Jeff Goldblum rocks. You know it. Helen McClory thinks so. So she wrote a bonkers pamphlet containing poems, flash fiction and bingo all about Jeff and alternate versions of him in other universes. You can buy it now with a yellow cover but mine is colour your own, adding more fun to the mix.
It’s absurdist and very silly but even more fun, you can now also watch a film of Jeff reading from it because he is the best of men.
In a yoga class once (stay with me) the instructor talked of yogis who sat on the banks of the Ganges and allowed their thoughts, worries, stories to drift away on the water. If there was ever a book that described this, Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River is it. It’s a book about water, about storytelling, and about how you can make decisions to change the tide of your life or you can go with the flow.
You may know Diane Setterfield from her wonderful debut The Thirteenth Tale, made into a TV programme with Olivia Colman. Once Upon a River is similarly atmospheric, with talk of ghosts and other worldly connections, and again, it is highly readable.
It is set in and around an ancient inn, The Swan at Radcot, on the Thames, well known for its storytelling. One evening – the longest night – a man bursts through the doors. He is injured and confused and in his arms he holds a dead child. He is tended to by the local nurse, midwife and all round good woman Rita, and hours later, the child stirs and take a breath. She has come back to life… but how?
As different members of the Radcot community try to piece together who she is and how she came to be there, we are immersed into their lives, their secrets, their tragedies both hidden and public, and their love – for each other, for their way of life.
This is a slow book. You need to wallow in it, to take stock and just let it wash over you. There is a full cast of characters – Rita and the injured man, Mr Daunt; Margot, the pub landlady and her family; Mr and Mrs Vaughan and their heartbreak; Lily White and her tortured thoughts; and lovely Mr Armstrong. But the character with the most presence is the River Thames itself, washing through lives and taking or giving as it wants. I especially loved the story of Quietly, the riverman who is doomed to remain on the water and save or transport people to the next life as required.
Setterfield’s skill is in recreating an old world with old ways but with emotions that run through the ages. As the characters try to unpick the mystery of the girl, attributing her revival to folklore, to superstition or new scientific ideas, we watch as deeper human reactions – of love, hate, greed, and common decency come to the fore and shape all their lives. Storytelling runs central to the theme of the book – how do we control what stories are told of us, and the things we see? Each telling changes a detail until only the essence of the tale remains. (I feel Margaret Lea from the Thirteenth Tale would love exploring this too.)
This is an excellent book, just the thing to curl up in front of a fire with this winter. My thanks to Alison Barrow for supplying a gorgeous proof copy.
Once Upon a River is available on ebook from today, and is published in the UK in hardback on 17 January.
Before this year I’d not heard of the concept of novella in flash so this was the first one I’d read. I know Stephanie via Twitter where she often links to her other excellent flash fiction pieces and shares her time and comments generously on other people’s writing.
For the uninitiated, a novella in flash is a short novel told in short chapters, each a stand alone flash fiction story but when put together build layers of a longer narrative. I’m attempting to write one at the moment and it’s pretty challenging. If you’re interested in how this works, I recommend reading Three Sisters of Stone.
Agnes, Bella and Chloe are the three sisters of the story, and the novella draws on folklore and fairytale, including the three little pigs. A father’s cruelty and how it echoes down the years is the broad theme, but it’s fascinating to watch how so much information and rich characterisation is conveyed in so few words.
Three Sisters is published by small press Ellipsis, and is a richly deserving piece of writing. You can read it in one go, or take tiny bites and allow the interest to build slowly. Like all good books, it warrants re-reading also.
As promised, I wanted to write about a childhood in books with a few featured. I have also decided to commit to blogging and reviewing every day in December and tagging authors to give them a boost about how much we appreciate them. (You can find out more about this here on Twitter – do think about joining in!) So here’s day 1.
I was reading Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm and thinking about the books I loved, the ones I return to, the ones I leave safely in the past but whose footprint is still with me, the ones I want to pass on. The passing on is especially important – I read a blog a while ago about a mother who had saved up a trip to Prince Edward Island with her daughter so they could share the wonder of Anne of Green Gables together and her daughter just didn’t like Anne. My heart! How awful – I dread this happening with E.
