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.

 

 

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

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.

Vanessa Savage visits #Cwtch Corner #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

The latest author to join me in Cwtch Corner is Vanessa Savage whose debut novel  The Woman in the Dark was published earlier this year to considerable acclaim. It’s an intense psychological thriller about Patrick and his wife, Sarah (who is suffering from depression after  her mother’s death) who buy a gothic seaside house whose previous occupants were brutally murdered. 

vanessa_savage_cmyk_smlQ. Vanessa, you started out writing women’s fiction – why did you change to writing psychological thrillers? 

I believe the line between the two genres can be quite finely drawn. A domestic noir is as much about relationships as a women’s fiction novel with a romantic thread – just darker! I like writing about relationships in character-driven stories and I felt my first idea for a novel fell more into the women’s fiction genre and joined the New Writer’s Scheme at the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA). But the longer I wrote, the clearer it became to me that, as a writer, what I wanted was to explore the darker side of relationships – where love tips over into obsession, what happens when the happy-ever-after goes wrong. I wanted my characters to kill rather than kiss each other!

Q. What inspired you to write The Woman in the Dark? 

I knew I wanted to write a ‘behind closed doors’ psychological thriller about a family in crisis and their breakdown, but there was a missing element – the house. I became fascinated by the idea of house as character and the Murder House came from a series of what if questions after reading about a real-life murder house.

That house was destroyed, but it got me wondering… what if it wasn’t destroyed? What if it was actually your childhood home, a happy place before the terrible crimes? Could you move back into it and make it what it once was, or would it be forever haunted by its own history?

The idea that a house could hold memories, that it could be corrupted by horrible things happening within its walls really appealed to me as a writer. The creepy things that happen in the house – are they real, or the paranoid imaginings of my characters because they know the history of the house? As I developed the house as another character, the story came alive – it was the catalyst I needed.”

Q. For any author getting that first novel published can be a frustrating experience. How did you achieve it

WomanInTheDarkLike many ‘debut’ writers, The Woman in the Dark is not the first book I’ve written, just the first to be published! I have a couple of unpublished books lurking in a bottom drawer, and prior to that, I wrote a lot of short fiction – short stories published in magazines and flash fiction which is published online and in anthologies.

I took the traditional route to publication – I researched literary agents who I thought would like my work, both using the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and online (agents love twitter so it’s a great place to find out what they’re looking for!). I was fortunate to sign with Juliet Mushens at Caskie Mushens, who is a fantastic agent. We went back and forth editing the book, and it went on submission to publishers in June 2017.

It went to auction in the UK, selling world English rights to Sphere in the UK and Grand Central in the US, went to auction in Germany and rights were also sold in Spain, France, Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic. It published in hardback and e-book in January 2019 in the UK and will be out in paperback in July.”

Q. In your acknowledgements you say you received help from a police officer. What form did that take ?

I worked with Stuart Gibbon at GIB Consultancy, a former senior police detective who now runs a consultancy specialising in advising writers on police procedure. I wanted to ensure those elements were accurate in the book and having heard Stuart talk at a writer’s conference, knew he’d be able to help! For The Woman in the Dark, he was able to help by simply answering questions by email. For my second novel, which I’m currently editing, I send him a whole draft to read and he gave advice on all the criminal and police procedural elements. He has also written The Crime Writer’s Casebook, an invaluable resource for anyone writing crime novels.”

Q. What do you think are the elements of a first class thriller? Anyone in particular whose work you rate highly?

It’s all about the tension and suspense in a psychological thriller – because it’s more internal rather than external action, we’re living with the character’s fears and paranoia, immersed in their every thought and invested in their journey. Every twist and turn raises the tension and (hopefully) the reader is desperate to turn the page to find out what happens next! I love this genre – an early favourite was Claire Mackintosh’s I Let You Go, which has the most amazing twist and a terrifying antagonist.

