Book Review: Circling the Sun

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Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain, is an historical fictional memoir about the life of Beryl Markham, an extraordinary woman who attained fame by becoming the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic. Beryl spent much of her life in colonial Kenya where she scandalised high society with her refusal to bend to convention. She does not come across as a happy woman, but is certainly remarkable.

Beryl was born in Leicestershire, England, but moved to British East Africa with her parents and older brother when she was two years old. Her father had sold their home and invested the money in a farm where he planned to grow wheat and establish a stable of thoroughbred race horses. Two years after they had arrived Beryl’s mother returned to England with her son, leaving Beryl to be raised by her father. This abandonment haunted her for life.

With her father busy establishing his farm the young Beryl was left to run wild with the natives, a life she adored. The local village took pity on the motherless child and accepted her into their fold where she learned their language, their stories, and how to hunt alongside their boys. From her father she learned about horses.

Beryl and her father socialised little but the friends they had were other wealthy expatriates enjoying the colonial lifestyle. When Beryl was eleven years old one of these neighbours commented on Beryl’s wildness. Within a few months her father had brought a housekeeper to the farm to polish and educate his daughter. Beryl rebelled.

“All the way across the yard, I fumed. The world was pinching in on me, narrowing to the sudden fact of Mrs Orchardson, and what she might mean to do or be.”

From this moment on Beryl fought to keep her independence, a difficult state for a woman to achieve at the time. Although many in Kenya lived lives that would have been considered unacceptably scandalous in England, they did so from within the confines of convention. Beryl was not adept at hiding what she was doing, nor did she accept that this was how she should live.

Beryl’s life unfolded as a series of triumphs and disasters. She entered into marriages which failed, affairs which became public knowledge and caused difficulties for her friends, pregnancies which led to heartache. She also became the first woman ever to hold a professional racehorse trainer’s licence at only nineteen and went on to achieve success in this field.

Although Beryl and many of the other white colonists sometimes struggled financially, the lives they led were fuelled by excess: parties, affairs, champagne, fast living. The size of the country belied the closeness of the community where there was much intermingling and few secrets. Beryl befriended the writer Karen Blixen and big game hunter Denys Finch Hatton, famed by Blixen’s memoir, ‘Out of Africa’. Denys was one of Beryl’s lovers and it was he who inspired her to learn to fly.

This story is a vivid portrayal of a gilded lifestyle and of a woman who railed against the constraints imposed by being born a woman at that time. I did not warm to Beryl but was impressed by her strength of purpose. She was fortunate in having so many loyal friends.

The prose is fabulous evoking the power and splendour of Africa; the transience of the shallow lives lived by the colonists juxtaposing the beauty of the land.

“I think we sat that way for hours. Long enough for me to feel my own density settle more and more completely into the chalky dust. Aeons had made it, out of dissolving mountains, out of endlessly rocking metamorphosis. The things of the world knew so much more than we did and lived them more truly. The thorn trees had no grief or fear. The constellations didn’t fight or hold themselves back, nor did the translucent hook of the moon. Everything was momentary and endless. This time with Denys would fade, and it would last forever.”

Although Beryl lived into her eighties this story finishes with her first solo flight at the age of twenty-nine, a brief epilogue confirming her successful transatlantic flight. We are told in an author’s note that “Scandal and speculation followed Beryl for much of her life.” Given her apparent single mindedness, this does not surprise.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Virago Press.

Book Review: Pretty Is

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Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell, is a book about loneliness and longing. It tells the story of two young women who were abducted by a stranger and held for six weeks in a remote woodland cabin when they were twelve years old, an experience which has haunted their lives ever since. It is an exploration of how family and society expect children to behave; of complex relationships, jealousy and a child’s singular need for attention and admiration.

