Turning for Home – Barney Norris

A number of my Facebook friends (some writers, some academics, some teachers) have recently been reacting to a Guardian article about modern literary fiction and how it has, in many cases, sacrificed good storytelling on the altar of beautiful writing.  This, to be honest, is one of the reasons why I rarely read or review books from the more literary end of the spectrum. I’ve said it before: I can recognise wonderful use of language when I see it but I prefer to read a gripping story so long as it doesn’t mangle english so much that my brain hurts. Whisper it but, most of the time, I’ll even turn a blind eye to poor spelling, rogue apostrophes or random punctuation so long as I can make out the intended meaning easily enough. Since a large part of what I read is advance reading copies (which have often not yet been proof-read) this is just as well. I did, though, do a degree in English Literature – more years ago than I care to mention – so when language, story and plot do combine I like to think that I can appreciate it. Barney Norris seems to be an author capable of this feat in my eyes.

31551199This, Norris’s second novel, is centred around a party being held by Robert Shawcross a retired senior government official who used to work in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The party is a big annual family gathering but Robert isn’t looking forward to it – his beloved wife has recently died and he realises that the party was more about family than himself, despite it being held to celebrate his birthday.  His granddaughter, Kate, is staying with him but she seems to have her own problems – this is her first attendance at a party for three years and she is dreading seeing her mother. This domestic scene is set against the Boston Tapes – which really did get made in the early years of the 2000s, a series of recorded interviews with both Loyalist and Republican paramilitaries. The participants were assured of anonymity so they confessed to more than just the motivations the interviewers were expecting – murders and other atrocities – and so, inevitably, the British government is very keen to get hold of the tapes. A figure from Robert’s past, Frank Dunn, arrives at the party to reprise their roles from the 80s – liaisons with the British government and IRA respectively.

All the action in the book takes place over one day – the day of the party – but there are plenty of flashbacks: to the aftermath of Enniskillen, to the early days of Robert’s relationship with his wife, and, in the case Kate, to her difficult relationship with her mother, the love of her young life and the accident and illness which changed her world. This doesn’t sound like a lot of plot or story but there is enough there to keep you thinking about your own life and family. And the way it is written, the actual words on the page, is both beautiful and heartbreaking. Proper literature…




The Crow Garden – Alison Littlewood

I do love a bit of period drama. On tv, or film, I enjoy almost anything with a good costume department (although I do prefer it if they get the costumes mostly right – I don’t know how old I was when I first saw the 1940 version of Pride & Prejudice but I just knew the costumes were far too Victorian for a proper Jane Austen adaptation…) and in book terms I’m happy with fiction set in almost any period ( yes, starting with the ice age novels of Jean Auel and working through most of history since – I’m particularly fond of a Regency romance). Some historical settings work well with particular genres (Regency romance, as I already mentioned, or Medieval murder mystery – they don’t have to be alliterative but that’s all that springs to mind…) but nothing seems to suit stories of spookiness and the macabre like the Victorian era. And nobody seems to do the spooky and macabre like Alison Littlewood…

crow gardenNewly qualified Nathaniel Kerner leaves his widowed mother behind in London to work in windswept Yorkshire. His father’s suicide seems to have made it hard for him to find work but the director of Crakethorne Asylum is willing to take a chance on him. All seems positive until he meets Vita, Mrs Victoria Harleston, a beautiful young woman whose husband wants her cured. Her insanity appears to Kerner to be that she doesn’t wish to perform her ‘wifely duties’ and he plans to cure her with new-fangled talking therapies. Against a backdrop of superstition and dubious mental health care (all, sadly, ones used up until scarily recently…) he falls in love with his patient and, it seems, under her spell. They find themselves back in London, living with Kerner’s mother, and caught up in the world of psychics,  mesmerists and other fraudsters. Or, in the case of Vita Harleston, could these mysterious powers be true?

