Hot Stuff

If I can self-plagiarise a 2014 blog ( and, let’s face it, who will remember or care): ‘Phew What a Scorcher!’ Maybe June’s heatwaves have slowed my book consumption and / or my sun-soaked brain has simply forgotten what I’ve read but the latter appears to amount to only three novels. There’s also been several jolly jaunts this month, including a week in France and three days at a spa, during all of which time it was hot ( will you stop going on about the bloody weather? Ed ) so my books often ended up shading my face rather than having their pages turned.

At least my three reads, all by well established authors, have been very worthwhile. For a lot of the time Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata felt as if it was heading for a bleak ending. Instead it was, if not a happy ever after, certainly one that was ‘as good as it gets’ ( the title, incidentally, of one of my all time fave films ) It’s the story of the friendship between two boys, Gustav and Anton, in wartime Switzerland though the focus is always on the impact of history on individual lives than the events per se. The Observer called it a ‘masterful, meditative novel’ and I’d agree.

Don’t cry over spilt milk, so the saying goes. I didn’t cry over Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk ( or laugh or feel anything much really ) and it’s been difficult to try and work out the reasons for my disengagement. Set in southern Spain, the novel has a dream-like quality. The narrator, twenty five year old Sofia, is there with Rose, her mother – who may or may not be a hypochondriac. She is seeking treatment from a doctor – who may or may not be a charlatan. Sofia and Rose exist in a complicated co-dependency: Sofia has given up her PhD to care for Rose and back in London works in a coffee shop. One moment she is the archetypal caring daughter trying to find the ‘right’ kind of water to satisfy Rose, the next she is leaving Rose and her wheelchair in the path of oncoming traffic. During their time in Spain she visits her Greek father and his new family and has affairs with two locals, the bohemian Ingrid and a student lifeguard. The reader perceives the world through Sofia’s fragmented inner life and maybe it’s this which makes the book so unsettling. Apart from the fact that Hot Milk was shortlisted for the Booker, it’s obviously an accomplished and sophisticated novel which would probably benefit from a re-read in a slower, more chilled frame of mind.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett follows six siblings from a blended family over a period of fifty years. It’s a novel which unfurls in an understated yet compelling way. One of the plot strands involves Commonwealth being the title of a highly successful novel written by the older lover of Franny, one of the main protagonists. The novel within the novel is based on traumatic events in Franny’s childhood and the shock waves generated by what some of the family see as a breach of trust not only make for great observations of family dynamics ( at which Patchett excels ) but also cleverly questions how much material a writer is entitled to borrow / steal from real life. Towards the end of the novel there were so many divorces, re-marriages with new offspring and their extended families that it became difficult to remember who was who. However, I think that was probably the point!

We’ve now had rain for two days which is good for the garden but it’s been so cold! We had to put the heating back on. Perhaps that was it – we’ve had our summer! A bit warmer today than it was yesterday, though, and they say the weekend will be nice, Saturday better than Sunday. Not that rain is forecast for Sunday but it’s due to be overcast. Talking bollocks about the weather: it’s what we do so well….

Food for Thought

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry


Late Victorian background with a dash of Gothic.

A generous helping of ideas: science v religion, advances in medicine, modernity, obsession with geology, palaeontology.

A feisty protagonist, the recently widowed Cora, who is rich, attractive and dresses like a bag lady.

A serpent / dragon who is real, metaphorical, folklore, depending on viewpoint.

A dollop of illicit sex.


Mix together with a lot of hype, an attractive cover and serve up as a multi prize winner. Not the most satisfying of dishes but fills a gap if you’re hungry enough.

Do Not Say We Have nothing Madeleine Thein

A hearty main course ( you will need time to munch your way through this ) made with a number of fresh and worthy ingredients – not least China’s Cultural Revolution – but ultimately very hard to digest even when consumed in small portions and periodically reheated.

So I am Glad A.L. Kennedy

An acquired taste, certainly not mine. To give you a flavour of this unusual concoction: Jennifer, whose real name is Mercy doesn’t show any when engaged in hard core S&M. Someone comes to live in her shared house who glows in the dark and turns out to be the reincarnation of Cyrano de Bergerac.

