This is a new monthly post where I aim to do very little writing (!!!) and tap into some visual creativity (which I always feel I don’t really have). So, this was September for me, in a few pictures and very few words.
Fiona Mozley’s first novel, Elmet, was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize that year. Set in Yorkshire, for which ‘Elmet’ is an ancient pseudonym, it is a brilliant, dark portrait of a small somewhat disenfranchised family, threatened both by the authorities and by a shady underworld. I loved it and Mozley was, at the time, the youngest ever shortlisted author, until Daisy Johnson came along the following year and bested her by a couple of years. I wrote recently about the ‘difficult second novel’ when I was reviewing Splinters of Scarlet by Emily Bain Murphy. That novel was a little disappointing, but Fiona Mozley has well and truly cracked it with a stunning follow-up.
Elmet had a close focus on a small family (a father and his two children), but Mozley’s skill for creating a strong supporting cast of characters was being tested out even there, and in Hot Stew she has drawn her view back and created an ensemble of diverse characters among whom she moves with dexterity. The novel is set in Soho and Mozley’s interest in history is brought out once again as she weaves in information about the origins of that part of London, including how its name derived from a hunting cry “So Ho”. The novel opens with a conversation on a rooftop between two sex workers, Precious and Tabitha, the former active and the latter retired. Tabitha, we will learn later, is the assistant, companion and adviser in a relationship that defies convention and definition. The novel is populated by many others residing in the area, sex workers, itinerants, entertainers and those who belong in no other place.
The buildings they occupy and work out of are owned by Agatha, the half Russian, half English sixth daughter of a former property peculator whose last wife (the Russian one) managed to persuade her husband to leave all his wealth to their unborn child, whom she had convinced him was a boy. Agatha was born after her father’s death and so never knew the man to whom she owes all her privileges. She was sent to the finest schools, and has wealth beyond most people’s imaginings, thanks to her father having bought up much of derelict and undesirable Soho after the war. Agatha wants to get the sex workers out so that she can develop her holdings further. This tussle for dominance creates the premise of the novel, but in Fiona Mozley’s hands it is so much more than that.
We explore the many worlds of the full range of characters, while never losing a grip on who is who. Some are more relevant than others, but all have a part to play in the story. The reader is invited to examine their preconceptions about sex workers and sexuality as the different lifestyles are explored and complex moral conundrums are set up. There is a huge amount going on in the 300 or so pages of this book.
As with Elmet, the denouement of the novel is dramatic and just far-fetched enough to make us realise that the world we are in is somehow ‘other’. The catastrophe that brings the novel to its close resolves some of the thorny issues thrown up by the story. This does not make it ‘unbelievable’, however; there is gritty social realism here, contemporary social dilemma (how to deal with capitalism) and the dysfunctionality of attitudes to sex and sexuality.
I loved this book and it is a challenge to review because it is so ambitious in scope and so broad in its content. I listened to it on audio and it wasn’t the best narration I have ever heard – the actress was too young, it seemed to me, and there were a number of mispronunciations which should have been edited – that’s not the actor’s fault, more the producer’s laziness. Such things jar. I would recommend the book highly and will be surprised if this does not find itself on some literary prize shortlists this year.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of audiobooks. Having said that, it doesn’t work every time for me; the narrator is vital and I struggled listening to 1984 as I could not get beyond the fact that the reader was Andrew Winnicot…or Adam Macy from the The Archers, which I listen to avidly! Recently, I have enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale on audio, I listened to all of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, with the sublime Hilary Huber, and I am currently listening to Gone Girl, the January book in my Facebook Reading Challenge, (which I am finding totally gripping, by the way).
A book I listened to at the end of last year was Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor. I borrowed it from the library when it was first published in 2017 but did not manage to get through it before I had to return it for someone else. It is a historical thriller set at the time of the Great Fire of London in September 1666 and is the first in Taylor’s Marwood & Lovett detective series. I have not yet read (or listened to) the second and third books in the series, both of which were published last year, but they sound intriguing.
James Marwood works as a junior reporter on a newssheet, situated at the centre of courtly London life. Marwood lives with his elderly and increasingly senile father, a former printer and ‘Fifth Monarchist’ (a Protestant sect which believed the monarchy would fall and Christ would return to earth to rule), whose followers were considered criminals after the triumph of the Monarchists in the English Civil Wars. Marwood is asked to report on the aftermath of the Great Fire in various parts of the city and the rebuilding projects, but he soon becomes embroiled in the case of a missing person, the niece of a gentleman, Cat Lovett.