Q. Readers can’t seem to get enough of psychological thrillers – why do you think they have such a strong appeal?

“With a straight action thriller, the reader enjoys an escapist adrenaline rush, with a police procedural, we watch the action once-removed, usually from the viewpoint of the investigating officer as we try to figure out whodunnit. They tend to be plot-driven rather than character-driven. With a psychological thriller, we’re living in the minds of the characters, experiencing their fears and paranoia. We live with them through the rising tension and suspense and experience the heart-pounding shock of every twist and turn. They can be scary, but it’s a safe way to be scared – unlike the characters whose minds we inhabit, we can close the book and walk away.”


Vanessa Savage trained as a graphic designer and illustrator. She lives in South Wales (I discovered only recently that she lives just along the coast from me). She has twice been awarded with a Writers’ Bursary by Literature Wales.

She won the Myriad Editions First Crimes competition and her work has been highly commended in the Yeovil International Fiction Prize, short-listed for the Harry Bowling Prize, and the Caledonia Fiction Prize.

Vanessa has also had short stories published in various magazines and anthologies, and her work was broadcasted on the radio as a highly commended winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Competition. 

Vanessa is on Twitter: @VvSavage 

My review of The Woman in the Dark is here 

 

 

Transcription by Kate Atkinson #bookreview

When a novel is described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy” I expect something ultra special. 

transcriptionImagine my disappointment then, having read said book, that it had neither depth nor power. Yes it was amusing in part but nowhere close to being extraordinarily witty. As for being a ‘bravura’ performance, I rather think the person who wrote that blurb should have consulted a dictionary before committing words to paper. Bravura means “great technical skill and brilliance shown in a performance or activity”; something that is brilliant and dazzling. 

As much as I have appreciated Kate Atkinson’s ability in past years to tell a story compellingly, her latest novel Transcription is can in no way be described as brilliant or dazzling. In fact it’s well below the standard she showed in her debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum and in the four bestselling novels featuring former detective Jackson Brodie.

Transcription focuses on the shady world of British Intelligence during World War 2. Juliet Armstrong is an unsophisticated eighteen-year-old girl recruited into the Secret Service at the start of the war.  She’s despatched to an obscure department of MI5 which has set up a sting operation in a block of flats in order to monitor and trap British Fascist sympathisers. Juliet’s job is to transcribe the secretly recorded conversations those sympathisers have with Godfrey Toby, a British spymaster masquerading as a Gestapo agent.

Ten years later, Juliet is working in children’s programmes for the BBC when she spots Godfrey Toby. He rebuffs her, denying their past acquaintance. Ever the inquisitive one, Juliet begins to investigate the people that once populated her life. She discovers people that she believed long dead or sent to some far flung corner of the world or shot, returning to haunt her.

For a novel concerned with spies and espionage, it’s not surprising that its themes are deception and hidden identities.  Julia’s identity is unclear even to herself at times:

And then there was Juliet Armstrong, of course, who some days seemed like the most fictitious of them all, despite being the ‘real’ Juliet. But then what constituted real? Wasn’t everything, even this life itself, just a game of deception?

In fact almost everyone in this novel is leading a double life. They’re all engaged in an elaborate game of make believe just as much as the actors and the sound engineers Julia relies upon for her history programmes at the BBC.

It’s hard to take it all seriously because the parallel Atkinson draws between the techniques of artifice used in the world of intelligence and those deployed in the world of the arts, borders too much on farce.  The situations are highly improbable – at one point Julia shimmies down a drainpipe to avoid discovery,  while another scene has her dispose of an inconvenient body. And, with the exception of Julia, the characters are not fully fleshed out to any extent.

The few mannerisms ascribed to her co-conspirators in the Secret Service don’t differentiate them sufficiently so it was easy to forget who they were, and why they were in the novel. Maybe this was deliberate and we were meant to understand that spooks were shadowy figures whose success relied upon their ability to meld into new personas and backgrounds. Lack of personality might have been a professional pre-requisite but for a reader it made the novel dull.

Transcription is a novel which had a lot of potential. But it was never fulfilled.  Part of the problem I think was the overall tone. The content matter was serious yet the text so often was anything but serious.  It made for an uneasy mix. Were we meant to laugh or despair at the ridiculous way in which intelligence was managed in a time of heightened tension? I really have no idea because all the time I was reading I felt as if there was some vital element in the book that I was simply not getting.

