Author Archives: BookerTalk

Obscene and vile: why Zola’s novels ruined a publisher

Zola and the VictoriansIf you were asked to think of a court case involving the thorny question of censorship and fiction, what books or authors would come to mind? D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover perhaps? Or Flaubert’s Madame Bovary?

Coming more up to date, how about the 1933 obscenity trial concerning James Joyce’s Ulysses or the 1961 case involving Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer which went all the way to the US Supreme Court?

No less significant, yet less well known, is the 1888 prosecution of Henry Vizetelly, the elderly head of a family publishing business in London.

His crime: publishing English language editions of some of Emile Zola’s most provocative and “vile” novels.  His punishment: prison, the collapse of his health and the ruin of his business.

Zola and the Victorians by Eileen Horne  is a fictionalised account of the history of this case. Using court and Parliamentary records, letters and newspaper reports, Horne weaves a narrative showing how Vizetelly became the target of the National Vigilance Society – a group of moral vigilantes who wanted to rid England of “vile literature”.

According to the society young girls were being led to prostitution because of cheap translated versions of books by Emile Zola. In 1888 they launched a prosecution for obscene libel against Henry Vizetelly, Zola’s British publisher.

Three titles from Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series were used as evidence in the subsequent Old Bailey trial: Nana, The Soil (La Terre) and Piping Hot! (Pot Bouille). They were books, the court was told, that featured rapes, pregnancies, menstruation, nudity and women’s sexuality. 

Against such an attack Vizetelly’s argument about the artistic merits of these work by “a great French writer”, held no sway.

Zola’s book La Terre “is a filthy book from end to end,” the chief prosecuting counsel tells the jury.  “I will not call what I am about to read literature. There can be no question of literature with regard to this garbage.” 

He and his sons were ordered to cease publication and sale of the offending books. Faced with financial ruin, they tried to ‘soften’ the translations to make them more acceptable. But even that wasn’t enough – Vizetelly was hauled back into court and this time, the result was a prison sentence.

Naturally Horne devotes a large proportion of the book to the legal case but doesn’t drag her narrative down with exhaustive details of the legal arguments used in the Old Bailey trials.

Her approach is rather to focus on how the whole saga affects the people involved, particularly Vizetelly and his son Ernest who was translator of Zola’s texts.  Horne takes us into the heart of the family, ‘listening in’ to their conversations and their differing views on how to respond to the accusations. Vizetelly comes across as a proud man who believes right is on his side and will not listen to his son’s voice of caution.

By the time he finishes his sentence he is a frail old man.

He is a free man but he is broken. The many weeks of poor hygiene and haphazard medical attention in insalubrious quarters have ruined him physically as surely as the court’s verdict ruined him financially.

Emile_Zola

Emile Zola in 1902. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

The sections of the book that take place in France were actually more interesting than the court case. Most of these are set in Zola’s home, a very large country villa expanded to include a “Nana tower” and a “Germinal Tower”  and reveal much about his process of writing. 

Apparently after a daily walk he changed into his writing clothes – a version of “peasant’ clothes chosen so they do not cause itches and thus distract him. He knows exactly the trajectory of the book he is currently working upon , having done a preliminary plan and then his research (often that research takes him longer to complete that does the actual writing). His pace is so measured that he can predict how long each book will take him to write.

He doesn’t emerge from this book as a very likeable man. He never lends any support to the Vizetelly, instead actually telling a journalist that he would be pleased if the prosecution succeeded. He would prefer, he said, that people read his books in the original French instead of being sold in “wretchedly done translations to the uneducated who cannot comprehend me.” Ouch…

Zola and the Victorians reveals a fascinating episode in British publishing history.  It pitted moral outrage (and more than a dash of hypocrisy) against literary merits, a clash which continued right through to the watershed trial of Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960. 

 Less engaging is the way in which Thorne tells the tale. The mixing of present and past tenses irritated me enormously, the reported conversations among the family seldom sounded authentic and the characters came across as one dimensional. I’m not regretting reading this book, if for no other reason than it’s given me an appetite to read those three Zola novels for myself. 


Footnote

Zola and the Victorians was published in hardback by Maclehose Press in 2015.  American-born Eileen Horne worked as a television producer for twenty years before setting up her own production company.  She now combines writing adaptations for television and radio with teaching and editing.

Since reading Zola and The Victorians I’ve  heard of another book about Zola that sounds interesting: The Disappearance of Emile Zola: Love, Literature and the Dreyfus Case by Michael Rosen. It deals with a period in 1898 when Zola fled France because of hostility around his intervention in the Dreyfus case.

3 books on my radar: WWW Wednesday, June 2019

Time for another episode of WWWWednesday in which I talk about the books that are on my radar.

What I’m reading now

circe-madeline-millerCirce by Madeline Miller is the selection for our next book club meeting.

My knowledge of Greek mythological figures is at an embarrassingly low level so I hope that isn’t going to prove an issue. I have a copy of a guide to Greek and Roman myths close at hand if I need some help.

All I know about Circe is that she was a sorceress, the daughter of Helios and she features in Homer’s The Odyssey.

The first few pages are promising.  If I get on well with this I have a copy of her earlier book The Song of Achilles yet to read.

WWWWednesday is also about…..