Carly-May is a pageant princess from a remote town in Nebraska. She despises her step-mother and resents that her father defers so many decisions to this brash and narcissistic interloper. Carly-May is intelligent but has been led to believe that her beauty will be of more use to her in the adult world. She dreams of escape and fame, of returning to her father as a grown up and basking in the acclaim she longs for. When a stranger tells her to climb into his car she feels trepidation, but is almost happy to be driven away.

Lois is a spelling bee champion who lives with her parents in their up market guest house. They are always busy with guests leaving her alone with her books. She has been raised to be polite so agrees to help the stranger who pulls up alongside her in his car.

The abduction is that simple; children doing as they are told, behaving towards an adult as they have been taught, and then responding to the kindness and attention they are starved of at home.

The story is told from the point of view of the young women these girls have grown into. Carly-May became Chloe, an actress who has never quite achieved the fame she believed she deserved. Lois is a college professor and novelist, her debut work based on the abduction, now being adapted for the big screen. The girls have not been in touch since they were returned to their families who felt it was best to keep them apart, to have them put the trauma behind them.

The families view this trauma as the kidnap, refusing to entertain the possibility that the girls were more affected by the loss of their kidnapper.

The impact of those six weeks, especially on Lois, seems at times to be overplayed. For an obviously intelligent woman she makes serious errors of judgement when a student takes an unhealthy interest in her past. This does, however, enable the reader to better understand how stalled her development has been.

The writing is compelling; I read this book in a day, and enjoyed the way it made me think. It is rare for children as young as twelve to be given such complex roles, for their feelings and how they respond to experiences to be explored in such depth. It made me wonder if a child can ever feel loved enough to satisfy given their natural introspection.

Although I would describe this as a thriller, and there is pace and tension in spades as Lois’s student closes in on his prey, it is the character development that I admired. The adults could not comprehend why the girls did not do more to try to get away from their captor. They did not recognise that it was the everyday lives imposed on them that they dreamed of escaping.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion Books.

 

Book Review: The Summer of Secrets

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The Summer of Secrets, by Sarah Jasmon, is simmering, evocative and charged with an undercurrent of apprehension. The author perfectly captures the concerns of the teenage protagonist, Helen, as she struggles to deal with her parents’ separation and rejection by her peers. When the bohemian Dover family appear on Helen’s doorstep it is no surprise that she is drawn to them. Their friendship will prove devastating for both families.

Helen is sixteen years old and is looking forward to a summer of peace and freedom. Home life has been chaotic since her mother left, her father seeking solace in drink. Helen welcomes the cessation of their bitter rows, and the relaxation of her mother’s strictly imposed orderliness. She is angry and lonely but also relieved.

Lying on the grass in her garden by the canal Helen wonders how she will fill the balmy days ahead. Her question is answered when a young girl unexpectedly appears in her hedge. Thus she meets the Dovers, who she discovers have recently moved into a nearby cottage, and is drawn to their enigmatic lives.

Victoria Dover is of a similar age to Helen and they soon become friends. They are not, however, equals. Victoria relishes her dominance, forever pushing at Helen’s trained reticence. As the summer progresses Helen ingratiates herself with the whole family before Victoria starts to push her away.

The author intersperses the story of the summer of 1983 with a narrative set thirty years later. Forty-six year old Helen spots a poster on the wall of new art gallery advertising an exhibition of photographs by award winning Victoria Dover. We learn that she has neither seen nor heard from any of the Dover family since that fateful summer, a summer that has scarred her life.

Helen’s life pivots on a night near the end of the summer, which she can barely remember. As the tension builds the reader knows that some tragedy is about to unfold. The denouement does not disappoint.

The byline on the cover of this book reads ‘One day she was there… And the next she was gone’. I did not feel that this represented what the story was about. It is a coming of age tale; it was not just Victoria that Helen lost.

