Category Archives: Book Genres

Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell #bookreview

Mary BartonIn the early 1840s, the city of Manchester was the engine house of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. Its huge cotton mills were a magnate for people from the countryside who saw in them an opportunity to improve their lives, particularly since industrial employees were paid more than agricultural workers.  But when demand for cotton began to fall away in the mid 40s, thousands of workers were put on reduced hours or dismissed. Dissatisfaction mounted as newly unionised workers began to demand a better deal. The social turmoil of strikes and lockouts added to the misery of overcrowded streets, inadequate water and poor sanitation.

Elizabeth Gaskell, the wife of a Unitarian minister in Manchester, saw at first hand the consequences: starvation, disease, early death. In the preface to Mary Barton: a Tale of Manchester Life she confessed that she knew nothing of political economy or the theories of trade, but she had always felt ” a deep sympathy with the care-worn men, who looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want.” Her intent in the novel was to give a voice to those care-worn men in order to reveal the common humanity that could serve to unite social classes.

The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things between those so bound to each other by common interests, as the employers and the employed must ever be, the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which from time to time convulsed this dumb people.

Gaskell uses the figure of John Barton, a mill worker, to illustrate how even honest men are driven to desperation in such a climate.  At the start of the novel Barton is an intelligent, thoughtful man who cares strongly about two things: his family and his livelihood. He goes into a rapid decline when his wife dies in childbirth and  then the factory where he works is closed. He cannot find a job anywhere else.

He is a proud man. When his daughter asks why he does not accept money from the town so he can buy food, he replies angrily: “I don’t want money, child! D — n their charity and their money! I want work, and it is my right. I want work!”

In anger and frustration he succumbs to the temptation of opium and becomes heavily involved in the burgeoning trade union movement and the Chartist cause.

When all efforts fail to get politicians and mill owners to listen, he concludes that the only way to get their attention is through an act of violent rebellion.  He turns murderer, killing Harry Carson, the handsome but arrogant son of a mill owner.

Gaskell rejects such violence as the solution to the problems of the working poor of Manchester.  The core of the issue for her is that workers and employers simply don’t understand each other.  As John Barton says early in the novel:

The rich know nothing of the trials of the poor; I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows, and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds …

Through her narrator Elizabeth Gaskell openly pleads for the two sides to come to a meeting of the minds through communication. In the final stages of the novel she puts this idea into the mouth of one of her worker characters, an intelligent and rational man. After a meeting with the mill owner Mr Carson, father of the murdered man :

You say our talk has done no good. I say it has. I see the view you take of things from the place where you stand. I can remember that, when the time comes for judging you; I sha’n’t think any longer, does he act right on my views of a thing, but does he act right on his own. It has done me good in that way.

It’s a worthy sentiment but it’s hard to see how improved communication can have any practical application as a solution to poor wages and slum conditions.

Gaskell’s other solution to the problem of the poor is revealed in the novel’s parallel plot of the problematic love life of John Barton’s daughter Mary.

Mary Barton is a good girl at heart, a hard working seamstress who is devoted to caring for the father. But she has her head turned when Harry Carson, the mill owner’s son begins paying her attention. The silly girl thinks she can marry him and thus secure a comfortable life for herself and her father. Only after she rejects a proposal from Jem Wilson, a hard working boy she’s known all her life, does she realise it’s Jem she loves after all. But it’s almost too late.

Jem gets arrested on suspicion of Carson’s murder and it takes all of Mary’s courage to find a way of saving him. It all ends happily ever after with Jem, who had been a much respected foreman at a forge, and Mary setting up home in Canada. It’s meant to seem a reward from his boss for his loyalty and dedication but is Gaskell suggesting that the only way out of the poverty in Manchester is to leave the country? It’s not exactly a vote of confidence in England and can surely only have limited application. Emigration was for sure an escape route for many (particularly the Irish) but how many of them really found live on the other side of the Atlantic a bed of roses?

The book’s conclusion, with its emphasis on the power of redemption and heavily sentimental tone,  is the one flaw in an otherwise perfectly constructed and engaging novel that depicts real, rather than idealised Victorian family life.

The world of Mary Barton is one in which mothers die in the agony of childbirth, children suffer starvation and scarlet fever and women abandoned by their lovers end up wandering the streets as gin-soaked prostitutes. Gaskell’s characters speak in a natural voice using Lancashire colloquialisms and dialect. It’s a bold move. Other Victorian novelists, such as Charles Dickens, often had their protagonists and most virtuous characters speak in ‘standard English’, regardless of their social or regional background. But Gaskell’s decision gives her novel an added dimension of realism. Some of her most frequently used words such as ‘clem’ which means to suffer from extreme hunger and ‘frabbit’ which apparently means peevish, convey sentiments that would be difficult to fully capture in ‘standard English’.