What I just finished reading

A Whole LifeI’ve been making great progress with my list for 20booksofsummer (or in my case 15booksofsummer) which is taking me on a virtual holiday around the world.

I’ve had to make one substitute because the book I had chosen to take me to Finland, The Midwife by Katja Kettu, proved unreadable. I switched to another Nordic country, reading The Room by Jonas Karlsson. A highly amusing, quirky tale – I’ll post my thoughts on this in a few days.

Robert Seethaler’s novella A Whole Life has been the best of the 15booksofsummer I’ve read so far.  It’s an exquisite tale about a quiet man who spends most of his life in the Austrian Alps. Andreas Egger endures hardship and tragedy but survives by changing and adapting to his new situation. This is about the most beautifully understated work of fiction I’ve read in decades.

What I’ll read next

When I finish Circe I’ll probably return to my books of summer project.

I have one more book by a European author on my list – Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallader

Then it’s across the Atlantic, stopping first in New York to take Breakfast at Tiffany’s. 

Those are my plans – what’s on your reading horizon for the next few weeks?


This post is for WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

Courage and hope in the midst of war: The Hotel Tito [review]

The Hotel Tito by Ivana Bodroziç

Images of death and destruction in a hitherto little known corner of Europe filled our television screens in the early 1990s.  Week after week saw ever more alarming reports about the thousands of people forced to flee as the Croatian war of independence advanced on their homes.

Croatian war of independence

The Hotel Tito is a novel about that experience of displacement told through the eyes of a young girl.

When war breaks out in 1991 she is nine years old. She is sent from her home town of Vukovar to take a seaside holiday far away from the hostilities.

By the time she returns at the end of summer, everything that was familiar no longer exists.

Her father has disappeared while fighting with the Croatian forces. Her town has become a battle ground fought over with shells and rockets.

It’s not safe to stay in Vukovar so she, her mother and elder brother join a stream of residents who become refugees in Zagreb. But then they are evicted and end up in Kumrovec  – a village near to Zagreb, on the Croatian-Serbian border.

And there they are stuck for three years, sharing a one room apartment in the former Political School (known as  Hotel Tito in homage to the village’s most famous son Josip Tito, former president of Yugoslavia). 

Hotel Tito by Ivana BodrozicLife in Hotel Tito:  a strange existence.

The large conference rooms of the Hotel Tito have been re-assigned to serve the needs of a new type of resident.

Conference Room One is designated as an infirmary, number five is the  church, four is used for daycare.

For the young inhabitants of the hotel, the magical room is number seven; a space designated for parties, card games and social activities.  The front lobby is their rendezvous point for ventures into the local night spots.

Though it might sound like a playground, the hotel is hardly an ideal place in which to live. Naturally the family find it difficult to live in a room so tiny it can only just accommodate three beds. Other families are moved on, to bigger and nicer apartments. Why not them, they want to know?

Battling against officialdom

Petitions and appeals to the government result in promises that new accommodation will be found for them. But the promises never materialise. Nor is there any good news about the missing man.

Believe me, it is much harder for the families of the missing because there are things we can never accept, and the uncertainty is crushing us.

The girl never gives up hoping that one day she will learn her father is alive.

But in the meantime she has to get on with the business of growing up. A process which involves ditching the Barbie dolls and embracing the rites of adolescence: the first disco,  encounters with boys,  experiments with smoking and cocktails and the shock of the first hangover.

This narrator is an intelligent girl with a funny way of looking at life but is also keenly observant.  At the beginning of the book she has limited appreciation of the momentous changes happening in her country.  Although her parents don’t explain why she is being sent to the seaside, she has “a sneaking feeling it has to do with politics because everybody talks about politics all the time.” 

I know a thing or two about politics myself, like I call my toy monkey Meso, because my monkey and our president look a lot alike.

About the Croatian war of independence itself she has little to say other than it’s “cruel and went on for ages.”  She is more focused on the daily challenges of getting around a strange place, making new friends and experiencing the sneers of local people towards  incomers who don’t even know the correct names for basic foodstuffs.

The city was lovely and totally insensitive. They didn’t need us, there were enough people in Zagreb already; they felt that being from Zagreb was a matter of some prestige. … We made the switch to salty rolls but when we said the words they sounded off , always with a twang; when we bought them the baker had a little sneer. Like it was something enormous, not a stupid doughy roll.

Teenage confusion amid the chaos

This is a girl who is full of the anxiety and confusion experienced by teenagers. One moment she suffers acute embarrassment at the drunken antics of her grandfather, the next she feels a deep love for the old man. Desperate to get away from home and experience freedom but nervous about whether she will fit in and find friends in her new school.

Her insight and honesty make reading Hotel Tito a very human novel. It relates the experience of people who are displaced in war. The are in a state of constant anxiety about what is happening “back home” and never feel completely accepted in their new “home.” But it is also very much a novel about the process of growing up.

And like so many bildungsroman novels, despite the tribulations and frustrations experienced by the protagonist, by the end you sense that they have come through the challenge. That they have emerged stronger and with a spirit of optimism and hope for the future.


About the author

Ivana Simić Bodrožić  author of The Hotel TitoIvana Simić Bodrožić was born in Vukovar in 1982 though she has lived in Zagreb for many years.

