Log in

No account? Create an account
Sheenagh Pugh
I'm a bit of a sucker for anything set in Cairo, also for djinns and afrits and similar beings. So this should be my sort of novel, and in some ways it was. I don't mind magic realism, nor the mixing of human and mythological characters, and the central character Nahri, a young Cairene street con artist from the time of Napoleon, comes over as very believable and sympathetic (also, despite her magic powers, very human).

When the scene shifts from Cairo to Daevabad, populated by various tribes of djinn plus djinn-human hybrids called shafit, those who are averse to fantasy will begin to worry, particularly since in truth, the concept of a race of magical beings looking down on and ill-treating non-magical ones, and especially despising mixed-bloods, is a bit too Harry Potter for comfort. Also, like many novels with a fantasy element, this one has rather too much back-story for the structure to cope with, and certainly too many weird species to recall easily..

Do not despair, however, for it soon becomes apparent that what we have here is less a fantasy than an allegory, and the species it really relates to is humanity. The novel's main theme is schism and its effects, religious, racial and personal. What is wrong in Daevabad (just about everything) can be traced back, first to Suleiman's arbitrary division of the djinn into tribes, then to religious differences that arose between one tribe and the others. The result of these two events has been several centuries of genocide on both sides. People's response to accusations of the various atrocities they and their ancestors have committed is always the familiar one of whataboutery - "what about such and such that your ancestors did?", as if one atrocity justified another. Since djinn live for many centuries, one at least of our characters is among the original war criminals, and one of the novel's more interesting facets is how a person might still be in love with such a character even when she knows what he has done.

It isn't difficult to transfer the djinn wars into human terms - the great schism of Islam, between Shia and Sunni, would probably come first to mind, but there are other parallels; the Daeva tribe, for example, have some resemblance to Zoroastrians but their situation in Daevabad more closely resembles that of Jews in many times and places. Perhaps the key thing to bear in mind is that nobody's hands are clean; whoever is currently in power is doing the oppressing and there is every sign that if the wheel turned, today's victims would cheerfully become tomorrow's tyrants, having learned nothing from experience (much as the Pilgrim Fathers, once safely arrived in America, could hardly wait to start persecuting Quakers).

The attraction of Nahri as a character (for me at least) rests partly in the fact that she is so much her own person, so resistant to defining herself by race, religion or anything else. She is brave, chippy, seldom at a loss for an answer, even when speaking to a king:
"You look terrible; there appears to be a journey's worth of blood on your clothes alone."
"I'm fine," she insisted. "It's not all mine."
The last sentence of the book proper would suggest that she is still essentially an individualist, a pragmatist. But there have been odd disturbing hints that she might have begun to identify at least partly with one side, and the epilogue makes it clear that the sectarian faction-fighting is set to continue.

I like the novel for being about big issues - goodness knows that's better than some Aga-saga about Roland and Petronella's marriage breaking up, as if anyone cared. And the actual writing is always fluent and readable. But there are flaws. A few too many loose ends that I don't think were intentional, and at least one unforgivable get-out, when a vital ring turns up in the hands of a woman who had no obvious means of getting hold of it:
Kaveh immediately closed his hands over the ring. "By the Creator," he breathed. "How did you-?"
She shook her head. "Don't ask."
That won't do, and the overload of back-story, invented history and above all, tribal and language names doesn't help either. But it is a page-turner, nonetheless. I'm not absolutely certain whether I shall re-read it, but am not sorry I read it the once.
Sheenagh Pugh
12 November 2017 @ 03:48 pm
Like most kids, I loved the old Scots ballads as a child – where else, other than the Bible, could a Fifties child with respectable parents come by so much gore and gruesomeness between hard covers? And lord, were they menacing! Not just the overtly blood-and-guts ones - Lady Wearie meeting the vengeful Lamkin on the stairs, Margaret's seven brothers debating whether to kill the sleeping Saunders in front of them, John Steward stabbing Gil Morice, Margery's kinfolk building the fire around her… But in some ways the oblique ones were still more scary: bonnie George Campbell rides out and never comes home and we have no more idea what has become of him than his wife does.

And the scariest of all was "Get Up And Bar The Door", which stayed with me both for that reason and because it was the subject of the silliest question on poetry that I ever saw in a school textbook, which is saying something.

It begins in a mediaeval Scottish cottage, in winter, with night coming on. A married couple live there: the wife is boiling "puddings" in a pan (the kind with blood and guts rather than currants and jam) while the man is doing nothing special. It is, therefore, understandable that when he says to her "Get up and bar the door", she should point out irritably that she is otherwise occupied and that he might care to do it himself.

This leads not only to a row but to a stand-off: the couple vow not to speak to each other; the first to utter a word will have to bar the door, but until then it stands unbarred. It looks a petty cause of dispute, but this is less important than the enormous risk they are taking; there is a reason for barring doors at night, which will soon become apparent.

Two men, strangers, walk in, uninvited. They begin to eat the puddings the wife has just made, but the couple, still fixated on their quarrel, are obstinate in silence:
Tho' muckle the goodwife thought to hersel,
Yet never a word she spak.
Then, however, the strangers progress to thoughts of violence:
"Do you tak aff the auld man's beard
And I'll kiss the goodwife."
We may assume, I think, that "kiss" is being used euphemistically. At any rate, this threat finally brings a spoken protest from the man of the house – at which his wife skips in triumph:
"Goodman, ye've spoken the foremost word,
Get up and bar the door!"
There could hardly be a more savage irony than this last line: yes, bar the door, now that the danger is inside – and even now, she fails to see past her household quarrel to the outside threat against which both should have united. I don't think many ballads really have what one could call a moral; they relate tales of cruelty and tragedy in a laconic matter-of-fact way and generally without passing judgement: this happened, that happened. This one is different; it does not take much acumen to see the man and wife as emblematic of more than themselves.

More acumen, though, than was possessed by some of the people who were writing school textbooks at the time, because believe it or not, the question they wanted us to answer on the poem was "who deserved to win the argument?" The "right" answer, in case you're interested, was at the end of the chapter: the wife deserves to win because the husband should have recognised that she was busy and barred the door himself. Whoever read the poem and set this asinine question had, apparently, not noticed that very soon both husband and wife were going to be assaulted or worse and wouldn't much care who occupied the moral high ground.

Fortunately our class teacher had far more insight than the fool who wrote the textbook and was able to make it clear that he had entirely missed the point. Her theory was that he had taken the whole ballad for light humour. Makes you wonder, though. People make money out of writing textbooks… Not many questions I've seen set on poems, whether in textbooks or exam papers, are quite as brainless as that one, but many strike me as essentially irrelevant and extraneous. Some require students to speculate on facts and possibilities outside the poem and bearing little or no relation to its technique or quality; some want value judgements on the poet's world. Very few seem to relate in any way to poetic technique, to what the writer was trying to achieve and how s/he set about it. A question-setter on this poem might, for instance, profitably ask how tension is achieved, how season and time of day colour the poem, how conversation is used. But if the English exam papers which students obligingly scan in for me every so often are any guide, they mostly don't.
Sheenagh Pugh
14 October 2017 @ 11:59 am
A recent debate about a review (of someone else by someone else) led me to try to formulate what I am trying to do when I write one, and what I think essential in a review. I'm talking here about reviews of books, since that's what I do and mostly read.

In the first place, one could and possibly should rephrase the title. Whom are reviews for? They may be useful to the writer of the book, in that they give some feedback on how it has come across to a (hopefully) intelligent reader; they may also raise the book's profile, ensuring more attention from critics and possibly more sales, though that effect is apparently marginal. For the reviewer, they may mean money, an enhanced profile in the writing world and the opportunity to air one's opinions, always an attractive prospect.

But for me at least, a review should be mainly for the benefit of, and aimed at, the potential book-buyers, and it should give them some indication of what sort of book this is, what it is trying to do, whether, in the reviewer's opinion, it is worth reading and, as far as possible, whether the potential buyers are liable to like it. This, it seems to me, a reviewer can only do by including at least some description of the book's contents and above all by quoting from it. How else is Gentle Reader to assess the author's subject matter and style, and whether it is to her taste? I will concede that this can be difficult in the case of a novel where mystery is part of the plot and one is trying to avoid spoilers, but it is always possible to find a paragraph somewhere that doesn't directly bear on the plot and from which the reader can gauge her own reaction to the style, be the reviewer's what it may. If a review is well written and contains enough in the way of quotes and instances, it should in fact be possible for a negative review to leave the reader thinking "well, Reviewer X didn't like it, but from what he's said about it and quoted from it, I think I might" (and the reverse with a positive review, of course). I have bought a novel after reading just such a negative (but very useful) review.

