I love it when I find a new author – somebody’s first novel (or first published novel) – and especially if I get an advanced reading copy. I know smugness isn’t attractive but getting to read books early is one of the best perks of my job. When it is a new writer it’s even better – I’m one of small group of people who know that something good is about to hit the shelves. As you can see, I’m a person of simple pleasures. And recently a book turned up which fits these criteria and, as a bonus, is by a Bradford author (even if he now lives in That London…). If the far-reaching promotion does the trick then soon Joe Heap will be being talked about well beyond this corner of West Yorkshire.
Rules of Seeing focusses on Nova (a shortening of Safinova, her surname). She is an interpreter for the Metropolitan Police, a live wire, a force of nature. I mean, she’s blind, and has been from birth, but she has never let that hold her back – she speaks five languages and convinced her local deli to name a sandwich after her (pepperoni, pickles and peach slices, mmmm). Her story begins as her brother convinces her to undergo pioneering surgery which gives her the ability to see. This isn’t as simple as it sounds, however, because so much of our vision is in the brain not the eyes – Nova has to learn how to deal with the images she sees, with depth of vision, colour, interpreting movement and facial expressions. She meets Kate, an architect and the wife of a police officer, at a hospital and a friendship develops between the two women. The relationship changes, deepens, as Kate tries to escape from her controlling and sometimes violent partner until things come to a dramatic conclusion (in a hotel room in Bradford!)
I really enjoyed this debut novel. Nova is a great character – vivid, bold and yet vulnerable – and I was fascinated by her journey into the world of the seeing. I used to work at Bradford University bookshop selling books on optometry and know people who specialise in the psychology of vision but I still feel I learned a lot from Nova’s ‘rules of seeing’ which are dotted through the book. Although I’m not sure if I could face a Safinova Surprise sandwich…
It is a fact universally acknowledged that, in fiction terms, I am a fan of the quirky. I’ve delved into various Scandinavian, French and Canadian authors to feed this habit (with other corners of the world covered too) and now I have ended up in Switzerland. Yes. I know. I didn’t expect quirkiness from the Swiss either – land of fondue and sensible economics – but then I remembered cuckoo clocks and yodeling and it all made sense…
Schoch is a middle-aged man living on the street in Zürich and he’s getting by. He has a place to sleep, in a cave along the river banks near the allotments, he knows all the places to go to get adequate food and he could give up drinking any time he wanted to. Giving up drinking is easy – he’s done it lots of times – but when a terrier-sized, pink, glow-in-the-dark, elephant maybe it is time to quit for good. With a cast of alcoholics, circus-folk, evil scientists, vets and refugees this is a heartwarming book which looks at all kinds of issues around life, love and genetic modification. Partly because of the development of the character of Schoch as we unravel the life that led to him being on the streets, partly because of the warmth and humanity of Kuang, the Burmese oozie (or neck rider) and partly because of the elephant itself. Okay, maybe, more than just partly because of the elephant – what’s not to love about a glowing pachyderm small enough to sit on your lap? This is, in fact, the crux of the story – just because an elephant is only a foot high doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be treated like a proper elephant. And just because it is possible to create such a creature doesn’t mean we should. Add into this all that we learn about life on the streets, including how much the inhabitants care for their dogs, and elephant care and it is a very entertaining and interesting read. Although I now also know more about artificial insemination of elephants than I ever wanted to know…
After my previous post’s musing on age it seemed appropriate that my next read was on a similar subject. Older protagonists have become the new ‘thing’ it seems – The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window started it, Harold Fry and then Hendrik Groen took up the baton – but, I’ve noticed that most of them seem to be men. Which is slightly odd given that, on the whole, women outlive men (try buying a 100th Birthday card – lots of florals, very few views of cricket/trains/sailing ships…). Since my older years are rapidly approaching (well, I hope they continue to approach but they can slow down if they like!) I was interested to read Judy Leigh’s book in an effort to even up the gender balance.
Evie Gallagher is 75 and is quietly living out her days in a care home. Until she reminds herself that she is only 75 and, despite being very recently widowed, she isn’t dead yet. She walks out of the home and, helped by a big win on her very first visit to a bookmakers, into a new adventure. First she travels from her native Dublin to Liverpool and then on to France, ending up in a small village near Carcassonne. Along the way she meets a variety of people who help her to realise that she still has plenty of life left to live. By contrast her son Brendan, and his wife Maura, seem to be getting older by the minute: their marriage seems to be a matter of habit rather than love, neither of them is happy and they are, understandably, concerned about Evie herself when she disappears from the care home. They decide to follow her to France, with the intention of rescuing her – bringing her home to her old, safe life – only to find that she has other ideas. For Evie seems to have found the love and happiness that Brendan and Maura have lost. She has also been reminded (despite what some are still trying to tell her) that 75 isn’t old – it certainly isn’t too late to start living.
