Robyn Reviews: Plain Bad Heroines

‘Plain Bad Heroines’ is a complex novel set across two timelines: the early 20th century, where both students and staff at Brookhants School for Girls are captivated by a new, audacious book by Mary Maclane; and the present day, where a film is being made about the events at Brookhants over a hundred years ago. Told by a mysterious narrator, it switches back and forth between the timelines, emphasising the parallels between the past and modern day events. The comparisons and clever interspersing of gothic elements are enjoyable, but the exceptionally ambiguous ending isn’t as satisfying as it could be.

Brookhants, an exclusive school in Massachusetts, was set up by Libbie Brookhants after her husband’s death. With the help of her close friend – and lover – Alex, it became a huge success – until the death of two students, Clara and Flo. Thus began a series of events ending in the school’s permanent closure, passing into legend – until a precocious young writer, Merritt, decided to write a book about the tragedies at Brookhants. The book was subsequently optioned, and two actresses at very different stages of their careers – Harper Harper and Audrey Wells – were signed on to star. These characters make up our plain bad heroines – in the past timeline, Clara, Flo, and their classmate Eleanor, along with Principal Brookhants and Alex; in the present timeline, Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt.

Each character is complex, and the relationships between them are highlights. I especially liked Libbie Brookhants – a bold and independent woman never given the freedom to be as independent as she’d like – and Audrey Wells, a child star struggling to grow out of the shadow of her infamous mother and show off any talent of her own. The relationship between Libbie and Alex in a time when such things were not accepted is brilliantly portrayed, and it’s fascinating seeing how each of them view it – even when those views don’t align. The interplay between Harper Harper, Audrey, and Merritt is also excellent, although I did feel that the changes in Audrey and Merritt weren’t always written with the subtlety of the others.

Unusually for a book with multiple timelines, both the past and present stories are equally strong. Jumping between them never feels unnatural or out of place, and there are some truly beautiful moments of mirroring. The only weakness in either timeline is the pacing. This is a long book, with a great deal of build-up before each new event happens, and I feel like it could be edited down without losing any of the gorgeous atmosphere and tension.

My main issue with this book, however, is the ending. The past timeline is more-or-less wrapped up – not everything is answered, but then some mystery adds to the atmosphere – but the present just ends with no resolution. The reader is left to decide for themselves what happens to the plain bad heroines – which will suit some readers well, but I want a few more answers. The ending also leaves the reader knowing a lot more than the protagonists, which is interesting, but definitely a situation more could be done with.

Overall, this is a clever piece of fiction that straddles the boundary between literary and gothic. It’s filled with sapphic relationships and intriguing characters, and the writing is gorgeous, evoking beautiful imagery across its multiple timelines. Recommended for fans of gothic literature, dark academia, and stories with real atmosphere.

Thanks to NetGalley and Borough Press for providing me with an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Borough Press
Hardback: 4th February 2021

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Gig Review: Sam Guglani and Katy Mahood in Bath

On Tuesday of this week I attended a friendly and fascinating event at Toppings bookshop in Bath. Sam Guglani, author of Histories, and Katy Mahood, author of Entanglement, were in conversation, discussing how the intersections and collisions of human experience can be explored in fiction. Originally the evening had been intended to be a discussion between two doctors about how their work in medicine inspired their writing. Unfortunately Joanna Cannon had to cancel due to illness so Katy stepped in. She proved a fine replacement.

The evening opened with introductions and readings. The authors then questioned each other about aspects of their books. I provide below a summary of their discussion.

Histories is set in a hospital over the course of a week and is structured as a series of interlinked stories told from the points of view of a variety of people who inhabit the place. Katy asked Sam if he used the hospital as a vehicle to explore characters or if the characters were a means to explore how a hospital functions.

Sam talked of how a patient arrives at hospital, presents their symptoms and expects a diagnosis. The reality is a lot more messy. Hospitals are often large and sprawling. Patients are ill so not at their best. Doctors will have differing areas of expertise, skill levels and experience. All of these factors collide in their interactions. Discreet people and events combine in ways that they cannot know, becoming more than the sum of their parts.

