Doggerland by Ben Smith

The waters of the world have pushed back the land, driven over it, covered the earth leaving a sea of particles, plastics and life built upon the waves. The Boy is stuck with the old man repairing the turbines on a huge wind farm. Is there still land? The novel doesn’t really ever say definitively.

What we do know is that Boy’s father disappeared when his contract was unfinished, leaving Boy to fulfil it. They watch the system to alert them to faults and they take the maintenance boat and try and fix the turbines, try and keep them generating electricity. Continue reading

From Hell by Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell

This is a beast of a book, beautifully tight despite suggesting multiple interpretations and readings of the Jack the Ripper murders. Everything about this graphic novel teems with an overflow of possible meaning. That makes it simply delightful to read.

I don’t know a lot about the Ripper murders or Masonry and From Hell’s exploration of both gives London itself a new shape. Darkness and chaos are cut against providence and godliness. Visions war with the tried and tested hierarchies of society. Victorian culture, the peak of British Empire is riddled with the signs of its own demise. We see the chasm between rich and poor, the exploitation of difference and poverty for the sake of the rich that we have been unable to escape from even in the twenty-first century. It’s dirty and ugly and sad and also beautiful and filled with longing and hope. Continue reading

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

It’s hard not to be drawn to a title like this. Everything it suggests to the imagination is explored as we follow the life of Alva Smith who became Mrs William K. Vanderbilt and later Mrs Oliver Belmont.

Society and its views on behaviour are put under the microscope. Sometimes stepping outside of the generally accepted rules of conduct, is the best course of action even if it goes against what most consider well-behaved.

I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Alva manoeuvre her way from a respected family fallen into poverty, to acquiring money through marriage and then to conquering high society. I enjoyed seeing how Fowler imagined she had learned her emancipatory views on equality of the sexes and races.

The novel refers to popular novelists of the times and there is a sense in which the sensibilities of Henry James, Edith Wharton and others ripple through the novel, creating a kind of sentimental outlook generally at odds with Alva’s character, but enticing nonetheless. Fowler doesn’t allow her to escape romance, though society would certainly have restricted her access to it. Romance, as understood by Alva, is a luxury that rarely has positive outcomes. Continue reading

The Snakes by Sadie Jones

Bea has spent her whole life remaking herself as an individual separate from her family. She has forged her own career, found her own relationship with Dan, a man without connections or money, born and bred in Peckham, London. She lives as honestly and cleanly as she can, away from the corrupting influence of her father’s money and her mother’s shame; a shame Bea has done her best to bury deep inside. Continue reading

My Name is Monster by Katie Hale

My Name is Monster is divided into two parts in which two women, both with the name Monster, tell their tale. To describe the book, even only a little, will involve some plot spoiling, so if you don’t want to know, don’t read on.

The Monster of Part 1, has the name as a nickname, given to her by her father. She is a woman who prefers things, mechanics, to people. The novel begins with her walking towards her home having been stranded somewhere on the Scottish coastline after the world wars and the sickness have seemingly wiped out all human life.

She walks towards her parents home because it is as good a direction as any.

Slowly, as she walks, our sense of what happened to the world becomes clearer and we see this new world through the eyes of a person who has never really, until now, missed human contact and always sought solitude. Continue reading

May We Borrow Your Country by The Whole Kahani

May We Borrow Your Country: an anthology of short stories and poems has a forward by Preti Taneja, whose novel, We That Are Young, won the Desmond Elliot Prize 2018 for the best debut of the year. This forward discusses the need for a whole story told by multiple writers, referencing Arundhati Roy and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

This collection is the beginnings of telling a whole story by The Whole Kahani (handily, in this context, this means The Complete Story), which is a collective of British novelists, poets and screenwriters of South Asian origin. The stories and poems form the beginnings of a picture of what it means to be British and of South Asian origin, what it means to have more than one set of cultural expectations, more than one home. Though the stories and poems offer many different perspectives, there is an overall feeling of pensiveness – I wanted to say melancholy, but the causes of this feeling are all too overt. As Reshma Ruia puts it in her poem ‘Dinner Party in the Home Counties’:

‘Is female infanticide still common?’

