love this kind of local support – it takes it back to the days when your team was about your town, not about who can buy the best players regardless of where they are from…Anyway, this is a bit of a digression but it is, at least tangentially, relevant to Ross Raisin’s latest book.

30335538Raisin seems to specialise in writing about the male psyche – and especially about men in difficult emotional situations. We read about women going through hard times a lot – and in some excellent books – but men’s emotional issues are often overlooked. Raisin’s first book was about a troubled youth in rural Yorkshire and his second about a middle-aged Glaswegian dealing with grief and homelessness – now this one looks at professional footballers. Of course, most of what we hear about this group – the inflated salaries, lavish lifestyles and drunken antics – means that we don’t expect to sympathise with the characters but the realities of the day-to-day life of young men in the lower reaches of the English leagues seem much harder. We follow two players through the novel – Tom, released by the Premiership side he played for as a schoolboy, and Easter, the team captain who is losing his form – but are shown the experiences of many men. Youths earning £1000 a week, perhaps, with no-one to stop them developing expensive gambling habits, entire teams at the mercy of bullying managers and the weaknesses of their own bodies: when to be injured is to risk losing your place in the team but not giving your all physically runs the same risk. And, above all, the impossibility of showing any emotion in an environment where the fear of appearing to be anything less than a ‘manly’ man is paramount. And, of course, all in an environment where men are regularly in physical contact and frequently naked – the only thing feared more than being thought to be gay is actually being gay. In this atmosphere we explore the emotional repression and self-hatred of men at the peak of physical health but suffering mentally. Not such a cushy life, after all.



The White Hare – Michael Fishwick

You think you know what to expect with certain genres – heroines in romances are usually attractive (even if they have to work to be noticed), heroes are brave (even if they need to convince themselves) and heavy metal guitarists have long hair and tattoos. And, of course, folk singers have beer bellies, beards, and fingers in their ears. So it was a very pleasant surprise a few years ago when Seth Lakeman hit the folk music scene (and crossed over into the pop charts) with his song The White Hare. I’d like to say I was mostly struck by the energy of his playing (I’ve seen him destroy a bow in two or three songs when he plays the fiddle), or the dark undertones of the song but, to be fair I was mostly drooling slightly at his good looks. I know, shallow…So I thought I would make amends by reading a book called the White Hare to see if the slight air of mystery and menace in Lakeman’s lyrics transferred to this story.

whitehareThe story is centred around a young boy, Robbie, who has been troubled and angry since the death of his mother. That anger seems to have followed him, his dad and his dad’s new partner, as they have moved to a small rural village. Robbie has few friends but is drawn to other outsiders – Mags, an older girl who knows the land and its creatures intimately, and Alice, a sensible girl in his class who stand out as one very few black faces in the village. Mags shows him a mysterious white hare and swears him to secrecy – but will not say why. We gradually discover that the hare is strongly linked to some dark local legends but also that, just because something is legendary doesn’t mean it isn’t also very real.

This book is an exploration of Robbie’s path through loss and grief but it is also a story of the mythology of an area. It delves into the mysterious and into the rather more mundane (although unpleasant) lives of a family with power over  a small community. The mystery and menace are there – once again, folk music has not lied to me…



Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

Magical Realism seems to be one of those styles of writing which really divides people. I managed to totally split our shop book group down the middle when I got them to read One Hundred Years of Solitude (and when I say ‘down the middle’ I really mean that one or two agreed with me and enjoyed it – the rest found it odd and irritating) but it is a genre I generally enjoy. It was, however, not the genre I was expecting when I picked up Mohsin Hamid’s latest. His previous works have been experimental in their form so I guess the surprise was that Hamid was working within an existing format – it is no surprise, however, to find that he does it very well. In fact I checked out the main characteristics of the genre and I reckon he has ticked most of them…

exitwestNadia and Saeed are young people in an unnamed city (my feeling is that it is based on Syria or somewhere similar in the area but that feeling would probably change with whatever war was in the news…) who, like young people the world over, meet and begin to develop a relationship. This is dramatically intensified when simmering unrest develops into a civil war, cutting off normal means of communication. Nadia is passionate and impulsive; Saeed thoughtful and more socially/religiously conservative but they are sure they love each other. Probably. When the situation in their home city worsens further they decide to escape.

