BOOK REVIEW: Sarah Schmidt

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See What I Have Done
By Sarah Schmidt
Out 4 May from Tinder Press, £12.99 hardback

Unsolved mysteries stick in our collective memory like burrs, a constant irritant to our curiosity. Every so often someone comes along with a solution — often disproved, or at least hotly argued — a film, or a reimagining. The newest of these is Sarah Schmidt’s haunting debut novel, See What I Have Done, revisiting the murders of Andrew and Abby Borden, long presumed to have been whacked to death with a hatchet by his daughter and her stepdaughter, Lizzie. She was arrested, tried, and in June of 1893, acquitted, living on until her 66th year, dying in 1927, of pneumonia.

That’s a jarring fact — that Lizzie Borden, who feels so Victorian in every depiction, persisted into the Twentieth century, through the first World War and nearly to the Depression.

It comes as an aftershock, though, for every page of See What I Have Done reeks with visceral disturbance. It is not a delicate novel for delicate constitutions, but a story of fevers and hot skin, oppressive miasmas and rancid food. People sweat and bleed and slurp and vomit; the murder at the story’s climax is gruesome, all splitting skulls, twitching corpses, and eyes loosed from their moorings.

The Borden family is no less corrupted, as rotten as the days-old mutton stew they eat to such ill effect. They seethe with fury and their inability to express themselves erupts into frequent violence. Mr Borden strikes Lizzie when she stands up to him, then murders her pigeons, one by one, with an axe. Emma strikes Lizzie when the younger girl accuses her of sinning. Mrs Borden strikes Lizzie, telling her she’s a disappointment to her father. And Mrs Borden strikes herself, repeatedly, as punishment for imagined inadequacies as a wife and woman.

Bridget, their servant, tries repeatedly to leave, and is thwarted each time. Mrs Borden manipulates her via emotional blackmail and then by confiscating her savings, trapping her in the household.

Though there is a guest room, the girls sleep in adjoining rooms — one is really supposed to be a closet — and it’s as claustrophobic as you’d imagine. There’s no getting away from each other, and that’s very much how Lizzie wants it. More than one family member fantasises about crawling inside a mother, sister, father, the better to understand them, and seek sanctuary there. Emma, who like Bridget, dreams of leaving this toxic home, is denied the escape of marriage. She understands that her father wants her near, to keep Lizzie in line.

There are hints of another, older family murder, of two babies. There’s a mysterious uncle, and a stranger who may be a hired killer.

Again and again we return to Lizzie, with justifiably morbid fascination. She presents as seriously unhinged, but also as a sad case of arrested development, a little girl who wanted to love and be loved by everyone, who grew into a woman consumed by hatred for those who denied her this emotional due.

Schmidt has an opinion about the murders, and gives us a perpetrator, making for a satisfying and unsettling ending. She is a bold writer, unafraid to depict this gruesome family in hellish detail. (The gritty, grubbiness of everyday biology, so graphically described, calls to mind the work of Ottessa Moshfegh.) Schmidt’s handling of different perspectives is assured, and she moves her story backwards and forwards in time with equal facility.

Based on this debut, it’s clear that Schmidt is one to watch. See What I Have Done is not an easy read, but it’s a memorable one — for all the right reasons.

 

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Apologetic Mode

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I know, I know, where have I been? Off trying to earn money, trying to unscramble my head, and reading a lot of books that I’m either reviewing for an unnameable client (and most of which are horrific) or stuff that I can’t review for a lot of other reasons. And I owe you more hilarious anecdotes at my parents’ expense.

To hold their place, here is a wee essay about John Crowley’s Little, Big, a love letter, in fact, to a book I have long adored. If you’re a book lover, do take note of Helen’s project, celebrating lesser known living authors. And be aware that she has a novel out now, too (which I have yet to read):

 

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And finally, if you’re a fan of  vintage, I’ve opened an Etsy shop called PluckyCrocus.

Be back soon!

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Hasty Book Reviews

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Life, eh? Got a little busy here, so I’m going to keep this short and bookish, until I corral all my more personal thoughts into coherent little essays.

Does your heart soar when you hear there’s a new Agatha Christie adaptation coming to television? Do you lose hours on ITV 3, watching old reruns of all three telly Marples? Do you snuffle round the lesser channels like a truffle hound, seeking out Inspector Alleyn, Lord Peter Wimsey, et al?

More to the point, do you love reading the books that inspired the telly?

If so, then you will tumble headfirst for two novels I recently read. Both are variations on the locked room theme, placing a varied cast of characters in a confined environment. The first, A Dangerous Crossing, is by Tammy Cohen writing as Rachel Rhys. On a slow boat to Australia the rich, the infamous, the dastardly and the angelic drink cocktails, grate on each others’ nerves, sightsee, and flirt. Through the reactions of the English passengers to the presence of Jews and Italians, viewed with suspicion and worse by many among the English, we’re reminded that it’s 1939, and that everything’s about to change.