She published her first poetry collection in 2005, Prvi korak u tamu (The First Step into Darkness) and has since published a second anthology plus a short story collection 100% pamuk (100% Cotton).

About the Book 

Hotel Zagorje (Hotel Tito) was the first prose work by Ivana Simić Bodrožić. It is described as an autobiographical novel. We know that Bodrožić  was in fact displaced from Vukovar and did live for a while in Hotel Tito. But the book reads more like fiction than as a memoir of the Croatian war of independence. I suspect that has much to do with the fluidity of the translation by Ellen Elias-Bursac.

Hotel Tito was published to critical acclaim in 2010. It received the Prix Ulysee for the best debut novel in France, and a number of prestigious  awards in Croatia and the Balkan region.  Bodrožić is currently working on the film adaptation of the novel with Bosnian director Jasmila Žbanić (the winner of Golden Bear 2006, Berlin International Film Festival).

Why I Read This Book

My edition was published by Seven Stories Press. I wouldn’t have known about the book however but for the fact it was chosen by Asymptote for their book club in November 2018.  Including it in my #15booksofsummer list meant I could read my first ever Croatian author. Another country that I’ve now covered as part of my World of Literature challenge.

15 books of summer

Myth and magic in darkest Wales: Ghostbird [Review]

Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

 

GhostbirdOne thing guaranteed to turn me off a book is the presence of a ghost. I don’t understand the fascination with spectres, phantoms, wraiths or spirits or anything of a supernatural nature. Give me real flesh and blood any time. 

 

Having made that disclosure you are probably now puzzled why my #15BooksofSummer reading list includes a title using one of my dreaded words. Sounds contradictory doesn’t it, especially when you hear that Ghostbird  in fact makes multiple references to the supernatural world?

Ghostbird draws on folklore, for example, particularly the fables found in the collection of medieval Welsh folk tales known as The Mabinogion. Lovekin’s novel also has one female character who is believed to have magical powers and another who is the spirit of a dead child.

 

Not my cup of tea by any stretch of the imagination.

And yet despite all of this I did enjoy reading this book.

 

Magical powers

Ghostbird is a tale set in rural Wales. This is where 14-year-old Cadi Hopkins lives with her mother Violet, a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life. Her eldest daughter drowned in a nearby lake while still a young child and her husband was killed soon after in a road accident. She has withdrawn emotionally from the world, including her surviving daughter.

 

In the neighbouring cottage lives her aunt (Violet’s sister in law), Lili Hopkins, a woman who according to the locals has magical powers just like all the Hopkins women down through the generations. Lili acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi but feels torn between her love for the girl and a promise she made to Violet many years earlier.

 

Women with secrets

All three women have secrets. Secrets that Cadi is determined to unravel because her life is full of gaps and mysteries. Her mother never speaks of the past. There are no photographs of her father in the cottage. Her sister died before she was born so of course Cadi never got to know her. But she doesn’t even know whether her sister’s real name was Dora or Blodeuwedd, a character in The Mabinogion who was turned into an owl. 

Cadi’s quest for knowledge coincides with the beginning of visitations from her dead sister. The girl is undergoing a metamorphosis into a bird, making her presence known through dead leaves and bird feathers. As her transformation progresses she draws Cadi closer to her and further away from Violet and Lili. 

Initially I wasn’t keen on the scenes where we encounter Blodeuwedd’s presence. But by the end of the novel, it became evident they were integral to the novel, acting as a catalyst for the progress Cadi makes towards enlightenment and the start of a new relationship  with her mother. 

Close relationship with nature

The real gem in the novel is how Carol Lovekin represents the women’s relationship with nature. Whether it’s the lake that magnetically draws Cadi to its edges in defiance of her mother’s command or the magical garden lovingly created over decades by the Hopkins women, there is a strong sense of place in this novel.  

Unless you knew what you were looking for it wouldn’t be obvious you were in a witch woman’s garden. … In the lea of the wall, pots of herbs stood on a flat slab of oak: sage and coltsfoot, peppermint and lemon balm. … A mass of clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle tumbled over the walls. In the orders, flower upon flower, marigolds and lavender, cornflowers as blue as heaven. 

Oh for a garden like that…..I’d even put up with a few strange rustlings in the trees or unexpected deposits of feathers in my bedroom. 

 

 


 

Introducing Carol Lovekin 

Carol Lovekin author of GhostbirdCarol Lovekin was born in Warwickshire and has worked in retail, nursing and as a freelance journalist and a counsellor. She is now a full-time writer living in Wales, a country she describes as her adopted home. Carol blogs at Making It Up As I Go Along

Ghostbird was her debut novel, published by Honno in 2016. It was a Guardian Readers’ Choice in 2016 and  longlisted for the Not the Booker Prize (run by The Guardian) in 2016. She is now working on her fourth book.

Why I read Ghostbird

A number of independent presses in Wales had the inspired idea to open a pop up shop in Cardiff in December 2016. Of course I had to visit and of course I had to buy. Ghostbird was recommended by the team from Honno and it had a beautiful cover. It’s been sitting on my shelves since then although I did read Carol’s second novel Snow Sisters in 2017 (see my review here)

When I put together my list of books for #20booksofsummer I knew I wanted to start with a novel from Wales. What a perfect opportunity to read Ghostbird.