So as you can imagine, Anne of Green Gables is one of my absolute favourites. Yes, she talks too much, hugs trees too much and could be seen by some as utterly irritating but none of that ever bothered me. She was aching for love that girl, and had so much to give. My copies of the books are all TV tie in editions of the Kevin Sullivan production (the ONLY version worth watching) with Megan Follows as Anne, Colleen Dewhurst as Marilla and the lovely Jonathan Crombie as Gilbert. Gilbert Blythe was my first literary crush and remains to this day, one of the only decent men in the whole of literature. He spurs Anne onto greater academic achievement, allows her to voice her opinions and in every way respects her. You can count men who do that in books or onscreen on ONE hand. Anne of Green Gables also has one of the most heartbreaking scenes ever written in it – the death of Matthew Cuthbert – something that can make me cry at any time. Half my copies were presents from my Grandma, who bought them for me on a rare trip into Croydon together and whose kindness completed my collection, so I also think of her when I read them.
Going back a bit, my earliest book favourites were Rapunzel and Beaky the Greedy Duck. My mother hates both of them because she had to read them so often, and I think both were Ladybird editions. I’m not a massive fan of Ladybird books despite these, simply because when I was ill in bed as a child, a neighbour gave me the Ladybird version of The Little Mermaid and I was so upset by the awful ending I never read any more – Ladybird or Hans Christian Andersen. Give me the Disney version any day.
Of course I had an Enid Blyton phase, not the Faraway Tree, but straight into the Secret Seven, Famous Five, and the school books of Malory Towers and St Clares. The famous Five were favourites because of George and Timmy, who were something to aspire to – George being possibly the first tomboy character I was drawn to. A few years ago staying at a friend’s house overnight I came across a Secret Seven book that belonged to his son and started reading it out of curiosity. God it was awful.
One set of books I loved and now E loves too is The Worst Witch. It’s not clear which of us is more excited by the new books in the series that Jill Murphy has started to bring out again – we have the new one ready for Christmas. Mildred Hubble is a great heroine. I was drawn to her because her hair was messy and her bootlaces were undone and she made mistakes but she had a good heart. I still love her while E is more drawn to Mildred’s steadfast friend Maud. E is too messy and disorganised herself to be anyone other than Mildred but I like that she values Maud. (Other characters I value because their bootlaces were undone also include Katy Carr from the ethically dodgy What Katy Did, which I acknowledge has dreadful morals but still has a place in my heart because of the bootlaces.)
What else? My mum worked in an infants school for a while and when I came to meet her from junior school one evening one of the teachers gave me a book from
their library that was too old for their children. I still own it. It’s called A Fox in Winter by John Branfield and tells the story of a teenage girl who befriends an old Cornish farmer and listens to him while he tells her of the old mining days. It’s quietly compelling and explores isolation and generational differences and connections or disconnections between people. I also love and still own my copy of Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs, a sweet and little celebrated epistolary novel of an orphan and her guardian.
I also remember something I was gripped by and reread called Vipers and Co which was a kind of crime book I think. I can’t find any information about it now but I remember loving it. I also got a Robert Cormier book out which was called The Bumblebee Flies Anyway which I read more than once simply because it was disturbing – about a boy called Barney who lives in a medical facility for experimentation.
I will tell you of two more. Obviously Judy Blume must figure. My favourite was Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, but obviously I had the Forever rite of passage. As with so many, the library copy was so battered every time someone returned the librarians tried to mend it only to have to hand it over immediately to another teenage girl who wanted to read it. I also made the mistake of asking my mum what some of the phrases during the sex scene meant (well, if you’ve not come across it before, saying somebody ‘came’ is very confusing) and she shrieked “What ARE you reading?” Oops.
Finally, of course, my spiritual sister Jo March has reminded me that I must mention Little Women. We read this a few years ago at my reading group and one of the group said she couldn’t finish it because they were all so pious. I was heartbroken. Of course they are. But Little Women is part of me and, like practically every bookish woman, I am Jo March, although she is clearly a better person than me because if Amy burnt my book I would have left her to drown in the pond. Pious indeed. In the US I made a trip out to Concord to go round the Alcott house, visit their graves and generally worship – it’s fascinating, I do recommend it.