Suppose you are reviewing a novel in which, to your mind, the author is far too keen on Fine Writing at the expense of other qualities like momentum, so that the narrative drags and meanders. Say so, by all means, but quote a paragraph of the Fine Writing in question, so that the reader can judge whether she would forgive these defects for the pleasure of the style. I wouldn't, but some plainly would, or Mr Banville would not have the success he does…

If you were writing a school essay, you wouldn't make bald assertions and back them up with no facts, or your teacher would be scrawling EVIDENCE? down the margin in big red letters. If you think an author's humour is lame, or a poet's rhythms awkward, quote instances; if an historian's claim seems too sweeping, say why. Otherwise your opinions are just that, and as such fairly unhelpful to your readers.

If you write reviews regularly, and for editors rather than your own pleasure, I can hear you saying "but word limits… how can we quote when we have to cram so much into 2000 words?" Well, first I'd say, if you are being asked to shoehorn so many writers into one review that you really can't do them justice, protest to the editor and tell them so. We all want to see more books reviewed, but better to review three books usefully than five perfunctorily. Second, there are other things you can jettison in favour of quotes. That paragraph of generalised waffle at the start, trying to find something all the books you're reviewing have in common. That biographical bit that is almost certainly irrelevant. That anecdote about how you once met the writer. Those smart remarks that show what a clever fellow you are. The reader doesn't need any of this, and she does need the quotes.

Unless you are reviewing a book that is part of a series, don't get too fixated on the writer's past work. It is relevant to note whether the present book is like or unlike it; someone who hasn't liked writer Y in the past may be interested if he has taken a whole new tack. But your reader wants to know what you made of one book, not the man's whole career. "Influences" and comparisons with other writers are also of limited use in my view. Many a writer has learned for the first time in a review that he was strongly influenced by Fred, whom he never read in his life. I think some reviewers, perhaps especially new and unsure ones, like to seize on what may well be mere coincidences to get a handle on the writing. Not every poet who happens to mention a fox is channelling Ted Hughes. Nor am I keen on the "if you like X you'll like Y" school of reviewing, mainly because I have almost always found, in my own reading, that it doesn't work. Just now and again, it may be useful, especially if you sense a trend starting, but I think it works better in a back-cover blurb, where you are looking to create an instant impression in a few words.

I know I am lucky now; I not only have no word limit, I can review on my blog only what I fancy. This means, in the nature of things, that I don't write many negative reviews; indeed some are downright enthusiastic. I have noticed that when one does have more light and shade, people trust it more and think it more "honest". This is particularly so with poetry, where a lot of people seem to feel many reviews consist of anodyne praise because reviewers are afraid to hurt anyone's feelings (or possibly because there are many poet-reviewers and they are scared the same will become of their own next book). For the record, it's quite possible to be unreservedly (or almost unreservedly) enthusiastic about a book and still be honest. It is also possible for acerbic, negative reviews to be less than honest. When I am hugely enthusiastic about a book, I do want to communicate that if I can, but I'm still thinking not of the writer so much as the reader, and of wanting to alert said reader to the pleasure it may give them. It should all, in the end, be for the benefit of the reader.
Sheenagh Pugh

Janey's mum tells us a story and we listen with our eyes shut. We've heard it before but we don't say because we're trying to give her a boost. It's the story of one day when she was fishing here with Janey's dad – way back before Janey was born – knee deep in the sea at the end of a hot summer afternoon. An old man was walking slowly along higher up the beach, followed by his little dog. The dog stopped to sniff something and the man got ahead, when suddenly the cliff slid and crumpled and massive chunks of rock thudded onto the beach; the old man turned half-unseen through the dust and stood quite still until at last the dog trotted out of the yellow cloud as if nothing was the matter.

This time when she tells the story I think: maybe they're both dead by now anyway, but I can still see that man and his dog walking out of that dust cloud on a perfect summer beach.

Incidents in novels that don't apparently advance the plot can often tell you a lot about what the author is really doing, aside from telling a story (and by the way this novel is on one level a cracking mystery/detective story that moves at a fair pace and keeps the reader wondering and guessing for a long time). In the passage above we have children taking emotional care of an adult, rather than the other way around, a potentially fatal danger coming almost literally out of a clear sky and a vision of two who may physically be dead but who live in imagination.

The imagination of an eleven-year-old, and here we come to a key feature of the novel: we have a first-person narrator who is eleven when the book begins and twelve when it ends. Nor does he write in a "looking back on childhood" way but in the present tense, in a voice which convinces throughout; I can literally think of only one moment when he didn't sound his age, and then only for the space of 7 words, which is a considerable achievement. The question is, does this make the book one aimed at children or YA readers, as many will assume simply because it has a child protagonist/narrator?

I think not, though an intelligent pre-teen or teen reader could certainly both enjoy it and empathise with the challenges the child characters face. To me it is not a book specifically aimed at children, but it is very much about childhood and in particular the relationships between children and adults, the power balance between the two, usually skewed so unfairly in favour of adults, and how this can sometimes be altered. I've seen reviews suggesting it is about loss and grief and I would agree that this is partly true, but it wasn't what most leapt out at me. In this book we have parents, or adults in parental roles, failing in various ways. A widow wallows in self-pitying grief to the point of neglecting her children. A woman lets her new relationship with a man undermine the loyalty she owes her friends and their children. A person in a parental role conceals from a child things he has an absolute right to know. Teachers and other authority figures make unjustified assumptions, often based on a patronisingly inaccurate notion of how much children understand.

Meanwhile the children get along as they can, sometimes evading or subverting adult rules and interference, sometimes managing by their own efforts to change things for the better and even to make the adults around them see and admit that they are not always right. Because we see things from their perspective, we share their often caustic humour and observation, their way of cutting through hypocrisy and social politeness, and there are some very funny moments.

Because the plot is, essentially, a sort of detective story, I don't want to give away too much, beyond the fact that our young narrator thinks murder has been done next door but can't get any adult to take him seriously. Perhaps the most important thing to convey is that this novel definitely crosses age boundaries: in view of its narrator and themes it would certainly please a YA audience, but adults should not avoid it on that account, since its stylistic and narrative skills have much to attract them as well.
Sheenagh Pugh
The following day I asked the woodwork teacher a question. He swept the wood shavings from his leather apron and said, "Flame-birch? The finest cabinetmaking material in the country. Comes from trees that are scarred in some way. The pattern comes from the tree doctoring itself."

[…] He disappeared into a closet and came back carrying a small cupboard door which had a golden shimmer. The meandering pattern created shades of black and shadow play on the luminous, amber-yellow woodwork.

"What you see are scars," he said. "The tree has to encapsulate the wound and continue to grow. The growth rings find alternative routes, extend across the wound. The pattern is unpredictable. Only when you saw parts off the tree can you see how it will turn out."

This is a novel by the chap who got famous with "Norwegian Wood", a sort of lyrical paean to the carpenter's trade. Trees and wood figure heavily in this book too. In 1991, after the death of the grandfather who brought him up, Edvard, a young Norwegian man, decides to unravel a mystery about his childhood. Twenty years before, Edvard's French mother and Norwegian father were killed in an accident in France; he himself, as a young child, was with them but went missing for four days, of which he has no recollection, until his Norwegian grandfather travelled to France, found him and brought him home. This at least is the story he has always been told, but he is certain it is not the whole truth. Furthermore the grandfather had a brother, Einar, from whom he was estranged and who is now, allegedly, dead, but after the grandfather's death, Edvard discovers that Einar's alleged death date can't be true either. The plot, basically, is his search for the truth, which takes him to Shetland in search of Einar's life and to France in search of the missing four days of his own childhood. On the way he gets embroiled with two women, Hanne and Gwen; his love life might best be summed up in John Gay's aphorism: "How happy could I be with either, were t'other dear charmer away".

I was drawn to the book because it is partly set in Shetland, where I live. It's only fair to note that there are some technical problems with the Shetland part: the author clearly has been in Shetland, and done research, but there are errors. It is not true, for instance, that there are "no police in Shetland"; there are fewer than some TV viewers of crime series might think, but there's a perfectly serviceable police station in Lerwick and I'm surprised he never came across it. Also there are problems with timing; Einar cannot be drinking in Captain Flint's in the 1970s because the premises wasn't a pub then; it was the top floor of a grocery shop, and the most northerly fish and chip café in the UK, Frankie's in Brae, wasn't so much as built in 1991 when Edvard eats there. As for swimming nude off Unst at the end of summer… well, maybe Norwegians are unusually hardy, but sooner him than me, mate.