15 books of summer

 

 

Alis Hawkins and the reader’s machine gun test #Cwtch Corner

Cwtch Corner: where authors from Wales get to talk about their work, what inspires their writing and their favourite authors and books.

Cwtch-Corner

Alis Hawkins has been on a month-long tour of independent bookshops in Wales to promote her latest novel In Two Minds. It’s the second in her
Teifi Valley Coroner series – the third Those Who Can – is due out in May 2020.  I managed to catch up with her during a break from meeting local readers in Nickleby’s book shop in Llantwit Major. 

 

Q. How would you describe In Two Minds in one sentence.

Two very different deaths teach acting coroner, Harry Probert-Lloyd, that, while post mortem examinations can tell you the mechanics of death, you have to dig deep into personal relationships to understand its causes.

Q. This is the second in your Teifi Valley Coroner Series. Some authors think their second novel was harder to write than the first. Was that your experience?

Yes and no. Whilst I didn’t have to do all the very basic historical research into the period that I’d had to do for None So Blind (I knew next to nothing about mid nineteenth century west Wales before beginning the series) I still had to research the specific background to the deaths which occur in In Two Minds. That meant familiarising myself with the nascent practice of autopsy in Britain, as well as getting to grips with Welsh emigration to the United States. And, though I love research, it takes time which can be an issue when you’re working to a deadline.

It was the same with the characters. While I now knew Harry and John to some extent, having spent a lot of time with them when writing None So Blind, they are both young men at the beginning of their careers and their opinions and actions are likely to change and be a bit unpredictable, so I couldn’t be confident that I knew how they’d react in the situations they would find themselves in. (Seeing how my characters react is one of the real joys of writing for me – I never know exactly what they’re going to do, say or think.)

And then there’s the particular kind of difficulty which comes with writing a series. Each book has to stand alone because bookshops tend to stock only the latest title in a series which makes it unlikely that people will have the luxury of reading them in the right order. (Kindle users are at a big advantage here as they can easily access books in sequence.) So you have to give readers who are new to the series enough of the background to allow them to understand where the characters are coming from, without boring people who’ve been with you from the beginning.

There was an added issue with In Two Minds as there’s a particular revelation in None So Blind that changes the way Harry sees many things and I didn’t want to give that away in In Two Minds lest it spoil the earlier book for people, so I’ve had to refer to it tangentially. And that proved a bit tricky!”

Q.There’s a risk when writing historical fiction that the narrative gets overloaded with historical information (many readers find this irritating). How do you try to get the right balance? 

I read a lot of historical fiction and I’m one of those readers who finds it irritating.

So, how do I avoid it?

I try to be light on detail and only put something in if it really earns its place. For the stuff of daily life – clothes, household stuff, food etc – I tend not to mention them unless flagging them up serves a purpose. If I wouldn’t mention something in a novel set in the present day, I don’t mention it in my books. So there are never gratuitous descriptions of what people are wearing, eating or using. (You’d never get Val McDermid going on about the material Karen Pirie’s clothes are made of, or where the buttons are.) But, if it serves to illustrate something about the character – eg how rich/poor/modest/vain they are, how greedy or abstemious, or some anomaly, then details earn their place. Details like that can tell you about the person being described, or about the person doing the describing – just why have they noticed that detail, what does it tell you about them?

For bigger, background stuff, I try to avoid exposition and just weave information in to the narrative for readers to pick up. I figure my readers are smart enough to aggregate these details into a whole without me painstakingly (or do I mean painfully?) laying it all out for them.

Then again, for some things – like the practice of autopsy in In Two Minds – it’s such a new thing that one character explaining stuff to another is entirely reasonable. But, even then, you’ve got to allow them do it in a way which adds to an understanding of their character rather than just putting a paragraph of explanation into their mouths and pretending it’s dialogue.”

Q.Have you ever written thousands of words for your novel or short story, only to throw most of them away? 

Yup. Thirty thousand words once. That’s half a book for some people. A bit less than a quarter of a normal length novel for me. I’d started the story in the wrong place and I couldn’t make it work. Ouch.

Mind you, that’s nothing compared to ditching half a book. When I was writing Testament, my first published novel, I had three goes at getting the contemporary strand in a split-time structure right.

But I’ve never had to do that for any of the Teifi Valley Coroner books.”

 

Q.Do you tend to give up on books or are you someone who feels that once you’ve started reading you should get to the end even if you’re not enjoying the book

Life’s far too short (and I’m too slow a reader) to persevere with a book I’m not enjoying. I used to say that, if I’d happily machine gun everybody in the book by page 60, I’d stop but I’ve modified that, slightly, in recent times. Now it’s page 30.

Q. Which authors have you changed your mind about over the years?

That’s an interesting question. I’ve always read a lot of crime fiction but before I started writing it myself, I tended to read the more nitty-gritty, examine-the-bodies end – Patricia Cornwell, Karen Slaughter, Kathy Reichs. Now, however, I find those a bit light on character development and too plot- and forensic detail-heavy and I’ve come to appreciate a better balance between narrative and the relationships that drive a book. Consequently, I tend not to read many of those forensic pathology novels any more.

Q. What book are you reading at the moment? 

“I always have two books on the go – one on my Kindle to read in bed so I don’t disturb my other half with reading lights, and a physical book for downstairs reading over breakfast and lunch.