This is a superbly researched historical novel which brings to life the Victorian era but also a wonderfully creepy tale of the uncanny. A perfect read for Halloween – unless you live on a moor. In Yorkshire. Surrounded by crows…




The Break – Marian Keyes

It can be quite easy to be a bit ‘sniffy’ about certain genres of books (or films, foods, music, whatever) and to assume that your chosen favourite is the best. In fact one of my pet peeves is people who, when talking about a film, book or song which is in a genre they don’t enjoy, call that particular film, book or song terrible. Let’s be honest, with very few exceptions, these things are not terrible – they are just not to your taste. Personally, I don’t really enjoy spy thrillers or hard sci-fi space operas but I’m not going to tell you John Le Carré and Alastair Reynolds are awful. And yes, I have been known to correct friends and colleagues if they start to rubbish other people’s choices (especially if they have just made me listen to five Neil Young albums back to back – there’s an artist who is definitely not to my taste…). Annoyingly, the genres most often derided are those favoured by women and young people – I guess it is too easy to deride chick-lit and YA fiction and especially if you don’t actually read any. I’m not saying that all chick-lit and YA is wonderful but some of it is very good (even if you are a man or over 20). Some of the best I have read is by Marian Keyes…

breakThe Break is the story of a big, messy, complicated, Irish family (and yes, I also enjoy Mrs Brown’s Boys – bite me…) and in particular it is the story of Amy.  She is a mother, sister, daughter, aunt, PR professional, friend, and, at the end of the list, a wife. She has to find time to support friends who are newly single (again), to provide emergency care for her father when her Mum needs a rest from dealing with Alzheimer’s, to care for her fragile niece when her brother and his ex-wife seem to be harming rather than helping her and to try not to strangle her annoyingly independent older daughter – so it is no surprise that her relationship with Hugh, her husband, is low down on the list of things she has time for. Hugh, struggling to cope with the death of his father, shocks the whole family by declaring that he is leaving them – not forever, but for six months; not a break-up but a complete break.

Keyes is, as ever, great at telling a warm, funny family story.  Amy and her family are all well-rounded characters, yet all individuals and you become fond of them. I particularly liked the double act of Neeve, Amy’s older daughter from an ill-fated marriage in her youth, and Amy’s mum Lillian who take the beauty vlogging world by storm. She is also, as ever, unafraid to touch on more difficult subjects. Not the fact that Hugh deserts his family (and can’t rule out the fact that, as part of his ‘break’ he may meet and sleep with other women) but the fact that he does so because he is depressed and can’t see any other way to get his life back on track. You want to hate him – to wish all kinds of nasty things to happen to him (and his sexual organs) like Amy’s man-hating friends and sisters – but, in many ways you can’t. We get flashbacks to the earlier years of their relationship and we can see that this is a marriage which is really worth saving, a man who has given his all to his family. We also touch on the sorrows of living with Alzheimer’s, the falling away of friends (when you fail to react to adversity in the way they think you should) and the horrors of reproductive politics in Ireland. But, you know, chick-lit is just froth…

As always a reminder that Marian Keyes writes brilliant novels – full of laughter and tears – which deserve a wider audience. Remember people, good chick-lit is for anyone, not just for giggly girls…



The History of Bees – Maja Lunde

For about five years Rob and I were heavily involved with Friends of the Earth – running our local group, going to conference and doing lots of campaigning. While we are still very well disposed to the planet we found that we had less and less time for active campaigning so now we do our supporting a little more remotely. Many of the campaigns themselves, however, have stuck in my mind and, like many people, the fate of bees has been a constant worry. Because without bees we would have a much more difficult future (and we’d probably have to survive that future without easy access to some of the amazing things which are pollinated by bees – fruits, vegetables, coffee and even *gulp* wine) we owe it to ourselves to consider how our actions, and those of our governments, affect the wider environment. Which means that, as well as apocalypses I am drawn to books which consider ‘green’ issues (and love those which carry both off with style).

beesIn The History of Bees Maja Lunde achieves both of these things. There are three linked stories set in England in 1852, America in 2007 and  China in 2098 – in the first William Savage is a seed merchant and failed academic who is trying to develop an improved bee-hive while struggling with depression; in 2007 we meet George who faces the problems of keeping his hives going in the face of Colony Collapse Disorder and finally, in 2098, Tao is one of thousands of Chinese workers who have to pollinate fruit trees by hand. Because the bees have all died.  This covers the history of hive development, the fight against the inexplicable death of millions of bees in the present day and gives us an in-depth look at a world without the unseen work all those bees do for us. For me the 2098 section is the most interesting because of this – the lack of various food crops is the obvious change but there are other things which were more surprising; cotton fabric, for example… Each portion of the story also has a human angle – specifically one exploring relationships between parents and children. In the 1850s William is investing all his hopes in his son, to the extent of missing how much one of his daughters, in particular, is supporting him: in 2007 George is, again, wanting to mould his son into his own idea of the perfect child (and again struggling with his own mental health) and feeling that he is failing. Tao’s story is the saddest – her son is very young and she loses him. He becomes ill and is whisked away by the state; her mission is, initially, to find hm and then, as she looks deeper, to discover what happened to the bees…