So far this doesn’t sound very ‘magical’. The realism of the unrest/civil war/atrocities is, well, very very real. The deaths, most of which seem to be civilians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and described with almost emotionless brutality and the day-to-day problems faced by those caught up in such conflicts are also covered in dispassionate depth. I think this feeling of disconnectedness was the first hint for me of what was to come so when the method of escape being used came up I was ready to accept it. Doors. Black doors. Which lead to other cities, other lives and other possibilities.They don’t all lead to lives of luxury – the ones heading to the affluent West tend to be heavily guarded – but Nadia and Saeed move gradually westwards, through the Greek Islands and London before ending up in California. Of course, realism is still a factor, so when people move via these doors they still meet the same problems refugees face in our own reality: prejudice, poverty, political manipulation. Nadia and Saeed face the fact that their relationship was formed in an almost unreal situation and, now they are halfway round the world from home, they have to find out if it has any future.

I’m not sure if I should class this book as speculative fiction, magical realism or literary fiction. It is all three. It is also a fascinating study of what it could be like to be displaced and how the world could react to an increasing influx of refugees to the West. It is beautiful and scary and well worth a read.


Massacre of Mankind: a Sequel to War of the Worlds – Stephen Baxter

There is an affliction that affects people of a certain age – i.e. me –  whereby any mention of The War Of The Worlds is associated immediately with Richard Burton’s narration, David Essex as the Artilleryman, Phil Lynott as the Parson and Justin Hayward’s Forever Autumn! Yes, Jeff Wayne’s fantastic musical version was the first proper album I bought with my own pocket money and left a huge impression on me. It was to be another five years or so before I read the actual book by H.G.Wells. The Wells book, published in 1898, is deservedly a classic. It’s not a long book, but the impression of the Lowellian Mars of the late 19th century being not a wise but a hostile, predatory world, keen to acquire territory inward as the sun cools and their own world dries, and overwhelming a Britain that was then a world leading imperial force – has a kind of dark, unsettling power that still can move a modern reader. I am re-reading it now.

baxterStephen Baxter – with the authorisation of the H.G Wells estate – has created a sequel which is enjoyable, if imperfect. To begin with of course, in 2017 we know what the real Mars is like. But Baxter, rightly, sets his sequel in the same universe as the original, where the Martians still regard our Earth with envious eyes and draw their plans against us. This makes the book a science fantasy now of course – set in a solar system that no longer exists – but the suspension of disbelief is quite quick as Baxter throws you into a well-paced narrative set in the 1920s, some years after the original invasion. And the Martians come again, and this time, they’ve learned.

I liked the characters. Narrated in the first person by journalist Julie Elphinstone, former sister-in-law of the original narrator (who reappears too), Julie is a strong-willed woman who is given a mission by Major Eric Eden – serving under Churchill – to infiltrate the Martian’s Redoubt,  their primary operating base  located in the ruins of the town of Amersham. With a cover story of communication with the Martians, and the actual purpose hidden, Julie is swept into the world of the British resistance, and into the military cordon round the Martian base. There are lots of colourful people here that I enjoyed meeting – journalist Harry Kane, Verity Lambert, Albert Cook (the artilleryman from the original book, making a reappearance), each of them have their own story and experience to tell – and for the first two-thirds of the book the story motors along. And yes, the story eventually does go international this time, with waves of Martians landing all over the planet.

I found the final third a bit of a disappointment – although it’s clear from the earliest pages that the second Martian War is eventually won, so this is not a ‘spoiler’, the manner of winning seemed very contrived.  Baxter develops a good idea – from the final chapter of Wells novel, there is a hint of the future strategy of the Martians, including invasion of the swamp-world Venus further inwards – and the significance of planetary-scale signs or ‘sigils’. I just somehow feel that Baxter had to rush the ending.

Nothing can match Well’s classic of course. I think Baxter has done a pretty decent, if workmanlike job of writing a sequel, and if you liked the original (or even the album!) do give it a whirl. ULLA!


