Book Review: The Book of Forgotten Authors

The Book of Forgotten Authors, by Christopher Fowler, is a book for bibliophiles. It offers the reader details and anecdotes on ninety-nine authors who were once hugely popular and are now no longer in print. It is a very personal selection. The author admits that some of those chosen produced work that was predictable and not particularly well written, yet it has a charm that he finds appealing. Others he dismisses. Of Georgette Heyer and Eleanor Hibbert he opines that they wrote novels packaged in

“the kind of pastel covers no man would ever pick up.”

Really?

Each author listed is necessarily given just a few pages. Although superficial this is enough to provide a flavour of why they became popular before sinking into obscurity. Interspersed with the listings are commentaries such as ‘The Forgotten Books of Charles Dickens’ and ‘The Forgotten Booker Winners’. Although esoteric in places these make for interesting reading.

From some of the quotes provided I would suggest many of these authors deserve to stay forgotten, yet this reaction demonstrates just how personal individual reading experiences can be. In talking of the suspense writer Charlotte Armstrong:

“sometimes you want to wring the necks of her protagonists for picking the one option that will get them into deeper trouble. But hey, bad choices make good stories.”

I’m not sure that I agree.

The book is written with a deft and humorous touch. It is also moving in places. The chapter on Polly Hope was a particular favourite.

It is not so much the quality of the literature produced by these forgotten authors as their passing popularity that warrants their inclusion. Tastes change over time as do readers’ offence radars; authors can be sidelined when their evocative voice grates modern sensibilities.

I did not always agree with the conclusions the author reaches. The Forgotten Queens of Suspense opens with

“Ignored, underrated, overlooked or taken for granted, the women who wrote popular fiction for a living were often simply grateful to be published at all.”

This sounded familiar. The author is more generous suggesting

“Today women read more than men, and female authors have finally been accorded the prestige they always deserved.”

If only this were truly the case.

The output of many of the authors listed was prodigious, especially compared to current expectations. Like today some was also abtruse. Thomas Love Peacock is described as an acquired taste, seemingly for good reason. In writing of his tome Nightmare Abbey:

“it seems best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words”

“the book doesn’t so much end as stop. My paperback version is so old that some of the pages fell out, and it didn’t feel entirely necessary to put them back in the right order.”

Do authors such as this deserve a reprint?

There are scathing comments about readers who are described as ‘intellectually inert’. As an example, the author clearly dislikes the once popular little book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When a teenager I found this uplifting. Perhaps my more jaded, aged eye would not agree but at the time of reading it did its job and connected.

The author writes kinder words on the renowned Dan Brown:

“The real sin of bad writing is being boring, and Mr Brown is certainly never that.”

Well, he bored me.

Of course, agreeing with the author’s point of view is not the point. What this book offers is a window into the vagaries of the publishing world and its readership, the changing tastes and fickle loyalties. It is packaged in a way that makes it perfect for dipping into and refering back to over time.

I welcomed the insights into the ever evolving literary world, its discoveries and appropriations, pretensions and fads. So much has changed and yet much remains the same. As a great author, who has not been forgotten, once wrote: a man is not dead while his name is still spoken. For these ninety-nine, Mr Fowler could be a lifesaver.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author, riverrun.

This post is a stop on The Book of Forgotten Authors Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

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Interview with Piu Eatwell, author of Black Dahlia Red Rose

Author Photo by Carsten Wilde

Today I am delighted to welcome true crime writer Piu Eatwell to my blog. Piu’s latest novel, Black Dahlia Red Rose, solves the seventy year old mystery of who murdered aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short, whose body was found dumped on waste ground in a Los Angeles suburb in January 1947 (you may read my review of the book here). Piu has provided fascinating answers to the questions I sent her for this post. I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background? 

Hard to know where to start on that one! Well, I’m British but have lived in Paris, France, for over ten years now.  I’m married to an Englishman, with three children who were born in France and are growing up here.  I started off writing books about life as an English woman in France, but have moved on to crime writing as it’s where I see my true vocation as a writer. Black Dahlia, Red Rose is my fifth book: my last was a real-life Edwardian thriller and detective story, The Dead Duke

2. Can you tell us about Black Dahlia Red Rose? 

Black Dahlia, Red Rose is the true-life story of one of the most famous unsolved murders of all time: the murder of 22 year old Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short, whose bisected body was found tossed on a pavement in Los Angeles in January 1947.  In writing the book I went back to original sources – contemporary newspaper reports and police files – to reconstruct what I believe really happened in this case. 

3. What inspired the book? 

I have been long interested in Hollywood and crime, ever since researching a film for Channel 4 television about the Manson murders a while back.  In order to make that film, I spent almost a year in Los Angeles and learned a lot about the recent history of the city.  I decided I wanted to investigate another famous crime that took place in LA, and of course, the Dahlia murder must be one of the most notorious and intriguing of them all.   