Entanglement is about the ripple effects interactions create. It was inspired by Katy’s interest in quantum entanglement (a physical phenomenon which occurs when pairs or groups interact in ways such that the state of each can no longer be described independently of the other(s), even when separated by a large distance). She talked of meeting her husband when she was sixteen years old and discovering that they lived a few hundred yards apart. They must have met before – at playgroups, schools or social events – but weren’t aware. She was propelled to write her story by her husband’s illness which created a sudden awareness of mortality, something always there but not noticed.

Katy asked Sam if his exposure to life changing moments in his work as an oncologist had been a catalyst for Histories.

Sam quipped that his children tease him about being obsessed by death. He mentioned a junior doctor who asked a registrar how he coped with the inevitable deaths. The answer was that at least in oncology the doctor cannot mess up, patients are going to die anyway. Although appearing flippant, this is a reminder that as a society death is regarded as remote, its possibility denied, yet all medicine is an encounter with death. In Histories the characters are facing mortality, theirs or those they know. Fiction offers a way of presenting such truths. Sam reminded us that we live in a post enlightened world where an oncologist can request massively expensive tests yet struggles to find funds to provide oral hydration.

Katy mentioned Joanna Cannon’s latest book, Three Things About Elsie, and how it explores attitudes to people’s changing abilities. She mentioned a blog post Dr Cannon had written about how to talk to a patient suffering a terminal illness (do read this). Histories brings out what being a good doctor means, and the uncertainty that always exists.

The authors were asked if they thought that, in the last few years, there had been an increased interest in both the positives and negatives of healthcare.

Katy talked of the expectation of infallibility and the constrictions caused by the threat of litigation, how this affects what doctors can say to patients. She offered an analogy with motherhood. There is a desire to be a perfect mother, yet all that any mother can hope for is to be good enough. Perhaps society needs to accept good enough doctors.

Sam mentioned that we live in a world that is now far less trusting of authority – understandably. He asked how we square this with providers of healthcare when doctors face crisis at every moment.

Katy talked of the care her husband received, which was not always as it should have been. Yet she recognised that doctors are human and working within the constraints of a far from perfect system. She felt it important that we differentiate before ascribing blame.

Both Sam and Katy read again from their books before talk moved on to a discussion of the use of  language, and empathy.

Katy commented that Histories has dexterous language and asked if this could enable or disable the practice of medicine.

Sam talked of providing compassionate care and what this means, that it should not just be a task on a tick list. Language is the currency humans use and there are ethical as well as technical arguments for certain words, for example madness. He talked of culpability, which is explored in Entanglement, what happens to others as a result of our actions but of which we remain unaware. Kindness is a power.

Katy talked of how kindness shapes those around. For some who show care it becomes their prism – they define themselves by other’s outcomes as a result of their acts of kindness.

When questions were invited from the audience one lady told of her experience of a rare illness being diagnosed because an expert happened to be to hand. She wished to stress the importance of everyone bringing their best to their job. She felt that doctors should be more truthful about what they know and can do.

A question was then asked about media representations.

Sam replied that to get away from the false and sentimental it was necessary to be gritty in his writing, to present the internal troubles of his characters. Doctors cannot know exactly how others feel but can understand fear and pain. He chairs a clinical ethics committee and most discussions are not around great moral dilemmas but much more day to day concerns – how much should be told and shared, how to be with patients. It can be tricky arriving at a reasonable stance.

Sam referenced Seamus Heaney’s essay in which he differentiated between craft and technique in writing: craft is the skill of making, it wins competitions, it can be deployed without reference to feelings or the self; technique defines a stance toward life, a definition of a writers own reality.

And with that the discussion was drawn to a close. The audience were rapturous in their reactions to the discussion and eager to talk to both authors. I managed to catch a few words with Sam when I asked him to sign my copy of his book. When I looked for Katy she was surrounded, deep in conversation, and I was by now out of time. I did manage to introduce myself to Ann Bissell who was representing The Borough Press. It is always lovely to put faces to names I follow on line.

