Thursday, 4 September 2014

Between the Mountains and the Sea: A Cumbrian Trilogy by Ruth Sutton

A Good Liar

I knew from the opening sentences that I was going to like these books - something to do with the voice of the narrator - you know that you’re going to enjoy listening to it.  I was also intrigued by the situation and full of sympathy for the feisty young protagonist, Jessie Thompson.  From the first page, I wanted to know what happened to her. But it wasn’t entirely to do with plot or character construction - it was language.  The prose is effortless and a pleasure to read. I realised I was in safe hands.

The first book in the trilogy is A Good Liar, which opens during the first world war.  Jessie is very much in love with Clive Whelan and they plan to marry as soon as the war is over and Jessie has finished her teacher training course.  But Clive is killed in an accident in the shipyard and Jessie finds herself in the same predicament as many young women in the first decades of the twentieth century. They say that you can’t go back three generations in any family without encountering illegitimacy.  Jessie’s harsh mother is unsympathetic and Jessie eventually gives birth in what were once euphemistically called ‘mother and baby’ homes.  Her child is adopted and Jessie is expected to go back into the world as if nothing has happened.  For the sake of respectability, no-one must ever know.  It’s the beginning of a lie that will have repercussions for the whole of her life.

Jessie works in a factory for the rest of the war and then applies to complete her teacher training course.  She changes her name and relies on records being lost in the chaos of war.  Her past is conveniently buried.  By 1937 Jessie Whelan is headmistress of Newton School and a pillar of the local community.  She is part of a generation of single, independent women who lost their partners in the first world war. But she longs for a close relationship.  She begins a secret affair with a much younger man, knowing that if it becomes public she will lose her job.  At the same time her illegitimate son begins to track her down after the death of his adoptive parents.  Andrew, Jessie’s lover, becomes his new boss.  When John reveals his identity to Jessie, she is panic-stricken because she has so much to lose.  John agrees to say that he is her nephew in order to preserve appearances.


The second novel in the trilogy - Forgiven - opens in 1946.  There are big social changes all over Britain.  Men are returning from the war expecting women to give up their jobs for them.  The new vicar at Newton and head of the education committee, is an ex serviceman and resents the fact that Jessie, as headmistress of the school, occupies a family house even though she is unmarried and has no children.  He puts pressure on her to give the school house up for one of her subordinates - another ex-serviceman.  The vicar begins to hint that perhaps it’s time she retired and made way for others.  Jessie loves her job and doesn’t want to think about giving it up.  But she has begun to make a tentative relationship with a widowed doctor and sees the possibility of an alternative future.

However, Jessie’s lies are beginning to find her out. The moral climate is still cold and the liberal sixties a long way away.  Andrew has emigrated to Canada and asks her to join him, and make their relationship public.   Her son John has fallen in love and is going to get married.  He tells his new wife the truth about Jessie.  His fiancĂ©e Maggie goes to confront her, accusing Jessie of abandoning her child and being a bad mother.  Jessie is forced to make a difficult decision and we are outraged on her behalf.


In Fallout, the third of the trilogy, time has moved on ten years.  Jessie, having retrained as a secretary, has a responsible job at Windscale, the nuclear plant on the Cumbrian coast.  She now has grandchildren and leads an independent life.  Her relationship with her outspoken daughter-in-law is still fiery.  Jessie, uneasy about some of the things she sees at Windscale, is beginning to become involved with the anti-nuclear movement.  This brings her into conflict with her employer and her son, who also works at the plant.   Jessie leaves to devote more time to activism and takes a lodger to earn money.  Laurence is a physicist seconded to Windscale - a married man unofficially separated from his wife - and, though at first he and Jessie keep their lives separate, eventually the barricades come down and a dangerous friendship begins to develop between them.

We, the readers, know that there is a nuclear accident on the horizon, but we don’t know how Jessie and the community are going to deal with it, or how it will affect her friends and family. Ruth Sutton writes very clearly about Britain’s only major nuclear event - a reactor fire that could have been as serious as Chernobyl, but for the courage of several individuals.  She is also very good on the tug of loyalties within a community that has always been forced to earn a living from dangerous industries and where people have learned to take risks many of us would consider unacceptable in order to feed their families.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this trilogy.  The industrial communities of the Lake District so often get overlooked by literature - the Cumbrian west coast is a fascinating landscape ‘between the mountains and the sea’.  Ruth comments that, “most people’s impression of the Lake District and Cumbria is green hills, sparkling lakes and Beatrix Potter. For those of us who love the wild west coast, that image needs a challenge, and I think – I hope – that my three novels portray real life here, not some romanticised idyll”.  They certainly do, and - with Windscale transformed into Sellafield - there were some local shops who wouldn’t carry Ruth’s third novel with its graphic cover image of the original disaster.