Black Water Louise Doughty

Not what you would have expected the author to serve up after the success of Appletree Yard but this is a mouth watering triumph. Again a psychological thriller but made to a different recipe with subtle aromas of Graham Greene and John Le Carre. Set in the context of the genocide in Indonesia in 1965 and the 1998 riots this is the story of the protagonist, John Harper’s, personal guilt and possible redemption as well as one of political intrigue and multinational double dealing. A dish baked to perfection, it’s one to savour.

Inside Out

April is the cruellest month, or so T.S. Eliot claimed, and certainly the amount of illness and worse that has been clinging like ‘ the brown fog of a winter dawn’ in recent weeks would seem to bear that out. OK, I’ve got the literary references out the way and proved I know my Wasteland. Actually, I had to look up that latter quote while I’ve never been able to forget that the famous poet’s name is an anagram of toilets. Yet Spring has sprung and all the lovely flowers nosing their way out of the earth and the trees coming into blossom and the little birdies in their nests serve as a reminder that this time of year is one of renewal and regeneration blah blah.

I had a reversible coat when I was a child and I remember fretting about having to choose which way to wear it. It was impossible for it to be inside out and that bothered me. By the same token, reading wise it’s proved to be an uneasily double sided month. On the one hand I was bored witless by Zola’s The Earth ( yes, I know it’s a classic but by God I swear my fingers had paper burns due to racing through the last chapters just to end the whole experience ) and disappointed by Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are which I’d bought on the strength of having so much enjoyed her debut novel What was Lost.

Yet flip the coin, reverse the coat and there was the wonderful My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: less than 200 pages but one of those books that somehow manages to convey the whole messiness, complexity and joy of life by depicting a fragment of it – in this sense Strout’s novella reminded me of McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Lucy is recovering from an operation, is visited by her estranged mother and they talk. So much both between mother and daughter and within the narrative itself is left unsaid; we are made aware of how many other different stories flow beneath the one that is given. It is a tender novel and one I’d like to read again. This is not the case with Jem Lester’s Schtum, although it was a great read. The novel deals with Ben’s fight to get his severely autistic son, Jonah, into the appropriate residential education while battling his own demons and a broken marriage. It’s tough painful stuff, making novels like Rain Man and Curious Incident…, which also have protagonists with autism, look by comparison as unsubstantial as candy floss. There is a lot of shit – both literal and otherwise – in this book and yet some very funny moments too. I wasn’t so sure about the later shift of focus on to Ben’s Jewish heritage and family history. While this explained a lot, as a reader one wants to stay with Jonah: a boy who can be uncontrollably destructive and violent one moment and sweet and loving the next, a boy whose genetics mean that his relationship with the external world is turned inside out.

Having started with a reference to April ( which incidentally was the name of the central character in Shena McKay’s The Burning Orchard – another of this month’s pleasing reads ) and with the forthcoming election I feel there must be something pithy and political to say about May the month and May the PM. Unfortunately, not from me!

Phases of Fuzziness

As a rule I don’t re-read books but recently I needed to: I was giving a talk on Maura Laverty’s Never no More ( the first 20th century novel I ever read, aged ten.     It mentioned  periods (  a subject I didn’t know was even allowed in fiction !) closely followed by a tutoring job on Michael Frayn’s Spies. I had vague and distant memories of the latter – young boys’ friendship / wartime Britain / rite of passage – and I suspect I first read it when simply a reader rather than a reader / writer. The craftsmanship of the narrative, the reflection on memory and time and the layering of themes and motifs are at the highest level – all of which will, ironically, make the book that more difficult to teach. As for Never No More ( first published in 1942 ) this is not a book I’d recommend. A lyrical and sometimes sentimental depiction of rural Ireland in the 1920s, it resonated for me because the central relationship – a close bond between a young girl and her grandmother – reflected my situation at the time. While re-reading I was aware of the novel’s literary weaknesses while at the same time reliving my feelings of excitement and wonder when I first encountered it: a good illustration of the extent to which one’s interpretation of reading matter is dependant on context ( obvious really!)