This was another excellent author evening organised by Toppings. If in Bath do check out this fabulous independent bookshop.

   

Histories is published by riverrun (click on the cover above to read my review)

Entanglement is published by The Borough Press

Book Review: Three Things About Elsie

Three Things About Elsie, by Joanna Cannon, is:

  • a tale of a friendship;
  • a murder mystery;
  • a sympathetic study of ageing.

Its protagonist is Florence, an octogenarian living in Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. When the story opens she is lying on the floor of her sheltered accommodation having suffered a fall. As she waits to be found she considers events from the previous month during which a figure from her past returned, triggering memories that she struggled to make sense of.

Memories are a problem for Florence but she receives help from her best friend, Elsie. Florence and Elsie met on a bus when they were children. Later they worked in the same factory and would go dancing together on a Saturday night. This is where they were, sixty years ago, the night Ronnie Butler drowned. Now Ronnie has reappeared, he is Cherry Tree Home’s newest resident. He is introduced by staff as Gabriel Price.

Florence is on probation at the home. Her muddled recollections, shouting and frequent agitation have led the manager, Miss Ambrose, to suggest she may be better off at Greenbank. Florence knows all about Greenbank, that it is a place old people go to fade into themselves and then die. She wants to stay where she is but Miss Ambrose tells her she has lost the ability to judge what is for the best. Florence is frustrated as she struggles to find the right words when she needs them. Her jagged attempts to voice her concerns are routinely dismissed.

Elsie listens to Florence. She helps her friend to sort through her memories when they become jumbled. They tell their friend Jack all about Ronnie and try to piece together how he can possibly be at Cherry Tree when he was buried all those years ago.

Florence has noticed that items in her flat are being moved but the uniformed staff tasked with taking care of residents are familiar with her habit of misplacing things. She becomes scared that Ronnie has gained access to her private rooms and, after all this time, wishes her harm. He knows that she knows what he did to Elsie’s sister before he drowned.

With Elsie’s help Florence gradually retrieves the jigsaw pieces of her past and puts them together. Jack suggests they talk to others who knew Ronnie back in the day. These elderly mystery solvers go in search of triggers that will unlock the final answers still somewhere inside Florence’s head.

A holiday in Whitby, a walk along the beach and a missing person all come together as Florence gradually remembers. Yet even when the picture is finally clear in her mind she must somehow find words to explain, words that Miss Ambrose will hear.

The writing is rich in imagery with the reader experiencing the difficulties of being taken seriously when senescence affects daily behaviour. The point of view switches between Florence and various staff members enabling the reasons residents are treated as they are to be understood.

There are poignant snapshots throughout the tale such as a skip filled with the contents of a vacated room at Cherry Tree, valued photographs and mementoes now carelessly cast away. Florence reflects on her life and wonders if she did anything at all that made a difference or will be remembered. Her predicament is heart-rending but the depiction of senility along with its moments of lucidity are tenderly conveyed, as is Florence’s care of and need for Elsie.

I found the sadness and frustrations vexing to read in places, the richness of certain expressions capturing the essence at times Battenberg sweet. What comes across clearly is the speed at which life passes, and the many facets of even an ordinary life lived.

Florence lying on the floor of her room is confident she will be found and treated with kindness, a kindness she has shown to others throughout her long life. Those who read this book will likely come away more willing to grant even the difficult Florence’s of this world such simple respect. For that, and the slice of a life captured between the pages, this is a story worth reading.

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

Book Review: The Wolf Road

wolfroad

The Wolf Road, by Beth Lewis, is set in a world devastated by a previous generation. The protagonist, Elka, refers to past events as the Damn Stupid, a nuclear war which wiped out populations, contaminated huge swathes of land, and changed the world order.

Elka’s parents left her in the care of her maternal grandmother when she was very young to go north prospecting for gold. Elka and her grandmother do not get along and the child is regularly beaten.