We see life on board through Lily’s eyes. She’s a former lady’s maid and waitress, haunted by memories of a friend’s death, and feelings of guilt about how and why the girl died. Taking advantage of a scheme offering travel in return for two years’ domestic service, she’s wide-eyed and naive, ripe for romance and none too swift when it comes to sizing people up. She’s quickly dazzled by a rich, glamorous couple so miserable in each other’s company that they cannot bear being alone together, but mysteriously unable to find playmates in their own first class lounge. On her lower deck, Lily befriends a sister and brother, and they, too, are swept up by the unhappy wealthy couple — with dramatic results.

A Dangerous Crossing is not 100% murder mystery, though there is a murder. It’s not 100% romance, though goodness knows Lily tries. But it conveys the same heady sensations as a period-set mystery drama (complete with fabulous frocks), for everyone on board is hiding a ghastly secret or twelve. The fun is in figuring out what they are, and therefore why people behave as they do. Just when you think you’ve got every bit of the puzzle in place, there’s a snappy little turn-up-for-the books that should take you by surprise.

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Out now from Doubleday
368 Pages, £12.99, hardcover

The other novel is a reprint of The Crime at Noah’s Ark, by Molly Thynne, which originally came out in 1931. It’s set over the Christmas holidays, when a diverse group of travellers become trapped at a remote inn by severe snowstorms. Among those assembled are a newly successful novelist, Angus Stuart, a renowned chess master, Dr Constantine, an aristocratic family, a vile major, two old dears, and any number of maids, chauffeurs, and other retainers. In the course of the novel some extremely valuable emeralds are stolen and the vile major gets his head bashed in. People come and go with alacrity up seemingly endless flights of stairs, through windows, and in and out of adjoining doors. It’s busier than a Joe Orton farce. There are roaring fires, pots of strong coffee, tense night vigils, and McGuffins galore. Most of all, it’s good fun. (Though Dean Street Press needs some good copyeditors, for the text is littered with mistakes that ought to be rectified before the books are printed.)

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Out now; £9.99 paperback Dean Street Press

Also recommended:

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Birdcage Walk, by Helen Dunmore
Out now from Hutchinson
416 Pages, £18.99 hardcover

Birdcage Walk is an historical novel set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes is the child of radical thinkers, but has married a stern, dangerous man who wants to control every aspect of her life. John Diner Tredevant is a property developer whose current project — a row of townhouses overlooking the Avon Gorge — is going bankrupt. The worse his financial outlook becomes, the more he takes it out on Lizzie. For her part, she’s torn between her family and her husband, her longing for independence and the powerful sexual attraction that keeps her by Diner’s side. There is a lot happening here. Dunmore plays with ideologies, evokes Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and hints at Mary Wollstonecraft, too.

As I mentioned on Twitter, I think this will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Essex Serpent and The House of Birds.

Finally, on a non-bookish note: if you’re a fan of vintage clothes, jewellery and housewares, please pay my new Etsy shop a visit.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rachel Ferguson

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A Footman for the Peacock
By Rachel Ferguson
Out now. A Furrowed Middlebrow book (an imprint of Dean Street Press). £9.99 paperback, also available as an ebook.

For more about this independent publisher and the imprint, visit: http://www.deanstreetpress.co.uk/main/middlebrow

Rachel Ferguson will be familiar to fans of Persephone and Virago books. The former published her novel Alas, Poor Lady (1937), the latter, her best known work, The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931). A Londoner most closely associated with Kensington, where she spent the bulk of her life, Ferguson had a busy life. She was a suffragette and then attended drama school. For a little while she acted and taught dancing. During World War I she served in the Women’s Volunteer Reserve, before becoming a drama critic. For years she was the columnist “Rachel” in Punch magazine. She  wrote novels (precisely how many remains the subject of debate, but at least nine) and nonfiction, including a posthumously published memoir. During the last part of her life she devoted herself to two causes: decayed gentlewomen and performing animals, doing time as president of the Kensington Kitten and Neuter Cat Club. She died in 1957. (This biographical info comes from the Virago edition of Brontes.)

Ferguson sounds like a marvellous eccentric, though as I’ve noted elsewhere (https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/01/28/shopping-list/), some of her political and social views are tough to swallow. Nevertheless, she was an insightful observer of human foibles, which she skewers magnificently and hilariously in all of her work. She understood interior life and the importance of fantasy to our emotional well-being, excelling at incorporating it into her work. A.S. Byatt, in her introduction to Brontes, noted “the delicacy and variety of Rachel Ferguson’s exploration of the edges of the real and the dreamed of, or the made up, or the desired.

A Footman for the Peacock came out in 1940. It’s set in the early days of the brand new world war, though it contains numerous flashbacks to less fraught times. This edition contains an introduction by Elizabeth Crawford (which reads as if it may be a group intro to all three Ferguson reissues). She identifies, “A Family — a House — and Time” as key ingredients in Footman. The house is Delaye, occupied by assorted members of the aristo Roundelay family. Without money or transport, they’re frequently trapped in the house — without adequate supplies — living at the mercy of kindly neighbours and infrequent bus service to the nearest village. They come together ritualistically at prescribed intervals, and yet they contrive not to be bored.