However, this is the sort of thing that makes odds to someone who knows the location but not to most readers. As a mystery, it is a genuine page-turner; I would defy most readers not to share Edvard's curiosity to unravel the past. There is also a fascinating web of deception going on in the present, between Edvard and Gwen, who for good reasons never tell each other the whole truth and are often working behind each other's backs. Betrayal, both real and imagined, is in fact a major theme of the book. So is forgiveness, or maybe not so much forgiveness as living with what people are, particularly if they happen to be part of one's family and hence part of oneself.

None of this would matter, of course, if Mytting couldn't write, which he can. His lyrical gift is an odd one: it is not triggered nearly as much by nature or sense of place as it is by man-made objects, as can be seen in the extract above. His style is very readable, unfussy and clear in the Scandinavian way, never letting fancy stylistic devices overwhelm or slow down the narrative but not ignoring either the need for nuance and layering.
Sheenagh Pugh

This is not a book about Richard III. Nor […] is it a book about "Richard III". It is a book about everything in between. Its chief protagonists are the left-over remnants and traces of the years 1483-85 that made the journey into the sixteenth century […] my chief aim has been to observe how the present turns into the past […] and to explore how the past negotiates a place for itself in the present.

This book was published in 2013. I found it when I was looking for a 15th-century poem and it came up in Google Books. I daresay it shouldn't have; it is after all still in copyright. But in this case it worked in the author's favour, because, having found the reference I wanted, I was still reading, entranced, three pages on and realised that I would have to order the book.

I have often enough finished a novel and gone straight back to the start to re-read it, when its world had fascinated me so much that I didn't want to leave it. This is the first non-fiction book I've done it with.  I only hope I can make it sound as gripping, absorbing and thought-provoking as it really is.  It takes a brief period generally agreed to be on the cusp of great change: the end of Plantagenet England, and traces the bits of it that survived into a new world – artefacts, like a bedstead and an annotated prayer book, laws and institutions, memories strangely displaced and distorted by time and oral transmission, even people, like the old lady whose first name may have been Jane or Elizabeth but was still, while Henry VIII was negotiating his first annulment, known as "Shore's wife"; Edward IV's mistress, hanging on to life in London, with chroniclers already arguing about whether she had, in youth, been beautiful or not.

Schwyzer is particularly thought-provoking on the subject of "memory cycles", the way in which people tend to revisit the past when certain landmarks are reached. The first, as those tired of Diana-olatry have good cause to know, tends to be 20-30 years after the event in question, when the first post-event generation has grown up and when those who lived through it can view it from some objective distance. The second happens 50-60 years after, when "as the last witnesses near the ends of their lives, anxieties centre on the transmission of personal memory".  The third occurs around 100-120 years after, when the event is passing even beyond the kind of memory communicated by grandparents and becoming definitely "history"; this is sometimes marked by a flurry of commemoration, as the Great War has been. What is happening at these times in the present may well colour and shape memories of the past, a telling example being John Taylor's account of a very old man, Tom Parr, who thought he recalled two people being boiled alive for murder in the reign of Edward IV. They were, but it had happened fifty years later in the reign of Henry VIII.

Parr was one of a number of people who were alleged, in the 16th and early 17th centuries, to have attained an impossible age - the Countess of Desmond was variously reported to have made it to 140 or even 184. She must indeed have lived a long time if, as some stated, she grew a third set of teeth, a thing that does sometimes happen in extreme age, as the Persian poet Rudaki found in his own case and celebrated in verse. But the improbable attempts to date such people to before Tudor times read, as Schwyzer remarks, almost like an attempt to hang on to a vanished world.  The 50-year anniversary of Bosworth happened to fall during the dissolution of the monasteries, which must have seemed, to those who lived through it, like another world-changing event.

People interpret the past according to their own needs in the present. Some will allow their memories to be reshaped by prevailing opinion; some will cling doggedly to their own version if the whole world says different. And when history is fictionalised, the fiction, if powerful enough, may even outweigh the history. The transmission of information, particularly through oral sources, is both fascinating and frustrating. "I have heard of some that say they saw it", writes More, and in those three verbs we see how easily facts may be distorted.  Observation and memory may both be faulty, as the police know well; information may be poorly transmitted or understood; those who then write it down may alter it to suit their agenda.  Yet "the past" will keep cropping up, demanding some foothold in the present.  Elizabethan theatre companies, as Schwyzer points out, bought up old clothes and artefacts to use as props, and it is well possible that the "rotten armour, marvellous ill-favoured" which Richard and Buckingham wear at one point in Richard III was indeed genuine decayed armour, a survival from an earlier time.

When characters in a history play speak of the future, they are speaking of what, for the audience, is already the past and may well be used by the playwright to hint at the present. Concepts like time, memory, history, fiction are all, in this book, not only masterfully examined but brought to life, and in language which manages always to be clear and readable. As he observes of a Wyatt family legend from the time, "it is not unlikely that Sir Henry, starving in prison, was glad to dine on pigeons brought him by a friendly cat (many of us have received such services, albeit probably with less gratitude)."  Some of the survivals from the past that he traces are also truly fascinating – Wolsey's fancy porphyry coffin, coveted by Henry VIII but eventually ending up housing Nelson in the crypt of St Paul's; the Honourable Company of Wax Chandlers, granted their charter by Richard in 1484, still in existence today and still bearing his rampant boar device. But it is the book's central idea: how present becomes past, how past shoulders its way into the present, that is so unforgettable and so apt to make one examine events, artefacts, memories and fictions in a new light.
Sheenagh Pugh

Instead, she had his written account of the time they'd spent together in Vancouver. But it wasn't what had really happened. Some of it she remembered, some of the things they'd done, even some of the words that he'd put in her mouth. But the names were wrong, the details were wrong. If she had become the story, he had told it his way and it wasn't how she would have done it. His story.
I don't recall writing a review, before, in which even to mention the real name of one of the main characters would be a spoiler. But it would, if I named the woman who thinks the above, because nearly everyone and every place in this novel has at least two names. Even the protagonist, Gilbert Johnson, is called Gil by some, Bert by others, and the odd typography of the title is because the place its inhabitants now know as Cloud Falls was once called MacLeod's (soon misspelled MacCloud's) Falls after an early settler (and would, before him, have had an indigenous name, now lost). The point being that naming is a form of owning and changing, and that everyone tells a story his or her own way, and makes a different tale out of it.

Gil is an antiquarian bookseller from Edinburgh, also the kind of writer who is always going to write a book but never quite does. He has recently had radiotherapy for throat cancer, and while it seems to have worked, it has made him far more conscious of mortality and spurred him to finally research a piece of family history – he thinks a man called James Lyle, who emigrated from Scotland to Canada and became well known as an ethnographer and political activist, may have been his grandfather and has come to find out. Lyle, by the way, though fictional, is based on an historical character, James Alexander Teit, and if you say the two surnames together it will become clear by what impish process Teit has been fictionalised as Lyle.

Once in British Columbia, Gil becomes very caught up in the First Nations history of Cloud Falls, where Lyle lived with his first wife, whom Gil has previously known as Lucy, the English name she was given by missionaries, but whose real name, he now finds, was Antko.  She was also the source for the research Lyle did on First Nations culture, and to the indigenous people Gil meets, she was the story and Lyle her scribe.

However, though Gil certainly makes plenty of notes for the book on Lyle, the one he actually finds himself writing concerns himself and a woman he met on the plane. She too is a cancer survivor – they call themselves radiation twins – and follows him to Cloud Falls out of concern that he may be having suicidal thoughts (he is, though it was never quite clear to me how this meshed with his new-found determination to write and to spend his time less tamely than he had before the cancer).

As the book progresses, he begins to care less for the past than the present, and Lyle's story starts to fade. There are questions we never get answers to, not because they don't exist but because Gil has ceased to care about them as much. I must admit, being myself a history nut, I had got quite involved in Lyle's story by then and rather regretted this; when Gil, having seen a bigger waterfall, thinks of Cloud Falls; "It was nothing like as tall as Helmcken, not nearly so impressive" there is a little shock of betrayal. But in narrative terms, the shift is completely justified.

Narrative devices are important in this novel: people read each other's journals and fictions, whole sections appear to be told by an outside narrator, until the next section makes it clear that we have in fact been reading Gil fictionalising his experiences again. The only such device that didn't work for me was the Appendix to Gil's book proposal, which is a history of the settlement of the area in the form of notes.  The woman, reading this, gives up after 9 pages, feeling "it was too much to take in piecemeal". It certainly was; I had started skimming some time previous. In a history book it might have been fascinating, but one reads fiction in a different vein. The information it conveys is very relevant to the theme of story and how each narrator changes it, but I don't think it was best conveyed in this way at this length.