When Elka is seven years old a vicious storm, a thunderhead, new since the Damn Stupid, destroys their two roomed wooden shack deep in the forest. It is not the first time this has happened, but her grandmother was out walking when the thunderhead struck and Elka is now homeless and alone. In attempting to make her way to the nearest town she gets lost and ends up at the dwelling of a man she comes to call Trapper. He takes Elka in and raises her, teaching her the skills needed to survive in the wild. He cautions her against people, who are the cause of all the troubles in the world.

By the time she is seventeen Elka is trusted to go to town to trade furs for shotgun shells and other provisions they cannot make, grow or hunt. She is shocked to discover Wanted posters tacked up around the town depicting Trapper. A magistrate, Jennifer Lyon, informs her that he has killed eight women and a child, possibly more. Before Elka can confront Trapper about these allegations, Lyon finds and destroys their shack. Confused and distressed, Elka decides to head north. She dreams of finding her parents.

The journey is filled with perils: wolves, bears, the weather, but most of all men. Elka knows how to survive on her own but has no experience of society. She begins to understand Trapper’s warning.

“All my life I lived by the rules of the forest and rules of myself. One of them rules is don’t go trusting another man’s path.[…] People do it, they do what their mommys and daddys did, they make them same mistakes […] Trees don’t grow exactly where their momma is, ain’t no room, ain’t enough light and water so they end up wilting and dying off. It’s the same with us humans […] Ranches and stores are passed father to son, momma to girl, but there ain’t no room for it. Son tries to run things like he wants, father ain’t having none of it, they start feuding and soon that family ‘ain’t no more.”

The story is told from Elka’s point of view. Although her grandmother tried to teach her to read she resisted learning. Now she finds that she does not understand how the world of men works. They are trying to rebuild towns as they were before, with the wily and ruthless grasping whatever they can by trickery or worse.

Elka finds a friend in another young woman. Penelope is a doctor’s daughter and offers to help Elka with tickets and permits. She understands all too well the greed and preoccupations of mankind.

“Bombs started falling, people thought the world would be changed. There was so much tension and paranoia, neighbours turning on neighbours, rich on poor […] When it was over, it was a new start but nobody won. The world didn’t change. There is still murder, still rape and fighting. […] We had this chance, this clean slate, and we just carried on the same as we always have.”

Elka and Penelope must deal with many dangers, not least the fact that Lyon is hot on their tails. They also have another stalker whose motives become clear by the denouement. Elka somehow finds the strength to face each trial and loss, but acceptance of what she herself has done presents the most difficult challenge to overcome.

This is a devastating critique of humans; their actions are unflinchingly depicted and depressingly believable. Elka’s respect for the land is a reminder of the true cost of unnecessary consumption. She has a feral nature but her humanity is a lesson for all.

A vivid, raw yet mesmerising tale. Highly recommended.

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

Gig Review: An Evening with Joanna Cannon

Last month my husband and I spent a weekend in Salisbury to celebrate his birthday. As I do when I visit anywhere new, I searched out the bookshops and found this window display at Waterstones.

salisbury goats and sheep

“Why don’t you go?” my husband asked. I smiled. The city is an hours drive from our home, along narrow, windy roads, and I do not enjoy driving in places I am unfamiliar with. I don’t go out much because I am nervous in company. I could find many reasons why I would not go.

Fast forward a few weeks. My daughter is home from uni and Joanna Cannon is in the news for her latest book deal. As a medical student and writer my daughter was interested in this author’s story. She offered to accompany me and drive us to the event.

Thus, last night, we set out on a road trip. We arrived at Waterstones early and took our seats in the front row. You can see the backs of out heads on the left in this picture (posted on Twitter by PostConsumerBookClub (@PoCoBooC) ).

jocannonevent

An impressive following of bloggers had congregated on the right but I was much too shy to introduce myself as they chatted happily together beforehand and then again at the end. Perhaps the evening will be written up on their sites too.