Cat Lovett, is a young woman sent to live with her uncle and step-aunt in Holborn, after her father, a convicted regicide (plotter against the monarch), became a fugitive. She is due to be married to an odious dandy, and much older man, but then her step-aunt’s son rapes her. She fights back, mortally wounding him, and, realising the danger she is now in, decides to escape and take her chances on the streets of London, hoping eventually to track down her father. An elderly servant, who had known Cat from childhood, is presumed guilty of the attack on the son and is flogged to death.
When James Marwood and Cat Lovett’s paths cross, inadvertently and fleetingly, he finds he is drawn by personal curiosity into the search for her. He realises early on that all is perhaps not what it seems in the household with the uncle and step-aunt. He suspects foul play and when he is then sent to investigate the cases of two bodies dumped in the Thames, he comes to believe that all these events are linked.
What follows is a complex thriller with a multi-layered plot, strong characters and the weaving-in of comprehensive historical knowledge of the period. I learnt a lot! It all leads to a thrilling denouement – not ideal when you’re listening whilst driving! – in the half-built St Paul’s Cathedral. I absolutely loved this book and recommend it highly. I’m delighted to inform you that it is also available for free on Kindle Unlimited!
I’m looking forward to reading or listening to the next two books in the series, The Fire Court and The King’s Evil.
PS The narrator on this one was great!
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I first became aware of the Broadway show Hamilton when we visited family in the US in 2016. I was told that if (when!) this came to London I should beg, steal or borrow tickets because it was sensational. Yes, I said, politely, thinking that a show about the Founding Fathers of America probably would not do as well in the UK. It has. And it is. Sensational.
My youngest daughter, a keen singer, started getting into the show a year or so ago. She has been listening to and singing along to the soundtrack almost continuously ever since. When it was her birthday earlier this year I decided to get her tickets. I was astonished to discover how difficult these were to obtain (and how expensive!), so she has been waiting patiently for almost six months to enjoy her birthday gift. Last week, during half term, we travelled to London to see the show. It was worth the wait and she promptly declared that it was the best experience of her life. For me, seeing her enjoying something so much and how she has engaged so wholeheartedly with the story, the music and the ethos of the production, has the been the greatest pleasure.
I’ve seen a few musicals over the years, and many of the biggest ones, but they would not normally be my first choice for theatre. I prefer drama. Also, I find that some of these productions, when they have had very long runs, can become tired. Hamilton has been at the Victoria Palace for over a year now and it certainly has not run out of steam. The show was a tour de force from the opening bars to the final curtain. I must also say that, knowing the songs as well as I do (they’ve been in my background for months!) added to my enjoyment.
I knew next to nothing about Alexander Hamilton the man. He was the brains behind the United States financial system, the first Treasury Secretary, influential in George Washington’s presidency and founder of the national bank. As an orphan who climbed his way to the top of politics, he embodies the American dream of self-made success. He was killed in a duel by his long-time rival Aaron Burr in his late forties. Quite a life.
As you may know, Hamilton has won many awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, mostly for its originality. The music of the show incorporates rap, hip-hop, R&B and soul, unusual for this type of production, and it is both refreshing and memorable. It is also well-known for its colour-conscious casting of non-white actors. Whilst none of the main protagonists in the story were actually people of colour, the aim was to draw attention to how black and non-white history is so often under-acknowledged and under-discussed. It seemed appropriate that we went to see the show during black history month which aims to redress that balance.
So, a stunning show that I enjoyed much more than I expected to. I now consider myself a fan and would definitely see it again. The energy of the show left both my daughter and I on a real high.
Have you seen Hamilton? If so, what did you think?
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Tom Hazard has an extremely rare condition called anageria which means he ages extremely slowly. He is one of a tiny group of people who live for many hundreds of years. Tom was born in London in 1581 and mixed with the likes of Shakespeare and Marlowe in his youth, worked for Captain Cook in the 1700s and was a jazz pianist in Paris in the 1920s where he met, among others, F Scott Fitzgerald and watched Josephine Baker dance. What an incredibly lucky guy, you might think, but his condition is a curse and does not go unnoticed. He is haunted by the fact that his mother was condemned as a witch in the small village in which they lived, because the locals suspected dark forces at play when her teenage son appeared never to age. In his ‘late teens’ he meets and falls in love with Rose, and they have a child, Marion. Rose is the love of Tom’s life and although they move around, trying to avoid staying in one place too long and attracting attention, he realises that his existence presents a danger to Rose and the child. He has no choice but to leave her. The last time Tom sees Rose is when she is in her 50s, on her death bed with the plague, while he still looks like the young man she fell in love with many years earlier.