‘Are you going for an arranged marriage?’

‘How long before you go back?’

The questions fly like arrows thick and fast

Wounding me until my skin is a battleground

How gratified they look

This well-meaning, thoughtless racism floats through many of the stories and poems of the collection. ‘Lost and Found’ by Shibani Lal has a protagonist who acquires the contents of some lost luggage and discovers memories of childhood in the saris and scarves inside, that reawaken a forgotten identity smothered by her adopted Britishness, especially in the face of an English charity worker totally uninterested in listening to her.

This photograph by Jags Parbha is of The Whole Kahani: Reshma Ruja, Kavita A. Jindal (co-founders), Mona Dash, Radhika Kapur, CG Menon, Shibani Lal, Deblina Chakrabarty and Nadia Kabir Barb. Continue reading

Milkman by Anna Burns

As the winner of The Man Booker Prize 2018, Milkman has had a lot of reviews and many words shared over it. Part of my reason for wanting to read the novel was because it has been described by some as ‘difficult’. I’m never really sure what people mean when they say a novel is difficult and I was intrigued to decide for myself quite what it was they meant in this instance.

Milkman is the story of middle sister who lives in an area of Northern Ireland controlled by the local renouncers. She likes to read eighteenth-century literature while she walks. She likes to run and she likes to take French classes somewhere where people from both sides of the Troubles can meet and where her teacher ‘from over the water’ discusses the beauty of sunsets that challenge the accepted monotone colour description of the sky. She also has a maybe-boyfriend in another area that not everyone – certainly not her mother – knows about. She doesn’t act as she should. She lives as if the Troubles exist outside of her, as if they don’t affect and control her. Continue reading

Blood Orange by Harriet Tyce

I’m a huge fan of Sarah Pinborough and when she called this novel ‘shocking, additive, dark domestic noir’ I knew I’d be in for a treat. Blood Orange is the kind of novel that glues you to your seat until you’re finished, forgetting the tea long cold or the dog that needs walking. You just want to find out what happens.

Alison is a barrister whose husband does most of the childcare and who frequently stays out late drinking too much in order to fall into the way of a colleague with whom she’s having an affair. Her husband knows their daughter’s schedule, packs her lunch, and often puts her to bed while Alison is having her shirt buttons ripped off in the heat of a drunken moment. Continue reading

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers

The Gallows Pole is the true story of King David Hartley and the Cragg Vale Coiners. It is both a history from the perspective of those who lost – in that the clipping and forging of coin for local benefit was stamped out by the establishment – but also a novel that enlivens a sense of the untamed landscape of Northern England in wood and moor just before the industrial revolution with its mills and mines and factories took hold.

David himself, the self-appointed King of the North, mourns an older, wilder landscape filled with wolves and his relationship with the woods and moors has a mystical quality. He sees the dance of the deer-headed men, feels the secrets of the land single him out for their mythic poetry. This connection to the land is one of the most pleasurable parts of the book. You can feel the breath of the landscape, hear the movements of creatures hidden within the trees and rocks and rivers. Setting really does live and breathe in The Gallows Pole. This visceral description of the land carries over into the interactions between people too. There is no shying away from the brutality of this history – its hardships and violence. Continue reading

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

A modern gothic inspired by, amongst other things, a poem, ‘The Dwarf’, written by Matthaus von Collin and set to music by Schubert in Vienna in the early 1800s, the main character of The Dollmaker, Andrew is of short stature and his love of dolls not only provides him with a career but puts him in the way of another doll collector, Bramber, who is particularly interested in the dolls made by Ewa Chaplin, a woman who also wrote short stories that explore an uncanny fascination with dolls and dwarfs. Continue reading