To be sure, this is a slow read. Like Henry James, Ferguson became more baroque as her career progressed, and some sentences pile clause upon clause, requiring a second go to capture the sense of them. Plot-wise, no one will mistake this for a thriller, even though there’s a Nazi-signalling peacock, a centuries old mysterious death, and the looming threat of annihilation at the hands of Britain’s enemies. Really, it’s a story about people who resist change, and why. It’s a reminder of how the past haunts the present, and the benefits of making amends. It’s about how families get trapped in patterns of behaviour, by the strictures of social class, and by economic difficulties.

Do make time for the novel. It is studded with delightful stories, funny set pieces, and sharp social criticism. Some reviewers have described the Roundelay family as loathsome. I found them sympathetic, even though they’re comically self-absorbed. After all, the married couple at the heart of the novel love one another and their children. Servants, while unquestioningly trapped below stairs in the hierarchy of Delaye, are largely treated with respect. Ancient, penniless relations and retainers are sheltered — though the same cannot be said for evacuees. The scene where the Roundelays, ambushed by a government official, repel mothers and babies, orphans, and other needy cases, is one of the funniest in the novel, and it’s perversely hard not to root for them.

Elsewhere, Ferguson provides colourful, insular locals who speak a strange patois that’s part French, part god knows what and who, like all such rustics in novels of this ilk, provide a taproot to the region’s past.

Finally, there is an amusing, open-minded vicar. He befriends the youngest Roundelay daughter, Angela, the girl most troubled by deep feelings and a strange affinity for the peacock. She suspects it might be a reincarnation of the house’s former running footmen, and that it’s having a relationship of sorts with the housemaid, herself descended from a line of women who have always served the family. She’s not wrong.

Along the way Ferguson finds time to mock the press and other institutions, and takes bullseye potshots at England’s wartime spirit. Evelyn Roundelay receives a letter from her sister, in London, saying, “We had an air raid warning in church yesterday just after the P.M.’s speech, but nobody turned a hair; they thought it was something gone wrong with the organ, and in short, we played the ukulele till the ship went down.

“If you’re short of torches, I’m told in some of the shops that they’re expecting a consignment of American batteries. They’ll cost 11d., I hear — about three-quarters more than the proper price, so America wins the war once again, at the beginning of it, this time, instead of the end. Meanwhile, I guess and surmise and ‘low our cue is to be terribly polite about the U.S.A. for some months yet, with plenteous reference to The Mayflower, our roots in common soil and great traditions of liberty, so wise up your cheer-squads to whoop it up for Gopher Prairie, fair city of hundred per-cent two-fisted, red-blooded, up-and-coming reg-lar fellows.”

I’ll stop laughing long enough to say that if you’re new to Ferguson, and, say, a fan of novels such as Cold Comfort Farm, that I predict you’ll enjoy this hilarious novel in which nothing — and everything — happens.

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THREE BOOK REVIEWS

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Bad Dreams
By Tessa Hadley
Out now from Jonathan Cape
£14.99 hardback; Ebook available

Rejoice! There’s a new collection of Tessa Hadley’s short stories. Many will be familiar to regular readers of The New Yorker, but isn’t it wonderful having them gathered and bound between hard covers for easy reference? Makes it so much easier to reread them — which you’ll want to do.

Hadley’s writing appears seamless, simple and achievable. It’s not; she’s exceptional, plunging us into characters’ lives like a baptism, engulfing us in their perspectives and feelings, only to discover that the reflection on this deep water is our own.

The opening story, An Abduction, was inspired by a documentary about kidnapped heiress Patti Hearst. Hadley has said: “After they recovered her, she married and lived the life of a very rich American woman, I presume. And I thought, where do you put what happened to you in that time? Where do you put it in your mind? Then I pictured my slightly dull, well brought-up Surrey schoolgirl, who has this day and a night of extraordinary vivid intensity, before she’s dropped off in her old life. Nobody ever knows what happens to her, except her.”

This anomalous incident in an otherwise drearily constrained life spotlights an oft-missed moment in every  life — the quick slip from childhood onto the verges of  adulthood. Hadley doesn’t stop there: she fatally skewers the pretentious youths Jane encounters, with their views on art, their casual drug use, and even more casual disregard for people’s feelings. She shows how the boys, and Jane’s own family, are insulated by their economic freedom, and blinded by it, too.  Like all of Hadley’s best work, this multi-faceted gem of a tale disperses a spectrum of light through your brain. In that light nothing small is overlooked, and every small thing shimmers with truth.

A pivotal incident features again in Experience, when a down on her luck woman takes shelter in a friend’s home and tries, unsuccessfully, to take on her friend’s lover, as well. This humiliating encounter pushes her to grow up and get a grip. More chilling still is the title story, Bad Dreams, in which a child’s nocturnal peregrinations and a seemingly harmless prank have a cataclysmic effect on her parents’ marriage. We’re borne along on the girl’s perspective — her curiosity about the world, the way darkness transforms the familiar, and the unknowableness of her parents — then brought up sharply by a shift to her mother’s perspective: “When she glanced into the lounge, her shock at the sight of the chairs thrown about was as extreme as a hand clapped over her mouth from behind.”