Tom has to spend his long and eventful life dodging attention, changing location every eight years or so. He, and others with his condition, are part of a worldwide secret organisation known as Albatross, led by the slightly sinister now elderly Dutchman, Hendrick. ‘Albas’, as they are known, are committed to keeping their condition secret and thereby protecting themselves from scrutiny. They fear discovery by the scientific community and what this might mean. Superstition has treated them badly in the past. Hendrick rules the organisation and controls its members, cleverly maintaining their loyalty with a delicate balance of threat and the promise of protection.
But Tom is unhappy. His condition brings him nothing but pain and grief. He lost his mother in brutal circumstances and his wife and daughter, all because of anageria. Hendrick keeps him close by telling him that his daughter Marion has inherited the condition and assuring Tom that he will find her, but Tom becomes increasingly suspicious of Hendrick’s motives.
In the present day, Tom’s new role is as a history teacher in an east London secondary school. He is a success, bearing the uncanny ability to ‘bring history alive’ to even the most apathetic of his students. At the school Tom meets Camille, a young French teacher, to whom he is attracted. The feeling is mutual, but of course, Tom knows a relationship is impossible. Tom’s inconsistent behaviour towards Camille makes her suspicious.
Thus, the scene is set for a complex and fascinating plot. The novel jumps back and forth in time from present day east London to Shakespearean London, where Tom was a renowned lute player, to the 18th century where Tom sailed to the Indies with Cook, to more recent times when Tom has had to carry out certain international missions to serve the secret organisation.
Haig creates a huge range of interesting characters and it is quite an achievement that he gives them all a depth and uniqueness, which many writers could only achieve with a much smaller cast. The book was not at all difficult to follow, despite the frequent changes of era and setting. For me, my favourite sections were the present-day ones, though, as Tom explored with great poignancy the tragedy of his existence which means he cannot build intimate connection with anyone outside the organisation, for fear not only of exposing himself but of placing them in danger; bad things happen to people who find out about the Albas. Tom is lonely and alone. The people he has loved are all gone and so he fears love. The recounting of past events in Tom’s life help to create and augment the picture of his existence where an overly extended life is a curse not something to be striven for. The unnaturalness of Tom’s situation, the burden he must bear, is profoundly portrayed.
I listened to this book on audio and the narrator, Mark Meadows, was excellent, developing an impressive range of distinctive voices and accents to distinguish the different characters. He also conveyed well a sense of Tom’s building frustration and despair, so much so that his final actions in the book are not only plausible, but completely inevitable.
I recommend this book highly.
Have you read this or any of Matt Haig’s other books? He is everywhere at the moment!
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If you have children aged 10-12 years, I can heartily recommend this book. It’s marvellous; dark in parts (but don’t kids love that?!), but ultimately full of hope and showing that you can achieve the near-impossible if you dare to believe.
The novel is set in Lahn Dan, you’ll recognise the pun, but the place described in the book will be unfamiliar; it is practically a separate city-state within England, encircled by the ‘Emm Twenty-Five Wall’ that none of the inhabitants dare cross (told that there is only a deserted wilderness on the other side anyway). This is a time after ‘the Gases’ (a reference to climate change), the ‘Tems’ has deteriorated to a muddy flat and only the rich are able to live in the ‘crystal towers’ that afford them some natural light and allow them to live above the pollution layer. In a nod to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World there is a strict hierarchy in the society: at the bottom are the Pbs, who do most of the work, then slightly higher up are the Cus, the professional classes, but true power lies only with the Aus. Give the child a prize who spots that these are chemical symbols and what this says about the social order! Lahn Dan is run by ‘the Minister’ a distant and slightly mythical figure, not unlike Big Brother, whose orders are carried out by Mordecai and his Secret Police. It all has echoes of 1984.