Mary Barton is a novel with multiple elements. It has a love triangle, a murder,  a tale of a wronged woman and a life and death chase, all set in a city in the grip of an industrial revolution.  It does tend towards the polemic and the melodramatic at times but fortunately it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a powerful and moving picture of working-class life in Victorian England.

 

About the novel

Elizabeth_Gaskell

Mary Barton was the first novel to be published by Elizabeth Gaskell.  She wrote it at the suggestion of her husband as a response to the death in infancy of  her  son from scarlet fever. It was published anonymously in 1848 though relates the events of a few years earlier and is believed to have been based on the real-life murder of a progressive mill owner in 1831.

Why I read this novel

The first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell that I read was North and South which I thoroughly enjoyed.  But having been disappointed by Wives and Daughters and Cranford, I wanted to get back to her gritty realism.

WWWednesday 15 May, 2019

Time for another  WWW Wednesday hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words.

What are you currently reading?

I’m almost at the end of The Salt Path by Raynor Winn.  This was one of the books I received as a present last Christmas having heard about it via one of the national newspapers in the UK. It’s proving as superb as their review indicated. It’s the true story of a couple in their fifties who lose their farm, their home and their business after an investment in a friend’s company went belly up. Then they get told the husband (who labours under the strange name of Moth) has a serious brain disease for which there is no cure. Homeless and penniless they decide to walk the South West Coastal Path – a trail of 630 miles, camping wild as they tramped. It’s a fantastic tale about courage but also makes some insightful comments about the way in which homeless people are viewed in the UK.

I’m also reading Punch, a collection of short stories by Kate North, one of the authors from Wales I’ve highlighted in my Cwtch Corner feature. Kate described the book as “A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.” I’ve read two so far and they are definitely strange – one involves an author who takes a rental cottage in France to complete her latest commission but has to share the premises with a very unfriendly mask. Another is about a man who develops a weird growth on his hand….

 

What did you recently finish reading?

Mary Barton was the first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell although her authorship was not known at the time of its publication in 1849. It’s set in Manchester and is partly a romance but, far more interesting, is that depicts the problems experienced by the working class in the city and the growth of trade unionism. The final sections do become a little heavy on the message of redemption and the need for increased understanding between workers and employers but otherwise this was a beautifully written and constructed tale.

 

What do you think you’ll read next?

I don’t have to think too hard about this for once. We have a book club meeting at the weekend and I haven’t yet opened the chosen novel – Kate Atkinson’s Transcription.  My last experience with Atkinson via Life After Life wasn’t a good one so I’m hoping Transcription proves to be more akin to the earlier Atkinson novels that I loved.

 

After that comes Evelina by Francis Burney which was the novel I ended up with as a result of the last Classics Club spin and which I’m *supposed* to read by end of May. But I won’t feel compelled to read it if I don’t feel in the mood at the time. I keep eyeing all the books I’ve bought in recent weeks and they’re calling to me more than Miss Burney.

 

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage #bookreview

woman_in_the_darkThe Woman in the Dark should be sold with a health warning emblazoned across its cover. Readers deserve to be cautioned that it’s such an addictive novel they will want to sacrifice domestic chores and forgo sleep until they reach the final pages.

As you’d expect with a thriller,  it has a cracking pace and oodles of twists and turns. But Vanessa Savage has done something far more interesting than simply trotting out the standard elements of the genre. Within her chillingly dark tale of a family in crisis, she spins a disturbing narrative about the legacy of child abuse.

The Woman in the Dark begins on a day that seems just an ordinary one for a rather ordinary family.  But the tensions become quickly apparent. Mum Sarah is suffering from a deep depression as a result of her mother’s death. She’s taken to drink to help dull the pain but her cocktail of alcohol and anti depressant tablets leave her feeling spaced out and unable to function. They need a fresh start according to her loving and caring husband Patrick.

So he persuades her to move home, to buy the Victorian beachfront house in which he grew up. It’s the ideal spot in which to raise their two teenage children Joe and Mia, he argues. Conveniently he overlooks the fact that this house is where a brutal double murder took place 15 years ago. The Murder House, as the locals call it, is now a dilapidated shell of its former self.  Patrick is convinced they can make it as perfect a home as it was in his childhood. No-one else in the family shares his optimism for the peeling paint, rattling windowpanes and unexplained cold spots in some rooms. And that’s before they are even aware of the creepy messages on the cellar wall.