I would love to hear your childhood favourites! Drop a comment below – and don’t forget to keep reviewing books, visiting libraries and buying books from flesh and blood bookshops.
Today I’m hosting the blog tour for JM Monaco’s how We Remember, a debut novel of dark family secrets and their after effects.
Jo O’Brien, Irish-American professor of Art History living and working in London, returns home after her mother’s death and, in the process of clearing out her mother’s diary and papers, is reminded of an incident from her teenage years which stirs up all kinds of memories. Family secrets come to the fore, as the three family remaining family members deal with a history of addiction, mental ill health, and bitter confrontations.
Jo is a well written character and the book is shaped around her. She’s not always likeable and she makes a lot of mistakes, but all this makes her recognisable and realistic. What a mess her family life is. But this is not a plot-based book, instead it’s a snapshot of what happens when the stories we tell ourselves in order to make it through the day all start to unravel.
Some passages are hard to read. Jo’s account of the incident in her mother’s diary, a sexual assault by her uncle, made me bite my lip but even worse were the recriminations from her own family members that Jo, a teenage girl, had been ‘asking for it’. And the family dependence on alcohol, the accounts of depression that devastated their family life but was never really treated are heartbreaking.
Despite this, I wouldn’t want you thinking it’s a dreary or sad read. It’s frank, realistic and has passages of tenderness and love that show you that we’re all just trying as hard as we can, sometimes against the odds.
It’s a sure-footed debut and worthy of critical and popular acclaim.
A new Patrick Gale is always something to celebrate but in recent years his books seem to have taken on an extra quality. I do feel he’s one of the country’s best writers – portraying empathy, love and the human experience with deftness, wit and a sure touch. We must celebrate him more. Perhaps a knighthood?
It opens like this:
‘At an age when he was reassured that life was unlikely to surprise him further, Eustace found, in rapid succession, that he was quite possibly dying and that he was falling in love for the third time.’
Wham. And you’re in! Eustace is our hero, about to undergo cancer treatment and falling for Theo, who he hasn’t yet met because Theo is on deployment in the Middle East with the army. Their relationship has so far been conducted over the internet, and Eustace is reluctant to tell Theo of his diagnosis. Eustace’s best friend Naomi, a cellist, has made him a playlist to listen to while he takes his treatment and it is this that sparks memories for Eustace.
The bulk of the book is Eustace’s story from his childhood in Weston Super Mare where his parents run an old people’s home. One day, Eustace’s mother takes him to see Swan Lake and later, remembering the music and the athleticism, Eustace dances to Tchaikovsky in front of the old ladies in the home before being severely reprimanded and signed up for clarinet lessons. But the clarinet teacher is sent away and instead Eustace and his mother find Carla Gold, a cellist and teacher. They are both hooked and Eustace begins lessons.
Eustace finds he is a good player, and devotes himself to playing and practicing. Aside from this, his story is that of a boy growing up to discover his sexuality, how he tentatively explores this with his schoolfriend Vernon. It’s standard stuff and yet there is a charm to it, Eustace is a curious and engaging boy.
Things change. Eustace does not win a scholarship to the private music school he wants to go to and his parents, whose relationship is strained, cannot afford the fees. So he has to go to the local comprehensive, nervous of how the others will view him and starts to mix with a broader range of young people than he has before. Eustace gets to go to a cello summer camp with Carla’s celebrated teacher. If he does well there, he could go on to be a professional musician. It is at the camp that he meets Naomi and her friends, and where he feels less isolated. But before he can perform at the camp’s final concert, his father arrives to take him away. His mother has been involved in a car accident and is in hospital.
Like many teens, Eustace senses his sexuality is something he must keep secret and despite experimenting with his friends, he knows he is different. It is at Carla’s house in Bristol where he stays over on Friday nights before lessons on Saturday that he finds allies. But, when something truly shocking occurs in the last 40 pages of the book (I mean, really, I gasped out loud) he also finds he has allies elsewhere.
I won’t say more but this really is a wonderful read. It’s such a cliche to use words like mature, sensitive writing but this is an engaging, absorbing book, with humour and love and awkwardness and wonder. All it needs is an accompanying soundtrack to really take you along with it.