The main character is Serendipity Goudge a 12 year-old girl who lives alone with her mother. They are Pbs and do agricultural work. They live in a ‘pod’ and have very few possessions, though Serendipity cherishes a small wooden horse her mother once gave her; she is fascinated by the creatures but they are said to be extinct and nobody has ever seen one in the flesh. Serendipity’s mother dies, leaving her nothing of any value except a locket. Hidden inside the locket is a small map indicating a route out of Lahn Dan, through the Emm Twenty-Five Wall to ‘Whales’ via the ‘HH Bridge’ to a place where there might be horses. Strictly speaking, Serendipity, as an orphan, should be taken into care, but Professor Nimbus, her ‘storyteller’ (the children get a very limited education), takes her under his wing as his apprentice. It quickly becomes apparent that this situation is not sustainable and that Serendipity’s life is in danger. She decides that she will try to escape Lahn Dan, initially with the help of the Professor, who confesses that he, along with a small group of others, is a secret agitator for change.
By chance, they meet up with Tab, and his funny little dog Mouse. Tab is part of a band of Smugglers with a camp on the other side of the Wall. Tab is like something out of Oliver Twist, a street-wise orphan who helps Serendipity escape the city. They reach his community’s encampment, but it becomes clear that Tab may also be in danger and so he decides to accompany Serendipity on her search for horses in Whales.
The rest of the book is about their quest to fulfil a dream, but, though they don’t realise it at the time, they are also looking for a better life, outside the corrupt, polluted, decrepit city of Lahn Dan. En route they come across things they have never seen before – green fields, rain, a train, fresh food. It is a story about love and friendship – initially, Serendipity and Tab do not trust each other, but they soon come to realise that their fates are entwined and that they are better as a team. The people they meet along the way help and encourage them on their journey. The novel also has great suspense; once the authorities realise that there has been an escape, they pursue Serendipity, and nearly catch her several times.
Serendipity reaches her goal in the most magical and unexpected way, not immediately, but many years after she has settled happily in Whales, in a brief and beautiful moment that made me cry!
This is a fabulous book which I thoroughly enjoyed reading – kids and adults alike will enjoy spotting all the references, the links to current concerns in its themes (the importance of community, climate change, the social and economic separation of London from other regions of the country). The pace is perfect for the 9-12 age group, the characters are well-rounded, credible and fun, and I loved all the nods to other books – this would be a great introduction to titles they might come across later in life.
[My copy of this book was very kindly sent to me by the author after I posted a review of her other novel The Extraordinary Colours of Auden Dare which I also enjoyed and recommend.]
What sort of books do your kids like reading?
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No-one could forget the terrible events of June 16th 2016, the week before the UK referendum on exiting the EU, when Jo Cox, the British MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire, was brutally murdered whilst in her constituency. It was shocking on so many levels. Firstly, that, in the midst of a profound expression of our democracy (which I believe we should never take for granted), campaigning during a referendum, one of our most conscientious and hard-working elected members should be killed for doing her job and what she believed in. Secondly, and most upsetting to me and, I’m sure, to many others, that a mother of two young children, a wife, a sister, a daughter, should lose her life and all those close to her should lose the most important person in theirs. It was truly awful.
In the days that followed, campaigning in the referendum was suspended as the news reverberated around the world. Support was shown and condolences sent by dozens of world leaders, not least President Obama. Jo’s death had a huge impact. So many had felt the insult to our democracy. In those subsequent days and weeks, we also learned much about this young woman and her life, and the loss felt even greater.
Jo’s husband, Brendan, became famous overnight, a role he would never have wanted. The grieving widower, the father of two shocked and grieving young children (then aged just five and three), the spokesperson for his late wife and all the good and powerful things she stood for. He was frequently on our television screens, looking dazed and gaunt, in Parliament, just days after Jo’s death, hearing MPs’ tributes, at a memorial event in Trafalgar, attended by thousands. It is a wonder how he got through those days.
It is thirteen months since Jo’s death and Brendan has been busy. He has set up the Jo Cox Foundation which seeks to promote fairness and tolerance in the world through practical actions. He has also published this book, which is part biography of Jo, partly an account of loss and, I suspect, part catharsis. It is rare that I have sat down and read a book in a couple of sittings over a weekend, but this book lends itself to that kind of immersion.
First and foremost the book, for me, provides an intimate glimpse into the architecture of grief. We will all experience grief in our lives, but most of us will never have to lose someone in the circumstances that Brendan lost Jo, that their children lost their mother. The pain is profound. We see Brendan go through all the stages we are familiar with – shock, denial, etc, though he clearly fights very hard against anger, and seems to have won. He describes in detail the unique way that nature enables children to process it. In the midst of his own grief Brendan’s primary concern was to support his children through their even greater loss to ensure that it was handled in the best possible way. Brendan talks about taking advice from experts in child psychology on how he should talk to them about their mother. The overwhelming consensus is that children should be allowed the space to grieve as they need, in their own unique way, and that it is important that we do not impose adult preconceptions and expectations about their level of sadness. For a young child, losing a mother is a profound and life-changing event that will affect the rest of their lives and it is so important to handle it right.