It was good to be reminded that in 1983 there could be ramshackle cottages by an overgrown and neglected canal, before developers saw potential and tidied nature away. Likewise children could run free, time unfilled by planned activities not viewed as wasted. It is redolent of a time that is gone.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I do not quite understand why Helen’s life was impacted to such a degree by the events revealed, shocking as they were. I do not quite understand why she did not seek answers sooner. Perhaps this is the point. The denouement suggests that it was everyone else’s selfish inability to understand Helen’s needs which led to the cataclysmic outcome.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the Curtis Brown Book Group

Book Review: Children of the Mill

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Children of the Mill: True Stories From Quarry Bank, by David Hanson, was written to accompany the Channel 4 series, The Mill, which first screened as two series in 2013 and 2014. The TV show is a drama based on fact. The book reveals the real lives of the main characters, showing how close to the truth the dramatisation is. I had not watched the TV show prior to reading the book.

Quarry Bank Mill was built in 1784 on the banks of the River Bollin near Styal in Cheshire. It was built by Samuel Greg, the son of a wealthy Scottish/ Irishman whose business empire included slave plantations in the American South and Dominica, and privateering in the Atlantic. The Mill was built to spin cotton and later went on to include weaving. It was owned by the Greg family until being handed over to the National Trust in 1939.

The Gregs were careful, pragmatic, paternalistic millowners. Employee conditions at Quarry Bank compared favourably to those in nearby city mills in the 18th century, although when looked at through 21st century eyes they still appear harsh.

The author quotes extensively from source material including letters, diaries, mill records and court documents to bring to life the mill workers, particularly the children. Quarry Bank Mill employed child apprentices until 1847. Between 1790 and then most lived in an Apprentice House built near the factory. Greg hired a superintendent to keep the children in order and, most unusually for the time, a mill doctor, although medical care for all at the time was rudimentary at best.

Most of the apprentices were sourced from workhouses. Parishes received a payment for them and they were then indentured until their eighteenth birthday, a date that would be guessed at as few records existed. They worked long days, 5.30am to 8pm, with schoolwork and gardening after their shift at the mill. The work was dangerous, with fingers at risk of being severed and limbs crushed by the machines. Arguably, life at a workhouse could be even worse, at least at the mill the children were fed, but ultimately they had no choice in their fate.

A little over half of the book is devoted to the lives of the apprentices: their background, arrival at the mill, experiences there, the toll this life had on their health, and how those who survived coped with adulthood. The remaining chapters look at the impact of the mill on the wider community, and at the Greg family who built and controlled Quarry Bank. Although it was a hard life, now difficult to fully comprehend, the comparisons with other mills at the time belie some of the slightly sensationalised wording which the author employs at times.

This is an interesting history of factory life during the industrial revolution told from the point of view of real individuals. It reads like a television documentary rather than a history book being episodic and slightly tabloid in style. The quotes from source add authenticity even if they are sometimes little more than lists.

Useful background reading for anyone wishing to visit the mill, now operated by the National Trust, and providing an interesting factual backup to the TV drama. I suspect a serious historian may find it less satisfying.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

 

Book Review: The Bone Clocks

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The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, is a story about mortality. Using a series of interwoven vignettes set over a sixty year time period it combines a character led drama with century spanning fantasy elements. The author is undoubtedly a talented writer. The prose is neat and perceptive with plenty of humour and insight. However, the plot centers around warring Anchorites and Horologists, beings who can live forever if certain conditions are met, and whose raison d’etre failed to either move or inspire me.

The book opens in 1984 when a love struck fifteen year old, Holly Sykes, gets into an argument with her mother over an older boyfriend and decides to leave home. As may be expected from such an inauspicious beginning, things do not go according to plan. The reader can see the potential importance of the various people and events Holly encounters in her few days away, but at this stage none are explained. Holly’s character development is nicely done, she is a believable young teenage rebel, but the fantastical action in this section comes across as extraneous.

The next vignette is set seven years later and introduces the reader to four students at Cambridge University. Their interactions are interesting and well developed, their aspirations recognisable to anyone who has experience of Oxbridge students. The confidence, self-entitlement and resentments combine to provide compelling storylines which I would have been happy to follow further. I found myself enjoying all but the recurring fantasy elements which, once again, did not draw me in.