The other thing I must note is the many typos not picked up in proof.  For some reason, most of them involve missing definite and indefinite articles – eg "he stood for moment" (p143), "some of regulars" (p111), "she peered into room" (p191), but I stopped listing because there were so many, as if some compositor had a down on "the" and "a".  Odd. But it should not detract from an absorbing, many-layered and thought-provoking read in which no person, place or event turns out to be quite what we thought on first acquaintance.
Sheenagh Pugh
Well, this is organised so unlike most poetry collections that I think I'd better start by describing the premise. The introduction explains that the protagonist (who certainly voices most of the poems and may in fact voice them all) is a woman called Roisin, a writer and illustrator of children's books, who lives somewhat unwillingly with a dysfunctional family in Dawlish and is hindered in getting away because she has the progressive eye disease retinitis pigmentosa. Some of the poems concern the book she is working on, some the progress of her loss of sight, some are addressed to her editor Brian, whom she has never met but who has become in her mind a potential rescuer.

This feels exactly like being plonked down in the middle of a novel, so much so that I wondered if the material did not begin as one. The only other collection I've read which is anything like it in structure is Alice Notley's Negativity's Kiss, another narrative collection, which opens with someone trying to kill the protagonist. But Notley's characters are clearly allegorical and as such it doesn't really signify how they came to this point, nor do we need to feel for them as if they were real. Roisin is very much a real person, who actually comes alive pretty well and whose story is very easy to enter into, but it can be frustrating to feel that there are, as it were, whole chapters that happened before we came in. Those readers who demand closure may also wish to be warned that the end is as opaque as an episode of The Prisoner; it is not at all certain whether Roisin has escaped or merely dreamed of escaping.

However, there is no reason why all collections should have to be a series of tidy little lyrics or sequences and once one accepts that this one is different, the individual poems have much to please and interest the reader.  The deterioration of sight in an artist who relies on it so much is convincingly evoked.  Having a relative with Roisin's disease, I can recognise the anxiety about being out after dark that results from fading night-vision, also the enforced focus on other senses in "Pigeons After Dark:

With tennis-ball thuds,
clothes-brush sweeps,
pen-nib scratchings,

they punctuate
this ceaseless dirge
of sea and shingle

The transition from "when I could see across the lake" ("Bestiary for a Painted Earth") through faces that have to be plotted out geometrically by "a scaffold of lines" ("The Art of Self-Portraiture") to the point where she opens a familiar book and "every page/was white" ("A Room in the City") is subtle and skilfully done in a relatively brief space. The children's book she is working on also figures in the poems, and sounds intriguing – an Irish child on a mission to bring back the snakes Patrick supposedly expelled – but we hear tantalisingly little of it.

This is a short collection, 36 pages of poems, and I would, in fact, cheerfully swap the 15 pages of notes at the end of the book for more poems. I don't object to the idea of notes in poetry collections; I've used them myself and got a lot of pleasure out of reading others' notes when they give me knowledge that follows from the poems but doesn't belong in them. But in this case I don't think most of the notes are necessary.  A lot of them involve information one could easily enough look up if one needed to – a "Vargas girl pose", St Patrick's nickname "adze-head" – while others are clear from the context.  Reading "break the bars of Larsen traps and raise lost magpies to the sky", does one really need to know where and by whom these traps were invented? Some, like Branwen's starling, are literary references the reader is either going to get or not, and if not, reading it later in a note won't really help recreate the desired effect. Including a note describing Lego, just because the author once met a man who hadn't heard of it, is just OTT. And the note that says of one poem "Brian speaks. Or does he?" apart from sounding arch, comes too close to telling the reader how to read.  I'd already worked out that the poem, which appears to be in the editor's voice, could in fact very well be Roisin's way of imagining that voice; there are clues in it that point that way.  These notes, to me, indicate a lack of authorial confidence in himself to convey his meaning and in the reader to grasp it. It is a first collection; I'd hope that by the time there's a second, he will feel assured enough to trust to his skill in the poems and do without quite so much apparatus.

One reason this has happened, I think, is that having in effect created a novel-heroine about whom he already knows a great deal, and introduced the reader in the middle of her narrative, Carney feels obliged to bring us up to date on a lot of back-story, like what books she read as a child.  But what we need of this is already coming through her voice, and it is when he trusts this voice that the poems come most alive, as here in "An Hour from the River":

And after, when I cannot climb the oak
you climb it for me, as I feel my flesh
against the cragscape of its bark. You speak
from your all-seeing height, about the rooks
above the fields, the hedges and the haystacks,
the ream of something swimming fast below
the middle arch of Humpy Bridge. And last,
you even see and tell about the mayflies

rising. I close my eyes to picture them
the way I've dreamed them – coloured lithographs
in library books, made tiny, multiplied
a hundred thousand times, all swirling up
and up into the burning blue and white.

It's a change from the usual unconnected lyrical moments to read a collection with a narrative thread and a developing character voice (and incidentally, this male author does a female voice very well, mostly by not falling into the trap of thinking of her as a different species).  I'm all for collections that are not quite the usual thing. This one does feel in some ways fragmentary, like reading a part of a story rather than the whole. But better for the reader to come away wishing there were more of a book than feeling there has been more than enough.

Sheenagh Pugh

   He smiles. Calmer than he thought he would be. Shrugs off his rucksack and places it on the ground. Reaches inside and pulls them out. One, two, three. Enough for now.  Digs out his lighter, sparks it. Watches the dancing women, the happy families. Taps his foot and nods his head in time to the beat from a nearby sound system.
   Lights one of the fuses and tosses the IED into the crowd.

An IED is an Improvised Explosive Device (until fairly recently, Thomas was a policeman and still speaks the lingo).  The question haunting this book  - quite apart from whodunit and will the police catch them before they do it again – is what sort of person attacks a crowd of innocent strangers with such a deadly thing, and the answer is more various and more complicated than the police initially think. The usual Twitter assumptions – racist, extremist, loner, loser – crop up and some have a degree of truth in them, but none, in this novel, is a full answer.  One could point to likely motivations, yet these very factors also exist for other characters in the novel who do not react in the same way.  This is the sort of novel where a reviewer really does not want to commit spoilers, because not only is it a page-turner, it has at least two genuinely surprising twists midway when we, in the person of DC Will MacReady, realise something that wasn't obvious at first.  So I'll go no further down that road except to say that anger, and the various possible causes of anger and reactions to it, are key, and that in this respect, as in others, it is a very contemporary novel.

DC MacReady first appeared in Thomas's last novel, Ash and Bones, and though it is perfectly possible to read this one as a stand-alone, myself I would recommend reading Ash and Bones first (it's no hardship; I reviewed it here) because you'll then be more immediately au fait with our Will's complicated personal life. His wry, jaundiced attitude to his life, job, senior officers and fellow humans in general provides the trademark humour Thomas's fans already know:

Penarth didn't do sink estates. The closest it ever had – the Billy Banks flats, a failed sixties development of dog-turd-encrusted grass patches and pebble-dash the colour of smog – had been demolished at the tail end of the noughties to make way for stratospherically expensive apartments and townhouses. replete with private security patrols and a propensity amongst the occupants to wear sailor hats and shorts, possibly because at least three of the buildings offered a glimpse of the Bristol Channel.

This brings me to one of the stand-out features of this novel, its sense of place and time. I lived many years in Cardiff, and it may be that I reacted more strongly to it because of that. But I honestly think that even to readers who don't know the city, a sense of its vibrant multiculturalism, its consumerism, the contrast between its rich and poor areas and above all the effect of a hot summer on its mood, would come over.  Thomas's re-creation of it has the vividness and detail of someone who has not just walked and driven its streets, but done so with real observation.

In Ash and Bones, children and people's attitudes to them were extremely important and potentially redemptive. They figure in this novel too, but in Unforgivable it becomes clear that no factor in life – the presence or absence of children, being in a relationship or steering clear, getting on with one's parents or avoiding them – is a guaranteed panacea for anything. The frequent parallels between the habits, pursuits and problems of the law-abiding and the ungodly raise, again and again, the question of why people go one way and how easily they might go another.  The novel's ending illustrates this quite graphically, and in a way that may well raise a laugh, albeit a wry one.

The book's title might be taken to refer to the crimes it describes, but that depends on your viewpoint. For most of the time, we are in Will's point of view, but every so often – four times, to be precise – we go into another, and it is then that we see how things that most of us might put down to bad luck or our own fault become, in more damaged or twisted minds, "unforgivable", with dire consequences. I found this point-of-view shift really effective and convincing.