 4. Your true crime books are written as stories. How much leeway do you allow yourself when documenting the facts to ensure the storytelling remains engaging? 

This is something that gives rise to misunderstanding, because a lot of people think that – because my books are written like fiction – that I am therefore making things up.  In fact, this is not at all the case.  Everything that is between quotation marks is accurately reported dialogue, taken from contemporary sources such as police interviews or memoirs.  If I describe the weather on a particular day, it is because I looked up the historical weather reports.  As such, my books are as completely accurate as more conventional non-fiction – but because they read like a novel, a lot of people don’t realize this.  It is something that I therefore explained in the introduction to Black Dahlia, Red Rose. 

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer? 

Being totally immersed in another world – and this is the case whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction.  Also, I love the process of constructing the story or plot – again, essentially the same with fiction and non-fiction, except that with non-fiction the events have already been determined, you have to decide how you are going to present them, or put them together.   

6. And your least favourite? 

I dislike the “in-between times” – as now – when I have just finished a book, and have therefore been forced to tear myself away from that world.  Until I get my next project, I feel bereft and rather lost without the magic, inner world that always accompanies me whenever I am working on a book.   

7. Do you enjoy social media? 

I think social media is a mixed blessing in that it can be a wonderful tool to reach out to readers and also to keep up with what is going on in the world of books, but it is also a dreadful distraction that often keeps me from working!  Also, one thing I dislike about social media is the culture it has fostered by which people feel they have the right to say what they like, without any of the boundaries of politeness that govern more conventional discourse, leading to trolling, harassing, etc of writers and other public figures.  Politeness is something that should be universal and from which no forum should be exempt. 

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books? 

I am always happy to encourage honest reviews of my books because that, after all, is the point of writing: it’s a form of communication, and if a book is not being discussed, it’s no longer a living thing.  Having said that, I don’t see the value to anybody of reviews that merely trash books in a thoughtless way, or the kind of Amazon review that gives a book one star because it ‘arrived late.’  Again, as I said above, social media gives everybody enormous privileges and powers, in giving each of us a voice; but along with that voice, in my view, comes a certain amount of responsibility.  

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself? 

Lots of things!  A glass of champagne is my unfailing treat to myself when a manuscript is finally finished and sent off to the publisher.  I also love English pork pies, Marmite, and cheddar cheese (which are difficult to find in France!!), and reading books that are not directly connected with my research (a rare treat). 

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently? 

A very wide range: the ghost stories of M.R. James; a wonderful book on the history of ghosts and ghost-hunting called A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke (Penguin, 2012); and a powerful recent speculative horror novel, Hex by the Dutch writer Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) – the story of a seventeeth-century witch trapped in a New England town.  

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction? 

That’s a difficult one, but I suppose if I had to choose, it would be Sherlock Holmes, as I would love to figure out how his brain ticks! 

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would? 

What my guilty pleasure is.  And in case you’re interested, it’s – of all things – renovating my children’s dolls’ house!  I have everything there in miniature 1/12th scale: right down to original paintings in the hall and tiny reproductions of my own books and those of my favourite authors in the library.  A psychologist could probably get quite Freudian about it – the search for a perfect miniature world, etc….. I find it incredibly calming. 

 

This post is a stop on the Black Dahlia, Red Rose Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Black Dahlia, Red Rose is published by Coronet and is available to buy now.

Book Review: My Shitty Twenties

My Shitty Twenties, by Emily Morris, is a memoir focusing on the author’s pregnancy and early years of motherhood. At twenty-two years of age, having just completed her second year of a three year degree course at Manchester University, the author was horrified to discover that she was pregnant. Nevertheless she decided to keep the baby. The father had no interest in either her or his child.

The book recounts how this party loving, messy living student had to defer the university life she loved and work full time whilst continuing to live in shared digs with students. Her mother offered her a room in her childhood home but Emily was reluctant to leave Manchester. Friends and family were supportive but she felt guilty at the prospect of single motherhood instead of a degree.

The account is searingly honest. There is none of the rose tinted, sugar coated wonder prevalent in typical tales of growing a child. This is the reality of a cessation of activities most regard as fun. Emily gave up cigarettes and alcohol. She discovered the long list of banned foods for mothers-to-be, and strangers all too eager to share with her their toxic views on a young, single woman bringing a child into the world alone. Whilst her friends continued to party, Emily grew fat and joined the on line forums frequented by opinionated women, where she learned the passive aggressive language of well-meaning advice.

When the baby was due Emily realised that she would have to move in with her mother. After the euphoria of escape to university this was difficult for all concerned. She would not bow to the popular notion that women should give birth as naturally as possible. She stayed in hospital for as long as they would keep her, eager for the medical professionals’ support.

