I am from Essex. I’m proud to be from Essex and love my home county – many of the people I love are there and I have many, many happy memories of my youth spent scrabbling around in the woods and seashore of the county. The fact that I don’t live there any more is partly economic, partly chance and a teeny bit of TOWIE. Fact: I’m rubbish at wearing high heels, don’t tan and can’t drive any car let alone a MK 2 Cortina. But, hey, it should be more widely known that us Essex girls come in all shapes, sizes and skin-tones.
Some of my best-beloved fellow Essex girls live in the parts of Essex which are so wonderfully described in Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent. They are the parts which are often forgotten – rather than flashy urban and suburban bits like Romford and, my hometown, Basildon this book depicts the beautiful, and sometimes dramatic, north Essex coastline. Not brightly lit Southend but windswept and wonderful Mersea, St Osyths and Tollesbury sprang to my mind as I was reading.
The story concerns Cora, an unusual woman in the late Victorian era, who moves from society London to a village in the wilds of Essex when her husband dies. Set forty years after Darwin published Origin of Species the novel explores how some people’s thinking about nature, science and religion by this new way of thinking. The rise of socialism is also covered as Cora’s companion Martha is an active campaigner for improved London housing. These new ideas are contrasted with both the traditional beliefs of the villagers of Aldwinter and the faith of their vicar, Will Ransom. Will and Cora’s friendship also develops to a point which challenges Victorian morality – in fact most of the relationships in the book are straining towards becoming ‘modern’ rather than ‘Victorian’.
I really enjoyed the plot – Aldwinter is thought to be being terrorised by the Essex Serpent of the title, a malevolent sea creature blamed for every lost child, dead sheep or drowning – which blended folk tale and myth in with the science of the day and the characters were wonderful. All the people we meet are believable and well-rounded so you end up caring about them all (although not everyone makes it through the book unscathed) – I was particularly drawn to Martha, a free-willed and pragmatic woman who probably ends the book in the most satisfactory position, and Cora’s son Frankie, who seems to be even more damaged than Cora by her recently deceased husband. What really made this book for me though was, unusually, the language. I generally read for plot – I can appreciate good use of language and a clever turn of phrase but tend to remember the story more than the words used to tell it. Perry, however, has such a great capacity for description that I think her words may stick with me for some time.
Value for money is a funny old thing. On the one hand if something is really cheap I tend to assume the phrase ‘and nasty’ follows – I buy stuff in Poundland and Primark but I wouldn’t expect to still be using it after a few months. The phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ leads me to value products which are well made and, well, reassuringly expensive as they say. But books? In terms of fiction, what is a reasonable price to pay for a hardback? How much should not having to wait six months to a year for the paperback cost? For many years the cost of hardback fiction has been creeping up – I recall an era of £14.99 being considered quite pricey and then prices increasing until a couple of years ago when I realised that £20 had become the norm. There was always the odd title sneaking in at a bargain £9.99 but they were sometime a bit, well, underwhelming. I refer you back to my worries about the phrase ‘cheap and nasty’. Recently, however, there seems to have been a spate of hardback fiction coming in at £12.99. I mean, loads of it, and on the whole it has been good stuff. Girl on the Train, Streets of Darkness and The Widow have been stacking up sales in the thriller department and are all by debut or relatively unknown authors but even established authors like Irvine Welsh, Anne Tyler and Haruki Murakami are out there at a price point which works out cheaper than a train ticket from Leeds to York. I seem to have a lot of customers who really like to get their favourite authors in hardback so I’m glad that they are now able to indulge themselves a bit less expensively.
My own personal latest £12.99 read is The Muse, the new novel by Jessie Burton, whose debut, The Miniaturist was a Waterstones Book of the Year in 2014 (and was similarly priced). This is another historical novel but, instead of 17th Century Amsterdam, the setting is Andalusia just at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and London, thirty years later, in 1967. In the 1930s the story concerns itself with Olive, a girl who wants to be a painter, and the extraordinary pictures she produces but feels unable to claim as her own. In the 60s we catch up with one of Olive’s paintings through Odelle, a young woman from Trinidad, who is working in a London gallery while trying to find the courage to be a writer. There are love stories, tragedies and friendships and, eventually, the mystery of the painting is solved (but never revealed). The plot is fairly complex but is satisfyingly put together and I felt emotionally involved with the main characters.