This taut, pacy, atmospheric account of events over five hectic days is as engaging and convincing as has become usual for this author. No doubt his police background is what makes him sound so in control of his material, but he is not content just to write what he knows; in this novel he is interested in what we can never wholly know, the inside of others' heads, and if we first read the novel as a page-turner, wanting to know "what happens next" (which I certainly did), it is the "why" that will be more in our minds when we re-read.
Sheenagh Pugh

how adults must live
between wage and want, and want and need (Trails and Ways 1)

People who write about poetry often have a terrible habit of squeezing it into boxes. Mainstream poetry. Confessional poetry. Urban poetry. Experimental poetry. These boxes are seldom an exact fit, and can be very deceiving, especially since two or more frequently occupy the same space.

Two boxes that are often, and most mistakenly, thought of as incompatible are "landscape/nature poetry" and "political poetry".  I've seen many a pundit equate "political" with "urban" and assume that any poetry which is rooted in a rural landscape, conscious of its history and alive to the natural world cannot possibly be politically aware or "contemporary" in its concerns. I can well imagine these gentry noting that this collection's focus is Leckhampton Hill, that it commemorates past events and that some of the poems are voiced by an adder, a badger and a fox, and filing it tidily under "landscape: mainstream, non-political, non-controversial".

This couldn't be more wrong. The possession of land, after all, is the point of almost all wars and at the back of this collection lies the contention that land does not "belong" to whoever currently happens to own the title deeds. It commemorates a quarry owner's attempt in 1902 to enclose the land, and celebrates those who resisted the attempt and maintained their rights of access to land they had walked and used for generations.

This is the point of the accumulation of detail about the species that inhabit the hill – "Slow Worms Common Lizards Adders Buzzard Sparrowhawk Kestrel" (Voices found on the hill), the history, the named and used paths, the human witnesses – "Trye, Tilling, Hiscock" (Calling the Witnesses), some of whom will later add their own voices.  The more you read of this, the more ludicrous is the notion that any one man could "own" it. The most he could be is its tenant, with responsibilities to its present, past and future and all those, human, animal and plant, who inhabit them.  The poet does not deny the lure of undisturbed possession, the longing to have the enjoyment of a place to oneself (often justified by fears of overcrowding and damage to habitat).   But it is telling that the poem which expresses this is entitled "Greed":
I want to walk away from the main track
and hear no voices. I want a lonely dawn
or to sit at the top and watch the creeping dusk.
I want to be selfish, greedy, alone.
It seems fitting that poems with such a strong sense of geography should also be conscious of space on the page and what can be done with it. Some poems are conventionally left-hand justified (and several of these are shaped as loosely vowel-rhymed terza rima), but there are also prose testimonies from the "aged witnesses" and some fully justified pieces in which the resulting uneven spacing of words is used to good effect, notably in the piece about the demolishing of a cottage by the landowner:

it   was   submitted   that   to   be  a  riot
someone must be terrified                 the
Cratchleys ran                       the cottage
walls lay in heaps of stone                and
the Cratchleys ran               outbuildings
burned to ash           clothes smouldered
in the trampled garden                       the
Cratchleys ran            but there were no
unnecessary circumstances of disorder.

The animal voices – adder, fox, badger, hawk, rabbit – are given the necessary alien feel via Old English vocabulary:
niht-time is mine   evenleether
with brock and nadder
      leafworm and wanderlight
my wif is a bale-fire at swart-time
   calling wellstemned.  (Fox)
I like this idea for rendering animal voices; I do think that some here work better than others.  But what they unquestionably do is add to the diversity of the hill, its variegated and ever-changing life:
I could call this place timeless but I'd be lying.
The land wears time as a mantle, bending briars
over paths, growing trees to fill a slope, change
encoded in every seed and speck of earth.  (Timeless)
I have, incidentally, nothing against pure landscape poetry for its own sake.  I can think of few things more vital to observe closely and describe vividly than the place we live in, and any poetry that gives us phrases like "the metalled litter of beech leaves" is fine by me.  I just think it necessary to stress for the "meh, nature poetry" brigade that actually this is a collection celebrating trespass, civil disobedience and complete disregard for property rights. And a hill.

Sheenagh Pugh

Those who have read Ely's two previous full-length collections, Oswald's Book of Hours and Englaland , will be familiar with his themes and preoccupations: place, and people dispossessed of it, history permanently alive in landscape, religion, politics. They will also be aware of his techniques, particularly the delight in the multifariousness of words, the use of forms, and the dense texture created by constant allusiveness.  There are generally a lot of things going on beneath the surface of an Ely poem, so much so that end-notes are needed, but up to now, this has never, to my mind, been a problem. The technique arises from his consciousness of past-in-present; he cannot look at a landscape and see only what it is now. Rather, everything that has ever happened there comes together to shape it.

The ground of this book is the story of Richard Rolle, 14th-century mystic, prolific religious writer, unofficial preacher and spiritual adviser to nuns, with one of whom, Margaret, he seems to have developed a relationship close enough to raise eyebrows. At one point she became an anchoress, only emerging from solitude when informed of his death, after which she was active in promoting his cult.  Whatever the historical truth of the matter, it is strongly hinted, especially in the poem "Richard lay a-weeping", that the Richard and Margaret of this collection are indeed lovers, and torn between their vocations and temptation.

This is potentially an absorbing and moving situation, and it does become so in some of the early poems in Richard's voice, where he emerges as a character, notably "To Mega Therion" and "Banquet of Virgins":
I am your Father and you my monkish girl.
We sit knee to knee, handfast in yearning.
You confess you are often tempted,
as am I.
Much of the time, though, Richard and Margaret seem to me to disappear behind the crowd of disparate characters who elbow their way into these poems: Pound, Blake, Catweazle, Agricola, Robert Aske and various friends and relatives of the poet. Some of these, sometimes, do have the effect of the allusiveness in Oswald's Book of Hours, making the poems deeper and more layered by adding an historical consciousness. But sometimes I felt they were not so much adding layers to the narrative as getting in its way.

 It is the first time I have felt the level of allusiveness might be a problem, that some of the allusions were lying about on the surface of the poem rather than being absorbed into its fabric, and that Ely was perhaps trying to cram too much into one poem. Notably, this happened in a five-part non-Rolle poem, "The Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram". The note to it begins with the sentence "In (1), the unravelling of creation is explored with help from the Genesis creation story, the legend of the Golem, Gnosticism, the allegory of Adam Kadmon and Gawain and the Green Knight". After that, it gets a bit complicated.  I found this particular poem all but unreadable. Another allusive poem in several parts, "Little Saint Hugh", exploring the long history of anti-Semitism in Europe, is far more powerful, communicative and focused.

If there is a problem, it is one of over-ambitiousness, which, goodness knows, is better than having poems aim too low and attempt too little. But to me at least, it robs the poems of some of the drive and momentum that were so evident in his two previous collections.  Some associations, maybe, should be like the seven-eighths of the iceberg beneath the surface: the writer knows they are there, and his writing is influenced accordingly, but the reader need not.

In the final poem, "Æcerbot" ( a charm designed to restore fertility to a field) Rolle reappears to conduct the rite, as does Ely's ability to dazzle with the richness of words:
Slit-light splayed in shafts cross
chancel, limed walls lucent, linen bright.
Bated breath of bell and Bible,
batflit dust mote, transepts still.
And in two adjoining poems, "Je te plumerai" and "The White Hart", Ely again shows the skill at playing one poem off another, to the benefit of both, that surfaced so often in Englaland. Both are set in the 14th century, both involve hunting, the first by nobles, the second by poachers in rebellion against government and its tax-collectors, and while each is complete in itself, together they are more than the sum of their parts. There is much to enjoy and think about here, as always, and most when he gives music and narrative their head.
Sheenagh Pugh

Everything seemed to have been torn from its roots,
so that it tumbled over the mind
as in a dream: pigs, seaweed,
birds, people, flowers.

Perhaps that's what he meant by Unland,
a country where things break loose
from their own being.

The storyteller goes on,
as if to himself.

In his introduction to this poetic re-imagining of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, Matthew Francis remarks that the nearest thing to a hero in the original is Pryderi, which is true. But in this version, a far more important character is Gwydion, the magician who is described (again in the original) as the world's greatest storyteller, and whom Francis casts as the narrator of the Fourth Branch. For above anything, what Francis has done here is to recreate the immediacy these tales must have had before they were pinned down in writing, when they were spoken by a storyteller who might at any moment shift an emphasis, drop or add material, or see a character in a new way and make the audience do so. It isn't often that a collection of poems is, literally, a page-turner, where the lure of "what happens next" will not let you stop reading, but it is so here, and I know the actual stories well. But knowing them doesn't mean you know what happens next, because every storyteller puts his own slant on the material, highlighting bits that others leave in darkness. How it actually feels to be a giant like Bran:

the wind in his ears

that his friends must shout to compete with,
a life lived in the weather –
no house will hold him.