This was a doubly disappointing experience because Atkinson is an author whose work I used to love. I didn’t enjoy her novel Life after Life and wasn’t interested in its successor A God In Ruins. I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the quality of the past. But it was not to be.  I haven’t given up on Atkinson yet however – I’m hoping the new  Jackson Brodie novel which is due out in a few weeks, will prove a more enjoyable experience.

 

 

WWWednesday 22 May, 2019

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

What are you currently reading?

TheFranchiseAffair

Cover of the first edition. Creative commons licence via Wikipedia

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey  was named one of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time in 1990. It’s obviously stood the test of time since the Sunday Times culture magazine included it in a similar list just two weeks ago. Published in 1948 its about a Scotland Yard investigation of a mother and daughter accused of kidnapping a young girl. I’ve read only one other book by Josephine Tey – The Daughter of Time – which was a fictionalised investigation into the deaths of The Princes in the Tower.  A very different kind of novel but I liked her style of writing so snapped up a copy of The Franchise Affair when I spotted it in a second hand bookshop.

 

 

What did you recently finish reading?

transcriptionThe book club chose Kate Atkinson’s Transcription for our May meeting,  Having disliked Life after Life to the point where I abandoned it part way through, I was hoping Transcription would mark a return to the kind of books by Atkinson I used to love in the past. Transcription was definitely an improvement in the sense that I did make it to the last pages but otherwise this proved to be a seriously disappointing novel. The premise was promising – the past life of a woman who was recruited into the world of espionage, assigned to an obscure department of MI5 where she helped monitor the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathisers. But it never lived up to its promise.

I keep seeing this novel described as a work of rare depth and texture, a bravura modern novel of extraordinary power, wit and empathy.” I don’t know who wrote that description (her publishers presumably) but it’s anything but a work of depth and power…. I’ll explain why when I write my review in a few days.

What do you think you’ll read next?

In theory my next read should be Evelina by Francis Burney since that was the result of the latest Classics Club spin. But having read a few pages I’ve decided I’m not in the mood for eighteenth century epistolary novel so have put Miss Burney on hold for another time.

GhostbirdI’m much more interested in the books I’ve listed for the 20 Books of Summer 2019 challenge. I’m aiming to read 15 between June 3 and September 3, all of them set in or written by authors from different countries.

I’ll be kicking off with a book written by Carol Lovekin, an author from Wales, that has been sitting in my bookcase for a few years. I do love the cover….

Ghostbird is set in a small Welsh village and the house called Ty Aderyn (the house of birds), home to generations of the Hopkins family.  It’s a house of secrets, secrets that young Cadi Hopkins is determined to uncover.

 

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

20? 15? 10? books of summer 2019

It’s officially summer in the northern hemisphere so time once again for the 20 Books of Summer challenge hosted by Cathy of 746books.com.

15 books of summerI’ve never yet managed to complete this challenge despite Cathy’s ultra flexibility with the “rules’. I suspect 2019 will be no different so there’s no point in going the whole hog with a list of 20 books. I’m going for the option of 15 books of summer and if I manage to read even 10 of them I’ll be dead chuffed.

Half of the fun of this challenge is putting together the list of books to read.  Since I’m not likely to be taking a summer holiday I shall use my reading to do my travelling for me. I’ve chosen 15 titles that will take me to different parts of the world.  Of course every journey has to start from home so the first book on my list comes from Wales. I may read the books the order below, travelling through Europe, crossing the Atlantic and then making my way east before dropping down to the southern hemisphere where by  September 3, when  this challenge finishes , it will be Spring…

So, my suitcase is packed. The tickets have arrived. My passport is up to date.  My journey begins on June 3.

Wales: Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

France: Hotel Tito by  Ivana Simić Bodrožić.