Part three is set thirteen years later at a wedding in Brighton. Holly now has a daughter and a war correspondent partner. The subplots impressed while the slow burning main plot development did not. I enjoyed the quality of the writing but by this stage was beginning to wonder about the point of this book.

Having said that, the next section was my favourite. It opens in 2015 at the  Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival and proceeds to bite big, bitter chunks out of authors, critics, editors, publishers and readers. This was not what why I liked it, indeed I felt rather put out that the fictional author and protagonist, Crispin Hershey, should look on those who have supported his work and provided his income with such disdain. It is perhaps unfortunate that he came across as so believable; it was almost enough to put me off literary events. Unlike the previous sections this one covers a longer time frame, five years,, which allowed for a good progression of the story. A number of previous characters are reintroduced. In these chapters the main, fantasy plot seems to fit more naturally into the story being told.

The penultimate section starts in 2025 and is the only one which revolves around the Anchorites and Horologists rather than merely mentioning them in passing. The threads from preceding stories are drawn together and the reason for certain recurring characters explained. There is a battle and an outcome, neither of which excited me. I found myself counting the pages to the end.

The final section is set in a dystopian future and reminded me of Ben Elton’s early works when he attempted to show his readers what a mess man is making of the world. Set in a rural Ireland, now being run by wealthy Chinese, it covers a pivotal three days during which the fragile infrastructure cracks and violent lawlessness becomes a reality. It was interesting to ponder the possibilities, particularly the way the author saw the role of women regressing in a time of anarchy, but at times it came across as rather too preachy for my liking. The denouement was reasonable even if it felt a tad contrived.

My main problem with this book was that the fantasy elements bored me. I thoroughly enjoyed the characters and each of their stories, but I wanted to get back to these each time the overall plot became the focus. I found the the women more likable than the men who seemed overly influenced by sex. I am unable to comment on the fairness of such a representation.

Having read this book I will be removing Cloud Atlas from my wish list. However well he may write and be regarded by others, it would seem that David Mitchell’s work may not be for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sceptre. 

 

We carry not only our past but also our future in the present

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Today I am delighted to be hosting a guest post from one of my favourite authors. I was impressed by Shelan Rodger‘s debut novel, Twin Truths, so was excited to be sent an early review copy of her second, Yellow Room, earlier this year.

Yellow Room blew me away. Check out my thoughts on it by clicking here.

The book was launched at a fabulous party in London last month and we can now enjoy the blog tour of which this post is a part. Below Shelan reflects on the notion that time is not linear and that, at some level, we carry knowledge of the future inside of us. I hope that you find her thoughts on the subject as interesting as I did.

Please welcome to neverimitate, Shelan Rodger.

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From the moment we are born, we start cramming our suitcase with our past. Yet, as I get older, I grow more and more convinced that time is not linear and that, at some level, we also carry knowledge of the future with us.

I will spend the rest of my life with an image of fear in my partner’s eyes, which at the time seemed extreme, but which has been born out since by the trauma of brain surgery. It was as if his body already knew.

When I dipped into my own books to prepare this blog post, I came across two passages about the notion of flash-forwards:

From Yellow Room:

‘The smell of human skin hit her the moment she entered the airport building (…) The flashback from ten years before was so acute it made her want to cry (…) at least we’re spared flash-forwards, thought Chala – imagine a world in which a certain smell or tune conjured up with the same intensity an experience yet to be lived. (…) Ignorance of the future is what makes us strong, she thought; hope is only possible because of it.’