He is closer to the birds
than his family.

Or the way something seen from a distance becomes all manner of things before resolving into what it actually is:

a horse with a lick of sunlight on its back,
a horse with a knight in gilt armour,
a horse with a splash of silk
horsewoman riding,

not so much moving as sharpening.

It is, as much as anything, Francis's unusually "sharp" vision, and his eye and ear for a telling image, that give these poems the clarity and colour of a mediaeval manuscript, an effect heightened by the happy device of including the kind of marginal notes you might find in a Bible. These also give some play to his humour, a quality in evidence throughout the collection, as in his description of pigs:
a herd of animals
with small eyes, harrumphing speech
and babyish smiles.

The magic, the constant transitions between the real world and the Otherworld (Unworld, as Francis calls it) come over particularly strongly. It is true, as he says in the Introduction, that "poetry has never had much of a problem with magic. Poets spend their lives transforming things into other things". But it is true too that not all poets could take alternative realities as much in their playful stride as he does, and that part of the reason the magic works is that he treats giant baby-snatching claws, necromancers' wives masquerading as mice, and horses made of mushrooms as perfectly normal, something you might well come across when wandering in so elemental and history-haunted a place as Dyfed. At least, you might if you were as open to possibilities as this writer.

Like all the best storytellers, Francis has love and respect for his source material without feeling bound by previous versions of it. He has shaped, re-ordered, sometimes altered, as the early oral storytellers must surely have done, regarding their material as alive and full of potential rather than a dead, immutable text on a page. Nothing kills a story like treating it with reverence, and his refusal to do so is why his version feels live, fresh, new. I would love to hear these poems read aloud, and I doubt any audience would willingly let the teller stop until the tale was done.

Every so often, I've asserted that if some Francis collection doesn't win an award, the judges must be idiots, and every time, it turns out they are. I've begun to wonder if his work is perhaps not miserable enough to please judges. He is certainly a "serious" poet in that he writes of serious matters, but he does it with humour and a constant delight in the variety and wonder of the world. It is this delight which comes over most strongly from these poems, and which will tempt most readers back into them.
Sheenagh Pugh
10 June 2017 @ 05:42 pm
Something a bit different: a review of a literary magazine, Prole, cos someone asked me to do it.

This issue of the magazine contains a mix of poems and short stories: no reviews, no critical articles except the judge's comments on the entries to the Prole Laureate Poetry Competition. This isn't a criticism on my part, by the way; I'm just trying to give a factual idea of what sort of magazine it is.

The short stories are a mix of set-in-the-real-world (Richard Hillesley, Dave Wakely, Sue Pace) and set somewhere at an angle to reality (Olivia Pope, Rebecca Sandeman) with Marc Jones coming somewhere in between, in that his story is set in the here and now but with a rather unusual narrator and a definite tinge of the Under Milk Woods in the style. I thought the Hillesley story did a bit too much spelling out and explaining its intentions, while the Sandeman could have done with more; I couldn't really figure out what she was trying to do. I enjoyed the Pace and Wakely stories very much. Because of the variety of styles, I should think most readers would find something to enjoy.

There was variety among the poems too, though I'd say the majority fell into two categories: observational and polemical, with a sprinkling of the determinedly quirky. Some, of course, cross boundaries: Margaret Beston's "Commodity" is observational but carries an oblique, understated message  (the best kind, for my money). D A Prince's message in "Illegal" is more overt, but comes over powerfully because the situation is so well imagined. Patrick Deeley does observational very skilfully.  There are, as ever, poems that feel merely observational or wholly polemical, and which I find less memorable on that account (I prefer transformative when I can get it). There weren't nearly as many of the determinedly quirky, which suits me as I can soon have enough of them. You can often tell them from the start; they'll have an off-the-wall title or opening line meant to surprise the reader and grab the attention. Unfortunately that's frequently the most interesting point, from which they go rapidly downhill.

There was some unexpected variety of style, too. It's quite easy, these days, to pick up a magazine and find nothing but free verse, but there's a fair bit of rhyme in here of an informal, ballad-like type. Again I think most readers would find something to their taste. Mr Hillesley popped up again with a very spare, minimalist piece called "Arles" which I found mesmerising in its rhythms and all the more memorable for being somewhat elusive.

Unless I somehow missed it, I can't see any notes on contributors, which I thought a pity; when a writer has lodged in our memory, we like to find out more.

Prole is £6.70 an issue with postage and comes out three times a year. I'd say you get a lot of prose and poetry for your money, much of it of a high quality.
Sheenagh Pugh
01 June 2017 @ 02:39 pm
Why yes, this is a new departure. I've never interviewed someone twice before, but then none of my previous interviewees has ended up in quite such a different place, and not just geographically. I found there were a whole new lot of questions I wanted to ask him, about actually living as an author.

SHEENAGH: Last time we had a natter, you were still a serving policeman alongside writing novels about police procedure. Now, I believe, you and the force have parted company and you're living in Portugal, making your living through various kinds of writing, not just fiction but freelance jobs like online travel guides? How's that working out?

MIKE: Yes, I quit in 2015, but I’d been on a ‘career break’ since 2011 so – coupled with the move abroad – I was pretty far removed from all things police work-related. My life now is novels and freelancing, which is lovely most of the time but has led to some hairy moments. Until resigning from the Five-Oh I’d spent my entire working life on a guaranteed monthly salary so it took some – often painful – adjustment. At one point a year or so back we had eighteen Euros to our name, a hefty amount of unexpected bills to pay, and no more paydays on the horizon. Much sleep was lost. But you learn, and when the biggish chunks of money come in you discipline yourself not to spend all the cash on Blu-rays and booze, because, y’know, you have to feed the kids every now and again or they complain. It’s funny, I frequently have to disabuse people – especially family – of the notion that my life is spent bronzing my nipples on a beach in the Algarve, while occasionally typing a bit of crap for my publisher. We live in the mountains of central Portugal in a house that needs serious fixing up and where the winters are brutal. Both my wife and I work full time, often seven days a week and for ten to twelve hours a day. I think I sunbathed for an hour about two years back. But that’s the life of a freelancer, I suppose. We have to do it if we want to stay here, because neither of us has any desire to return to the UK – look at what’s going on there.

SHEENAGH: I am, I am... and wondering whether "what's going on here" is liable to reflect in your future books at all?

MIKE: The whole thing is just too depressing to write about, to be frank. I’d just point everyone in the direction of P D James’ The Children of Men. Or even Cuaron’s film adaptation; it stands up just as well. I worry that at some point in the not-too-distant future we will come to regard that novel – certainly the Omega section with its depiction of societal breakdown and state barbarity – as scarily prescient. Warden May, anyone?

SHEENAGH: We've mentioned that you are now an émigré, like several other writers I've interviewed – Barbara Marsh, Frank Dullaghan, Ruth Lacey.  Has this affected your writing at all? So far, your books have all still been set in South Wales. Are you finding it harder to write about Wales now you don't live there, or does distance actually clarify vision?

MIKE: It’s not the country, or whatever Welsh town or city the story is based in, that I have difficulty with now because I know Cardiff inside and out, and I have almost photographic memories of South Wales. It’s the police procedure and legislation I struggle with. As I’ve mentioned, it’s been a good while since I was a copper and it’s frightening how much has changed and what I’ve forgotten. I wanted to forget at first, I hated the job and was so happy to leave. But now it’s needs must for work, so I’m frequently on social media badgering old colleagues about stuff like firearms policy and radio etiquette. It’s one of my pet hates in crime fiction: getting the basics wrong, the plod vernacular and policies and techniques. So I do fret about that a little now. I’m lucky that my wife was a much better copper than me and has managed to retain an awful lot of information so I usually go whining to her first.

SHEENAGH: Are you liable to start setting books in Portugal?

MIKE: Lisbon features in one or two chapters in Ash and Bones, but I’m not sure if I’d want to have Portugal as the backdrop to an entire novel, certainly if they continue to be crime-related. I know the country has its problems but I don’t really want to know too much about its nasty side. After two decades as a cop I’ve had my fill of nastiness, thanks very much. That ruined Cardiff for me for many years, I had a real love/hate relationship with the place until recently because I’d seen some terrible things that skewed my perception of the capital and its people. I can separate it now, and see the good in the city while still writing about fictional bad things going on there. As for Portugal, perhaps if the local farming community are uncovered as a Europe-wide goat-smuggling ring I’ll write about it. Until then: probably not.