From these elements Vanessa Savage has created an intense and deeply disturbing novel about lies, secrets and buried tensions. No-one comes out of this intact.  Certainly not Sarah who becomes obsessed by the murder and perturbed by what she discovers about Patrick’s past. Definitely not Patrick whose moods swing from concern for Sarah’s wellbeing to uncontrollable anger. Nor their children who suffer nightmares and physical trauma as their parents’ marriage disintegrates.

This is a novel in which nothing – and no-one – can be trusted. Is Sarah right to imagine the house is a malevolent force? Does she have good reason to suspect Patrick is a threat to her and her children? The only version of events we hear is Sarah’s and given her propensity to become confused and muddled, the problems could all be in her mind.

The Woman in the Dark is a remarkably strong debut. Vanessa Savage writes with such confidence that you quickly overcome doubts that any sane adult would want to live in a house whose previous occupants were slaughtered.  It’s not a book to enjoy (unless you like to revel in other people’s misery) but it’s certainly one in which you can become engrossed.


 

Vanessa SavageAbout the book

The Woman in the Dark by Vanessa Savage was published in January 2019 by Sphere in the UK and by Grand Central Publishing in the USA.

About the Author 

Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives with her family in South Wales (just down the road from me I just discovered 🙂 She has won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and was shortlisted for the Caledonia Fiction Prize.

Look out for an interview with Vanessa when she joins me in Cwtch Corner next month.

Cwtch Corner welcomes Cathy Ace #Waleswrites

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

Cwtch-Corner

Cwtch Corner went transatlantic this month. I’d dearly have loved to visit Canada to talk in person with Cathy Ace but the tortuous journey home from New Zealand has made me less than enthusiastic for long haul flights. Maybe I’ll get a chance to meet her when she makes one of her frequent trips home to Wales to visit family or attend a crime fiction festival. 

Cathy moved to Canada to teach at the University of British Columbia. It was a long way to go to meet and marry a ‘boy’ from her home town of Swansea! She lives in rural British Columbia where she gardens and writes. She has two series published: the Cait Morgan series features a Welsh-Canadian criminologist who specialises in profiling victims and the WISE Enquiries Agency series based on four women with a nose for mysteries. Her newest novel The Wrong Boy is a psychological suspense novel set on the Gower peninsular. 

 

Q. Hi Cathy, The Wrong Boy was published in January this year. Can you describe it for us in just one sentence?

Thanks for having me along to your lovely Cwtch Corner today. I adore the word cwtch and everything it means – I even used it in the book, where there’s a place called The Rhosddraig Cwtch (a small café/restaurant in the village of Rhosddraig, where the book is set – which is really Rhossili, but I disguised it to protect the innocent). But, I digress (not unusual for me) so, back to your question.

Oh my goodness me, describe this book in one sentence? Any limit to the length of that sentence, or the amount of punctuation I can use within it to allow it to be just one sentence? No? Hmm, well, maybe I’m not up to it…so I’ll let multi-award-winning author Elly Griffiths do it for me:

“A wonderfully dark, atmospheric tale about the way that evil reverberates through generations.”

Q. You’ve written two successful series – do you tend to plan a series as a whole or does each book just flow from the last one?

In the case of the Cait Morgan Mysteries I was given the opportunity to propose nine books to the publisher when I submitted the very first manuscript. Eight of those books were published with that publisher, so I was delighted to be able to follow the majority of the arc I’d planned for the two main characters – Cait Morgan and Bud Anderson – as well as “visit” the countries where I’d wanted Cait to discover each book’s titular corpse (eg: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue). Each was a country where I’d lived or worked for a period of time, and I very much wanted readers to get the chance to see a little of what I loved about each place. As for the ninth novel? That’s still in the pipeline.

For the WISE Enquiries Agency Mysteries I proposed two books to that publisher (a different one) at first, then another two, though in my mind I’d already planned five or six.

In both series the books follow a natural timeline in the lives of the main, recurring characters – though each novel truly stands alone, without any cliffhangers preventing readers from achieving full closure. That being said, I really think it helps to understand character development if a series of books is read in order – unless the characters experience very little true personal development (as in the case of Marple or Poirot, for example). As a reader I do dip into series, but usually find I want to go back to the beginning to find out where the characters ‘began’.”

Q.You’ve won several awards for your work (most recently an Independent Publishers Book Award for The Wrong Boy). How important are awards to authors? Do they tend to translate into sales? 

To be clear, I should say that I know different authors view different awards in different ways, so I can only speak for myself in this response.

To be shortlisted for an award, or to win one, provides an enormous boost to my confidence; I adore it when I meet, or hear from, readers who tell me how much they enjoy my work – but I still struggle with how to react…without gushing, or blushing, or stammering.