I particularly empathised with Olive and Odelle and with their creative efforts. Olive allows her work to be attributed to a young Spanish artist because she knows her art dealer father would think less of something painted by a woman (and by his daughter in particular). Odelle has a little more confidence – she is a very forthright young woman who has travelled halfway around the world alone – but we see the attitudes of the day towards black women and know that she has a tough time ahead. In fact even when she gets a story published in a literary magazine her name is spelled wrongly – the story is credited to Odell, rather than Odelle, Bastian: her father’s name. The role of women in art has, historically, been that of a muse, an inspiration. In this novel the women are the creators and the men they love are what inspires them to produce their art.
English was always my favourite subject at school – permission to read as many books as I could, even if that reading was guided, was bliss to me. It still is to be honest (and with rather less in the way of set texts these days) and my voracious book habit continues. I was also lucky enough that my English teachers at school encouraged us to read a wide range of books – some great plays when I was 15 or 16 and, in sixth form, the course was based around world literature so Dostoevsky and Achebe rubbed shoulders with Jane Austen. Oddly, I didn’t seem to have to read the authors you’d usually associate with ‘English Literature’ – there was no Dickens, no Hardy, no Brontes and, astonishingly, no Shakespeare. Although these were the years of the BBC Television Shakespeare series (1978-85) and I watched most of these I didn’t actually ‘study’ Shakespeare until University. Even then I only did one module on ‘Shakespeare the Dramatist’ which was as much about acting and staging a play as studying it for meaning and a brief shot at Hamlet as part of a course on Revenge Tragedy. For me reading Shakespeare has almost always been about acting and about reading for pleasure. And I’ve never found it difficult to understand the language (footnotes are my friend) since so much of our modern usage was coined by Shakespeare himself. I’ve also been making up for my childhood omissions by doing lots of Shakespeare with our reading group at work (Bill Bryson biography in May and Romeo & Juliet in June) – I’m now ready to tackle a volume in the Hogarth Shakespeare series: Vinegar Girl, which is Anne Tyler’s updated retelling of Taming of the Shrew.
This version sees Kate, pushing 30 and in a job she thinks she hates, looking after her widowed father and younger sister. In an updating of this story you might expect Kate to be a very combative character and, in some ways she is. But in many other ways – particularly in the way that she has to organise the household, and her life it seems, to keep her rather eccentric scientist father happy – she is actually quite self-effacing. She is bitter and unhappy in many ways and it is only through her relationship with her father’s research assistant that she is able to develop into the woman she should be. This is, is many ways, quite a large deviation from the original – her new husband Pyotr is frustratingly clueless about how to woo a woman or, indeed, most other social niceties but he is not the bully that Petruchio is in the original. Which is a relief – I don’t think that would have made for as appealing a story as this light and almost frothy romance. We get enough back story to make sense of Kate and her sister Bunny and there is enough development (in both sisters) to make a satisfying ending.
Every now and again you read a book which electrifies you. It is so different from anything you’ve read before, it has characters who make their way into your heart and mind or it is just so well-written that you can’t look away. The most memorable example for me, quite possibly, was way back in 2010 with The Passage. The jumps from storyline to storyline in the opening chapters and then the leap forward in time to a post-apocalypse community under siege from ‘virals’ were intriguing; the characters, and especially Amy, were engaging and the whole premise of the virals themselves (something between zombies and vampires and totally terrifying) was fascinating. To be honest this was probably my first post-apocalyptic novel and I didn’t realise they could be this good…Oddly I couldn’t settle to the second book in the trilogy, The Twelve. It was almost certainly not the fault of the book itself – 2013 was quite a busy year for me and I was not the reading machine that I am today. However, this did give me a bit of a quandary. I was happy not to re-read The Passage before starting on City of Mirrors as it was a book which has made a deep impression on me but what to do about The Twelve? In the end I picked up the final book in the trilogy deciding that I’d give it a try and if I found I needed to go back and finish The Twelve then so be it. Luckily for me, however, this book is particularly good at reminding the reader of what happened in previous volumes – my gamble paid off!