SHEENAGH: Your first two novels were police-procedural, but Ash and Bones was more a crime novel, though still very much informed by your police background, and I think the new one is too? What brought about the change?

MIKE: Honestly? Simple economics. Other than Booker winners, big names like McEwan and the odd fluke that nobody predicted would go stratospheric, literary novels don’t sell that many copies. My first two were well-received, and Pocket Notebook did quite well for a debut that was difficult to classify as it had a police milieu but wasn’t crime. Then in 2014 my then-publisher and I parted ways, and I was a little bit lost for a while. This was after I moved to Portugal so I had to have a serious rethink about how I was going to earn a living. I was also being nudged, ever so gently, towards writing something more commercial (that dirty word). It was either do that or give up novel-writing completely, which I seriously considered for a few dark months as I wasn’t enjoying being part of the business at all. In the end I got my act together and dug out an old character who’d already featured in three unpublished novels, and started writing. That got me a deal with the guys at Bonnier, meaning I could feed those pesky kids for a couple more years, at least until they’re old enough for me to put them in the army. And I’m still writing the standalones, they keep me from finally losing the last of my marbles.

SHEENAGH: Your protagonist Will managed to survive Ash and Bones and looks like being a fixture. This was also a bit of a change, as the protagonists of your first two ended up dead or totally dispirited… why did you decide on an ongoing character?

MIKE: I refer you to my last answer. A series is where it’s at, nowadays. Television, film and publishing are all desperately looking for the next big returning series or character. That ‘brand’, that ‘franchise’. I know some of this will be anathema to many writers I know, but thems the facts. You might have a beautifully written, powerfully moving literary novel but it won’t sell anywhere near as many copies as a pulpy, twisty thriller – probably with ‘girl’ in the title – and a female protagonist who has a drink problem/amnesia/a double life/insert affliction du jour here. Or as many copies as a crime series. I remember going to London for a meeting with a pretty powerful TV production company who were thinking of optioning my second novel, Ugly Bus. Once the coffee and small talk was out of the way, the conversation quickly turned to how the characters could be developed so they’d all return in a second, third or even fourth series. When I said they’d all end up in prison so you’d have no second series, I was thanked for my time and shown the door.

SHEENAGH: Weren't you tempted? Because I can easily see how they keep out of prison on that particular score anyway; the woman, understandably, doesn't complain. And I can see how both her story and the sergeant's continue, even the Bus crew if they're careful or devious enough... Does the consciousness of "series is where it's at" influence how you're writing now?  - I notice you still killed a promising character off in your last!

MIKE: The ‘series is where it’s at’ thing doesn’t even enter my head. It is what it is at this moment in my career: I have a deal to write three books, so that’s what I will do. I suppose that’s the police officer still in me: you’ve got a job, do it as best you can, then move on. So after that’s done, who knows? If the publisher doesn’t want any more MacReady novels then I’ll write something else. Your ‘track’ (i.e. track record of sales) is everything nowadays and if you don’t sell enough you’re out, regardless of whether you’re writing a series or not. A few months back I read a piece written by an agent lamenting how long-term relationships and nurturing by publishers is becoming increasingly rare, how authors aren’t given a chance to establish themselves or their ‘brand’ and make the publishing house some money back. It’s the nature of the business now, depressing as it is.

As for the Ugly Bus characters, the only one I’ve given serious consideration to returning to is the female character and how she navigates her life and career after those terrible events. That novel was a nightmare to write. It wasn’t just the ‘difficult second album’ syndrome. During the eighteen months of the first draft my wife and I were working full time opposite shifts, we had two children under four, moved house twice in the UK then abroad, I had another job as a creative writing tutor with nearly a hundred students on my books, and I was still to finish my University work. It was incredibly stressful. And then it was released to absolutely no fanfare and pretty much disappeared, which was heart-breaking. So I have mixed feelings about it – while I’m not sure I want to write another ninety thousand words following the same flawed/awful coppers, I’m hugely proud of the book itself: the effort it took to write, the characters and story and that final kicker that everyone gasped about.

SHEENAGH: By now, you must have had quite a lot to do with publishers, editors, the process of actually getting a book published and marketed.  What advice would you give a writer new to all that?

MIKE: A great question. It’s wonderful being published, it was a dream come true, and I’ve had moments – certainly in the beginning, with the people I met, the places I was wined and dined in – where I’ve had to pinch myself. But I always think of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, because as glorious as it is at first, and as terrific and enthusiastic as the people can be in publishing, you quickly discover what’s behind the curtain ain’t all that. It’s a job, and sometimes a ball-achingly tedious one, and occasionally a clench-your-fists-and-scream-at-the-skies-in-frustration one. And the reality is you’re probably not going to be a bestseller. You’re not going to become rich, or anywhere near comfortable. You are not going to be asked to opine on television panels or sit on a sofa opposite Jonathan Ross while you share ‘bantz’. I don’t want to come across as a miseryguts, but anyone who enters this world assuming they’ll soon be doing that Algarve thing I mentioned really needs to carefully manage their expectations or it will crush you. A bit of digging will reveal that the vast majority of authors out there still have ‘day jobs’. There’s a very good reason for that. So if I could narrow it down to one piece of advice, it would be: savour every moment, but don’t expect the world…

Mike's new novel, Unforgivable, comes out from Zaffre in July.
Sheenagh Pugh
19 May 2017 @ 04:07 pm

I've been getting quite worried lately by the number of vox pops, BTL comments and pronouncements on the likes of Twitter (perhaps I should say Twatter) which seem to indicate a growing fear and intolerance of any difference from the perceived norm. It isn't just about immigrants or foreigners, though lord knows they suffer from this; it also affects disabled folk. This is partly the fault of governments and newspapers who have encouraged their dimmer readers to believe everyone in a wheelchair is some kind of fraudster bent on robbing them via the benefits system. But it goes deeper, I think, witness the online conversation I had lately about a man who, some years ago, was wrongly suspected of murder by the press (probably encouraged by the police) and had, quite rightly, received compensation for the injury to his reputation when the real culprit was found. The person on the other side of the conversation was inclined to blame him, because "if he didn't want to be suspected he shouldn't have looked so weird and had an odd hairstyle".

This is why I don't like politicians advocating national unity, coming together, shared values, singing from the same hymn sheet (particularly that metaphor: I don't wish to sing from any hymn sheet, and since I live in a post-enlightenment secular democracy, not a mediaeval theocratic dictatorship, that is my right). But I also want to live in a country where one is not obliged to act like everyone else, fall in behind the majority opinion, or even have a sensible hairstyle. I don't want "unity" if it means conformity, nor "coming together" if it means ironing out difference, rather than learning to tolerate it.

So basically I think all natural-born conformers should have a good listen to Georges Brassens' great song La mauvaise réputation. When the lyric says everyone speaks ill of him except the dumb, everyone kicks out at him except the one-legged, he isn't just making black jokes, he means those who are somehow different from the norm have a natural affinity, unlike the "braves gens" who think everyone should go the same road as them and be exactly like them. For anyone whose French is rusty, here's a rough translation I once did purely for the purpose of singing in the bath.

In the village, without a doubt,
I enjoy an ill repute.
Whatever I do, whatever I say,
I'm looked on as something out of the way.
Yet I do no harm to anyone,
I just want to go on my way alone.
But the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Yes, the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Everybody speaks ill of me,
Except for the dumb, naturally.

When the procession passes by,
I lie in bed and close my eyes.
If they want to have their jubilee,
That's got nothing to do with me.
Yet I do no harm to anyone,
If I do not choose to follow the drum.
But the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Yes, the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Everyone points the finger at me,
(Not those with no arms, naturally).

If I see a kid who's been pinching fruit
Run by with the law in hot pursuit,
I stick out a foot, and strange to say,
It's always the policeman in the way.
Yet I do no harm in anything,
If I help a kid who's been apple-scrumping.
But the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Yes, the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Everybody kicks out at me,
Except the one-legged, naturally.

You don't need the gift of prophecy
To work out what will happen to me.
If they can find a good excuse,
I shall be hanging in a noose
Yet I do no harm to anyone,
If I follow roads that don't lead to Rome.
But the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Yes, the good folk hate to be told
Theirs isn't always the only road.
Everyone'll come to see me die,
Except for the blind, naturally.

Sheenagh Pugh
This is a fascinating read, but quite a tough one. For one thing it's been written by an academic for academics, which means he doesn't feel required to stop and explain, say, concepts like the semiotic triangle, or throwaway references like "we need think only of Sidonius Apollinaris" (well yes, I think of him constantly, or might do if I had a clue who he was). Secondly, it talks a great deal about the arcane processes of printing and book-binding, in the terminology of those crafts, and while admittedly he explains said terms when they first appear, if your memory is like mine, you will find yourself, next time they crop up, thinking "what the hell was that?" And since they mostly don't appear in the index, it isn't easy to refresh your memory. Nothing would have been more helpful than a glossary of printing terms. I'd have liked more illustrations too, though some of those that do appear are enchanting, notably the spire of Strasbourg Cathedral poking up through the margin of a page in the Chronicle of Nuremberg.