Once home with her baby Emily endured the loneliness of early motherhood, the difficulties in simply leaving the house with a young child. Health Visitors pressured her into joining mother and baby groups; her experiences of these are painfully recounted. She now had little in common with many of her old friends.

Reluctant to conform to the widely derided stereotype of single mother on benefits, Emily was determined to find a job and fund her own place to live. She learned that employers regard mothers of young children as unreliable, especially when they have no partner to share the burden of the inevitable childhood sicknesses.

When her baby became a toddler Emily decided to use a small inheritance to prove to herself she could still enjoy life despite having a child. She started to find ways to take pride in what she could achieve.

This is not a book about a baby but rather a young woman becoming a mother, who would have preferred not to be single but just about coped anyway. The open and honest style of writing is refreshing and a welcome addition to the often infuriatingly upbeat accounts of parenting, a task that may be rewarding but is rarely easy. Emily’s treatment by the smug mums, signaling their virtues in the guise of advice or minor complaints, reminded me of my own experiences. Guilt and pressure to conform are ever present demons.

Around half of the book recounts the author’s pregnancy with the remainder focusing on the eighteen months after. Although I just occasionally lost engagement, and felt minor irritation when a recollection did not follow the mainly linear construction, this remained an empathetic read that many will relate to.

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

Book Review: Limestone Country

“which came first, geography or history? And where does one end and the other begin?”

Limestone Country, by Fiona Sampson, is the ninth book in Little Toller’s monograph series (you may read my review of Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick, here). These are beautifully written and presented meditations on subjects that impact personally on each of the authors. They are varied in scope but focus on human interactions with the environment and forces of nature. In this work what is offered is a portrait of life in four particular limestone landscapes:

  • Chambon, a farming hamlet in Périgord, southern France;
  • Škocjan in the Karst region of Slovenia;
  • Coleshill, a rural parish in England;
  • Jerusalem, Israel.

 The author has lived in or travelled around these locations and opens each of the four sections of the book with a short personal anecdote from her experiences. They set the scene for a lyrical and sympathetic study of the very different lifestyles of the locals, how these have been established over time, and the natural, cultural and political forces that subject them to change.

“the liveliness of tradition doesn’t come from where and how it originated, but from its use today.”

Locations are steeped in a constantly evolving history. Residents must adapt as generational exposures change. Modern incomers trying to capture whatever drew them to the place with their tidy, sterile renovations may be welcomed but rarely blend in.

As people have fought wars and moved borders there has been a shift in tolerance to certain visitors. This is particularly striking in the Karst region which the author travels with a friend from Macedonia, also a region of the former Yugoslavia, who is made to feel unwelcome by some who would previously have been his countrymen. Yet the land remains largely the same – the woodlands where walkers are warned of bears, the caves which draw tourists and provide income.

“Geological time is incomprehensibly grander than human history.”

There is the seemingly ubiquitous addition of holiday homes for the wealthy offering heritage chic. Visitors are drawn to admire centuries old churches that have survived through iterations of belief, places of cultic pilgrimage containing:

“graves of important figures […] who, like the rich everywhere, seem to have planned on the front row in paradise.”

In Coleshill the author observes how the working English villages have become satellite residences for wealthy metropolitans. Old traditions have been monetised if not valued by landowners such as the National Trust.

“It’s as if the techniques of land work, whether dry-stone walling or game-keeping, don’t count as knowledge if someone has practised them all his life, but only when they’re acquired by someone young and middle-class. The public schoolboy who grows his hair and chooses a holistic lifestyle as a craft worker, and the graduate of land management courses who plans to spend his life in an estate office, are alike in being valued as ‘experts’. Whereas Walter from number 17, now in his 70’s and bow-legged by arthritis after a lifetime of outdoor work, is regarded as merely old-fashioned; a burden to be laid off.”

Kept awake by the B52s taking off and landing from the neighbouring airfield at Fairford the author mulls the payload of death and destruction they carry to regions currently undergoing catastrophic change. From her rural idyll she notes that the cities of which visitors are most in awe

“have been destroyed almost as often as they’ve been rebuilt.”

Jerusalem is one such place. Each of her fellow visitors is there to come away with a personal experience based on their own ideas of what the place has been, the dreams and nightmares that whole societies entertain.

“Those fantasies devour the places they fix on through colonial exploitation, through war and plunder, even through mass tourism. Every city is as much unreal as real.”

Landscapes are formed over millennia and shape the lives of its settlers. These personal adaptations are passed down, altered by events and evolving attitudes but still umbilically tied to home regions. We are each a constituent of where we live, and it of us:

“We make places our own in part by the stories we dream up about them”

This book is a perceptive, thought-provoking observation of nature with man passing through. The exquisite yet substantive prose is a pleasure to read.