From Twin Truths:

‘Imagine if flash-forwards to the future existed, how many events would seem unbelievable, laughable even, or just plain intolerable. I imagine life as a pile of bones without the flesh of time to join the different bones together and fatten the relationship between them…’

Yes, I am glad I cannot see into the future. And yet it is as if the cells of our flesh intuit at some level what is going to happen. We may only become aware of this in hindsight, may only see the signs looking back, but they are there, in our bodies, working slowly on preparing us for our futures. There is something of this notion behind one of the last lines of Yellow Room:

‘On the horizon of her being, her observer sat, quietly nonchalant and waiting for her future.’

Can you relate to this? Can you look back now and realize that somehow, somewhere, at some level, you ‘already knew’? When you look back and turn your life into a story, can you remember something that was said – by you or someone else – which now seems prophetic, which makes sense now with what has happened since? Is there a moment you felt something strange, a twinge of something you didn’t understand at the time, but which has come back quietly to haunt you since?

Both my novels explore the impact of the past in different ways, the way our pasts shape our sense of who we are, the scars we carry with us into the future. And yet these scars, which we so readily associate with the past, are perhaps also scars for what is still to come…

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This post is part of the Yellow Room Blog Tour. Do check out the other stops, detailed below.

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Book Review: Total Shambles

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Total Shambles, by George F., is described by the author as creative non-fiction. It is a memoir of his years spent squatting in London with certain details changed to protect those he met along the way. The stories told are an indictment of a society which protects the sanctity of property ownership over the well-being of its people. By dehumanising the homeless, labelling them scroungers and scumbags, viewing them as vermin to be driven away, the causes of their problems are ignored. Basic survival requires shelter. If priced out of the housing market then shelter must be found in another way.

The book opens with a short history of squatting. It is not a new phenomena but the vilification of squatters has increased in recent years. Over periods of time, as land has been taken from commoners and given over to those seeking to use it to make money, the poor have been expected to accept and comply. Those who will not are portrayed as contemptible troublemakers, the laws made by the property owners used to punish them.

The author became a squatter through need when he felt he could no longer ask friends to allow him to sleep on their sofas. He had a job but could not afford London rents. In winter, in need of shelter, he joined the large number of others in similar situations looking to take up residence in one of the many empty buildings in the city for free.

Many of these properties had been empty for years as their owners waited for areas to become desirable, thereby enabling them to create high rent business units or homes for the wealthy. They became incensed when their investments were occupied by those who would not pay to be there.

Time and again the author details the means by which the owners sought to keep the squatters out. Expensive security, cameras and guards were employed. Bailiffs and police processed endless evictions in order to leave the buildings empty again. The legal rights of squatters were ignored, the law favouring those who submit to state control.

This is a fascinating account of people living on the margins of society. The squatters find their food in skips, their furniture dumped on streets by consumers who have no further need of a stained mattress or sofa. There is rampant drug taking, loud music and messy parties. Many of these renegades see paid work as a capitulation, their lifestyle a political statement.

I was disturbed by certain details which the author described: keying a car regarded as youthful exuberance; advice as to how to bring down a police horse; a recollection of throwing missiles at those doing their jobs. I could not condone the way the homeless were treated, but cruelty to animals pains me and the police are people too.

The author’s experiences were shocking and exhausting leading to a personal descent into anarchy. It is not a life that I could imagine anyone choosing to live, although I understand that for too many, choices are limited. The older people who berate the young for not doing as they did, getting a job and making their way in life through hard work, appear to have no concept of the difficulties of modern zero hours contracts, low pay and high rents. When there is no safety net of parents, privilege or state there will always be those who fall through the cracks.

The author is educated so could perhaps have conformed had he made that choice, but judging him for his lifestyle is not what this book is about. It is a portrait of a section of society that is kept hidden, ignored by the media, an unpalatable result of rampant capitalism and xenophobia.

There were short sections on similar problems abroad where shanty towns are cleared and the homeless driven out for fear of turning away potential investors or tourists. The making of money trumps looking after the poor, the money made benefiting those who already own.

This book may present a one sided view but it is a side that is rarely exposed to scrutiny. The problem is well argued and illustrated. The solution is harder to elucidate.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.