These are fascinating linked stories which explore both our relationship with bees and with our own families. The balance which must be made between individuality and society – the bee and the hive – applies both to insects and to humans.





After I’ve Gone – Linda Green

I read Linda Green’s previous novel because I knew exactly where it was set. I was completely familiar with the park in which a little girl goes missing. In this book I was on slightly less familiar ground – I know bits of Leeds but have rarely been to Mytholmroyd (although I am always amused by the fact that it rarely got a mention in the National news during the floods of December 2015 – too hard to pronounce when Hebden Bridge is so much easier…). Anyway, it is still good to be reading fiction in really mainstream genres, like psychological thrillers, which are set outside of London (or the USA).

30302155The book on one hand follows the love story of Jess – a feisty, take-no-prisoners, kind of girl in her early 20s – and Lee, a little older, working in PR, sophisticated and relatively well-off. And at first it seems like an amazing, whirlwind romance but suddenly Jess starts to see strange posts on Facebook, dated 18 months in the future, full of outpourings of grief. What shocks her is that her friends and family are grieving for her death. In their posts she can see the remains of her life mapped out before her – marriage, a beautiful baby and then, suddenly, a brutal, and possibly suspicious death. But no-one else can see the posts, she can’t even take a screen shot or photo of them: is she losing her mind? She has a history of mental health problems – having a breakdown after the death of her beloved mother when she was just 15 – but she is sure that this message from the future is real.

This is a pacy and well-plotted novel which touches on issues of parental love, domestic violence, public mourning via social media and mental health. It certainly made me think about whether the course of our lives is fixed. Do we move blindly into our future or can we shape it ourselves? Even as the book drew to its conclusion I couldn’t tell if Jess would succumb to the life that Facebook was showing her or whether she would find the strength to fight for herself and for her beloved baby. If you enjoyed Gone Girl and its imitators then give Linda Green a try. Even if you can’t pronounce Mytholmroyd…


Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – Chris Packham

How remarkable. I have just had my view of someone changed by a segment on the One Show. This is not usual behaviour for me (or, probably, for the One Show) but watching Chris Packham on the programme earlier this week clarified impressions which I had gained from reading Fingers in the Sparkle Jar – a memoir of his childhood and his relationship with the natural world – so that the penny, which had been half-way down, finally dropped. I had always considered Packham to be an excellent naturalist and an enthusiastic advocate for the animal kingdom. I thought him outspoken on the subject but passionate in his beliefs – like most people I assumed this was mostly an honest manifestation of his character but partly a tv persona. But reading this unusual memoir I gradually began to feel that there was more to Packham than met the eye. And when, during his interview, he began to refer to autism and Asperger’s I realised that this was the aspect I’d been missing.

41WQQ7Ip9NL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This isn’t necessarily an easy memoir to read – the focus moves around through Packham’s childhood, the late 1960s to the rise of punk rock in the late 1970s, and drifts back and forth over that period; the language is unusually poetic, with some passages I had to read twice over to get the meaning; but it is certainly worth persisting with.  He is obviously an unhappy child, bullied at school, uncommunicative; he enjoys many of the normal hobbies of boys his age, airfix models, subbuteo and sneaky peeks at pornography, but the only thing that seems to give him peace is immersion in the natural world. His early experiments in the biological sciences are not always successful (it turns out a sunny window-sill is not the best place for a jam-jar full of tadpoles) but his fascination with animals and birds is all-consuming.

What made the complexity of his descriptions worthwhile to me was the reminder that these were the words Packham uses to explain how nature grounds him. He is a complicated human being (as so many of us are) but an interesting one (unlike some…). If you take the effort to hear what he has to say he can tell us a lot about what it is like not to fit in and how it can be possible to carve out a place in the world that works for you.


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.