Her Share of Sorrow also centres on a young girl, Ruby, a dull, uninteresting lump of a child, according to her sophisticated mother. During a summer holiday, the ten-year-old discovers grown-up novels, and resolves to write one. But when she shares her lurid, naive potboiler with her family the truth comes out: “Ruby knew this was all a disaster and yet succumbing to a writer’s vanity, she couldn’t help half wanting to hear her words take on their own life in the world. Her eyes were fixed on Nico, pleading but also with a greedy curiosity. What did she sound like, really? Wouldn’t they be amazed? Wouldn’t the words forged in such passion stupefy her audience, making them at last see what she saw?”

Hadley may give these feelings to a child, but they resonate at any age.

 

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Difficult Women
By Roxane Gay
Out now from Corsair
£13.99 paperback

Difficult Women is a mixed bag, containing harrowing and unforgettable stories, and others that cover identical ground but fail to achieve the same intensity. It’s full of sex. Sex as redemption, sex as violence, sex as currency, sex as recreation. While she depicts a good deal else, Roxane Gay places sex at the centre of each character’s existence.

She’s never lurid, but nor is she shy about brutality, consensual or otherwise. If her women are “difficult”, it’s because they are damaged, largely by the actions of men, but it’s disturbing to read stories in which women ask to be pummelled, as if that will drive the “badness” out of them. Disturbing not only for the violence, but because they are not bad, rather, they’ve been broken by circumstance and tragedy.

Gay hits hard in the opening story, I Will Follow You, about inseparable sisters who take a road trip to visit the elder’s estranged husband. We spend a long time uncertainly getting to grips with the dynamic between them, never sure what makes the sisters seem almost unnaturally close. Then Gay tells us: as children, the younger girl was abducted, and her big sister sacrificed herself, refusing to leave her sibling’s side. She was taken too. The story of their six week ordeal is teased out, interspersed with flashes from the present day. Its lasting impact is clear: “We were young once and then we weren’t.”

The girls are pragmatic, insisting on watching the tapes their abductor made, then equally insistent that their parents must never see them. They support each other unflinchingly throughout the trial, as they did during their time in captivity. When we discover why they’ve really fled their hometown, we understand the lengths required for self-preservation. Gay’s voice is authentic. They are always believable.

There’s a magical quality to some tales. The Mark of Cain is an oddly unsettling story about twin brothers who regularly trade places — and partners. The narrator, married to Caleb, is complicit in the swaps, even preferring brother Jacob, who is kinder. The story echoes those fairy tales where people wander at night, dancing or working, returning — a bit exhausted, a bit wiser — to “real life” with the dawn. And it is another story to prompt fantasies of rescue in readers’ hearts: if only we could reach in and pluck that woman to safety. But in Gay’s world, that’s rarely the outcome.

Only North Country, about a structural engineer who’s exiled herself in a remote Michigan university, fleeing her unhappy past. She meets an enigmatic, quiet man with deep reserves of kindness and thaws out under the glow of his acceptance and affection. Their slow blooming, gentle love is a pleasure to witness. It’s one of the most hopeful stories in this collection.

When Gay heads into fantasy she loses this reader. Water and Its Weight is about a woman pursued by “water and its damages”. It sags under its own symbolism, soggy and less successful than what came before. Requiem for a Glass Heart is the story of a flesh-and-blood stone thrower who lives in a glass house with his glass family. The conceit doesn’t hold. We’re told that the glass woman can strip off and run through the streets invisibly, but also that the stone thrower can watch the food she eats travel through her body.

Difficult Women is very moreish; there’s a temptation to race through it. My recommendation is to take it piecemeal, with rests between tales, for there’s a sameness to these stories, leading to an unhappy sense of deja-vu if you inhale them all at once. There are lots of doubles — twins or siblings close enough to seem that way — lots of descriptions of hunting and venison eating, lots of punches thrown and bodies invaded, lots of lost children.

Overall, however, there’s much to commend and these difficult women are not soon forgotten. You’ll find yourself rooting for them.

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The Easy Way Out
By Steven Amsterdam
Out now from Riverrun (Quercus Books)
£12.99 hardback

A comic novel about assisted suicide? Yes, and an enjoyable one at that. American Steven Amsterdam, who’s based in Melbourne, is the author of Things We Didn’t See Coming and What the Family Needed, both of which were long listed for prestigious book awards. He is also a palliative care nurse.

The Easy Way Out is about Evan, who, thanks to the enactment of Measure 961, is one of a small group of nurses who legally assist the terminally ill to end their lives with a fatal dose of Nembutal. There is a lot of protocol and procedure, and a good deal of ostracism from medical staff on the other wards, who see their job as preserving life. Off duty, Evan mainly stays with his elderly Mum, having moved back to his hometown to supervise her relocation to a care facility.

Viv has Parkinson’s, but a new implant seems to be working wonders, and she’s having a rethink of her decision to abandon her flat. They are the smallest of families — he’s an only child and his father drove off the road when he was six. As he learns more about his father’s thwarted ambitions, it’s clear that this was a suicide.