My current Kindle book is by fellow Crime Cymru author Chris Lloyd and is the latest in his Catalan mystery series: City of Drowned Souls. I’ve read all three of the books in the series so far back-to-back – I’ve become addicted to them and now want to go to Girona where they’re set!

And my paperback of the moment is The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar. It’s a wonderful historical novel, full of fantastic characters and entirely lacking – thank God! – in the kind of ‘everybody’s dirty and miserable’ trope that you so often find in historical fiction. Her characters leap off the page as real people and she paints the world in which they live and all the social realities of the day with a brilliantly light touch. I’m loving it.”


Alis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley where her Harry Probert-Lloyd series is set). She trained as a speech and language therapist but spent three decades variously working in a burger restaurant, bringing up two sons, working with homeless people, providing support to children and young people on the autism spectrum.

None So Blind was published in 2017. In Two Minds was published by Dome Press in May 2019. She is now working on the third title in The Teifi Valley Coroner series, Those Who Can

She is a founder member of Crime Cymru, a collective of crime writers in Wales. 

You can learn more about her books at www.AlisHawkins.co.uk

She is also on Facebook at AlisHawkinsAuthor and on Twitter  @Alis_Hawkins

My review of None So Blind is here 

 

 

 

Little known secrets of my library

Bookshelves

 

It’s time I came clean about the state of my library of unread books (otherwise known as the TBR).

I warn you that this could get ugly.

What’s a TBR? 

If you follow any blogs about books and reading you’ll already be familiar with this term.

But for the benefit of any newbies, TBR stands for To Be Read.

It generally means all the books lying around in your home that are unread. Some people chose to include all the books they want to read, but haven’t yet got around to acquiring.

I stick to the “owned by unread” definition for my TBR. I record all of these titles on a spreadsheet which lists when they were bought/acquired, the author’s country of origin and a category (classic, translated, crime etc). At one time my TBR included books I wanted to read but the list quickly became huge and I panicked so I now just put those into a Goodreads wishlist.

Seriously you have how many unread books!!!

I have in the region of 314 unread books at home.

It’s not an exact figure because I keep finding books in unexpected places around the house.

This is higher than the figure at the end of 2018 (for the record I got to Dec 31 with 302 books).

I was doing well until May, resisting buying too many new titles but then it all went  haywire. A combination of a buying splurge, a birthday and some advance copies passed on by other bloggers – yes they are to blame! ).

What would be an ideal number?

I don’t have a target for the number of unread books I think it would be acceptable to have in my library.

I’d like to  think I could make significant progress and get it down to around 270 by end of 2019 but I doubt that’s going to happen.  I’m trying to exercise some restraint (you might not believe it but it’s true) by avoiding NetGalley – I know if I look I will end up clicking. That way madness lies.

The breakdown…

I hadn’t realised I have so many non factual books on my shelves. They’re a mix of history (I have a few by Mary Beard), health related and memoirs. A lot of the books in translation are ones I acquired when I started my quest of reading more broadly around the world. I’m slowly making my way through them.

Booker Prize related               6 (two winners, 1 shortlisted and 3 longlisted)
Children’s fiction                     2
Classics                                    39
Crime/thriller .                       19
Fiction                                    164
Non fiction .                            27
Short story collections .          6
Fiction in translation .          40
Welsh authors                        13

The format…

Paper dominates in my house. Though I found an electronic reader a saviour when I was travelling a lot for work, now I’m retired I don’t have to worry about lugging heavy books around with me. There are 40 books on my e reader. They’re a mixture of classics from Gutenburg , Net Galley editions and some bargains I bought from that big company named after a river.

The oldest book in my collection is …

To the Lighthouse

According to my spreadsheet the book I’ve had the longest is To the Lighthouse. But that’s misleading because I bought it in 1975 and have read it twice. I think I kept it on the list because I meant to read it again at some point.  It shouldn’t really be there.

Next in line is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (a Booker prize shortlisted title).

never let me go

My record says I acquired it in 2010. I say “I” but actually it was a book I bought for my husband. He didn’t care for it but I rescued it from the ‘donate to charity shop’ pile. Now I’m thinking: do I still want to read this? It’s dystopian fiction which I haven’t read much of in the past but maybe this could be the book that helps get me more interested in that genre.

After that comes James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late (what an apt title for book that’s been waiting eight years for me to get around to reading). It’s on the list because it’s part of my Booker Prize project. I did actually begin reading it and then put aside. I WILL read it this year……

The newest book (s) in my collection are…

Today’s purchases were:

West by Carys Davies: a novella about early pioneers in America. I bought it for two reasons. Reason One, I loved her earlier work The Redemption of Galen Pike.  Reason Two, she hails from Wales though sadly has moved home to Scotland.

Normal People by Sally Rooney. The accolades keep pouring in for this second novel by the Irish author. I’m curious whether it lives up to all those awards for which it’s been nominated.

Any  review copies in that pile?

Currently I have nine review copies still to be read.

Sounds impressive doesn’t it?

Unfortunately most of these are about three years old. They were the result of getting over excited on Net Galley and not paying enough attention to the book description before putting in my request. Lesson learned. Now I only request review copies or accept them if I am very certain I’ll be able to read them in a reasonable time frame.