Take Nothing With You is published on 21 August by Tinder Press. Thank you to Georgina Moore for the review copy.
What a lovely premise this book has. As soon as I heard it, I wanted to read it. William Woolf works for the Royal Mail at the Dead Letters Depot. Woolf is a Letter Detective, sorting through all the letters that never get delivered. He tries to deliver or return them, seeking out the stories that led them to be mis-addressed, trying to decipher the smudged writing, the torn packaging or lost street names.
Doesn’t that sound fascinating? I love these sort of things – the element of fantasy, a system that a more generous, more patient world could have had if we wished it. And it features letters – regular readers of the blog will know I love letters and the epistolary style. So I dived in.
Oh! The book blurb mentions missed birthdays, broken hearts, unheard confessions, pointless accusations, unpaid bills and unanswered prayers. But there’s also whale vomit and old medals and stories of kindness, connections and long-remembered deeds. That’s the just the letters. If I’m honest, I would have been happy with just these. But there’s also William Woolf himself.
William is a failed writer married to Clare. They met at university with William tried to start up a book club and only Clare came along. Their early passion has waned, as they all do, into a comfortable companionship, or has it? For Clare is unhappy. She is frustrated that William is content being a letter detective, she isn’t quite happy at her job as a lawyer, she doesn’t want to consider having a family until they are set up better, and their relationship is now a series of misunderstandings and sniping comments. This portrayal of a soured marriage felt well written and realistic, though there was a part of me that wanted to tell them both to grow up and behave. It can be tedious reading other people’s arguments.
Then one day at work, William discovers a special letter, the first in a series, addressed to ‘My Great Love.’ It is the work of someone called Winter, who lives in London and has enough eloquence and mystery to get William hooked on trying to find them. Soon Winter’s letters contain enough for William to start wondering if he is actually the great love mentioned in the letters. As Clare leaves him, his quest to find Winter begins.
This is an accomplished novel with great insight into how relationships change and develop and change again, with ups and downs. It was a little too sentimental in places to completely charm me – I found Winter to be more of an irritant that she was meant to be but I put that down to my misanthropic heart and I know others will love it. For me the great character was William’s slightly bonkers workmate Marjorie, lonely, ample-bottomed, but obsessed with other people’s love letters and Valentines.
Lost Letters is a great testament to the power of the written word, even by the worst point of their relationship, William and Clare still communicate by letter, and it offers hope for second chances and our own powers of resilience.
The Lost Letters of William Woolf is published on 12 July 2018 by Michael Joseph and available in all good bookshops. My thanks to the Michael Joseph team who sent a proof copy for review.
Phew! What a title! Your Second Life is a French phenomenon. Published three years ago, word spread and it’s now a bestseller, staying in the French top ten for over a year, despite its terrible title. Now it’s coming to England.
It’s rather cute to look at, a small hardback with a Tiffany blue cover and the title in red. ‘The novel that made 2 million people happy!’ reads the strapline.
Your Second Life is about Camille, a normal working mother who, like all of us, is trying to juggle her life and finding it hard. She doesn’t like her job, her work colleagues laugh at her, she’s lost connection with her husband and she spends time shouting at her son and hating herself for doing so. Her self esteem is rock bottom and, when she has a tyre blow out one night in a rain storm, she seeks help in a nearby house to call a mechanic and finds much more.
Claude, an older handsome Frenchman, is inside the house and as Camille breaks down from stress he comes to her rescue.
“You’re probably suffering from a kind of acute routinitis.”
“Acute routinitis. It’s a sickness of the soul that affects more and more people in the world, especially in the West. The symptoms are almost always the same: a lack of motivation; chronic dissatisfaction; feeling you’ve lost your way in life; finding it hard to feel happy even though you have more than enough material goods; disenchantment; world-weariness…”
“But… how do you know all this?”
“I’m a routinologist.”