The three novels are packed with interesting characters and they cover a crucial period of social upheaval - the aftermath of the first world war, the depression and the subsequent de-industrialisation of northern Britain.  Having followed Ruth’s characters through the good and the bad times I was very glad that Jessie, after a lifetime of struggle and concealment, finally gets a happy ending.  

Ruth Sutton is leading a writers' workshop at the Borderlines book festival in Carlisle this weekend. 11am at Carlisle Library on Saturday Sept. 6th.  More details here.....

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimar McBride

I've been resisting this much-talked-about book for a while.  I've sometimes been disappointed by 'experimental', 'literary' novels, too often finding them pretentious and over-written.  So I approached Eimar McBride's Bailey's prize-winner with caution.  I was intrigued, I must admit, and finally gave in and down-loaded a sample from Amazon fully expecting to be disappointed again.  But I was hooked from the first sentences and when the sample ended I pressed the Buy Now button without any prompting.

When I read the description of the book I never thought I'd get further than the first page - but I'm 50% through it and hurtling along!

This is Joycean stream of consciousness. Prose-poetry, written in that lyrical way that only the Irish seem to manage.  It doesn't matter if individual phrases or sentences don't make sense - you have to read with the flow and let the sense seep into you.

The girl, growing up without a father, alongside a disabled brother with a mother who can't cope, experiences life without any filters.  Rebellion, religion, reproduction - the three big R's - clatter and crash through her mind and body.

Eimar wrote it in six months, but spent nine years trying to find a publisher. I'm not surprised, given the state of publishing at the moment, that Eimar couldn't get a deal from the big 6 (or even the smaller presses).  It was published in the end by her book-seller husband and a friend (Galley Beggar Press). After the accolades and the prizes, it's been snapped up by Faber.  From Indie to Faber - now that's a story!  But it just goes to show that some of the best and most innovative work is being done in the Indie sector, or published internationally (I'm a Peirene Press addict) beyond the reach of the Big 6, who will shortly only be publishing pulp fiction and celebrity crap. Traditional publishing is in crisis.  As Anne Enright (another brilliant Irish writer) put it "Who forgot to tell Eimear McBride about the crisis we are in and about the solution to that crisis: compromise, dumb down, sell your soul?" Fortunately nobody did. Thank whatever-you-swear-by for the Indies!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Water, Paper, Stone by Judy O'Shea

Amazon Link

Water, Paper, Stone

Judy O’Shea

In 1991 Judy left her job as a senior executive in the USA for a sabbatical year with her husband Mike, who had taken early retirement at 51 to fulfill a lifelong dream to become an artist.  They made a bucket list and one of the items on it was to spend time in Europe and learn another language.  After several false starts, they found themselves in the south of France in the Haut Languedoc on a touring holiday and fell in love with a village on the Tarn river.

Back in the states and ready to go back to work, Judy discovered that her sister Linda was critically ill following a cardiac arrest.  She had sustained significant brain damage.  ‘Linda’s courage and struggle to recover gave me the guts to get off the treadmill of my high-pressure career,’ Judy writes.   The book is written as a series of letters and emails to Linda as well as extracts from Judy’s personal journal.

Driven by a new sense that time was running out, Judy and her husband retired to France and bought a derelict water mill on the Tarn river - totally uninhabitable - and began to restore it and live their dream.

The memoir reminds me a little of ‘A Year in Provence’ - I could taste the cheese and the wine and share the drama of every catastrophe.  Living without mod-cons stretched Judy to the limit - ‘I learned I can pee in positions unknown to womanhood’.  They had a backhoe in the living room, no bathroom, rising and falling damp, rats, and incompetent builders, but they were reassured by their neighbour that ‘Avec l’argent tout est possible’ (with money anything is possible).  And so it proves.