There’s more than one way to be a princess

So there have been a couple of ‘days’ recently. You know, like International Boycott Sausages Day or World Lemon Day but these ones were a bit better. In fact they were right up my street…Thursday 2nd March was World Book Day – a day for celebrating books and dressing up as your favourite character – and because we love WBD so much we invite local schools in for class visits for the whole of that week and the next one too. This is great fun as there is nothing so energising a class full of 6 year-olds roaring like lions when you read Lion Practice to them – but it does mean I now have a stinking cold. And then, yesterday 8th March, was International Women’s Day – a great opportunity to celebrate everything that women do. What was really heartening was, when I asked the groups of children visiting the store what they dressed up as for World Book Day, as many girls said they’d dressed as superheroes or pirates as princesses. To mark these two ‘days’ I have been reading about two very different sorts of princesses.

Frogkisser! – Garth Nix

I’ve not previously read any Garth Nix but I have heard a colleague raving about how good he is on YouTube so I was expecting good things. I wasn’t disappointed, I’m very pleased to say.

9781848126015Anya is a Princess, for what it’s worth. The world she lives in is a patchwork of tiny kingdoms, after a terrible magical accident, and Princesses (and Princes) seem to be fairly thick on the ground. She’d rather be in the library, learning about sorcery, than anything else but her stepstepfather (it’s a long story) is a real sorcerer and, therefore, quite evil and she finds herself having to undertake a Quest to save her sister, her sister’s Princely suitor who has been transformed into a frog, her own life and, along the way many, many other things. She is accompanied by a talking Royal Dog, a boy thief who has been transformed into a giant newt and the aforementioned frog-Prince and must hunt for the ingredients for a magical lip-balm which will return the Price (and the thief) to their original forms. Along the way she meets some very cool wizards, seven dwarves, river otters and some highly responsible robbers but gains a lot of extra aspects to her Quest. The whole book is really funny but you also end up learning that Princessing is hard work if you are going to do it right.

My Name is Victoria – Lucy Worsley

Now, Lucy Worsley is someone I am familiar with – not so much as a writer but as a tv historian. I quite enjoy her slightly off-beat view of history and definitely appreciate her enthusiasm for her subject. I was certain that this book, another book for children aged 9-12, would be well researched and I hoped it would have Worsley’s charm. Again, I think the book did everything I asked of it.

victoriaThe book is narrated not by Princess Victoria, heir to the throne of Great Britain (and the Empire etc…), but by Miss V Conroy. Miss V, as she is known to everyone, is the younger daughter of John Conroy, comptroller of the household of the Princess and her mother, the Duchess of Kent. All the characters in this book are real – Conroy and the Duchess, Miss V, Victoria’s other attendants and the rest of the Hanoverian Royal Family, even her dog, Dash – but the story of what happens to her is altered, very slightly. Victoria and Miss V become friends – in fact Miss V is the only young friend available under the repressive Kensington System set up by Conroy – and support each other through the years leading up to Victoria’s reign. Miss V learns to mistrust her father and to understand the life that Victoria will have to lead when she is Queen.

Lucy Worsley has some fun with the story of Victoria and Miss V, blending solid historical facts with both the speculative rumours of the day and few interesting ideas of her own. The ending would certainly come under the heading of alternative history but, because it is reasoned out and handled so well, it is entirely believable.


In the Name of the Family – Sarah Dunant

In terms of reading my Mum, I think, raised me to enjoy a lot of the things she liked. She and I used to read a lot of poetry together (mostly from the last quarter of her copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury – Stevie Smith was our favourite) and I still have very fond memories of her Welsh(ish) accent when reading me Under Milk Wood. I also used to read all her Jean Plaidy historical novels when she’d finished with them. We were working our way from the Norman Trilogy, through the Plantagenet Saga and the odd bit of Tudors, Stuarts and Victoriana but I don’t think we read any of the Italian books. Maybe she didn’t want me (at 11 or 12) delving into the world of the Borgias. Although I do seem to recall being allowed to watch the odd episode of I, Claudius at this age so maybe this wasn’t a deliberate omission. The upshot is that my knowledge of the Borgia family is only what I have read in general histories of Europe in the Renaissance period (and also histories of disease, which is an odd interest of mine). Which meant I was coming to Sarah Dunant’s book about the last few years of the family’s power with few misconceptions beyond those popularly held ones of violence, nepotism, incest and general lewdness.