[Aside: While reading this I was reminded of my conversation with author David Vann, who said that once one person in the family commits suicide, it becomes a possibility for all members of that family.]

When Evan’s not at Viv’s, he comprises part of a sexy menage a trois with Lon, a nurse at Viv’s care home, and his husband Simon. It’s a cosy domestic set up that the couple wouldn’t mind making permanent — except Evan’s got commitment issues. For one thing, he still hasn’t told them what, exactly, he does for a living.

It’s obvious that Evan’s work and private lives are going to collide by the novel’s end, but before that happens, there’s a complication in the hospital which forces his resignation. He takes up with a rogue outfit carrying out unsanctioned assists and discovers he enjoys the work. This worries him. Is he an angel of mercy or a stone cold killer?

Amsterdam writes in the first person and Evan is a good vehicle for exploring this philosophically danger-strewn terrain. He’s straightforward in thought and expression, funny, and good company. After helping a man die in the presence of his wife and children, Evan thinks, “[I am] wondering what soon-to-be-five-year-old Hannah’s formulation of this afternoon will be. Death is something that happens when a stranger makes you drink from a plastic cup. How will she cope the first time a dental assistant offers her mouthwash and tells her to rinse?”

His mum Viv occasionally strays into straight-out-of-central-casting zany old lady territory, but Amsterdam usually reins it back before it’s cloying, and her ever diminishing capacities are poignantly rendered. All she wants is a return to independence and some of her old, active life back. For a tantalising few months, this feels within her grasp.

While The Easy Way Out raises key end of life issues and examines the importance of privacy in relation to elderly care, Amsterdam never forgets that he’s telling a story. His characters and their predicaments are three-dimensional and believable. And the ending might surprise you.

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Two from Canongate

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Himself
By Jess Kidd
Out now from Canongate,
£12.99 hardback, ebook, £10.99

Himself is a lively amalgamation of literary styles — crime thriller, magical realism, Irish trickster, Gothic — and an absorbing, audacious debut. It opens with a woman’s brutal murder described in phrases that are simultaneously horrific and sanctified. Then we’re plunged into the vocabulary of fairy tales as the victim’s infant is absorbed — and protected — by the forest’s flora and fauna.

That child grows up to be a gorgeous, disruptive young man called Mahoney, with “eyes like black sloe berries and eyelashes like a girl.” A disturbing influence among the nuns raising him in a Dublin orphanage, now wanted by the law, he returns to his birthplace, Mulderrig, on Ireland’s west coast, in 1976. He is determined to unmask his mother’s killer and learn the identity of his father.

Mulderrig runs to eccentrics. There’s an elderly actress who’s as sparky and sassy as Angela Carter’s Chance sisters, from Wise Children. There’s a distraught mother mourning the death of her child nearly a decade earlier. There’s a pragmatic young landlady whose strengths unfold with the steadiness of a flower coming into bloom. There is a villainous vicar, and, of course, there is a killer — roused to fresh savagery by Mahoney’s arrival.

But the living aren’t all that Mahoney encounters. He has the gift of second sight. Ghosts abound in Himself, their stories interwoven and integral to the fates of the living. Yet Mahoney’s tragedy is that the one ghost he wants to speak to — his mother’s — refuses to appear. And no one in the village wants her memory awakened: she was their wild child, a teenaged tearaway who refused to hide her illegitimate child, or her own wild self. Her shame (as they perceive it) reflected badly on everyone.

Kidd writes beautifully, moving adroitly through time, as far back as 1944, and concluding in 1977. Soaring passages swooping over Mulderrig as it sleeps evoke Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, which feels like a strong — and happily so — influence.

For example, here is Kidd describing an old, once glorious house: “The woodworms sing in the skirting boards and the moths hang out of the curtains. The mice have the run of the guest rooms, shredding blankets, skating in the basins and nibbling the soaps.”

Some reviewers have said that Himself suffers for not settling on one genre. Looked at another way, what a pleasure it is seeing a new voice trying out all its octaves, singing a range of tunes with exuberance and skill. Despite its darkness, Himself is delightful, and reaches a satisfactory conclusion — no small feat, given the number of novels out there that fail to stick their endings. Recommended.

****

Himself, with its ghosts and questing hero, is haunted by loss in the aftermath of death, exploring what happens when the chasm created by absence threatens to swallow the survivors. Here is a memoir viewing loss from the other side, the chronicle of a death foretold, the story of a terminal diagnosis, and a winding down.

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Dying: A Memoir
By Cory Taylor
Out now from Canongate; £12.99 hardcover
also available as an ebook

Cory Taylor, who died in July 2016, was a celebrated Australian novelist. Her novel Me and Mr Booker was a regional winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and My Beautiful Enemy was shortlisted for Australia’s top prize, The Miles Franklin Award, in 2014.

Dying opens with a forthright discussion of euthanasia. Wishing to be prepared and proactive, Taylor purchased drugs online and wrote a goodbye letter expressing abounding love to leave her family.

She’d developed melanoma in the part of her brain controlling movement on her right side. They spread to lungs, skin, liver and urethra. Her initial diagnosis had come a decade earlier, and the progress of her cancer was slow. She kept the extent of her illness a secret from everyone but her husband, trying to protect her then teenaged sons. Eventually her condition deteriorated too much for artifice.

She wrote this book because: “Things are not as they should be. For so many of us, death has become the unmentionable thing, a monstrous silence. But this is no help to the dying, who are probably lonelier now than they have ever been. At least that is how it feels to me.”

Taylor’s prose is straightforward, her pragmatism admirable. She is also funny, and emotive without being manipulative. She describes the natural impulse to reflect on your past when you’re dying, to write your own version of things to set the record straight — or straight as you see it. The second of the book’s three sections functions as a potted autobiography, though personal stories are woven throughout.

These tales include adventures embraced and skipped, roads travelled or forsaken. A life, in other words, like every other. She takes stock not only of her progress, but of her parents’ fractured marriage, and even her medical history. What if she’d surrendered her leg when the first melanoma appeared — might she have outwitted death a while longer?

There’s not a scrap of sentimentality in Dying. There is, as Margaret Drabble points out in her endorsement, “an eloquent plea for autonomy in death.” Taylor closes by imagining her end as the final scene of a film. In common with everything she’s written to that point, it is dignified, beautiful, and unforgettable.

From our birth, we’re dying — making this short, potent memoir a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Belinda Bauer

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The Beautiful Dead
By Belinda Bauer
Bantam Press, £12.99 hardcover
Out now

A skilled writer is a skilled picker. To plunge readers into their story, a writer first sifts through a world of possibilities to select a precisely suitable image, emotion, or event to convey with immediacy. Nowhere is that more crucial than in the taut, tense world of the mystery thriller.

Hats off to Belinda Bauer. She has the gift of accuracy. Early in The Beautiful Dead she brings readers to protagonist Eve Singer’s neighbourhood and says: “It was the kind of place where residents banded together to save their old red phone box but never went into each other’s homes.”

This sentence alerts us that all will be well. They are simple words, but as skewering as an icepick. We know that street. We know everyone living there. Bauer projects directly onto the mind’s eye with a cinematographer’s skill. Using a curated menu of images and symbols, she draws the weave of her story as tight as gabardine.

The Beautiful Dead evokes Thomas Harris, with its ruthless and inventive killer who believes himself an artist. It also tips its hat to Inspector Morse: when we meet TV crime beat reporter Eve Singer she’s throwing up. It’s an unfortunate occupational hazard — the sight of blood and gore makes her ill.

Twisting and turning from one unsettling set-up to the next, the action ranges across London, from Heathrow-adjacent suburbs to the turbine hall at Tate Modern, where the climax plays out. (It’s the only scene that feels OTT, short on the lightness of touch and the grace that Bauer evinces everywhere else. Even so, you’ll root for things to turn out well for her characters.)

Bauer’s mysterious killer is ordinary to look at but deeply deranged. From money, he now inhabits a vast, empty home, burns oil paintings to keep warm, and keeps an unusual family “heirloom” in an upstairs bedroom. He believes wholeheartedly (ahem) that murder is a gift and an art form, and that Eve Singer was sent to burnish his legend status.

When his dream goes pear-shaped, he decides she should become his next work of art.

Eve has her own issues, which include a father with Alzheimer’s, cut-throat colleagues keen to relegate her back to the bottom of the career ladder, and a hot-headed, impetuous nature that often lands her in harm’s way. She’s buffeted by guilt — about her father, and about the ease with which the killer contrives to make her feel complicit as the death toll rises. Maybe she is guilty? She’s fighting for her career and economic security. That kind of anxiety can cloud a person’s judgement.

As well as making your heart race, The Beautiful Dead will have you laughing out loud. Eve’s enormous likability stems from a GSOH that’s not without a dash of self-deprecation. Her cameraman, Joe, has an equally wry outlook, and together they’re an endearing double act. Bauer’s also written exquisite, poignant, funny exchanges between Eve and her father that will tug your heartstrings.

Accomplished, lively, thoroughly enjoyable, The Beautiful Dead is a keeper.

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Book Review: A World Gone Mad

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A World Gone Mad
The Diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939-45
Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death
Out now from Pushkin Press, £18.99 hardcover

What was World War II like for the Swedish? The country was neutral, but it was surrounded by besieged nations: wrapped in a bear hug by Norway, to the west, perched on Denmark, just below, and to the east, partly contiguous, partly separated by water, lay Finland. Each of these countries was buffeted by the Germans and/or the Russians, and the reverberations resonated through the neighbouring country.

Lindgren’s name is familiar to anyone raised on the exuberant Pippi Longstocking children’s books, but this is a different work altogether. In the main, it recounts the progress of the war globally and domestically (emphasis on the former), recounting troop movements in one paragraph, and in the next news of food availability, clothing rationing, and the coming and going of hot water and heating. Though domestic details abound, they tend to be lists of foods and their availability, seasonal fluctuations, birthday and Christmas gifts received by her children Lars and Karin, and other practicalities. This is not the place where Lindgren bared her soul or gave up much in the way of emotional revelation. (She’s so circumspect that when Lindgren’s marriage suffered a massive crisis in 1944, we are none the wiser about the specifics of what, why, who, etc.)

This is, however, a concise and intelligent record of current events. The original even contained numerous cuttings, pictures and transcribed letters stuffed into its pages. (They are referenced but not replicated here.)

We are familiar with the histories of Britain and the United States during the war — not only the facts, but also glossier versions presented in films and novels. We have a sense of how Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia fared. The African campaigns have been well documented. But how many, hand on heart, can say we understand that war from a Scandinavian perspective?

Apart from Dunkirk, can we name the major events occurring there? What do we know of Denmark occupied by the Germans? The loss of Sweden’s submarine Ulven, as well as all on board? And Finland, under such intense pressure from Stalin’s Russia that Germany often seemed a preferable overlord?

She describes how Norway was robbed of food and blankets which were diverted to Germans. In Finland, a day’s provisions in a well-to-do home consisted of “rye-flour porridge without bread or milk, for lunch rye-flour porridge with a piece of bread and 1 dl milk, for dinner boiled frozen potatoes with grated swede, for which one has queued for hours, with possibly a little thin fruit soup to follow.”

This is a valuable amplification of the historic record, a sort of beginners guide to another perspective. It is not a view from the sidelines. During the war Lindgren worked at the Postal Control Division — as a censor. She read countless letters, even transcribing some to record in this diary.

The text is peppered with poignant questions hinting at deeper emotions she left unrecorded. In 1940, considering Germany’s view of the Poles, she wonders, “What hatred it will generate! In the end the world will be so full of hate that it chokes us.”

She marvels at the normalisation of war. “I was wondering the other day whether a time will ever come when it strikes us as unnatural to see a ‘Shelter’ sign down in our peaceful entrance halls. . . If only we could hope to hear our grandchildren ask one day: ‘Shelter — what does that mean?’”

Despite the difficulties of her daily life, she regularly counts her blessings, giving thanks to live in relative safety, and relative plenty. She can’t help wondering about her children, envisaging her son among the Ulven dead. Wisely, she knows that peace, however welcome, isn’t a tidy solution. “The hatred doesn’t end the day peace comes.”

This is a disquieting book to read in these post-Brexit, pre-Trump-presidency days. The diary feels even more relevant and portentous, especially sentiments such as: “There’s a current of despair running beneath everything gall the time, and it’s constantly fed by the accounts in the newspapers.” (1942)

Only toward the end of the diary, in 1944, do we hear of Pippi’s birth. She began circa 1941, as a series of stories Lindgren told her daughter when she was poorly, which was often. The tales were committed to paper when the author’s sprained ankle kept her housebound for several weeks. Karin gave Pippi her unforgettable name, while her physical characteristics came, in part, from people they knew. Lindgren’s low key assessment, circa 1945, was, “Pippi is a great little kid who seems to be turning into quite a success.”

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BOOK REVIEW: The Long Weekend

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The Long Weekend
Life in the English Country House Between the Wars
Adrian Tinniswood
Out since June from Jonathan Cape, £25 hardback

Fans of social history, architecture, elite lifestyles and yes, the entire Downton Abbey/Upstairs Downstairs crowd should enjoy this beautiful, illustrated book depicting life in great country houses such as Cliveden, Ditchley Park, Sissinghurst, and more.

Tinniswood divides the book not by houses or families, but thematically, with chapters addressing some of the great architects, styles of interior decoration, sporting trends (from hunting to the rising popularity of golf), the Georgian revival that swept Britain, the mechanics of a house party (when to arrive, what to wear, how much to tip, and the all important sexual mores), plus marvellous tales about the owners, inhabitants, and visitors to these magnificent dwellings, which describe a society in flux, responding to changing circumstances by adjusting its values.

His goal, stated at the outset, was to unpick the myth that all the best houses in England were “deserted and dismantled and demolished” between the wars, and their environs turned into soulless suburbs. Though that was true to a degree, he explains, it’s equally true that there is “a narrative which saw new families buying, borrowing and sometimes building themselves a country house; which introduced new aesthetics, new social structures, new meanings to an old tradition.”

This book was well reviewed in the press on its release earlier this year, and the praise is justified. Tinniswood’s authoritative, his style readable and wry, and his appreciation for these buildings resonates on every page. There’s enough detail here to help any writer embarking upon an historical novel. It feels as if we’ve entered each home and been shown round by one who knows all the secrets — structural and personal. The wealth of anecdotes about colourful inhabitants’ eccentric behaviour will satisfy any gossip addict.

Complaints? More pictures, please. Not every house is depicted, nor do we always get our fill of both interior and exterior shots. (Yes, that would have driven up the price.)

An excellent Christmas gift for anyone on your list with an Edifice Complex.

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End of Year Reading Roundup

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As ever, my reading year was partly devoted to pleasure, partly work-related — though the two often overlapped. Below is my annual round up of what I most loved in 2016, and since I posted last year’s list on 28th November, it begins with December of 2015’s titles. It’s not a list of all the books I read this year.

Some of my best reads were proofs of books due out next year. I’ll sit on my enthusiasm until they are available in  2017. In the interests of full disclosure, when the book was written by a friend, I’ll say so.

I’ll include links to my past book reviews where relevant. If you’re compiling a wish list for Santa (or whomever), you might like to scroll through all my blog reviews, because my rule is that I only review what I’ve enjoyed here and keep shtum about the rest.

I’m sure I’ve missed something/someone out of this — that’s inevitable.

I hope this inspires you to head to a bookshop or library, and that you’ll enjoy these books as much as I did.

 

Crow Mountain by Lucy Inglis. Wonderful young adult novel set in Montana, following a dual narrative in the present and the past. Romantic and atmospheric, just like her equally enjoyable book City of Halves. Crow Mountain won the 2016 Romantic Novel of the Year Award (YA category) Lucy and I are friends.

The Live and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr, and the other two books in this triple header: https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/book-reviews-three-for-january/ Tracy and I became Twitter friends after my review appeared.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor. Sly, satirical, and gorgeously written, this is a fresh spin on the fairy tale by one of my favourite authors.

Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill. As good as everyone says. Like eating your way through a box of chocolates that never quite contain the filling you’re expecting.

The Semi-Detached House and The Semi-Attached Couple, by Emily Eden. Guilty pleasure, this. Light, frothy, funny as hell portrait of aristo life in the England that only ever existed for a privileged few, but which a certain strain of right wingers keeps foolishly evoking as a future possibility. Available to read here, due to its age: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/eden/house/house.html

The Burgess Boys and My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. It may be heresy to say, but I preferred the boys to Lucy, though I did like that enormously. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/02/01/book-review-elizabeth-strout/

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift. Lovely. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/02/15/book-review-mothering-sunday/

Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon. Informative, stirring, and pacy double biography (told in alternating chapters) of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter Mary Shelley.

The Typewriter’s Tale by Michiel Heyns. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/02/16/book-reviews-2/

At the Existentialist Cafe: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Bakewell. Fantastic cultural history of the existentialist movement told from the human perspective, via the stories of its wild and wacky proponents. The philosophical analysis is first rate, and the biographical details mesmerising. NB: Sarah and I are friends.

All the Stars in the Heavens by Adriana Trigiani. Wonderful take on the love affair between Loretta Young and Clark Gable, by a writer who knows how to invest every paragraph with rich emotional depth. Adriana and I are friends.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. (See also, Eileen, included here) https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/book-review-isolation-x-2/

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. If you follow me on Twitter — where Sarah and I engage with one another — then you are sick of hearing me praise this marvellous novel. I loved it. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/05/20/book-review-the-essex-serpent/

Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe. Funny, heartwarming, and written by a friend. I love Nina’s writing, both fiction and non.

The Bird’s Child by Sandra Leigh Price. I had been following Sandra on Twitter and agreed, with trepidation, to get a copy of her novel sent to me. I’m very glad I did. It’s fantastic! https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/book-review-the-birds-child/

M Train by Patti Smith. Surely I don’t need to explain why I adored this?

Some of my favourite playmates are crime writers, and I enjoyed the hell out of their books this year. They include Val McDermid (I devoured all the Karen Pirie books in a beautiful binge), Ian Rankin, Christopher Brookmyre, E.S. Thomson, and new friend, Eva Dolan, a young writer (fourth book out in January) who has the chops to go the distance.

I also mini-binged on Dorothy L Sayers. Start anywhere. Keep reading.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum. Absolutely fabulous. Easy to see why it’s a classic. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/new-book-reviews/

Les Parisiennes: How the Women of Paris Lived, Loved, and Died Under Nazis, by Anne Sebba. Sweeping social history that shows how women kept Paris going throughout WWII — and at what personal cost. An absorbing read. Anne and I are friends.

Dadland by Keggie Carew. The true story of an eccentric spy and the daughter who loved him. Laughs galore, tears, and moments of wartime suspense that’ll have you catching your breath. Truly one of the best finds of my year. I “had” to read it for the Wigtown Book Festival, and loved it so much that I’ve made friends with Keggie. I’ve also been found hand-selling it in shops — stopping strangers to say: read this one!

The House of Birds by Morgan McCarthy. Enjoyed it so much it’s still resonating within me. https://randallwrites.wordpress.com/2016/10/19/book-review-house-of-birds-2/ I did well with “bird” books this year! (Morgan and I talk on Twitter now — post review.)

The Singing Sands, The Franchise Affair, The Man in the Queue all by Josephine Tey. I’m on a tear with her and admire the hell out of her writing. What. A. Talent.

Another new friend is Shelley Day, whose The Confession of Stella Moon will pin you to your chair. And it goes without saying that Graeme Macrae Burnett’s His Bloody Project deserves your attention. I know him now, too. Both published by Sara Hunt, under Saraband’s Contraband imprint.

The Long Weekend by Adrian Tinniswood is an illustrated exploration of Life in English country houses between the wars. Yes, I DO love reading about rich British people. And buildings. This satisfies on both counts.

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