Being nominated or shortlisted for, or winning, an award is a time of pure joy – so the first thing I do is celebrate! There are so few moments when I’m not worrying about the book I’m trying to get folks to consider reading, or the one I’m plotting/outlining/writing, that it’s worth revelling in just one evening of indulgence…so I pop a cork, and sip with satisfaction – then the next day I get back to work.

In terms of sales? The effect can be immediate – there’s usually a bump in sales – but it has to be something you work at to make it a sustained advantage. What I will add is that I’ve found that being shortlisted for an award but not winning it (that’s happened to me three times, for different awards) can have exactly the same effect upon my psyche and my sales – so the effort to get out the news about about being shortlisted is equal to the effort I put into news about winning.”

Q. Though Welsh born, you’ve lived for many years across the other side of the Atlantic. How has that distance from home affected how you write about your native country

I didn’t migrate to Canada until I was forty so I will always be truly Welsh, though I’m now also “becoming” Canadian (except for the accent!). My husband is also Welsh, and both my mother and sister – as well as my husband’s family – all still live in and around Swansea…so I still feel close to home (I talk to Mum for about an hour on the phone every day!).

That said, I now have the distance between me and the day-to-day realities of life in Wales to allow me to stand back and see my Homeland slightly differently than I did when I lived there.

I didn’t begin to write fiction until I moved to Canada, so I don’t know how I might have written about Wales before I left…but I think it’s important in all scene-setting in fiction to paint just enough of a picture to allow the reader to fill in the gaps – like a Pointillist or Impressionist painting, rather than a photograph. I think the distance helps me do that, because I can better focus on aspects of Wales and Welshness that are critical to the reader’s understanding, instead of trying to pile on the details that might confuse rather than illuminate. At least, that’s what I hope I manage to do.”

Q. Who do you think is the most interesting sleuth in crime fiction?

“Oh gosh, that’s a difficult question to answer because there are some truly engaging sleuths – of all types – around.

Millhone (Sue Grafton), Warshawski (Sara Paretsky) and Spenser (Robert B. Parker) all have rich personal lives without being out-and-out weird professional investigators; Poirot, Marple (Agatha Christie) and Holmes (Conan Doyle) are unchanging, yet interesting despite that; Rebus (Ian Rankin), Reacher (Lee Child) and Rumpole (John Mortimer) pursue justice in totally different ways, face life-changing situations, yet still come up trumps; Galloway (Elly Griffiths), Bryant and May (Christopher Fowler) and Stanhope (Ann Cleeves) are some of my favourites too, yet all are completely different. And I could go on. And on. See? It’s an impossible question to answer…sorry.

Q. Your home is on fire… Which book will you choose to save?

Fire? My nightmare! We live half way up a little mountain in a rural area, where the nearest fire station is run by volunteers – so, around here (in the middle of a rain forest) most domestic fires lead to the complete loss of a home because none of us even have mains water – we all have wells. So you get out (hopefully) then have to watch everything burn, praying the fire doesn’t jump to the trees and become a major disaster, as you wait. Dreadful! *shivers*

But…OK, I’ll imagine a fire, just for you. Of course my beloved dog and husband get rescued first (wrong order?), then our photo albums (yes, we still have such things – and I must find the time to scan and save all those photos at some point). Then a book.

I look at it this way – a book is something that can be purchased again, whether as a new book or as a previously-loved copy of something that’s out of print. Books mean most when they’ve been given by someone, or are signed by someone who’s no longer around.

With that in mind, the one book I would save would have to be my copy of A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens; it’s a copy that was given to my mother for Christmas in 1944 by her aunt. I cannot imagine how expensive it must have been to purchase, or how wonderful to receive – an illustrated hardcover book, printed and published in 1944 with all the war shortages at their height…what a treat! Mum and Dad gave it to me for Christmas in 1969, and Dad and I would sit and read it together. I am deeply attached to the illustrations (by Emil Weiss) which stoke my nostalgia almost more than the words. My father loved A Christmas Carol – the story, the lessons, the book, and every version of it on film (he most enjoyed the one with Alistair Sim as Scrooge). For me, it’s an irreplaceable book, and therefore worth saving.”


If you’d like to learn more about Cathy or discover how to buy her books, take a look at her website  

She’s also on social media:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Cathy-Ace-Author-318388861616661/

Twitter: @AceCathy

 

 

Ariel by Sylvia Plath: #1965club read

ArielI’d almost given up on finding anything to read for the #1965club read hosted by Karen @kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon @Stuck in a Book.

But then I noticed this was the year when Sylvia Plath’s second collection of poetry was published under the title of Ariel. It was this book that established Plath as one of the twentieth century’s most original and gifted poets. Plath herself felt they were her best work, predicting they would “make my name.”