Then I came to Catherine O’Flynn’s What was Lost. The novel is split into two sections, the first taking place in 1984, the second in 2003/4. The first half I read quickly and enjoyed: a lonely little girl, Kate, an amateur sleuth, goes missing. But as soon as I started the second half, which introduces us to adult characters with a tenuous connection to Kate, it became clear that I’d read it before: not only did I know what was going to happen but the setting (a Birmingham shopping centre ) was familiar. Yet if I’d only read some of it, surely that would have been the first part? Perhaps I’d not actually read it myself but read about it? Nowadays my everyday life is imbued with forgetfulness and self-doubt from car keys ( But I know I put them there!) to hair straighteners ( did I turn them off?) to life choices ( So you think you can write? Really?!) and it stands to reason that this toxic combo permeates my reading experience. At any rate, What was Lost is a good read and impressive as a debut novel: I’ve already ordered her second one, The News Where You Are ( just had to re-google that, as I couldn’t remember the title’s exact wording from a minute ago…)

Arguably much of fiction is about misremembering, half-truths and flawed perception, notable examples include The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Throw in an unreliable narrator ( though no narrator, either in fiction or real life, can ever be ‘reliable’) such as in the brilliant His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet and your reading route becomes slippery, treacherous but, of course, exhilarating.

The academic Lillian Furst, talking about the distortion of memory in Ishiguro’s work, describes ‘the interplay of sharp remembering with phases of fuzziness or forgetfulness.’ There are times when I could do with a tad less fuzziness ( despite having recently been prescribed new contact lenses ) but I appear to have got through eight books in March which isn’t bad going. Through the blurred landscape of this month’s reading, the outline of one book in particular looms: Paul Kalanthi’s When Breath Becomes Air the memoir of a neurosurgeon who himself gets cancer. For me the epilogue, written by his widow who also edited the main text, was the most moving part of the book- a timely reminder to cherish the sharpness and clarity of the moment seeing as how easily ‘ the future, instead of the ladder towards the goals of life, flattens into a perpetual present.’

Picking up on that last point ( albeit this is hardly a matter of life and death and more about self aggrandisement) my book Raw Material has recently been longlisted for the Edge Hill prize alongside properly famous writers like Mark Haddon and Susan Hill whose work I admire so much. If anyone felt able to give RM an Amazon review ( you don’t need to have bought the book from them to do so ) this effort would not be forgotten ( well, actually it might be….)

Grief is the Thing with Feathers

This is a shortish post on a short book, appropriate methinks for this stunted month. Having said that, one of my main writing jobs in February has been blogging away talking about Hull as City of Culture for New Writing North. The process was an interesting one: in contrast to these blogs which I treat as chatting to a group of friends around the kitchen table, with the commissioned NWN ones I felt it was more like being in the boardroom doing a presentation. I was on my best behaviour, though I did include the usual weak attempts at humour and cringy puns!

Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers is an amazing…and here I’m stuck as to how to describe a work that defies categorisation. The poet Andrew McMillan ( check out his award winning collection Physical. Incidentally, he’s the son of Barnsley Bard, Ian ) cited it as one of his books of the year, terming it ‘part memoir, part novel, part experimental sound poem’ And maybe that puts you off – it did me. Stupidly I left it on the shelf unread for some time, wary of the whiff of arty fartyness – so here’s an example of the writing. A man has been widowed and left with two young boys:



Like light, like a child’s foot talcum – dusted and kissed, like stroke-reversing suede, like dust, like pins and needles, like a promise, like a curse, like seeds. Like everything grained, plaited, linked, or numbered, like everything nature-made and violent and quiet.

It is all completely missing….

But there’s also humour and wit – comprehension questions follow one passage – debunking of sentimentality and a surreal element in the form of a talking crow (the man is a Ted Hughes scholar ) who barges into the house to help the family with their loss.

At first glance Porter’s book brings to mind Helen MacDonald’s ‘H is for Hawk’, obvious points of comparison being the theme of grief and the avian metaphor. But actually it’s not comparing like to like: both books illustrate how it’s not content that distinguishes one work of literature from another but treatment. In the immortal words of comedian Frank Carsons, ‘ It’s the way I tell ‘em!’

You can read Grief is the Thing with Feathers in, at most, a couple of hours and when you think of how often in life you have spent that period of time in a frustrating / pointless work meeting or talking to boring people at a boring party then this has to be worth 120 minutes of your life!