Book number 200 on the list is 

The 200th book is in fact one of those old Net Galley review copies.  A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee is the first in his series set in 1919 British ruled Calcutta featuring a former Scotland Yard detective. I learned today he’ll be  doing an author event in a local bookshop this September so I should really try to read this before that date.

The books I most want to read 

I’ve put 15 titles from my TBR onto the list for 20BooksofSummer so that’s going to be my focus for the next few months. I’d also like to get to these three books soonish.

 


Now you’ve been introduced to the darkest secrets of my TBR, how about pulling back the curtains on your stash of unread books?

Do self help books offer false promise?

My (semi) regular Bookends post is based on an idea from Simon at Stuck in a Book . If you’ve not read his Weekend Miscellany posts take a look at the most recent one.

This week I’m featuring  a new novel from an author in Wales and a blog post addressing a dilemma faced by many bloggers who receive advance copies from publishers: what do you do if you don’t care for the book you’ve committed to review? We end the week with an article about self-help books

Book: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

saltwater

This is a debut novel that I saw highlighted as a book to watch out for in May by Susan at A Life in Books. It’s a coming of age novel written from the perspective of a working class girl who hopes university will be her passage to a different kind of life. It sounded so promising I ordered it via the library (amazed to find they had bought it). I didn’t realise at the time it’s told in a series of numbered fragments. I’m really hoping that device works and isn’t just style over substance.

Blogpost:  I never promised you 5 stars

Dilemma

This was the intriguing heading on a recent blog post by Rachel at RachelRead. What do you do when you’re sent a book, asked to review it  and then the book turns out to be “a stinker.” Do you, asks Rachel:

  • A) Shoot yourself in the foot by being honest with your review?
  • B) Get yourself blacklisted by blog tours/publicists/publishing houses?
  • C) LIE?!

Find out what she thinks are the pros and cons of each approach in her post here 

Article: self help books “offer a false promise, like a lotto ticket or an ad for diet pills” 

There are so many self-help books around I’m surprised there isn’t a whole section devoted to them in bookshops. Some are just plain daft; others peddle the same stuff you can easily find via the Internet. Some exist just because the topic is the latest craze (do we really need instructions on how to hygge our homes??). But still people buy them.

Can they help or are they holding out false promises asks Maddie Crum in this article for LitHub. 

Your thoughts???

How do you deal with the question Rachel has been wrestling with? Do you post a review on your site regardless of whether you rated the book or is your policy only to review books you enjoyed/appreciated?

 

Where do you stand on self help books – love them or loathe them?

 

Just pop your thoughts into the comments section below and let us know
what you’re thinking.

 

 

Is The Franchise Affair the perfect crime novel? [review]

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

The Franchise Affair

Sometimes a classic mystery or crime novel is the only type of book that will satisfy my mood. I don’t want the kind that oozes with blood or is  ultra complex but equally the novel shouldn’t be  ‘cosy’, or pedestrian.

Josephine Tey’s 1948 novel The Franchise Affair fitted my recent requirements perfectly.

It’s what I would class as an ‘intelligent’ mystery/crime novel.  There are no bodies to be counted, no trail of blood, no criminals to be tracked down and unmasked in a grand dénouement (á la Poirot) and no unexpected plot reversals (á la Christie). Instead Tey presents her readers with a puzzle and invites them to follow along with the ‘detective’ as he seeks to find the truth among a knot of lies and inconsistencies.

The job of sleuth in this novel falls on the shoulders of Robert Blair, a respected solicitor in a respected family law firm in the country town of Milton.  He’s called upon to defend Marion Sharpe and her mother who live in “The Franchise”,  an imposing house on the outskirts of town.

They’re accused of kidnapping fifteen-year-old Betty Kane, holding her prisoner for a month and beating her when she refuses to do their cleaning. This is far from Robert’s  usual kind of case but he’s been feeling lately that his life is rather unexciting and predictable. He’s rather taken with the Sharpe women and their sensible, forthright manner but he distrusts Betty’s story even though she can describe accurately items and rooms inside The Franchise.

Robert begins a painstaking search for clues that will prove his clients’ innocence and reveal that Betty is more of  a cunning minx than the butter-wouldn’t-melt figure she presents to police and jurors.

Media ethics in the spotlight

The Franchise Affair is a cleverly paced novel.  The first half is very much about Robert’s inability to find the holes in Betty’s story. Though he learns some surprising facts about her, he’s frustrated there is no real breakthrough. The second half has more tension; a race against time as the Sharpe’s find themselves arrested and the evidence appears to be firmly stacked against them.

Beyond the mechanics of the investigation lies a well crafted portrayal of how the media and a community react to a scandal in their midst.

Marion Sharpe and her mother were already viewed with suspicion in the town. They’re ‘outsiders’, for one thing and have acquired a reputation for being rude. The conservative townies think Marion looks like a gypsy with her dark hair, browned skin and colourful scarves. Perhaps, it’s whispered, they are witches…

The people of Milton find it easy to believe that these women who live in a ramshackle ugly house behind large gates, could be kidnappers and abusers. They find it equally easy to believe in Betty’s story, particularly when the girl’s youthful appearance and clothes makes even sober men think of “forget-me-nots and wood-smoke and bluebells and summer distances.”