I admit, this made me laugh. For we’re all Camille, aren’t we? Claude goes on to help Camille reconnect with her life and her sense of self. From here the novel is basically a self-help book, with Claude offering tips on how to make time for what’s important and discard negative energy. I’ve read business books with narratives before so it’s a tried and trusted technique and works nicely here too. (Claude would, I’m sure, tell me that my dislike of the title is part of my negative energy and I should change it. Yeah, maybe…)
The feminist in me did bristle at parts of the book, some of which I think might be a reflection of French culture, but nevertheless. Camille is encouraged to see herself as both the problem and the solution, taking her frustrations with her husband, son and patronising rude workmates and changing her ways in order to get them change theirs. At no point is she allowed to suggest to her husband that he might do some housework, to make her feel better, for example even as the new Camille, she’s still putting herself down for not doing some cleaning, and she’s really pleased when she has time to make dinner. When she and Claude tackle her self esteem and negative body image, she rates her success by how many compliments she gets from men, with no other real benchmark.
Of course, nothing in the book says you have to follow the same path or rate your own self improvement in the same way as Camille. So yes, I’m going to rate my own body image in how I feel about it, thanks very much. The techniques suggested by Claude are all listed in the back of the book to help offer advice or guidance on what you might like to tackle – most of them are really simple, things like using positive notebooks, making collages of people you admire, mindfulness, taking small steps, and so on.
As you can imagine, there’s little tension in the book as you know Camille will work her problems out but I liked the ending – a neat wrap up and continuation. We can all help each other.
Whatever you might think about self-help books, taking some time to be mindful or appreciating the small things, staying positive and taking small steps towards new habits are all good things to try and a reminder like this is helpful to all of us. After all, we’ve all been Camille, we’re all struggling from time to time. Using Your Second Life can help you take stock – it’s a fun read with a little lesson within.
Today I’m really pleased to be joined by Fiona Mitchell, whose novel The Maid’s Room, has just come out in paperback. The story of two sisters, Dolly and Tala, Filipino maids to the privileged community in Singapore, The Maid’s Room is a sometimes shocking, sometimes funny account of the hidden lives of others and how much we need to connect with each other. While Dolly and Tala are struggling looking after others and making enough money to send home to their own children, Jules, a newcomer to Singapore, has her own difficulties among the expat community.
Fiona, thanks so much for answering my questions. I really enjoyed the book and thought the issues it covers are so pertinent today. There is the danger that exploitation like this is hidden in plain sight; that if you don’t think about the reality of the lives of others around you, then it doesn’t exist.
Let’s start off by asking about how you came to write The Maid’s Room?
I moved to Singapore in 2009 where lots of people employ live-in domestic helpers. When an estate agent showed us around a flat, she pointed to a 12ft by 5ft bomb shelter and said, “your maid will sleep in here.” When I mentioned the lack of windows, she said, “they don’t need things like that.” This attitude abounded. I met people who confiscated their maids’ passports and issued curfews. And it wasn’t as if domestic helpers were protected by the law; back then, they didn’t even have a legal right to one day off per week. When I spoke to domestic helpers, their reality was even more upsetting – every woman had a story to tell, and only being given rice to eat was the most common one. I was a freelance journalist, and at first I thought I’d write a feature, but the issue felt much bigger than a few thousand words, and I started to wonder whether writing a novel could be the way to go.
The two maid characters, Dolly and Tala, are beautifully written and each is flawed and as open to exploiting their situations as they are being exploited. I liked that Dolly, as the submissive and calm sister in the face of abuse, is as able to pick up some benefits for what she has to put up with in her own quiet way, as much as the outspoken Tala. How did you work out the characters of the sisters when you were writing the book?
Tala’s character came easily to me and she was my favourite character to write. She was based on a domestic helper I got to know with a massive personality, although the woman I knew wasn’t nearly as bolshy as Tala. Dolly was much more difficult to write; it took me lots of drafts to capture her voice. In early drafts the sisters were just close friends, but somehow that didn’t work. When I decided to make them sisters, Dolly’s character fell into place.
A lot of the conflict comes from the two blogs – Vanda with her ‘rules’ for maids, and Tala’s Maidhacker. Has the internet made this kind of thing easier to uncover or is it a handy plot device (or a bit of both)?