This is a feel-good book, but not without its moments of sadness. We all hope to live to a healthy and happy old age (although we won’t all manage this) but many will get too caught up in everyday pains and sorrows to achieve this. We can’t all escape to live in the South of France but I hope to keep Evie’s energy and joie de vivre in mind as the years creep up on me. She makes growing old disgracefully look so much fun!
Everyone has their own view of what is normal. I normally have weetabix for breakfast (lots of milk, a little dash of sugar and a few raspberries, mmmm) but to some that would be quite peculiar. They may hate soggy, milky mush or just not be able to face eating until lunchtime. They may have dietary needs, either through health issues or training needs for some kind of sport, which mean they need to eat a high protein, low-carb meal to start the day: they have their own normal. Some people may baulk at the idea of eating the same thing every morning – they may thrive on creating a unique meal each day. Everybody’s normal is valid for them but, I wonder, do they ever stop to wonder where their view of ‘normal’ comes from? Or, maybe more importantly, where the normal of those they consider to be complete oddballs has its source.
Eleanor Oliphant has what she considers to be a very sensible attitude to life. She wears the same clothes to work each day (selected from a choice of a couple of pairs of black trousers, a few white blouses and some sensible flat, black shoes), spends her lunch break eating a ‘meal deal’ from a local shop and doing a crossword (thereby avoiding waste – eating a whole pack of ham/cheese/tuna before it spoils is hard when you live alone – and keeping her mind active) and speaks to her mother every Wednesday (even if she’d rather not). So far she seems like someone I should be emulating – I could have an extra five minutes in bed if I didn’t have to decide what to wear each day and, on the weeks when Rob is away, I do sometimes have to either throw away food or eat the same thing every day for a week. And I should certainly ring my Mum more often… However, Eleanor also buys a couple of bottles of vodka each week – what has happened in her life that she needs to blot out her weekends? That is where you realise that, whatever she claims, Eleanor Oliphant is really not completely fine. It seems she is going to continue with her pattern of work, predictability and weekends of total oblivion indefinitely until two things happen: she sees a man who she believes is ‘the one’ and she, along with a colleague from work, helps an old man who has a fall in the street. These two things lead her to start changing her life – and she discovers that planning for her future leads her to start investigating the past she had managed to forget.
Eleanor is a wonderful character – so well-drawn and yet so deeply, deeply flawed. The more we learn (along with her) about her past the more we realise why she needs to drink a couple of bottles of vodka each weekend: anything to avoid remembering. The book is so well written that you feel with her – the plans to make herself into a more conventionally attractive woman, despite the physical as well as emotional scars she bears, the irritation with those who don’t manage to live in as organised a way as she does and the crippling horror of the memory of a blighted childhood. We may not all share Eleanor’s dark past but reading this book made me realise that we all have our own demons to deal with: her’s are just larger and scarier than mine…
We are often asked if we can get authors to do signings at our store. Partly because readers really want to meet their writing heroes and partly because they want to show off what a beautiful bookstore Bradford has. We get suggestions about authors both locally, nationally and internationally famous and we’ve had a few in. Last year saw visits from both Henry Blofeld and Jilly Cooper and local boy Dynamo had them queuing round the block a few years ago but some of our most popular events are with authors who both live in Yorkshire and set their fiction there. We’ve hosted increasingly crowded launch events for pharmacist turned Bradford Noir writer A.A.Dhand (watch out for book three this summer) but I think we’ll have to face the fact that Michael Stewart, former writer in residence at Theatre in the Mill at Bradford University, now owes some allegiance to Huddersfield where he is Head of Creative Writing. His newest book, however, has such strong links to the Bradford District that I’m sure he’ll be in the city to talk about it soon.
Ill Will is an attempt to answer one of the great questions raised by literature (and by one of the most interesting academics, John Sutherland) – is Heathcliff a murderer? More importantly it fills in those three years between Heathcliff running away, after hearing Catherine saying that it would ‘degrade’ her to marry him, and his return to Thrushcross Grange as a wealthy but heartless man. In the original novel we just have to accept the change but it was one of the things which I had a major problem with. The other one being how on earth I was meant to consider Heathcliff a romantic hero – easy enough when I was a teenager but as an adult I realised he was basically a wife-beater, and probably a rapist too. Which is a bit of a digression but, luckily, it is a question which also gets answered.