The collection contains some of her most celebrated poems: Lady Lazurus, Daddy; The Moon and the Yew Tree and the titular piece Ariel.  Many of these are poems written in a burst of creativity shortly before she took her life. They are poems I’ve read many times over, but only ever as individual pieces of work. When you read them as a collection, the intensity and darkness that’s visible in an individual poem is heightened and magnified many times over.

In them can be seen the effects of clinical depression and breakdown. Landscapes and items of nature take on a menacing dimension. There is a fascination with death and annihilation. And there’s an unflinching honesty as the poet subjects herself to a fierce interrogation of her feelings. 

But I also noticed some tenderness.  In Morning Song, the first poem in the collection, Plath writes about being a new mother, listening out for the “moth-breath” of her new born baby then stumbling from bed the minute she hears a cry.

These are poems that are enigmatic and complex. Plath’s imagery is frequently startling (like the references to the Holocaust in Daddy) It took me several readings to begin to grasp the sense of them, particularly where Plath fuses and condenses her similies and allusions. Ariel for example uses just three words ‘Stasis in darkness’ to convey the experience of sitting on a stationary horse, waiting for dawn to break.  I’m not convinced even now that I have fully understood many of these poems. But the overall effect is breathtaking especially when I found a website which includes Plath herself reading a number of these poems. (you can find them here)

Lady Lazurus is unforgettable and Daddy is superb. I also enjoyed Tulips which describes the experience of being in hospital, lying peacefully until some flowers arrive which to Plath look disturbingly like the mouths of a large African cat.

But my favourite is the titular poem Ariel. Reading it I can imagine Plath astride her horse as dawn is breaking, thundering through furrowed fields, past tors and blackberry bushes

the drive

Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning. 

I was disappointed to find that my edition, published by Faber, doesn’t represent Plath’s vision for her collection.  She started putting the manuscript together in late 1961 or early 1962 (she changed the title multiple times). The collection was published posthumously but with a different order of poems and 12 that Plath had never intended to be included. The change was made by her husband Ted Hughes. He also removed 12 poems.

It wasn’t until 2004 that the selection and arrangement of the poems as Plath had left them was restored. It contains a forward by Plath herself and by her daughter Frieda Hughes. I’m curious whether reading this version will change my views in any way. Will I find a new favourite? 

#Classics club spin lands on Evelina

The latest Classics Club spin has landed on number 19.

EvelinaThat number on my spin list is allocated to one of the oldest books on my original Classics Club list: Evelina by Frances Burney. Strictly speaking the book is called Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady’s Entrance into the World. 

It was first published as a three volume novel in 1778 but Burney’s authorship became known.

Told in epistolary style, it traces the experiences of an unacknowledged but legitimate daughter of a dissipated English aristocrat who lives a secluded life in the countryside until she is seventeen.  She gets her guardian’s consent to visit London for a holiday, an adventure which opens her eyes to the perils and pitfalls of  18th-century society. The novel  is a satire on Georgian society.

I included it on my Classics Club because it’s been described as a significant precursor to the work of Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth and deals with some of the same issues.  It’s the first – and the best known – of Burney’s published novels.

I’ve found an interesting article by Chloe Wigston Smith on the British Library website which casts light on Burney herself and the origin of the novel. Interesting to discover that she was very anxious to keep her identity a secret because she was worried about the public reaction. She didn’t even tell her father until six months after the novel was issued and she’d received positive reviews.

I was rather hoping to have landed a more recent novel from my spin list since my last venture into eighteenth century literature (via The Vicar of Wakefield by Oliver Goldsmith) wasn’t a great success. I hope this one proves more enjoyable.

None So Blind (The Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries) by Alis Hawkins #writingWales

Drive to the far west of Wales and you’ll eventually get to the Teifi valley, officially designated as an area of  Outstanding Natural Beauty”.

Rebecca riots

Artist’s illustration of the Rebecca Rioters. Source: Wikipedia

In the nineteenth century, this place of rolling hills, sparkling streams and grazing sheep was anything but idyllic.

The middle of the century saw a period of rural unrest as tenant farmers –  often dressed as women and with blackened faces – rose up in protest over rising rents for farmland at a time of falling prices for sheep and cattle.

They called themselves ‘Rebecca and her daughters’, taking for inspiration a passage in the Bible where Rebecca talks of the need to ‘possess the gates of those who hate them.’

The Rebecca rioters vented their anger against toll gates which they viewed as the manifestation of high taxes. They also enacted retribution against members of the community felt to have transgressed its expected standards of behaviour, using the tradition of the Ceffyl Pren (“wooden horse”) in which offenders would be paraded around their neighbourhood tied to a wooden frame. 