In the first book we see the disastrous events unfold and then jump forward nearly 100 years to a community living as best it can in California. In the second volume (*rapidly checks plot outline on back of book*), we see a little more of the Twelve originally infected virals and build up to a climactic battle which sees them and Amy herself apparently destroyed. What impresses me about this trilogy is that it isn’t just about fighting the bad guys – both virals and the dregs of humanity who take advantage of the breakdown of normal society – but about how people try, and succeed, to make some sense of the new world they find themselves in. And this is how City of Mirrors opens – with no sign of virals for years what was effectively martial law is being lifted and people are starting to move out beyond the enclosed townships they have lived in for a generation.
Of course things aren’t that simple. Because we, unlike the survivors, know that as well as the twelve there was not only Amy but also Zero – the original carrier of the virus. This book is, essentially, the story of Zero (formerly known as Tim Fanning) and how a doomed love led him to the jungle in Bolivia where he was first infected. In fact, my impression of the whole book, the whole trilogy, is that it is about love. Love going right, love going wrong, the love of children for their parents and the love men and women feel for each other. And above all it is about the love that parents, and other family, feel for the children whose task it is to be the future. If this sounds maudlin and sentimental it really isn’t – there is plenty of action, death and destruction but there is also, at the end, hope.
You can call me an old hippy leftie if you like but my newspaper of choice tends to be The Guardian. In the interests of political balance I will also look through Private Eye and my parents-in-law’s copy of the Daily Mail. Although I have promised a friend that I will not, if possible, click on links to the Mail Online and I always try to avoid reading the comments on any paper’s online version. Because blood pressure…Anyway, the point is that, through the Grauniad, I was introduced to the writing of some interesting people: Zoe Williams, the incomparable Charlie Brooker, proper grown-up writers like Polly Toynbee and Owen Jones and, a personal favourite, Hadley Freeman. Hadley’s usual columns are, loosely, about fashion – something which, on the whole, doesn’t really interest me (or Rob). But we both read her fashion column with interest, and quite a few giggles, so it must be Hadley herself who is the draw. Seems fair…
Her latest book caught my eye when I was trawling through Netgalley and I thought it sounded perfect: Hadley Freeman writing about 1980s film (the last time they made really, really good popular films without explosions, overdone product placement or sparkly vampires, in my opinion). Now, somehow, Rob managed to get through the 1980s without seeing many of the classics. He knew When Harry Met Sally but had never seen Legend, Labyrinth or Princess Bride – we spent a few months having 80s film night once a week to get him up to snuff but I’m sure there are films he (and even I) am missing out on. And now we can use Hadley’s book to work out which one to watch next!
I think for me the best thing about this book is not that I know almost all the films (although I do have to confess to never having seen Dirty Dancing) but that it reminds me that these films were made to be enjoyed and also made with more than entertainment in mind. Dirty Dancing made people consider what they really thought about abortion – I thought it was just about not putting Baby in the corner, I am certainly watching this now – and Back to the Future is actually more about being a parent than a teenager. These films are about how it actually felt to be a teenager rather than what film marketers thought teens were interested in. Big difference. This is writing about films which were about more than just the merchandising and franchising opportunities. I don’t watch a lot of films these days (although if Princess Bride or Stardust is on the tv I’m there) and think this is why – I want a story or feelings. I don’t want to be sold things. This book reminds me that there was a time (my youth, essentially) when films were about more than selling, when they were more like, well, books…
Caring seems, to me, to be much more of a two-way street than it at first appears. I think even as a child I wanted to make sure that my Mum was happy and safe (obviously my actual actions didn’t always help her to feel that way – kids are also, for a lot of the time, selfish and thoughtless even before they get to the hormonal teen years). Many members of my family work in health and social care and in education and I’m pretty sure that the affection that the people they care for helps them get through some of the nastier days. Even in retail I have sometimes been very touched by the concern customers have shown for the health and well-being of staff in the shop. I know that things can go wrong – I watch the news – but on the whole I’m sure that the best carers are thought of with fondness and respect by their clients. Although, of course, when those clients are children things can go a little wrong.
