Plum – Hollie McNish

I don’t really remember when I stopped reading poetry. When I was a child my Mum and I used to read through our Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (favourites were Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning and Dylan Thomas Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night) and I especially loved it when we read Under Milk Wood (Mum’s Welsh accent is a bit rubbish but I still enjoyed it). I would learn poems off by heart – both long and short, but mostly ones I found funny – and I wrote a lot of what can only be described as doggerel.  Some of the most enjoyable events I have been to when working bookstalls at Literature Festivals have been with poets (although I am ashamed to say I found Simon Armitage’s voice so soothing I nearly nodded off listening to him – in my defence it was the last event of the festival and ran until gone 9pm….) but I just don’t read poetry. I will read a verse or two but I wouldn’t think to pick up a volume of poems and just read it…

plumHollie McNish is a young poet and spoken word artist who could bring me back into the world of poetry readers. This collection looks at subjects close to her heart – feminism, motherhood, the trials of adolescence – but also includes some poems she wrote as a very young child. To be fair I think her poems written at 8-10 years old are better than anything I could produce now and they have the charm of a youngster’s view of the world as well as value as verse. Interestingly McNish is still young but one of the poems which spoke to me most strongly was one about grey hairs (and how so many never get to have them) – as Jo Cox said, we really do have more in common than that which divides us…

I may not become a real poetry reader again – prose fiction and non-fiction still has so many temptations for me and there continue to be only 24 hours in the day – but this book has reminded me that I do enjoy the genre. Which means I have loads to look forward to in this year’s Bradford Literature Festival again…



Space Between the Stars – Anne Corlett

Nobody ever described space better than the much-missed genius Douglas Adams. You know the bit from the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide about how big it all is?* However, like most sci-fi writers Adams was mostly interested in the bits of space with stars and planets in. Other writers, like Becky Chambers, have written about groups of people travelling through space in various ways but Anne Corlett’s book is, as the title says, about the gaps. The parts that are not there…

spacestarsLike many books this one starts with the end of the world. A virus has wiped out an eye-wateringly large percentage of the human population – a fever, spread by almost any kind of human contact, which last for three days. At the end you either recover or turn to a surprisingly small pile of dust. On a small and isolated planet we meet a small group of survivors – a vet, a preacher, an older woman who believes that God is trying to cleanse the world, a prostitute and a young man on the autism spectrum. They are rescued by a small space ship (manned by a slightly Han Solo-ish captain and his engineer who reminded me a bit of Tasha Yar) and head off to the system capital. The group travel on, eventually, until they reach Earth – and more specifically the Northumbrian coast near to Lindisfarne.

This isn’t really a book about the science of sci-fi. The virus, its transmission and effects (including the fact that it seems to render survivors infertile) are explained well but the bulk of the book is about humans: their emotions, passions and fears. This is a story about the gaps in people – their emotional voids, the people missing from their lives and, in some cases, the gaping holes where their moral compass should be. Some sci-fi readers won’t like this but others – fans of Becky Chambers, Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book or P.D. James’ Children of Men perhaps – will relish it. Science-fiction isn’t all about rockets and ray guns – psychology is a science too, after all…



*’Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.’

The Old Man’s Birthday & Caroline – Richmal Crompton

Yes, Richmal Crompton. That Richmal Crompton. The one who wrote all those Just William stories. She also wrote novels for adults (in fact more adult novels than Just William books if we’re counting…) and two of them are being reissued by Pan Macmillan (as e-books and print on demand). I have to admit I’ve never been a huge William fan – when I was the right age to read them I was distracted by stories about ponies, gypsies and boarding schools – so I wasn’t sure what to expect from these books.

5 61Q3HHR31HL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I shouldn’t have worried – Miss Crompton really seemed to know what she was doing when she wrote about families. And the stories are surprisingly modern – in The Old Man’s Birthday a 95-year-old man spends his birthday getting one over on his family who think he should be far more biddable (and act as they feel a respectable old man should) and the title character of Caroline is a rather controlling woman who has raised her young siblings and half-siblings, giving up her own youth and career plans on the way. I could see these characters – and their supporting casts – in contemporary novels about family life.

The tone of Caroline, in particular, is rather brittle, in a very 1930s kind of way. The Old Man’s Birthday is more of a romp, although there are still a lot of rather troubled characters in it, and I think I was impressed with the fact that Crompton could write in both styles. The plots have similarities – both involve the kind of convoluted family problems which can seem insoluble until just the right character turns up to show the family how they can solve them. I particularly liked the fact that in The Old Man’s Birthday all the ‘regular’ relationships – father/child, brother/sister, husband/wife – seem to be unhappy and it is those that have the less acceptable aspect – a couple living ‘in sin’, a step-mother – which show the way to happiness.

I looked up Richmal Crompton after reading these two novels. As an author she seems to understand all kinds of human relationships – familial, romantic, sexual – and has a particular sympathy for the young. Her background seems sometimes to help – she trained as a teacher and taught until she lost the use of a leg due to polio – but at other times you have to be impressed at the breadth of experience she wrote about considering she never married or had children. I think I would have liked her very much indeed – her courage in the face of illness and her involvement in the Women’s Suffrage movement just add an extra dimension to her writing.