I got involved with the fortunes of the Blanc family, where Judy goes to learn how to kill a sheep and make duck au confit.  I learned about the process of making Roquefort, the marital difficulties of the local restaurateur, and the plight of Christelle - a mail-order bride from Madagascar imported by one of their workmen -  who consults Judy about his lack of personal hygiene (how do you tell a large Frenchman that he needs a bath?)

Judy learns carpentry, stone masonry and the art of paper-making and discovers her own creativity as well as her husbands.  Before long she is being asked to take part in exhibitions in France and the United States and is setting up fascinating installations. It’s an amazing achievement.  How much personal creativity is wasted in corporate culture?

I enjoyed the glimpse into someone else’s life - the book is honest and well-written.  But it is also, for someone whose views are well to the left, an illustration of what has happened all over Spain, Italy and France, where wealthy colonisers have moved in from outside - Russians, Germans, Scandinavians, English, Americans - and driven prices up beyond the threshold for the local population.  It’s a dilemma - ruinous buildings are rescued and restored, but it often has a negative impact on the local community.  There are both pros and cons.  Judy’s book gave me much food for thought.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Harvest - by Amanya Maloba


by Amanya Maloba

Amanya was a guest on Roz Morris's Undercover Soundtrack blog and I liked what she said about her book of short-short stories.   I don't read much flash fiction - so much of it reads like cryptic jokes you might find in up-market Christmas crackers, or like prompts for a creative writing class.  But the best Flash Fiction reads like prose poetry, which I do have a taste for.

I also fell in love with the cover of Harvest, the contrasting colours and the image - covers are very important for me - they have to attract and I often buy a book for its cover.  In this case, the cover didn't lie.

Amanya's stories centre around food and appetite and they have quite a bite! 'We are what we eat' and so much of our lives revolves round food and its rituals. The stories are written in lyrical prose (the author is also a poet), sometimes with an edge, sharp observation and memorable lines.  "The sizzle of beignets frying in the back of the outdoor cafe has more timbre and raw emotion than any note to come out of Christopher Breaux's larynx.  The shake of powder sugar over the nearly square pillows of dough is sweeter than any kiss wrapped in foil or on lips." [Beignets and Trumpets]

Coffee becomes a series of associations and character changes.  "A cup of coffee, skidding tires of an airbus, and the frigid temperatures of a window seat, shift me into someone I don't know, someone fragile, someone that terrifies and kills me, exposing me to all my possible selves and all of yours. . . . What does the coffee in Tokyo taste like?  Bali?  Accra?  And why doesn't the coffee I brew in my place, whereever it is, always taste like shit, flat and fundamentally lacking?"

Amanya is an American whose family originally came from Kenya, but she has also lived in Europe - these stories have a global reach and are full of colour, with characters like Mango, Persimmon and Lime and titles like 'Pancakes at the 2893 World's Fair', 'The Watermelon Man', 'Habanero Lips', 'Cookie Woman', and 'George Washington's Black-Eyed Peas'.  One of my favourite stories concerns the Avocado Whisperer.  'I squish and mash them into bowls of black beans, onions, and corn, throw the whole lot in tortillas for the kind of meal that sits at the bottom of your stomach like the coked-out kids on the Red Line at four a.m... I'm an avocado racehorse - a thoroughbred sure bet. . . nothing short of what God binged on when She got the munchies on the seventh day'.

I loved 'Termites' - the story of a childhood visit to Nairobi to visit relatives, but one story in particular continued to haunt me.  'Dinner is served (Karibu)', which is narrated by the animal on the plate.  'I am consumable.  I do not belong to myself.  I am designed solely for your gratification.  You can stuff your greedy minds with my words and lick my tears off your dry hands . . . I exist only for your gluttonous pleasure. . .  I will kill you with every bite you take, but you will continue to eat because I am the finest cuisine you've ever had.  I will be your last meal.  Dinner is served.'

If you like to try something different, then Harvest is definitely one to read.

You can find out more about Amanya Maloba at


"The food of coastal Africa has long nourished the bodies and fed the spirits of many as it moved, along with a people, from its original continent across seas. Harvest echoes this original journey as it follows a young girl recalling childhood and discovering adulthood all while navigating different spaces and times. Amanya Maloba’s debut collection of contemporary African American vignettes is told in a voice that echoes generations of these stories, but is resolutely her own—personal and raw. Maloba has watered the soil of her imagination with laughter, tears, and centuries of wisdom, and the harvest she has brought forth is every bit as rich and rewarding as those nutrients promise. Perfect to savour one at time, but you may find yourself devouring these sweet and sour vignettes in one sitting."