The time of the Rebecca Riots provides a background for None so Blind, the first of the Harry Probert-Lloyd Mysteries, a historical mystery series by Aiis Hawkins.

It begins with an unnamed narrator who is a secret witness to an event, the consequences of which will not become apparent until seven years later when a set of bones are uncovered beneath a fallen tree.

Harry Probert-Lloyd, son of the local squire and county magistrate, believes they are the remains of a servant girl he loved and was forced to abandon. When an inquest delivers a verdict of accidental death, he determines to seek out the truth for himself. His quest brings him into conflict not only with his father but with people who were once Rebecca rioters.

none so blind

Harry’s training as a lawyer helps him penetrate half truths and lies. He has one significant problem however: his sight is failing and he is slowly going blind. He enlists the services of a law clerk, John Davies, to be his “eyes”. 

We’ve become accustomed in recent years to fictional ‘detective’ figures whose characters are flawed in some regard. Harry’s blindness is considerably more than a mere literary trick to give him more ‘character’. It changes how people react to him and how he has to conduct his investigation,  making him far more acutely aware of nuances and gaps in what people tell him.

…  I had not appreciated just how much of what we say is dictated by what we observe; a look of embarrassment causing a change of topic, a flush of enthusiasm and a bright eye egging one on … confusion prompting a clearer explanation…

It also becomes central to Harry’s relationship with John Davies. They begin as employer and hired servant but evolve into friends whose mutual desire for justice and the truth enable them to cross the divide between their respective status in society. As they warmed to each other (despite some misunderstandings at times) I found myself equally warming towards this pair.

The plot is well constructed and the feelings of guilt experienced by Probert-Jones that he didn’t do more to help his former girlfriend, give the novel some emotional depth. But the real strengths of None so Blind lie in its historical context of the Rebecca Riots. I knew of the riots through history lessons in school. They were always portrayed as a kind of working class hero campaigners, the poor man willing to stand up and say “no more” .

It was fascinating to learn through None so Blind  that the rioters became a force feared by the very people they had set out to aid. As Harry’s father explains, farmers took to hiding in their crops to avoid being dragooned by the rioters into joining their cause.  Whatever genuine grievance compelled the rioters to take up their weapons, was lost as the protest gained momentum. Even Harry recognises that:

… once people unaccustomed to power have felt its potency, they are apt to begin wielding it indiscriminately, with results that are usually far from quaint.

None so Blind has a lot to say about justice, responsibility and the treatment of the poor. It does so in a way that was entertaining and engaging. The dynamics between Harry and John work well and the use of an unidentified narrator adds a further level of  mystery to a tale which contains many secrets. The historical background was also well managed – Alis Hawkins avoids the mistake (unforgivable in my eyes) of many a writer who, having done their research, feel compelled to include it within the text. Instead we get an introductory note about law and order, and the roles of police and coroners in nineteenth century west Wales, plus a  lengthy explanation about the Rebecca Riots.

This weaving of history and fiction reminded me of two other series I’ve enjoyed in the past: the highly successful series by C. J Sansom set in Tudor England that features the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake and the series by Bernard Knight about a coroner in King Richard’s reign. Maybe the Harry Probert-Lloyd series will become another of my favourite series.


About the Author

Author Pic Alis HawkinsAlis Hawkins grew up on a dairy farm in Cardiganshire, Wales (part of the Teifi Valley). 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.

Her first novel, Testament, was published in 2008 by Macmillan and was translated into several languages. It has recently been acquired for reissue, along with her medieval trilogy of psychological thrillers, by Sapere Books and will appear, with the first two in the trilogy, later in 2019.

About the Book 

None So Blind, published in 2017, is the first in a series featuring Harry Probert-Lloyd. The second episode entitled In Two Minds is due out in May from The Dome Press.

Revisiting the king of legal thrillers

John Grisham

John Grisham: past his best?

With no reading material before a long flight I picked up a John Grisham potboiler in the San Francisco airport without much enthusiasm. It was the mid 1990s, the book was The Pelican Brief and, to my surprise – because Grisham was being hyped all over the place then– I thoroughly enjoyed it, while being aware that possessing such a novel would cause several noses to be looked down.

As with wine and antiques’ circles, there are many snobs around in the book-reading world, though they would perhaps say they are simply more discerning readers. Each to his or her own; there’s no cause to sneer at Mills and Boon fans, for example – at least they’re reading.

And weren’t the majority of contemporary readers of Austen, Dickens, Doyle and Hardy simply popular fiction readers who liked a good tale well told? 