The idea for the Vanda blog came from a blog that was running when I was living in Singapore. This anonymous blogger actually wrote a series of rules on how to treat domestic helpers – it was clear she saw domestic helpers as somehow inferior to her, and it appalled me. I wrote to her to complain, but of course she didn’t put my comment up, so Tala taking matters into her own hands and writing her own blog was me wanting to shift the power away from people like Vanda.
It must have been difficult to ensure that the rich white characters, especially Amber, didn’t come across as cliched and two dimensional in their awful behaviour towards the maids. How aware were you as you wrote, that on some level readers would need to sympathise with some of the women so it wasn’t just a maids vs employers story?
I was very much reflecting what was around me, and although I experienced people treating domestic helpers badly, I only made friends with people who respected the women. From that point of view, there was always going to be a Jules in my book. I knew that for the book to be compelling, I’d need to have sympathetic characters, albeit hugely flawed ones. But to be honest, I didn’t consciously think about making the expat characters sympathetic, the balance just arrived naturally.
There is a secondary plot through the book about motherhood, about losing children, keeping children and risks to motherhood – for all four of the main female characters. I especially related to this line: ‘…no amount of watching other people’s grief had taken hers away, and hers was nothing compared to such things.’ This idea that unless we’re really suffering somehow our pain is invalid, and yet all these women have experienced loss in different ways and each is as valid as the others. Was writing the book cathartic for you, working through your own grief?
I was really down when I found out I would never have a second child, and I felt incredibly guilty about my unhappiness. It was overwhelming at times and it was this emotion that kickstarted me to write a book. Every time I sat in front of my computer and typed, it brought me a kind of peace. That first draft was quite depressing, but as I came to terms with my situation, the book gained more light and laughs.
Thank you! I’ve really enjoyed reading the book and having the chance to ask you about the book.
The Maid’s Room is published by Hodder and Stoughton today and retails at 8.99. Thanks so much to the publishers for my review copy.
What a tonic this book is. I saved it to read until one cold snowy evening last week, as the Beast from the East did its worst outside and it was an excellent decision. ‘Dear Mrs Bird’ is exactly what you would want to be reading while the elements are howling at the door. It is warm, cosy in the best sense, and full of positive loveliness.
The story is told by Emmeline Lake, Emmy to her friends, who dreams of being a journalist – a lady war correspondent (it’s 1941) to be precise – and so when she spots an advert for a junior at The London Evening Chronicle, she seizes her chance and goes for an interview. It is only when she has quit her job and told all her friends at the fire station where she volunteers, that she finds the job is actually a typist at the Woman’s Friend, an ailing women’s monthly. Not only that, but she is the junior assistant to Mrs Bird, a redoubtable creature who is the magazine’s Acting Editress and agony aunt. Furthermore, Mrs Bird has STANDARDS when it comes to the type of letter she will answer and these are very restrictive indeed.
“I hardly think the Woman’s Friend reader wants her afternoon spoilt by This Kind Of Thing, do you?”
“Affairs… losing their heads… babies… UNPLEASANTNESSES,” she boomed, pausing to let the abomination sink in. “And, even, Miss Lake… NERVES.”
Well, really. Emmy tries to make the best of it, if only to save face and also because she starts to become friends with the rest of the very small staff at the magazine. However, she regards the women in the letters very differently to Mrs Bird and, after her early attempts to get Mrs Bird to answer some of the queries fail, decides to answer the letters herself.
Emmy lives with her best friend Bunty, and friends with a wider circle of girls, all of whom are trying to make it through the bombing raids in one piece, doing their bit but still trying to have fun. Emmy’s friends at the office are friendly and full of that old fashioned ‘making the best of things’ spirit but none of this feels cliched – you immediately care for all of them and don’t mind if this all sounds familiar in a Sunday evening TV drama kind of way. Mrs Bird herself must have been great fun to write.
As you can imagine, the letter writing scheme soon has consequences but not until after a dreadful tragedy that shakes Emmy’s world.
This is a light read, easy to get through, but shouldn’t be dismissed because of that. It seems so rare these days to have a book that offers comfort against dark times, and perhaps it’s exactly what we all need. Dear Mrs Bird is funny, sweet and warm, celebrating friendship and the consequences of taking a chance. Curl up and enjoy.