This is a novel about the way people jump to conclusions. The townsfolk assume Betty is innocent because she looks that way and because she was orphaned during the war .  They assume Marion Sharpe and her mother are wrong-doers because they live in a large house (hence must be wealthy) and are a little odd.

Tey clearly doesn’t have much time for people like this. But she is even more disapproving of the way the media feed their prejudices. One newspaper, the Ack-Emma is described as:

… the latest representative of the tabloid newspaper to enter British journalism from the West. It was run on the principle that two thousand pounds for damages is a cheap price to pay for sales worth half a million.

The Ack-Emma’s  sensational headlines are instrumental in whipping up public animosity against the Sharpes. They take Betty’s story at face value, publish a picture of the Sharpe’s house (which then becomes a target for vigilantes) and allow abusive missives about the Sharpes to appear in their letters’ page. Tey’s narrator bemoans this new style of reporting. Time was, says the narrator, when newspapers could be relied upon to exercise sound judgement about the contents of their editions. But newspapers like Ack-Emma’ don’t confirm to those old principles.

However the narrator also acknowledges the Ack-Emma’s new style of reporting has clearly found favour with readers since sales had boomed and “in any suburban railway station seven out of ten people bound for work in the morning” were reading its pages.

Faultless characterisation

The Franchise Affair is a darn good story pepped up with sparky social commentary. It also has some first class characters. Robert Blair is a joy as the lifelong bachelor with a peaceful life. He has tea and biscuits brought each day to his desk on a on  lacquered tray covered with a clock. He can clock off work after the post has gone at 3.45pm, just in time for a round of golf before dinner. He’s also waited on hand and foot by a devoted aunt). I

His client ‘old’ Mrs Sharp is a fun character. Her acerbic tongue matches her name but she has has an equally sharp eye for spotting a winning race horse.

Pride of place however goes to one of the members of the supporting cast; Robert’s Aunt Linn: “a solid little figure with the short neck and round pink face and iron-grey hair that frizzed out from large hairpins.” She’s a woman perfectly content with her life which revolves around recipes, church bazars  and film star gossip gleaned from magazines. Though she’s not too keen on her nephew taking on the Sharpe’s case because the people at The Franchise “aren’t the kind of people I naturally take to” she is one of the few people in Milton who doesn’t let appearances get in the way of a desire for justice.

Though there are aspects of The Franchise Affair that situate it in a particular period (a post-war England which still has the death penalty)  it deals with issues that are still relevant today. Questions about media responsibility and accountability and the way communities take ‘justice’ into their own hands, are just as pertinent in 2019 as they were in 1948.


About the author

Josephine_Tey_portraitJosephine Tey was the pseudonym of Elizabeth MacKintosh  who was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1896. She also wrote plays under the name Gordon Daviot, a surname that might have been chosen because it was the name of the place near Inverness where she spent family holidays.

Her first published work appeared under the name of Gordon Daviot in The Westminster Gazette in 1925.  Her first mystery novel, The Man in the Queue, was published in 1929, marking the first appearance of Inspector Alan Grant from Scotland Yard. Grant makes a few brief appearances in The Franchise Affair.

Why I read this novel

I read and enjoyed another of Tey’s novels, The Daughter of Time in 2017. It’s an unusual novel, an investigation into the mystery of a historical event (the deaths of the Princes in the Tower). I was taken by her writing style, enough to want to read more of her work and luckily found a copy of The Franchise Affair in a charity bookshop. Incidentally this novel was included in a list of  recommended crime novels published by The Sunday Times.

Six Degrees from artificial intelligence to destiny fulfilled

Murmur

This month’s  Six Degrees of Separation  (hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best) begins with Murmur by Will Eaves; a book I haven’t read. Some quick research revealed that this novel delves into the consciousness of the mathematician and and cryptologist Alan Turing during the period when he was undergoing chemical castration as punishment for gross indecency.

Turing’s pioneering work on artificial intelligence enabled the German naval code (Enigma) to be broken during World War 2,  shortening the war by as much as two years and saving countless lives.

A_Space_Odyssey

Artificial intelligence, its promises and dangers, were explored in 2001: A SpaceOdyssey by the British science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. On a mission to Saturn the on-board computer HAL 9000 is meant to maintain the space craft and protect the astronauts but it begins to develop a will of its own. Clarke’s novel highlights problems that can crop up when man builds machines, the inner workings of which he does not fully comprehend and therefore cannot fully control.

Dark Star Safari

The word odyssey has come to mean any epic journey. In Swahili such a journey is known as a safari. And that links me nicely to Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It’s an account of a journey taken when he was pushing 60, from Egypt to South Africa, taking in Uganda and Malawi, countries where he had lived and worked in his youth.  What he finds are countries that are falling apart through war, famine, Aids, political chaos. He seems most incensed by the convoys  of aid workers he encounters. In his eyes they’re ineffective because they’re foreigners who don’t engage with local people who actually know the country and the cultures they are seeking to help.

Bend in the River

Paul Theroux had a famous falling out with his friend, the Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul, who also drew upon his experience of Africa in his own writing. A Bend in the River published in 1979 tells the story of Salim, a small shopkeeper who buys a business in a town at “a bend in the river” in an unnamed African country. Though highly praised and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it was also criticised for a perceived defence of European colonialism in Africa.