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Girl in Room 14 by Carol Drinkwater

The Girl in Room 14 

Carol Drinkwater

Kindle Single

This is an ‘old-fashioned’ romantic story that will please a lot of readers - a bit of escapism set in the idyllic countryside around Cannes and Menton.

Cecile is a beautiful woman who sells lemons in the marketplace in Cannes, but there’s a mystery surrounding her.  She appears to have no private life and even her daughter doesn’t know her story.  Cecile has been waiting for someone for more than 16 years.  This is a very good 'set-up' and the anticipation of what might happen draws you into the story.

To say more would be a plot spoiler.   It’s beautifully written and I enjoyed the read - perfect for a quick 'comfort read'.  The drawback for me was that I just didn’t believe the story's resolution.  It just didn't convince me. This is a number one best-seller on Kindle mainly because of good promotion and a celebrity author, but I've read much better short stories from Indie authors - stories with real emotional power and the tug of truth.

The Girl in Room 14 - link

Thursday, 15 May 2014

To the World of Men, Welcome by Nuala ni Chonchuir

To the World of Men, Welcome

by Nuala ni Chonchuir

published by Arlen House

This is one of the most original collections of short stories I’ve read in a long time.  And it’s by an Irish writer.  What is it with the Irish and their love of words and stories?

These are all about relationships with men - both weird and wonderful.  She focuses on the transitional moments - the beginning of an affair, or the end of it, and they are both romantic and bizarre.

In The Last Man, Francine is married to a man who no longer loves her, who is manipulative and controlling, but often away on business trips.  Francine begins a series of casual affairs to alleviate the boredom.  The last man has a tattoo on his back of Our Lady of Guadeloupe and he doesn’t turn out quite as expected.

There is also real horror here.  In The Trip, Edward is ‘a raw, open wound of a man’.  He and his male friend Pat go off for the weekend into the country to take Edward’s mind of the fact that his girlfriend has just dumped him.  ‘I should have given her a slap.’  Pat plans a lively break, but Edward seems to be determined to kill off any prospect of enjoyment for either of them.  His attitude to women also seems to leave a lot to be desired.  Pat realises that he doesn’t know Edward as well as he thought he did.  The ending is truly horrific.

Then there is the story of The Mercy Fuck - where a man persuades his girlfriend to take pity on their dying, virginal friend.  Things don’t turn out as expected there either.

Pascha from Chechnya is seduced by a painter who exploits his memories of violence, and, in One Hare’s Foot, casual misfortune leads to tragedy on a summer afternoon on a boat.

These stories are all so good and so different it’s difficult to single any of them out for comment.  Each narrator has their own ‘voice’ and they compel you to listen, like the wedding guest in the Ancient Mariner.  They also demonstrate superbly what can be achieved in the short story form. Just when you thought it had all been done!

Nuala ni Chonchuir is a poet - winner of the Templar Poetry Pamphlet awards in 2009 and published by Salt, and has several other collections of short fiction as well as two novels published by New Island Books in Dublin - You in 2010 and the Closet of Savage Mementos in 2014.  This is definitely a writer to watch (and read!).

She has a blog which you can find here.    

Friday, 25 April 2014

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir, by Winifred Holtby

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir 

by Winifred Holtby

Published by Continuum International

Winifred Holtby, although herself a successful novelist, was very afraid of Virginia Woolf.  So much so that when she began to write her memoir she talked to everyone but Virginia, until she received a royal command to appear at Hogarth House to take tea.  Holtby was right to be nervous. Virginia Woolf’s first impressions of her were typically caustic;  ‘a Yorkshire farmer's daughter, rather uncouth, and shapeless’.  In a letter to a friend Woolf called her ‘an amiable donkey’. But if Woolf had ever troubled to read what Holtby wrote, she might have been very surprised indeed at the way her contemporary had understood what she was trying to achieve in her novels, as well as the contradictions of her character.