Austria: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

Germany: Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

Finland: The Midwife by Katja Kettu

Canada: One of Louise Penny’s detective novels  – not sure which yet

USA: Breakfast at Tiffanys by Truman Capote

Jamaica: The Long Song by Andrea Levy

South Africa: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink

India: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Indonesia: Twilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis

Malaysia: Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

China: Frog by Mo Yan

Australia: Shell by Kristina Olsson

New Zealand: Ships by Fiona Duigan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Kate North visits Cwtch Corner #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 was in Cardiff last month at the launch of Kate North’s collection of short stories Punch. Kate is a lecturer in creative writing and programme director for the MA in English Literature and Creative Writing pathways at Cardiff Metropolitan University. So naturally we talked about the value of creative writing courses. But first we chatted about her new book and the popularity of short stories. 

 Q. How would you describe Punch in just one sentence? 
A collection of strange and unsettling stories exploring the unexpected in the everyday.”

Q. Short stories are hugely popular with readers – why do you think that’s the case? 
“I think their size means that readers can get through a story in one sitting and feel like they’ve got something out of it in a short space of time. The ideal short story leaves the reader with something to think about or to continue in their own mind after reading.  I think that’s also part of the appeal.

Q.Which writer of short stories has influenced you the most? 
“That’s a hard question! There are so many good short story writers.  But, if pushed to name one, I would pick Anna Kavan.  I think she has been overlooked in past years but people are starting to notice how important she actually was in the mid 20th century.  She wrote some very beautiful and uncanny things.  The collection I would recommend isJulia and the Bazooka and Other Stories.

Q. Do you have a particular routine you like to follow when you are writing?
“There are consistent things I do when I write.  Like I try to start as early as possible in the day.  I am not so good at writing later in the day. I need to be in a quiet room on my own, I’m no good at writing in cafes or with music on like some people can do.  And I tend to write in solid blasts for a period of days and weeks, then I take a bit of time to do something else before returning to things. But, that said, it does depend if I am writing to externally imposed deadline (like a commission) or not.

Kate North reads from her short story collection Punch

 Q Your home is on fire… Which book from your overflowing shelves will you choose to save?
“To be honest, I would probably save my laptop before anything (other than my partner and kids of course).  But, not to be a spoil sport, I’ll go with Six O’Clock Saints by Joan Windham.  It’s a book written in the 1940s that I used to read around my grandparents’ house when I was little.  It’s not very well written but I have an emotional attachment to it.”

Q. In a recent BBC Radio interview, Will Self made some highly critical comments about the value of creative writing courses.  Do you think he has a valid point? Are creative writing courses worth doing?
>I think he makes a fair point and I don’t believe he suggests that creative writing (CW) courses aren’t worth doing.  I would be suspicious of any course promoted as being able to help graduates ‘make a living from literary fiction’.  I don’t think that is something anyone can guarantee.  And as Self points out, CW courses offer the opportunity for students to develop themselves as writers.  The possibilities that come from developing writing skills are hugely varied.  I know of graduates from cw programmes who have gone into all sorts of jobs that need them to use their writing skills, such as computer game design, marketing, PR, editing, copywriting and teaching.  So, yes, I would say that if you want to develop your writing skills, then courses are worth doing.  You may find a career in literary fiction on the back of a course or you may not.

This perennial discussion always puzzles me.  It doesn’t happen in other areas.  For example, will a BA or MA in Music  guarantee you will become a concert pianist?  No, but if you would like to become a concert pianist it may be helpful to study on such a course.  Will taking a sports science degree guarantee you will win the London marathon?  No, but it may be helpful for you to study on such a programme if you are interested in winning marathons.

Q. As programme director for an MA creative writing programme you must meet scores of aspiring authors. What’s the number one piece of advice you give them?
Read, reflect, write and repeat.  Good writers are good readers, read widely and critically.  Also, find out how and what you need to write for yourself.  To achieve this refer to the earlier instruction; read, reflect, write and repeat.

 


Kate North is a poet and short story writer. Her latest short story collection Punch was published by Cinnamon Press in May 2019. She also has a poetry collection The Way Out, published by Parthian in 2018.

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

She’s also on Twitter: @katetnorth 

 

 

 

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.

%d bloggers like this: