One hundred years ago today women finally won the right to vote in the UK. Here is some of the reading I shall be doing over the next few weeks to remind myself of the struggle that brought about that most important of changes, and how there is still progress to be made.
Jane Harper builds on the promise of her debut novel
Harper’s debut novel ,’The Dry‘, was one of my personal books of the year last year, and in fact I still sell it quite regularly to customers seeking recommendations. I was absolutely delighted ,then, to receive a proof copy of her new novel,‘Force of Nature‘, from LittleBrown.
The plot is fairly straightforward , five female colleagues take part in a team-building weekend in the forests north of Melbourne. Three days later and several hours behind schedule four of them finally struggle back to the base camp, dehydrated, panicked and battered. The fifth one – Alice Russell, unpopular with the others – walked out of the camp one night and hasn’t been seen since.
Is her disappearance linked to the serial killer who had made the area his hunting ground twenty years earlier, or is it the result of the bullying, anger and resentment that permeates the group? Or is it less than a coincidence that the woman who is missing is an informant for Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk, the officer investigating her employers for money laundering?
In ‘The Dry‘ Harper used binary narratives – one historical, one contemporary – to artfully unravel a single story. She repeats this formula in ‘Force of Nature’ with equal success, the only difference being that in this instance the ‘historical’ events preceded the contemporary events by a few days, rather than decades.
One of the outstanding qualities of Harper’s writing is her character development. She delivers convincing and well-realised personalities who manage to be separate and distinct from each other without falling into charicature-like stereotypes. The new book makes the most of this particular skill, building one of the narrative lines from the alternating perspectives of the remaining four women of the group, and using it to steer the story in different ways unique to each character.
This is a beautiful example of Harper’s defining quality as a writer: the ability to carry a simple, uncomplicated storyline with masterful writing and composition. The way she utilises the voices of her characters: the careful, almost throw-away manner she drops in suggestions that could as easily be red-herrings as critical plot devices. With perfect pacing that builds exponentially to a dramatic, whirling climax Harper unravels a gripping tale.
Two books in an she has already made it onto my ‘favourite authors’ list. I shall be reserving space on my bookshelves for all her future books.
Seven Days in and I’ve already stumbled into Perplexing Poetry.
Having decided to spend a year reading more poetry (Adventures in Poetry),and exercising the long dormant poetry-processing portion of my brain: then having found a book that will remove all responsibility for making any kind of decision regarding what poetry I should be reading¹, (A Poem for Every Night of The Year) I am happy to report that the first seven days have been pleasantly rewarding.
Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration – for me it was the first five days. I didn’t remember to buy the book until January 3rd. But once I’d got it and overcome my personal discomfort at not having begun it on the right day, thereby missing the first two poems² I found it quickly became something I looked forward to each night.
The very firstnight I was initially joyful and then increasingly confused as a poem I thought I remembered from my childhood soon became unrecognisable. Sara Coleridge’s The Months begins with a stanza that is engraved on my heart, but as I progressed through each month I began to feel more and more like the child that loses it’s parent in the toy department: I should have been in seventh heaven but there was a nagging suspicion at the back of my mind that I might have spend eternity in my posh shoes and pooing in a public toilet if I couldn’t get back home. Not only was I certain that the words I was reading were not the words I used to repeat as a child, but I knew for a fact that the last verse ran thus: “Then- , Bloody January again!” and with each advancing line I was more convinced that those words had never sprung from the pen of Miss Sara Coleridge. I was deep into the dark days of November when it came to me. Miss Coleridge had been cannibalised by Flanders & Swannª:
The next coupleof nights were happily occupied by A A Milne (apparently its alright to like his poetry as a grown up!) whose style and syntax, I realised, are probably unique and certainly instantly recognisable, and Robert Frost.
I repeatedly forget Frost when thinking about poets I love despite the fact that at least two of his poems have affected me profoundly. Nothing Gold Can Stay shattered my heart into blissfully desolate pieces³ when I first read it at about fourteen in Susie Hinton’s The Outsiders. Undoubtedly context played a part in that: without the tragic story leading up to Ponyboy’s analysis of the poem I probably wouldn’t – at that age – have fully appreciated the meaning in it. But the other, The Road Not Taken, has resonated with me since the first time I read it, at a level so deep I can’t easily define it. If I were asked to choose a motto for myself it would be “I took the road less travelled by”. So much so that I used to have it written on a wall in my house. It both describes, and informs my life-choices on a daily basis. That andThe Logical Song.¹¹
As it turnsout these few nights of happy, reminiscent and uncomplicated reading were designed to lull me into a false sense of security. On night six I reached for The Book secure in the knowledge that we, the readers, were being eased into the Serious Poetry Stuff along a gentle and meandering path. So my shock was whole-hearted when Esiri side-swiped me with a fully loaded T.S.Eliot, and there wasn’t even a cat in it!
If you don’tknow, T.S.Eliot – when he’s not burbling on about cats – is a hardcore Poet. A Real Poet’s poet. Initially, the poem didn’t appear to be too demanding but in the final verse the true Eliot rose from the sea of the comprehensible and suddenly I was equating birth and death and wondering what the hell had happened, and if he even knew what he was trying to say.
I find that’s generally the give-away. If you find yourself perplexed; re-reading it six times, moving your lips as you go; if there’s a big, fat “eh…?” punctuating every line then you have probably arrived at Serious Poetry. I’m pretty sure it’s a rule or something, somewhere. “If it’s too obvious you’re not poeting properly!”
However my confusion led me to a realisation. I had started this experiment just one week ago to try and discover what it is that sets poetry readers apart from prose readers.Why they seem to be two different breeds of the same animal. Why do poetry readers get so much more out of the texts they read? In truth it was something I had forgotten, rather than something I’d never known. They get more out because writers like Eliot do their stuff. If the words you’re reading don’t state simply “Jane shot John”, but twiddle around the edges and swap clarity for obliquity then the reader is gong to have to bring more of their own thought to the understanding process:
“Jane raised the gun and pulled the trigger once. John fell in a bloodless heap on the floor and plaster rained down on his face, matching the pallor of his skin. Holes pierced his body and mind but as Jane dropped the empty weapon and blood spilled from the searing wound in her chest he rose to his feet, turned, and left.”
I mean, I just wrote that and I don’t have a clue what happened, but I’m pretty sure someone could make a story out of it if they thought about it for a while.
Perhaps it is just as simple as that. Prose readers read for the story. Poetry readers read for a deeper understanding, not just of the text, either. But does that mean the story is less important to them? Or is it that the story within a poem changes from reader to reader, biased by individual interpretation? If so when did that happen? The Icelandic Sagas just tell stories. I’ve read Beowulf (in translation, obvs!) there’s nothing that seems to me deliberately obscure. So when and why did poetry attain this highbrow quality that stipulates Real Readers have to be willing to indulge guessing games? I am genuinely asking, I don’t actually know.
It’s easy to come away from these kinds of analyses with the feeling that somehow you are ‘less’ than the towering intellects that spend years immersing themselves in tomes of Serious, Perplexing Poetry, squeezing every last ounce of interpretive meaning from them. So cheer up. Because if you are comforted by petty examples of how the literati occasionally get so full of themselves they just disappear up their own arses then you will love this.
The only poem from The Book that I am going to reproduce in full, this is a shining example of something that makes normal readers gape at each other in astonished bewilderment. Somewhere there are people out there who think that this (fun as it may be) actually warranted publishing:
Edwin Morgan, from From Glasgow to Saturn (Carcanet, 1973)
¹ In fact the book suggested the process. When I first saw it on the shelf at work I thought it sounded like a flowery, fluffy idea for poetry-wanna-be’s who think it’s all beautiful suffering and unrequited love. Fuzzy Emos, basically. But the idea of a daily dose of poetry seeped into my subconscious until the whole plan erupted, fully formed, into my conscious mind. I subsequently realised that this was the perfect text for my experiment. Of course I simultaneously realised that rather than a flowery, fluffy idea for poetry wanna-be’s,the book was, in fact, a very sound anthology of reliable verse for sensible people who make informed and intelligent decisions regarding their reading matter and practices. No Fuzzy Emo shit here.
² I’m not O.C.D. I’m not ‘a little bit O.C.D.’ (that’s not a real thing), I’m just tight-fisted. There is a sliding-scale zone within which I can more or less comfortably ignore the real start date for something, but there comes a point beyond which I cannot go. January 14th would have been too late. I could never have started this book that late into the year. I paid for those first fourteen poems, dammit, and I don’t want to be wasting money on poems I’m not going to use!
³ I’ve always had a bent for the melancholic, tragic irony, and pathos. It’s why I love David Gemmell. And Irish music. The only music on the planet that can sound sad, even when it’s belting out cheery sedition.
¹¹ If you think this is weird print out the the words and read them instead of listening to them as happy background noise. Then take a good look at education for the last thirty years¹²
¹² I had to go straight to ’11’ because there is no superscript ‘4’…thanks WordPress.
ª I grew up on a regular diet of these two. They were hilarious and ridiculously clever, and in a small but tidy piece of construction Donald Swann, who was an Oxford Linguist, was very good friends with another professor of languages called J R R Tolkien. The man who first translated Beowulf into English, and whose translation I read.
This is the first in Simon Brett’s series of books The Charles Paris Mysteries. Paris is a professional, but not particularly successful actor, with a history of drinking and womanising. Actually the womanising is historical, the drinking remains current through all the books I’ve listened to, much to the chagrin of his semi-detached wife, Frances and his shark of an agent, Maurice. He stumbles haphazardly into murders with surprising regularity, and through a combination of good (or bad) luck, and general inquisitiveness manages to find himself quite frequently alone with the killer just as the denouement happens.
I discovered thesedramatisations a couple of months ago on Audible. I was looking for a quick and easy listen and my predilection for cosy crime and humour put these at the top of my recommendations.
Within minutes I was absolutely in love with them. The stories are relatively uncomplicated as whodunnits but the dialogue is fabulous, clever and witty in a way that is increasingly hard to find these days.
As good asit is, though, an undeniable element in the almost addictive power of these plays is Bill Nighy. I started out already a huge fan of his work – I have yet to find anything that I dislike him in – but his performance and characterisation of Charles Paris is just perfection. In fact if I didn’t have to do productive things with my life I could just drop on my sofa right now and give over an entire day to the man’s genius.
It was certainly enough to send me scurrying off to my Audible account to buy some discounted credits, and – after listening to a couple of stories in random order – seek out the first and start working through them in order.
Though it’s not essential to listen to or read them chronologically, the complex relationship between Paris and his Semi-Detached wife, and their mutual relationship with their daughter (who they love) and their son-in-law (who they don’t love) is easier to follow if you do.
If you buy one audiobook this year make it one of these.
In which a prose reader trips lightly through the serried pages of a poetry anthology in search of her better self.
Poetry seems to be like Marmite, people are either 100% in or they can’t bear it. It’s real ‘love or loathe’ territory. Occasionally, though, you get the odd ones, like me, who like it with cheese on toast, but not on it’s own or with eggs. The Marmite¹, not the poetry. Not that I’m excluding you if you only like to read poetry whilst eating cheese on toast. On the other hand if eat Marmite with eggs, reading poetry or not, you need to take a good hard look at your life.
Where was I?
Right, so, whilstI have never been much of a poetry reader there is poetry I love (Ozymandius, pretty much any of Eliot’s Practical Cats, The Smuggler’s Song), and there are poets I have read extensively: Kipling. Pam Ayres… A.A.Milne², kind of, but occasionally I find myself envying serious poetry readers just a little bit.
Poetry just seems to be so much more…profound. More esoteric, enigmatic. There’s a sense that it is somehow more honest or pure. Part of that stems from the position of poetry as the original medium for storytelling. Back in the days of the oral tradition rhythm & rhyme made it easier for bards, and keepers of the tradition to remember the thousands of tales and songs and parables that they had to know, so poetry reaches back into the shrouded mists of human evolution to a time that quite literally pre-dates the written word. By comparison the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein’s Monster, was written a measly two hundred years ago, and the first fully-fictional detective story, The Murders in the Rue Morgue, only a hundred and seventy seven. Prose is still in junior school buzzing on the blue slushies and laughing at Johnny farting the alphabet.
Probably it’s this arcane antecedence that gives poetry this abstruse and recherché quality, or maybe poets just write from a purer and less constructed part of their soul, deliberately reaching for the undeliberated, but certainly poetry readers seem to get more from their texts than I generally get from my intricately constructed mass-market, pulp-fiction crime and fantasy books. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong a good story, I love them. Also, I’m a demon deconstructor. I can find nuance in an Andrex ad³. I can read into even the most superficial texts and find something more, but…poetry just seems to start with more. More elan. More merit. More worth. It’s like comparing Kenco instant coffee to coffee beans shat out by a Palm Civet. You love the Kenco, it tastes good, and it gives you the coffee buzz that you want but even though you know that paying ten times as much for pooped out coffee has to be a con, you can’t help wondering if – maybe – the drinkers know something you don’t: maybe you are missing out. And there’s only one way to find out.
I’m going to find out if the Civet shit coffee tastes amazing*: I’m going to start reading poetry.
As a childmy mother would read to me from The Oxford Book of Children’s Verse and I loved it but I remember very clearly how we seemed to get stuck on half a dozen of the two or three hundred poems it contained. It may have slipped past you up there ^ but I’m not the most adventurous poetry reader. I like what I like. So to remove the risk of me heading straight for my bolt-holes, and ensure variety in my reading I have handed all responsibility over to Allie Esiri, editor of A Poem For Every Night of the Year. There are no choices to be made with this book. You open it every night to the appropriate date and read whatever poem Allie has chosen for you. It’s perfect. I’m going to read it, and I’m going to tell you about it along the way. Not everyday, that would be tedious, and I’d probably get sued by the publishers for laying out their entire product for you to look up online for free, but occasionally, when I feel I have something to actually say.
¹This is a lie. For the record I love Marmite in all bread-related scenarios, and even as an additive to non-bread related cooking.
²If Now We Are Six can be considered ‘extensive’.
³Andrex is bought by lovely, joyous, fun, open-hearted people who don’t mind having their homes trashed by hordes of rampaging barbarian puppies. If you want people to think you are that lovely buy Andrex, because: puppies. If you don’t want people to think that you that lovely then you are wrong-minded and should still buy Andrex because: puppies.
On the other hand they stamp puppies onto the paper. You are literally wiping your bum on puppies.
*I’m definitely not, it was a metaphor. Nothing on this planet could get me to put something that has passed through a cat’s rectum into my mouth, and I certainly wouldn’t pay that much for the privilege!
First on the list is Jane Harper’s New book Force of Nature. I loved her debut – The Dry – last year, so I’m excited to see if she’s done as well this time. It’s always a concern of mine that a new author will have a wonderful first book, but then the follow-up will be disappointing.
Back in the days when you could get a publishing contract for just one book, those who only had ‘one book in them’ could still be published without the pressure of being expected to produce more. These days, when publishers want a three book minimum, I have read a few books which have never been well-followed-up. I wonder sometimes how many great books we’re missing out on because the authors can’t produce a second that will at least satisfy the contractual demands of publishers.
After that, some political history.
Feminism is very current, once again, and whilst I am passionate about it I feel that I have never really read enough into it. With that in mind I have devoted a small corner of my personal library to space for books on the subject. So far they have all been recent texts dealing with contemporary issues, so I was very happy indeed to receive this reading copy of Jane Robinson’s book Hearts & Minds. Though the book is new the story it tells is of one of the key moments in the actual advancement of equality.
The Pilgrimage was a six-week march beginning in June 1913, organised by the NUWSS. Groups of women proceeded from one of the three starting points (Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Carlisle and Land’s End) and followed a common route to the finally assembly point in London. The purpose of the march was to show the establishment how many women actually wanted the vote – that it was not just a few shouty, brash Suffragettes – and how much they wanted it, and also to explain to other ordinary people why the Suffragists wanted the vote and felt it was so important: meetings were held along the route of the march to that end. The Pilgrimage was not without violence, though it was invariably inflicted on the pilgrims rather than starting with them, but in spite of the best efforts of their detractors to silence and intimidate them on July 26th 1913 50,000 women arrived in Hyde Park. They had made their point.
It is shocking, though unsurprising (most British civil rights movements are ignored by our education system) that this incredible achievement is not taught in schools. Everything I know about the march I know from researching it prior to requesting the book, and that, right there, is why I am so eager to read this. Even those of us who consider themselves ardent feminists have often forgotten or never learned the history of our own movement beyond a few key names and buzzwords. It’s good to see more of the history of the movement finally being brought a wider audience.
My book absorption for 2017. Not as impressive as I would have liked, but there have been some great books in it. I have had the pleasure, this year, of discovering a number of new authors that I have immediately fallen in love with. A couple of whom even had the great decency to already have a good back-catalogue for me to work through!
There were some dark moments this year. Certainly one of the darkest but most compelling books I have ever read, made it onto the list. One or two debut authors, and a couple of returning favourites.
Stand-out names this year for me have been Abir Mukherjee, Jodi Taylor, Jane Harper, Laura Lippman and Ben Aaronovitch and – absolutely not ‘least’ – Adam Kay whose book This Is Hurt Going To Hurt should be required reading for anyone who thinking of criticising the NHS or supporting J.Hunt in his efforts to break it.
It’s Human Rights Day and my favourite illustrator and author Chris Riddell has had hand in producing two books to educate children and Young People about their rights and why they need them. My Little Book Of Big Freedoms should be in every classroom, every library and on every child’s reading list. It should also be on the National Curriculum , as should Here I Stand. Few things in life are more important than understanding how we are protected from evil, except perhaps we need to be, and why those protections need to be universal.
I don’t do DC but Dystopian Dystopia was more than I could resist.
Ok, so I arrived late at this particular game. I’m not the world’s biggest graphic novel reader, and I tend to stick to the independents. I haven’t read anything off the Marvel or D.C. shelves since I was a kid, pushing forty years ago.
It’s not that I don’t like them. I cut my teeth all those decades ago on regular doses of X-Men and the Fantastic Four, but that was back in the days when they were still comics, and fandom didn’t require that you memorised every detail of all of the characters lives and evolutions through different multi-verse manifestations. I can’t be bothered with that shit. Also, I like things a little twisted and, really, superhero books are ultimately all superhero books, no matter how anti-hero the superheroes are.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Batman and Iron Man: I love X-Men and Wonder Woman, but I’m not really interested in reading my way through the umpteen different series each major character has spawned.
Enter: a customer in the shop one day. He starts rattling on about this alternate DC Universe stuff: a series of books were the nominally twisted world of DC becomes even more twisted and warped. Where Wonder Woman is at war with Aquaman and half of Europe has been sunk. A universe SO twisted that when the Waynes are held up in the alley – it’s not Thomas and Martha that are killed, and so it’s not Bruce that becomes Batman…
Well, I was never going to resist something that twisted and warped and now, two books in, I’m spending as much time researching all the stuff I missed by not reading all those comic-books as I am actually reading the comic-books!
Anyway, long story short: These story lines are fantastic, and if you like DC, and you like twisted you should definitely be reading them.
Half hearted ‘cyber thriller’ isn’t very ‘cyber’ and fails to really ‘thrill’
Written in the first person I Am No One is the account of recent events in the life of the fictional NY academic, Jeremy O’Keefe. O’Keefe, ironically an expert in surveillance, finds himself the subject of apparent scrutiny by unknown observers, a discovery that propels him into paranoia and pushes him to the boundaries of sanity. As the story is unpacked, page by page, it becomes clear that O’Keefe’s paranoia is not unfounded, and that his initial confusion as to why anyone would want to bother observing the behaviour of a mundane and only moderately successful Professor actually belies a deeper understanding of the cause and his actions that precipitated it.
O’Keefe is a difficult character to really sympathise with. Whilst his ideology is admirably egalitarian he falls into that bracket of slightly stuffy, middle-class liberals who take themselves too seriously and fail to practise what they preach. In fairness to O’Keefe he largely has the grace and self-awareness to question the rationality of his fears and accidental moments of prejudice (though he is of the very typical male Liberal variety that doesn’t seem to recognise the contradiction of professing himself feminist whilst watching porn): slightly pompous, slightly too much self-regard slightly too much sense of victimhood, he is not unlikeable just a bit of a non-entity. Whilst this is clearly intentional it makes his narrative stodgy. Not unreadable, but at the same time easy to put down for a week whilst a more engaging book is read. This is either a spectacularly adept piece of characterisation or an unfortunate reflection of the author, Patrick Flanery. I do hope it is the writing because if not then all the peculiar, inaccurate and unlikely observations made by O’Keefe on behalf of his character regarding differences between the British and Americans are likely also Flanery’s. For example the breath-taking assertion that socio-economic failure is treated more harshly in the UK than in the US, when any basic knowledge of sociology in the two countries shows that the criteria for failure is a) much broader in the US and b) responded to far more harshly, e.g.: “if you don’t earn enough from your three jobs to afford medical insurance to pay for your cancer treatment, you clearly haven’t worked hard enough. The fault is yours , you are a failure and the punishment is premature death.”. It is also difficult to accept that Flanery is regularly treated with distrust and dislike by bank cashiers for his Irish name. Quite aside from anything else most bank cashiers in this country now aren’t old enough to remember the Irish troubles, and the bigots-for-bigotry’s-sake have long since transferred their angst from the Irish to the Poles and the Muslims.
Flanery is also an academic, something that is abundantly obvious from the highly structured writing method he employs in this book. The reader is left with the impression that where other novelists write books to be read as stories Flanery has written a text with an eye to future deconstruction by English Lit students. That is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but occasionally one wishes he could have been a little less concerned with construction in the minutiae and more concerned with crafting a story with a complete beginning, middle and end: and therein lies one of the greatest failings of this book: it has no real conclusion. Questions are raised that go unanswered. In particular there are issues with characters, whose true identity may never be elaborated upon or, in the case of his girlfriend who makes a sudden, poorly explained behavioural volte-face that is entirely out of character but provides Flanery with a device to enable his protagonist take the critical closing step to the tale.
It seems that Flanery has written this book as a parable on the dangers of unfettered digital surveillance: how easy it is for those who wish to to access all our personal data and how very quickly and efficiently lives can be subverted. Whilst this may be a revelation to a few it has to be said that there is nothing revealed in this book about the scope and methods of data collection that anyone who has even a small amount of technical savvy won’t already know, which rather undermines it as an expose. The book also attempts to portray how easy it is to suddenly and unintentionally find oneself on the wrong side of the law. Unfortunately in this story the actions which purport to have landed O’Keefe in possible criminality are so ridiculous and far-fetched that only the most paranoid would ever see an offence in them. Contrary to highlighting the ease with which the well intentioned can unwittingly find themselves in need of lawyers it suggests that all the peripheral characters are actually far more paranoid and delusional than O’Keefe will ever be