Winifred Holtby
The book is constructed as a series of essays on various aspects of Virginia Woolf’s character and writing. Written by a clever novelist, they are light and easy to read. The first, called ‘The Advantages of being Virginia Stephen’, focusses on Woolf’s birth and upbringing.  Winifred Holtby quotes the portrait of Katherine Hilbery in Night and Day, drawn from Woolf’s own childhood as the daughter of an eminent scholar and critic living at the heart of literary society.  ‘Again and again she was brought down into the drawing room to receive the blessing of some awful distinguished old man who sat apart, all gathered together and clutching a stick’.

Woolf  lived her life at the centre of the literary hub - Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin were among the formidable old men who sat in the parlour. Later she was a contemporary of TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey - the Bloomsberries, as Mansfield called them.  For Woolf, literary legends were people you met at dinner alongside Cabinet Ministers, judges and titled aristocrats.  It was a world apart, but it was also an education - as Holtby says, Woolf ‘lived among people before whom the whole range of European literature is spread like a familiar map’.

Virginia Woolf
The fact that Woolf didn’t have a conventional education (she was home-schooled) and allowed free run of her father’s library, shaped her future as a writer and critic.  Holtby, for once, gives Woolf’s critical writing equal status with her fiction.  For Woolf theory and practice were closely tied together; more people have read A Room of One’s Own than have read To the Lighthouse or The Waves, and her critical essays - Three Guineas, Letter to a Young Poet, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, have had considerable influence on her successors and are still relevant.

But Holtby, writing in 1931, is quick to point out their underlying prejudices - ‘Every second Englishman reads French’, was a ridiculous thing to say, at a time when only 15% of the English were educated beyond the age of 14.  Woolf  didn’t understand the uneducated.  Whenever she tries to draw a working class character, Holtby writes, ‘she loses her way. They are more foreign to her than princes were to Jane Austen.’

Holtby also writes about Woolf’s complex relationship with suffragism.  Many women involved in the Suffrage movement were her friends.  They appear in her novels and their ideals are expressed in Woolf’s non-fiction. Characters like Orlando in the novel of the same name change gender, revealing prejudice and hypocrisy.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf  coined the expression ‘reflecting men at twice their normal size’.  But she did not take part in the campaign herself and, in most of her essays and reviews, she uses the male pronoun as convention demanded. The artist/writer is always ‘he’.

Winifred Holtby not only discusses Woolf as a woman and a writer, but also Woolf as a reader - the author of pithy reviews and essays of writerly instruction. Even though her own books were consumed by a literary elite, Woolf knew who the ‘Common Reader’ was, though she erred on the gender.  ‘The Common Reader differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge.’  This is the person that we are all writing for - someone of only average education, neither a scholar nor a critic, reading for pleasure, and sometimes also a woman. (Statistically more often than not)

According to Woolf there are strict rules.  Ideas, morality, historical lessons, can only be presented in terms of character and plot.  Any research has to be invisible.  ‘Whatever facts, emotions and experiences the artist tastes, he must digest completely . . . There must be no foreign matter unconsumed.’  And she hates novels with a message that seem to encourage people to ‘join a society’ or ‘write a cheque’. The ‘business of the artist’, Woolf says, ‘is to provide one with a vivid and complete experience’.  There must be a reality - and reality is ‘what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of the past time and of our loves and hates ...  It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us.’

Form must always serve the material - and here Woolf was extremely subversive.  ‘Mrs Woolf does not really like plots’, Holtby observes.  Nor does she like traditional ways of establishing character by description.  Woolf asks the Edwardian novelists how she should present her character Mrs Brown and gets this answer:
‘”Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate.  Ascertain the rent.  Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878.  Discover what her mother died of.  Describe cancer.  Describe calico.  Describe . . .”  But I cried “Stop!  Stop!”  And I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico, my Mrs Brown, that vision to which I cling . . . would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.’

Woolf threw plot and narrative out of the window too and explored new ways of telling stories, taking ideas from Katherine Mansfield and adopting the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique developed by Dorothy Richardson.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Winifred Holtby’s short memoir is a real delight (which is probably why it’s been re-issued) and, if I had my way, I’d put it on the list for every creative writing student in the country.  It’s one brilliant writer’s take on another - illuminating and useful.  Woolf apparently told her friends that it had made her ‘scream with laughter’, but there’s no evidence that she ever read it.

Kathleen Jones