The event was hosted by Tom Bromley who knows Joanna from her time at the Faber Academy where he teaches. They talked of her initial application, what she hoped to achieve on the course, and she mentioned how she went on to attend the York Festival of Writing in 2014 where she won their Friday Night Live competition (she wrote about this experience here.)

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‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ has now been sold in many countries around the world and Joanna talked of the edits that certain territories requested. A glossary of British confectionery from the 1970s has been included in some translations. Most wished to retain the Englishness which is at the heart of the story.

We were treated to a reading and I was reminded of the humour of the book. Its appeal is the gentleness with which it is written yet it has scope and depth. Joanna told us that her aim was to write a book which gave a voice to those who struggle to fit into society. As a psychiatrist she understands these issues through her dealings with patients.

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Audience questions were invited and Joanna talked of trying to fit in time to write her second book alongside the publicity required for her debut. She described her writing process (very early starts to each day and editing as she goes along) and of how what she says is not always reported as she meant (if you are reading this Joanna then I hope I have managed a degree of accuracy).

The topics discussed flowed and it seemed that no time at all had passed before Tom drew proceedings to a close and audience members were invited to have their books signed. The couple sitting behind me unpacked at least seven copies – authors must love such readers!

I introduced myself and was happy to be recognised. I am delighted with the inscription in my proof.

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‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ is published by Borough Press and is available to buy now. To read my review, click on the image below.

goats and sheep

 

Book Review: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

goats and sheep

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon, is a captivating tale set in a typical English housing estate during the long, hot summer of 1976. The narrator is ten year old Grace, who is trying to find God in the hope that He will look after her friends and neighbours, one of whom has recently disappeared. Grace and her friend Tilly visit each of the houses in The Avenue, where Grace lives, questioning the residents as they check to see if God is in their house. What they discover instead is a Pandora’s Box.

This is a joyous book to read, packed full as it is with apparently throwaway comments which provide insights into the fragile binds that hold a community together. Many of the residents of The Avenue have a long, shared history and plenty that they would prefer to remain unspoken, preferably forgotten. They care about being seen to belong.

One of the neighbours, Mr Bishop, is regarded as different. When things have gone wrong in the past he has been blamed, gaining a reputation as dangerous. The accepted consensus is that he should move away; steps have been taken to try to drive him out. As far as is possible he is shunned by all, and has been for many years.

By all except the woman who has disappeared, Mrs Creasy. Prior to her leaving she had been a valued friend to almost everyone individually. The fear is that she now knows too many of their secrets. Some even hope that she may be dead.

Grace and Tilly are fabulous characters with their childish naivete and perceptiveness. They do not pick up on the adult guile, although they observe the damaging results. Many of the nuances of social etiquette are lost on them. When they feel a shift in atmosphere between adults they search out the reasons.

When the police arrive to investigate Mrs Creasy’s disappearance guilty consciences bubble to the surface. Behind every closed door in this ordinary street lurks a fear of unbelonging.

Attitudes to women, to people of colour, and to any kind of difference in the 1970s are painful to remember. It is not so much that these have changed after forty years of so called progress but they are now displayed with less forthrightness.

Grace and Tilly are curious but not yet prejudiced. The questions they ask of the adults demonstrate the rampant hypocrisy, presented here with wit and humour. Alongside, my heart ached at the childish hurt inflicted on Tilly when Grace sought out ways to be accepted by their peers.

The heat of the summer beats down on the parched street as the girls go house to house in their quest. The weeks pass and Mrs Creasey remains vanished while her neighbours’ secrets slowly unravel them.

The denouement brought to an end the heatwave and the summer, a satisfying finish that offered the obvious yet oft ignored remedy to the cancer of rejection so prevalent throughout societies.

This is not an easy book to pigeon hole. It is a compelling whodunnit, a fascinating social history and a nuanced exploration of the human psyche. It is also a deftly told tale populated by recognisable characters written with a lightness that belies the depth of the observations.

Recommended to all seeking a readable and entertaining story, this is glorious nourishment for the heart and soul.

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