The sadness in this book is at times unbearable, but Brendan also writes with joy too. He provides an account of Jo’s life, her humble family background and childhood, her life as a student at Cambridge and her early achievements in a career that was destined to be stellar. Brendan, in providing this account, is honouring his late wife and the enormous achievements she made in her short life. There is a definite sense that the best was yet to come.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Jo Cox, maiden speech to Parliament, 2015
Finally, the book is a love letter, a tribute from a bereaved husband to the woman he clearly loved so deeply. His love drips from every page. Some of the detail he gives is surprisingly intimate almost too much for me as a reader. The kind of small details of a relationship that couples normally only share with one another. But then you remember that Brendan no longer can, and his sharing with us feels all the more poignant.
The book is structured so that parallels are drawn between events in the months following Jo’s death and important stages in Jo’s life. For example, the account of Jo and Brendan’s time working in America and joining the Obama presidential campaign is given alongside an account of Brendan’s visit to the White House with his children, at the invitation of President Obama.
It is an incredible book and all proceeds from sales will go to the Jo Cox Foundation. It is hard to say I ‘enjoyed’ it but it felt like a very important read. It has certainly caused me to reflect, and the lesson that comes from it, for me, is along the lines of that old truism (with apologies for misquoting) that it’s not the years in your life that really count, but the life in your years. And Jo certainly packed a lifetime’s worth in her 42 years.
An emotional read, but highly recommended.
If you have read this book, I’d love to know how it affected you.
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I’m off on a short holiday to the Netherlands so I’m planning to take some reading with me, of course, and have decided on another book from my ‘to read’ pile (I’m in the groove now!) called In the Dutch Mountains by Cees Nooteboom. It looks delightfully weird and I love the Dutch so am very excited to be reading it at last. I’m also taking Roxane Gray’s Difficult Women, a collection of short stories which was a gift from a friend. Looking forward to that and hoping I can get some tips for my own short story writing. I’ll also take North and South which I’m re-reading this month as part of my 2017 reading challenge.
If you’re looking for ideas yourself and would like something light and amusing which you can dip in and out of, you could try Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe. I mentioned this book in a blog a few weeks ago; I read it whilst on a ‘break’ from a book I was finding quite heavygoing (Do Not Say We Have Nothing). It was the perfect antidote: a straightforward jolly read. It’s a series of letters from Nina, to her sister Victoria in Leicestershire and therefore readable in bitesize chunks.
Nina is twenty when we meet her in the early 1980s. She lives with Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, and her two young sons, Sam and Will, to whom she is a nanny. They live at 55 Gloucester Crescent NW1, an area that was also home to other literary types, among them Alan Bennett and Claire Tomalin, who also make appearances in the book, particularly ‘AB’ who is a great friend of ‘MK’.
Nina’s letters home detail the events of daily life in the household, and are brought alive by her pithy observations on the quirkiness of her employer and the neighbours. It was particularly nice to read this after watching Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van over Christmas, which was also set in Gloucester Crescent and features many of the same people. Nina’s affection for the family shines through and she writes with great fondness of Sam and Will, her young charges. MK is idiosyncratic, but charming, and Alan Bennett leaps off the page. The personalities of the individuals come across strongly; Nina clearly has a talent for this since much of what we learn about them is through the conversations she reproduces in the letters as extracts of dialogue. She manages to pick out the little details or the nuances and word choices that reveal so much.
The letters cover a couple of years, and at the end of the book Nina is part way through her degree in English literature at Thames Polytechnic. By this stage you can see she herself is becoming a more accomplished chronicler, although the later letters, many of which are about her university friends, I found less endearing than the earlier ones.
Nina, now in her 50s, eventually became a writer, and had two children with Nunney, one of the other inhabitants of Gloucester Crescent (though they got together much later), and has subsequently published two novels in addition to this memoir: Man at the Helm and Paradise Lodge, which I’d be interested in reading. Love, Nina was also adapted for television by Nick Hornby, and starred Helena Bonham Carter. I think that could be fun to watch.
So, a good little read, perfect if you’re going away this Easter holiday.
What are you reading this Spring?
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