Once Upon a River

It’s to a river in one of those colony-ruling countries that our journey now heads.

Diane Setterfield’s  Once Upon a River is set at an ancient inn on the Thames. On a dark midwinter’s night the regulars are engaged in their favourite entertainment, telling stories. The door bursts open on an injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a little child. Hours later the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life. Is it a miracle? Or are there magical forces at work?

This is a novel that straddles the line between realism and the supernatural. Magical realism isn’t a genre I enjoy much which is why I struggled through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children

midnights children

In essence the novel is the life story of Saleem Sinai, a child born on the stroke of midnight, at the exact moment that the newly independent state of India comes into being. He and the 500 plus other children born at the same time, enter the world with unusual powers — in his case psychic and olfactory powers — that create a mystical bond between them.

The mention of children with remarkable powers takes me to the final novel in my chain.

northern lights

In Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights,  Lyra Belacqua is a young girl who inhabits a universe parallel to our own. Raised in the cloistered world of Jordan College, Oxford, she has an uncanny ability to see past, present, and future and the truth  by using a golden compass or an alethiometer. The skill enables her to fulfil an ancient prophecy that she is “destined to bring about the end of destiny” and ensure the stability of the universes.

Maybe my imagination is working overtime but maybe there is a parallel between Turing and Lyra; two people destined to be saviours of mankind.

And there I think it’s time to bring this chain to an end otherwise the connections might become even more ridiculous.

 

 

Brilliant memoir of optimism and courage: The Salt Path

Salt PathRaynor Winn had never given much thought to the problem of homelessness.

But at the age of 50, she and her husband Moth became one of the estimated 280,000 households in the UK without a roof over their head.

The Winns lost their livelihood – and their home – when an investment in a friend’s business went sour. An obdurate legal system refused to allow them to present key evidence showing they were not liable for that firm’s debts.

Bailiffs were instructed to seize the Welsh farmhouse the couple had rebuilt from a pile of stones and turned into a thriving holiday business. Worse news followed.  Moth was diagnosed with CBD, a rare degenerative brain disease. The specialist told him that death usually comes six to eight years after the onset – and that he’d probably been suffering for six already..

While hiding under the stairs as the bailiffs banged on the door, Raynor discovered a copy of Five Hundred Mile Walkies, an account by Paddy Dillon of walking the 630-mile South West Coast Path with his dog.

The book became the catalyst for their own journey. When they took their first steps on that same path almost everything they possessed went with them:  a small tent bought on eBay, a couple of cheap, thin sleeping bags, some basic cooking equipment and a change of clothes.  In their pocket they had £115 in cash and a bankcard to collect £48 a week in tax credits.

south-west-coast-path

The route of the South West Coastal Path

They had no plan beyond starting in Minehead and following the path down to Land’s End and then along the southern coastline to Poole in Dorset. A plan for their future would emerge they hoped. Until it did,  they would just put one foot in front of the other.

 

Ill-prepared mentally, and physically one obstacle they never expected to encounter was the prejudice – and sometimes hostility  – of people they met along their way.

Only a few days into their journey a boisterous dog sent Raynor flat onto her face in the street and her precious coins rolling down the hill .  “You tramps should learn how to control yourselves. Rolling around in the street – it’s disgusting,” shouted the dog owner.  Raynor at that point began to lose what little sense of herself she had remaining :

A tramp. A homeless tramp. A few weeks earlier I’d owned my own home, my own business, a flock of sheep, a garden, land, an Aga, washing machines, a lawn mower. I had responsibilities, respect, pride. The illusions of life had rolled away as quickly as the pound coins.

Often the strangers they encountered would physically recoil when told why the Winns were walking the path, gathering their children and dogs towards them as if they feared harm. The word ‘homeless’ was the trigger.  So Moth changed their story, explaining they had sold their home to go looking for adventure wherever the wind took them. The response was telling; they became people to be admired not feared or despised. They were two ‘inspirational’ oldies having an adventure of a lifetime.

What was the difference between the two stories? Only one word, but one word that in the public perception meant everything: ‘sold’. We could  be homeless having sold our home and put money in the bank, and be inspirational. Or we could be homeless, having lost our home and become penniless, and be social pariahs.

south-west-coast-path2

A stretch of the South West Coastal path

All of this makes it sound that The Salt Path will be a gloomy book. But it’s actually brimming with humour because Raynor has a tremendous sense of the absurd (like the  man walking his tortoise) and of the beauty of nature. At times their situation is desperate: days with little more to eat than noodles and fudge to keep them plodding on; nights when their flimsy tent perched on the edge of a cliff is almost whipped from in a storm.

But in between there are the joys of moonlit swims, of dolphins and translucent fish. And the generosity of strangers who provided them with a place to camp or to stay and with food. Together they help her and Moth come to terms with their situation.

The Salt Path is a sobering reminder of easy it is to fall out of mainstream society and to become an outsider. It’s a remarkable story; thoughtful, honest, unflinching; about human strength and endurance.

 


 

The Salt Path, published by Michael Joseph, was shortlisted for the Costa Book of the Year.  Raynor and her husband Moth live in Cornwall close to the South West Coastal Path.  Their experience has been an inspiration to other homeless people as recounted in this article in The Big Issue magazine.

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