After I devoured The Pelican Brief, I proceeded to gobble up all of JG’s wordy legal thrillers. The Painted House ended the run; I hadn’t read the jacket notes. It was a rambling sentimental tale of bygone Americana. Where were the hotshot lawyers? Where were the big showcase trials?

Something changed with Grisham at that point. Maybe his publishers urged him to go in other directions, maybe he urged himself. 

Leaving the legal world behind – his specialist area – may have won a few fans but must have lost many more. And then even his courtroom-based output began to take a twee moralistic tone with humble downhome country folk fighting those ugly, hard-hearted corporations. I bailed out.

King of TortsBut a recent unexpected hospital stay in New Zealand brought me back. I had nothing but a dull Maigret novel with me when the mobile hospital library (a trolley loaded with about 80 books, about half by Dick Francis) made a welcome visit.

Two Grishams presented themselves – The Pelican Brief (natch) and The King of Torts. I chose Torts. I couldn’t remember if I’d read it before. Having completed it, I still can’t remember.

But one thing I did learn  – after an interval of about 10 years, I’m over JG.

The King of Torts is an entertaining tale but it’s flabby and overwritten. Grisham writes well in his genre but he suffers from verbosity. Back in the 90s I was entertained by the detailed  descriptions of luxury yachts, fast cars, lavish dinners and private planes. This time round I found myself skimming bits. Millions and billions of dollars piled up in various tort actions until the figures became simply symbolic.

And those tort cases were essentially like Hitchcock’s McGuffins – devices to drive an otherwise simple story, in this case a moral tale about greed and consequences, pride before a fall – a very old theme.

Grisham has legions of loyal fans. Anything with his name on it will sell. I’ll pass for a while but maybe one day, while idling in airport bookshop, I might pick up his latest paperback and feel the magical pull once again.

Exploring the power of the mind #bookreview

healing powersI first came across the term “mindfullness” in the context of a new safety campaign at work. At the time I thought it was yet another buzz term winging its way across the Atlantic; a new trend about which we would hear endlessly for a year or so before it fizzled out like so many others.

But I kept bumping up against the term in newspapers and magazines and in radio interviews although these didn’t seem to have anything to do with safety awareness. Various ‘celebs’ seemed to be getting super excited about this mindfulness malarky  (a development which is guaranteed to get my eyes rolling). Over time certain expressions associated with this concept wormed their way into my head, the chief one of which was “being in the moment” whatever that meant. Sounded very hippy drippy to me.

It’s taken a while for me to get over that initial suspicion and I don’t claim to be anything like an expert but this year I’ve come round to thinking that there is after all more to mindfulness than I’d expected.

My ‘ah ha’ moment (conversion is far too strong a term) came during a mindfulness introductory day run by my local authority. I decided to go with an open mind. Fortunately the tutor was someone who had extensive research evidence to back up claims about the ability of the regular practice of mindfulness techniques to affect our brains, our sense of well being and our health.

Fresh with that new found insight, but wanting more, I went in search of some sitble reading material.

Oh dear. There is an awful lot of dross out there on this topic. Some books I came across contained about as much useful information as a box of detergent. Massive claims about how the practice can change your life. But little evidence about how….

But then, via NetGalley I came across a book by a man who is considered the leading expert on mindfulness, the man credited with starting the whole shabang.

Jon Kabat-ZinnJon Kabat-Zinn  has a Ph.D. in molecular biology. His work in the area of stress reduction and what became known as mindfulness, began in 1979 when he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He’s developed the practice based on extensive research studies.

In his book, The Healing Power of Mindfulness, he shares examples from his decades of experience working with people suffering anxiety, depression and stress. He’s clear that it isn’t a cure for all situations  – he doesn’t claim it cures serious illness for example – though it can boost the immune system to make you less susceptible to certain diseases. It’s more a case that the regular practice of mindfulness techniques helps rewire the mind so we can each deal with our particular challenges and make the most of what we have, whatever that might be.

Through the book we learn about a concept called brain plasticity (the astonishing ability of the brain change and reorganise itself – as evidenced by studies  showing the effects of meditation of Buddhist monks. Now in case you were alarmed, thinking that you’d have to become a monk to reap the benefits of mindfullness, rest assured Kabat-Zinn isn’t expecting that of you. In fact, some years ago he deliberately removed the Buddhist element to his teachings so that it would have wider appeal.

Reading The Healing Power of Mindfulness, I also, finally, got to understand what that phrase “being in the moment” really means – it’s about coming to terms with things as they are, not worrying about the future or revisiting the past. But just thinking about the present moment.