When Heathcliff does run from Catherine he crosses the moors and falls in with a group of men working for a farmer on the far side of Todmorden – only a few miles but a world away in a time when travelling was unusual. He needs to run a second time when he rescues a young girl, Emily, from a beating. She seems to be able to commune with the dead, an ability met with equal shares of horror and fascination, and they begin to use this skill to pay their way over to Liverpool – where Heathcliff is in search of the truth about his origins. He plans to abandon Emily – he has no plan to saddle himself with the care of a young girl – but their lives are soon linked by lies, by guilt and by a need for each other. And she is no meek little girl – as foul-mouthed and devious as Heathcliff himself. It is what they discover in Liverpool, however, which eventually leads to both his change in fortune and the utter hardening of his personality. The boy that runs away is irreligious and angry, full of spite and profanity: the man who returns has been turned into a bitter and vindictive bully bearing all the trappings of a gentleman.
I really enjoyed this book as an explanation for Heathcliff’s missing years – the Heathcliff who I recognised, as an adult, as a deeply violent and unromantic figure. He began as a coarse and embittered boy – money, power and the knowledge of how he came to fit into the life of the Earnshaws turn him into a black-hearted and dangerous man.
I was brought up in the days when you had to like one thing or the other. It started with the choice between the Bay City Rollers and David Cassidy, moved on to Wham vs Duran Duran and reached its peak in the Britpop era. Obviously, I’m awkward. I spent the seventies quite liking all the big names in pop but saving my actual fandom for the Wombles (I was 7 – surely I was meant to like kids bands rather than wasting my time wanting to marry Donny Osmond…), in the eighties I was still listening to everything but developing my teen love of Prog Rock (played Yes and Genesis at my wedding, there’s nothing like a twelve-minute long first dance…) and in the nineties, alongside Blur and Oasis, I’d discovered folk-rock and Nick Drake. Let’s face it, if I see a crowd all looking in the same direction I’ll have a quick glance and then a good look round to see what they’re missing. In the late Victorian London of Mick Finlay’s novel I’m the kind of person who would have read all about Sherlock Holmes in the paper and then wondered about all the cases he didn’t take. Which is how most people seem to discover Arrowood…
William Arrowood is a detective and he’s, frankly, got no time for Sherlock Holmes. Which is a shame because most of the rest of London have got such a crush on him it’s almost as if Benedict Cumberbatch were already in the role – there is a great running joke throughout the book that whenever Arrowood and his assistant Barnett meet anyone new they start to enthuse about the great Sherlock, much to Arrowood’s disgust. Our heroes, however, take on the cases of people who are too poor to afford Baker Street rates and they delve into cases which seem much more sordid than anything Dr Watson would care to describe. In this book they are searching for a missing young Frenchman but soon become involved with the criminal underworld (in the form of a gang who have London sown up and would like to move onto stitching up Arrowood and Barnett), the fight for Irish independence, human trafficking and prostitution. The plot is rather nicely complicated and I really liked some of the characters. It looks as though this book ends poised to begin a whole series – in which case I look forward to hearing more about Neddy, the obligatory urchin, and Arrowood’s indefatigable sister.
As the years go by we lose generations of first hand experience. Despite the fact that we are busily commemorating the centenaries of various WWI battles there are now no veterans of that conflict left alive. Even those who remember that era from their childhoods are now centenarians (at least) so much of how we relate emotionally to that time comes from fiction and poetry. And many of the novels, in particular, are being written long after the fact, by authors who are having to use imagination, writing flair and vast amounts of research to bring those days to life. What becomes almost more shocking is the realisation that the number of World War II veterans is also depleting rapidly. I was born only twenty years after the end of hostilities – this is only the generation before me – and yet survivors are dying at the rate of over 500 per day. Most are over 90 so, if novelists are thinking of writing about the 1939-45 period using the first hand experiences of those who lived through it they’d better get a wriggle on. Or, possibly, like Chris Cleave did for Everyone Brave is Forgiven, recall all those talks they had with parents and grandparents.
Jennifer Ryan has used the experience and reminiscences of her grandmother (and the fascinating Mass Observation project started in 1939) to write her take on this period. On the face of it The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is the story of how a choir, during the war when most of the men are called up to fight, learns to cope with just women’s voices but, of course it is about much more than that. As we learn about each of the key characters, a widow who is afraid of everything but mostly of losing her son to the war, a young woman who discovers there is something more important than being loved, a girl in a hurry to grow up but with no idea of what this really means and a refugee girl who just needs her family, we realise that while men are fighting the war it is the women who will make sure there is something worth fighting for. Each story, told through letters and journal entries, helps to develop the whole and each character has an individual voice.
This isn’t just a feel-good story about women pulling together in wartime. This does happen in the end, but there are also some very difficult subjects covered: abusive husbands and fathers, illegal abortion, blackmail, treason and loss. These are covered in unflinching detail but with great humanity – I was nearly in tears at more than one point because it really felt as if these events were happening to people I knew. Despite the traumatic events in the book I finished it feeling uplifted and positive. Not least because I knew that the lives of women, among others, would start to be changed for the better in the years that followed.