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

Book Review: Letters From The Suitcase

Letters From The Suitcase, edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan, is exactly what it says on the cover. It chronicles the wartime love story of Rosheen Finnigan’s parents, David and Mary, in epistolary format. The correspondence started in 1938 soon after the couple first met in London. It continues until 1943 when David died of smallpox in India.

The letters are grouped to cover significant changes in the couple’s circumstances over the years. Each chapter is prefaced with a short introduction by Rosheen putting the letters that follow into context. Although the world was changing around them due to the Second World War, many of the letters contain details of the minutiae of their day to day lives alongside ceaseless outpourings of their love for each other.

At the beginning of the book Rosheen explains how she was first given the letters just prior to her mother’s death. She had not previously understood the intensity of her parents’ relationship which flourished despite the fact they spent much of their married life apart. An epilogue explains how reading the letters enabled Rosheen to understand how important she had been to both David and Mary. This was a moving denouement to what is a lengthy work.

Mary was a feisty young woman determined to live her own life even after marriage and motherhood. She suffered depressive periods and would call David out if she did not feel supported. David seemed more typical of the period with his concerns that she retain her slim figure, although his love for her and desire for her wider well-being are clear. They both reference a mutually satisfying sex life and there is jealousy if any unfaithfulness is suspected.

The letters are deeply personal and provide a picture of day to day life during a war. As well as the loneliness of separation there are financial hardships. These do not prevent them from enjoying a lively social life both when together and with their many friends. They reference books read, films watched and the politics of the day. Privations are mentioned although the letters are written with largely good humour.

Despite some interest in the wartime detail this was not a book for me. I found the letters repetitive and the book overly long. I had hoped for something along the lines of Chris Cleeve’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. I can understand their value to Rosheen, but these letters did not provide enough to keep me interested for close to five hundred pages.

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

Book Review: Signal Failure

Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.

The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.

“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”

Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.

“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”

Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.

For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:

“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”

This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.

Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.

“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”

As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.

A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.

Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:

“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”

Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.

HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.

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

Book Review: The Secret History of The Jungle Book

The Secret History of The Jungle Book, by Swati Singh, is a fresh if brief consideration of Rudyard Kipling and, arguably, his most famous creation. It is divided into three parts which look at: The Jungle Book’s popularity, reach and longevity; the man who wrote it; what his character, Mowgli, can teach us today. It explores the possible inspiration for the work of a hugely successful author – Kipling was the first British writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature – who carefully guarded his privacy. Kipling was decried as an imperialist, accused of being a Nazi, yet his personal story is more nuanced than these angry accusations.

Kipling was born in India and raised until he was six years old by his family’s servants. He will have been told myths and stories of the adopted land he loved in these formative years, many of which he wove into his later work. The following six years were a miserable and life altering experience. Sent to Southend to be raised and schooled as an Englishman he was fostered by a couple whose cruelties taught him the harsh realities of abandonment and survival. He returned to India as soon as he could wrest back control, to apprentice as a journalist.

Kipling’s adult life was punctuated by tragedy – two of his children pre-deceased him. His sister suffered a mental breakdown and he had a serious falling out with his brother-in-law which drove him from America. India remained his muse and his daemon, despite only living there sporadically. He described it as ‘the only real home I had yet known.’

Kiplings literary genius was often marred by prejudiced leanings regarding races and nations yet he rarely seems to have felt a part of wherever he lived. Likewise Mowgli, much moreso in his books than in the popular Disney film, struggled with a desire to belong in the jungle despite knowing he was a man, not the wolf he had been raised.

The author mulls how his story may be applied today:

“Mowgli was born in the golden dawn of the era of globalisation, when the progress of science and technology had started opening up the boundaries of the world. In the present scenario, as technology brings the communities of the world into instant contact with the click of a mouse, our world truly becomes a global village. But the flipside of this technology boom is the way in which the diversity of our world is often in an open confrontation which makes our world more of a global jungle than a global village, where the ruthless law of nature gives sustenance only to those ideas that it deems the fittest.”

Manuel Castells says in The Information Age: “Our world and our lives are being shaped by the conflicting trends of globalisation and identity.”

When we read the Law of the Jungle, we realise how the Mowgli stories were not merely an allegory for the empire for Kipling, but more the allegory of life itself.

The author’s arguments are sympathetic to a man who has a tarnished reputation yet wrote stories that still entertain readers and provide pleasure. Having read this discourse I am left pondering: if an artist should be judged for what he is rather than that which he creates; who arbitrates what is acceptable given evolving rules of cultural acceptability; how deeply we should dissect literature rather than simply enjoying a good read.