Stress is cause by being here, but wanting to be there, or being in the present but wanting to be in the future. It’s a split that tears you apart inside. … It takes a huge amount of fortitude and motivation to accept what is ….

This is not an easy book to read.  Originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book titled Coming to Our SensesThe Healing Power of Mindfulness is written often in a complex style that means I had to read passages more than once before I grasped the meaning. It wouldn’t be the book to read if you had no prior knowledge of mindfulness. But if you have some knowledge, and want to go further, this would be great resource. If your appetite is still not satisfied by the time you to the end, there is an extensive bibliography of additional material to explore.

 

 

Crime fiction authors unite to fight for Wales

Welsh DragonFirst came Tartan Noir – a gritty form of crime fiction said to be particular to Scotland and Scottish writers but which borrows from American crime writes of the second half the twentieth century. Then Nordic Noir was born, taking us into bleak landscapes, dark moods and moral complexity with authors like  Henning Mankell, Steig Larsson and Arnaldur Indriðason. There’s even Irish Noir which covers a broad range of crime writing by Irish authors, from historical crime fiction set in Belfast to modern procedurals engaging with first world problems and psychological thrillers. 

Even if you subscribe to the view held by a number of authors and critics that these terms are meaningless and little more than marketing gimmicks, the reality is that they sell books. And in doing so they’ve helped raise the profile of many authors.  

But so far there’s no sign of Welsh noir. In fact about Welsh crime writing in general there’s been hardly a peep. 

And yet there’s a growing number of crime fiction authors based in Wales or who choose to set their work in the country. 

Why haven’t you heard of them? 

Partly I suspect because many of these authors have associations with small, independent publishers who don’t have as much sway with the purchasing teams in large bookstore chains. Nor do they have the kinds of budgets necessary for national ( UK-wide) promotion. Even trying to get attention within Wales is tough when the so called national newspaper of Wales The Western Mail, pays scant attention to arts coverage and still less to book reviews. 

But there is a group of writers resolved to change how Welsh crime fiction and non fiction is perceived. 

Crime Cymru was formed in 2017 to promote Welsh crime fiction with a mission to challenge the perceived belief that  that ‘nobody who wants to be read sets their books in Wales’. 

Crime Cymru started with just three members: Alis Hawkins, Rosie Claverton and Matt Johnson. But it’s grown to become a consortium of more than 25 authors. Some were born in Wales. Others have chosen to settle here. Some members live in the UK or further afield in North America but chose to set their work in Wales. What unites them is their feeling that Welsh crime fiction has a unique dimension that deserves more attention. 

Author Pic Alis Hawkins

Alis Hawkins, a founding member of Crime Cymru

“We believe that Wales is under sold: by publishers, by booksellers, even by authors and readers,” said Alis. “And we’re determined to change that. Crime Cymru authors are proud to set our fiction in Wales. We don’t feel the need to move our characters to London, or to make up fictitious cities to police.”

In support of their objective of promoting Wales and Welsh crime writing, Crime Cymru members have carried their message direct to readers via appearances at a number of literary festivals and a Coffee and Crime Weekend partnership with the county library service in the capital city of Cardiff. They’ve even taken the battle across the border, to Bloody Scotland – Scotland’s premier crime fiction festival. 

Future plans include the establishment of a crime writing competition in line with another of the group’s other objectives – to help nurture new writing talent. 

“You could argue that until now we’ve been our own worst enemies: falling into a trap of assuming that anything coming from Wales is somehow less noteworthy than the output from England or Scotland,” said Alis.  “It’s time we changed this attitude. We’re determined that Crime Cymru will play a real and tangible part, alongside higher education and cultural bodies, in raising the profile of Welsh writing in general and crime fiction in particular. “

Alis herself is suiting her actions to Crime Cymru’s words this May. To celebrate National Crime Reading Month and to publicise both Crime Cymru and the publication of the second in her Teifi Valley Coroner series, Alis – supported by local Crime Cymru members – will be visiting every independent bookshop in Wales – 32 at the last count. 

The Crime Cymru authors cover a wide variety of styles and interests. They range from Cathy Ace whose Cait Morgan Mysteries  feature a globetrotting sleuth who is a professor of criminal psychology to Philip Gwynne Jones who writes thrillers from his home in Venice. I’ve read a few of the group’s members although I wasn’t aware that Crime Cymru’s existence at the time.

My reviews are via these links:

Dylan H Jones: Doll Face and Anglesey Blue

Thorne Moore: A Time for Silence

Following shortly will be my review of None So Blind, the first book in Alis Hawkins’ series featuring a coroner in nineteenth century Wales.

Learn more about Crime Cymru and its authors via their website http://crime.cymru. You can also follow  on Twitter @CRIMECYMRU 

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