30375755In the Name of the Family is a very well researched historical novel which doesn’t ignore these aspects of the Borgia family. So it doesn’t just trot out those ‘facts’ (most of which, it seems, would earn you a very loud klaxon on QI) but explores them by showing us the characters of the family themselves. In some cases the reputations seem well-earned: Cesare is a man steeped in violence, seems to have no principles beyond the advancement of his own view of a Borgia empire and who has no qualms about killing those he has no further use for. The Pope, Rodrigo Borgia, is a man given to indulging his fleshly urges and focussed on promoting his family and Lucrezia is a beautiful young woman willing to be used as a pawn, married off to the most valuable ally possible. However, Dunant digs a little deeper and instead of giving us just the lurid details (from histories written by the Borgia families many enemies, perhaps) shows a more nuanced view of the characters. Cesare is given to violent mood swings but we see how they may be made worse by the effects of syphilis, the new disease sweeping Europe. Roderigo is venal but has a sincere love for his children, his mistress, the Virgin Mary and sardines. If he were a lesser man rather than a Pope he’d be a wonderful man in many ways.

Lucrezia’s story is interesting since an effort is made to show what she achieved herself rather than just portraying her as an object to be traded. Much mention is made of her reputation, spread again by the family’s enemies, as a whore, as a poisoner and as a woman interested only in fashion, dancing and pleasure but we see her as much more than this. She is aware that she has made personal sacrifices for her father and brother’s ambitions – a husband murdered and a son taken away – but she is shown as a woman of intelligence and feeling who works hard to make the best of the situation she finds herself in. She has an astute sense of politics and a keen interest in the arts; she cares about the women who attend her, many of whom have moved with her from Rome to her new home in Ferrara; she is determined to help to rule her new home well. She is shown very sympathetically but, as a modern woman, I found her willingness to be used, by her father, brother and husband, a bit depressing.

Overall I enjoyed this book. I felt that I learned a lot about the period and the characters. Some of the more minor characters were particularly interesting – Niccolo Machiavelli and Lucrezia’s husband among the historical figures, a convent herbalist and a young black servant among the less famous – and the plot moved on at a pace. If you enjoy historical fiction (with added violence and unflinching descriptions of death and disease) then give this a go.



Fish Boy – Chloe Daykin

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but I used to live in Durham. I worked both there and in Newcastle and would happily spend my days off exploring the bits of the coast you can reach via the Metro network. This means I now have quite a weakness for books and stories set in the North-East (and always make an effort to watch the Great North Run on the tv – although, since Rob is running it this year I will also hopefully get my first real life view too). I’m even considering a box-set of Byker Grove…Anyway, I do find myself gravitating towards books with a Tyneside setting and then, at other times, it creeps up on me. I loved the chapters of the Mirror World of Melody Black where the main character rebuilds her life on Lindisfarne – which I didn’t expect until it happened – and now I find I have picked up another books which features the glorious North-East coastline.

51vnfzet0lChloe Daykin doesn’t come right out at the start of the book and say that the waters her main character, Billy, swims in are the chilly ones of the North Sea but it becomes clear that they are. But even before that point I was captivated by Billy and his family. His Dad is loving and funny (even if all his jokes are definitely in the ‘awful dad joke’ category), his Mum is caring and warm. The problem is that his Mum is loving, warm and suffering with a mysterious illness which means she spends a lot of her time in bed. School contains bullies but no actual friends until a new boy, budding magician Jamie, joins his class – the only thing that seems to keep Billy grounded is swimming. Grounded, that is, until a mackerel swims right up to him and says his name…

I don’t really want to say much else about the plot – there are plenty of developments but they are not very easily explained. This is a story full of wonder and magic – the fact that Billy’s invisible friend is David Attenborough is part of the charm of this book  – but it doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. Billy has to learn how to deal with the often difficult and confusing world of school and with his Mum’s illness – swimming with a shoal of fish may not seem the best way to achieve this but, with twists of language and some interesting new friendships, anything is possible. I loved the way the way that the magical and the real were woven round each other and, in particular, I found the ending very satisfying. It is a happy ending because, by that point, Billy feels happier and more confident about his situation but it doesn’t solve all the problems. It just shows that, with love, friendship and self-belief we can cope with so much more than we think we can.