The central character in Kit de Waal’s My Name is Leon is a child who finds himself in the care system in the early 1980s. His mother seems to suffer from serious post-natal mental health problems after his perfect little brother Jake is born and Leon – despite being nine years old – does his best to care for them both. When she finally suffers a breakdown Leon and Jake find themselves with a foster-carer called Mo – she is a good carer, loving, understanding, strict when it’s needed and willing to let bad behaviour slide when it is obviously the result of fear or misunderstanding. This could have been a happy time for the boys but Leon is still worried about his Mum (he’s a kid – he’s not going to stop loving his mother just because she is ill…) and then the unthinkable happens and he is separated from his brother too. Jake and Leon have different dads: Leon is a mixed-race pre-teen and Jake is a perfect, and eminently adoptable, white baby.
Oh my goodness, this book is such a heart-breaker! I was so sad for Leon – despite being a well-grown lad who is often mistaken for a much older child he is only 9 and he can’t understand why he is not allowed to carry on looking after Jake and his Mum. He is angry and confused and so determined that he is going to mend his broken family. But other characters also brought a lump to my throat – Leon’s Mum, Carol, is a hugely troubled person and I really wanted to make things better for her (her shortcomings are just as much the result of her illness as of her life choices – you can’t help but want to help her it seems) and Mo the foster carer is brilliant but has health problems. And you get to know all these people so well you are as concerned about their well-being as if they were your own friends and family. I even worried about baby Jake: like Leon, I’m sure he must be missing his brother.
Of course this is not just a tear-jerker – it is also very funny. Leon is a bright boy but, like many nine year olds, doesn’t really understand the way adults work. This is a large part of the humour (and, of course, the sadness). In addition to this there is a sense of anger at the injustices which the boys, and Leon in particular, experience largely because of the colour of their skins. Add the fact that book reaches its climax in the summer of 1981 and I had fear in the emotional mix too.
This is a wonderful, sad, funny and scary book. It has made me think about cared-for children and race, parenthood and gardening and, most importantly, about a very endearing boy whose name is Leon.
I know that in many, many ways I am very lucky. I love my job, my family and friends are brilliant (a bit odd sometimes but wonderful nevertheless) and I was one of the last generation to get a full grant to go to University. In fact in anyone asks what I did at University I tend to say ‘I got paid to read books’. Although it would be more accurate to say I did my degree in English & Related Literature at York University my flippant description tends to cover the facts. Of course grants weren’t perfect – no-one would lend you money if you were a student and I had trouble moving my bank branch after graduation because I had a £40 overdraft – but they certainly helped. My university years were fabulous and full of friends, laughter, slightly drunken nights out, theatrical performances, geese and late-night card schools. And, of course, some great books! I have my degree to thank for my introduction to Dante, the italian language, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Wallace Stevens and Gawain & the Green Knight (and I was able to do the whole course while avoiding Dickens!) These are all things I have gone back to over the years but one module which I had largely forgotten was on 18th Century literature – in which I read Defoe (Moll Flanders), Swift (A Modest Proposal), the poetry of Pope and Fielding’s novels. And it is Fielding that came to mind when I read Spufford’s Golden Hill.
In this novel a young man, mysteriously named Mr Richard Smith, arrives in a New York which is not yet the power it is today. Yet it is still a centre of trade and finance and Smith presents a note from a London bank to be exchanged for the vast sum of £1000. As he waits for this process to happen he becomes involved with New York society from fancy dinners (with high stakes card games) to amateur dramatics and with life on the streets of the city too. We get to see New York from top to bottom – with the lower levels featuring everything from near riots to bath-houses and, eventually, the jailhouse too. The whole tone is, generally, amusing (and amused) with the odd moment of pathos. There is, however, also a more serious view of how the white settlers, the British and the Dutch, deal with the black slaves they rely on to build their country.
This is, in the end, a novel with a broad streak of eighteenth century picaresque humour – balanced by our own twenty-first century sensibilities. Don’t let the fact that it reminds me (and others) so strongly of books which show up on undergraduate syllabuses put you off either – those funny, sentimental and often bawdy novels were some of the highlights of my studies!