I found I couldn't read it in large chunks without my head starting to swim, but once you get into it, there are some really thought-provoking and illuminating observations on things you might never have thought of in the way they appear here, and particularly the relationships between different developments. The link, for instance, between the rise of silent reading and the representation in signs of punctuation. The way silent reading turned the whole act of reading into something more private, less social, even anti-social, and enabled each individual reader to put his own slant on a text. The impetus which the introduction into Europe (from China) of playing cards gave to mass production of texts and images. The way different fonts evolved for different texts - Gothic, at first, for devotional works, Antiqua and other roman fonts for secular romances. Those who, like me, didn't realise that fonts were sometimes named after people may like to give Messrs Garamont and Bembo a wave in passing...

In his foreword, Barbier says he hopes "by a discussion of the very first media revolution, that of Gutenberg in the mid fifteenth century, to offer some insights into the media revolution of the early twenty-first century". Oddly enough, and despite his use of such terms as hardware and software in the 15th-century printing context, I don't think much of a likeness does emerge between the two. It's true that the internet has opened up a form of self-publishing to huge numbers of people who didn't have access to it before, in the same way that the availability of printed books and their relative cheapness compared with manuscripts hugely widened the audience for texts in its time. But the more this history conveys of the print revolution, its entrepreneurial spirit, the sudden spread of knowledge, the ability to disseminate news (and propaganda) with an unheard-of immediacy via leaflets and posters, the sheer excitement of being able to lay one's hands on a book, the less important the online revolution looks by comparison.
Sheenagh Pugh
The last book I reviewed here was The Unwomanly Face of War , Svetlana Alexievich's account of Russian women who served in World War 2 and what happened to them in its aftermath. Now we have a similar account of "how the women of Paris lived, loved and died in the 1940s" - ie, again in the war and its aftermath.

There are similarities, the most obvious being the attempts for many decades in both France and Russia to airbrush the contribution of women from history. But there are also great differences. Firstly, many of the Russian women were frontline combatants, which Frenchwomen, barring certain resistance fighters, were not (though the definition of "combatant" in postwar France became controversial, since those women who had hidden endangered soldiers and civilians, and often endured the horrors of Ravensbrück for doing so, understandably felt themselves as entitled to the name of combatant as the uniformed men who had put up such a brief resistance to the invader). Secondly, though parts of Russia were occupied, there was no question of "collaborating", even had civilians wished to, because the invader was interested not in coexisting with the locals but in exterminating them. In Paris it was otherwise, which meant there were choices to be made by the inhabitants, and some of these were far from easy. Those in public service might choose to resign their jobs, or stay and try to do them in such a way as best to serve the interests of civilians - though that might also leave them open to the charge of serving the enemy's interests. Rose Valland, volunteer assistant curator at the Jeu de Paume (her sex debarred her from a paid job as curator), stayed on and risked the suspicion, which surfaced briefly after the war, of colluding with the invaders' favourite occupation of looting artwork on a grand scale. What she was in fact doing was secretly keeping records of everything being looted and where it had gone, so that after the war, thousands of artworks could be located and restored to their rightful owners. She also managed, with the Liberation imminent, to notify the Resistance of a trainload of paintings waiting to be despatched by the panicking occupiers, with the result that the train was delayed and captured by the liberators.

Obviously many of the problems female civilians faced in Paris, such as food shortages and moral dilemmas - whether to resist, collaborate or simply keep one's head down - were problems for men as well, and nor were they confined to Paris. The rationale for concentrating on women is twofold. They did have special problems related to their sexual vulnerability and they were in some ways made scapegoats, after the armistice, by men still smarting from their own frontline failures. Sebba remarks of the "tondues", women publicly shaved and humiliated after the liberation for sleeping with Germans, "they were punished by the men who had failed to defend them" and it is true that when you look at the photographs, though there are women in the background it is nearly always men taking the lead. Postwar, too, government ministers, even former resistance fighters among them like Henri Frenay, who knew well the role women had played, were urging them to give up their jobs and let men coming home from prison camps and forced labour return to their role as chef de famille "so that they could regain their lost confidence". This emphasis on the needs of men also exacerbated, for women, the problem that all returning concentration camp survivors faced, namely that nobody wanted to hear what they had suffered. "Don't say anything, they won't understand" as one warned another. The one thing French women did get out of the war was the right to vote, which until 1945 they hadn't had - I must confess I didn't know that and was amazed by it.

The rationale for concentrating on Paris in particular I'm not so sure of, though it seems to be the supposition that Parisiennes are somehow more stylish and clothes-conscious than anyone else. The trouble with that notion is that half the women in this book, though they lived in Paris, were not born there nor even in some cases French nationals. One of the more famous photographs reproduced here was taken by Robert Doisneau in 1948 for the cover of Paris Match: a carelessly elegant young woman sitting on the banks of the Seine, typewriter perched on her knee, writing a novel, the quintessential Parisienne. Since he never spoke to her, he wouldn't have known that she was Emma Smith from London....

There is quite a lot about fashion, reasonably since it was a major industry of the city and the justification for couture houses continuing to operate through the war was that many people would be thrown out of work if they did not. But I did actually get a bit impatient with some of the women's preoccupation with being fashionable at all costs, especially when one reads that "some went as far as to call it 'resisting'" - well, it wasn't. It may have been their way of keeping up their morale but to call it resisting was an impertinence to those who actually were resisting, and risking their lives for others. Karma intervenes at one point when the fascist sympathiser Comtesse de Portes, deciding that even for collaborators an occupied Paris won't be much fun, tries to escape south in a car so overloaded that a hatbox falls from the roof, obscures the driver's view and causes him to hit a tree, killing her instantly. I'm afraid I laughed....

This is a history book with proper notes, bibliography, index etc and a lot of illuminating illustrations. Much of its interest lies in being able to follow individual lives through it, like the incredibly brave Noor Inayat Khan, resistance fighter, and the quiet, dowdy Rose Valland, who didn't much care about fashion or chic, but who preserved so much that was beautiful from thieves and vandals. Even the more dubious characters like Corinne Luchaire, dimwitted teenage actress who collaborates because she doesn't really know how to say no to any man, have their sad fascination. The author is commendably neutral, except where it would be an offence not to take sides. I'm especially glad she did not follow the advice she mentions in the prologue: "When I began this book a male historian suggested I spend hours in the subterranean Bibliothèque Nationale reading the diaries of men like Hervé Le Boterf and Jean Galtier- Boissière." Why yes, how better to discover what women were doing and thinking than to check what men have to say on the subject....
Sheenagh Pugh
First published in Russian in 1985, this is not a history book, though it would make excellent source material for one. It is a collection of interviews with Russian women who lived through World War 2 – a few were civilians but most saw active service and many on the front line, not only as nurses or cooks but as snipers, tank drivers, sappers, pilots and partisans, among many other roles.

The interviews themselves, which of course make up most of the book, are fascinating. They build up into an overall picture of experiences with some common elements but many disparate ones. For instance, the fierce patriotism and determination to serve seem to have been just about universal – as was the regret at parting with the long braided hair which was then the norm for Russian women. But while some commanders, desperate for troops, welcomed potential snipers or sappers irrespective of sex, others disapproved of women on the front line. Some women found nothing but kindness and support from their male colleagues; others found them predatory – "when there's gunfire they call out 'Nurse! Dear nurse!' But after the battle they all lie in wait for you… you can't get out of the dugout at night". Some women stopped menstruating and feared they would not be able to have children after the war; others didn't stop and were at their wits' end to cope with a condition for which the forces made no provision. Nearly all felt intense hatred of the invader, but most found they could not translate this into hatred for an actual individual and surprised themselves by offering kindness to captive enemies.

The hardships and dangers were often mitigated by their sense of being young, and caught up in something momentous – "there probably will never again be such people as we were then. Never! So naïve and so sincere. With such faith!" And there was, as always, humour to lighten matters, as when the commissar of a Field Laundry Unit working at the dangerous Kursk Salient has to put in a report that her girls have found and surrounded two wounded (but still armed) enemy soldiers coming out of a wood. "The next day we had a meeting of the commanders. The head of the political section said first thing, 'Well, comrades, I want to give you some good news: the war will soon be over. Yesterday the laundrywomen from the 21st Field Laundry Unit captured two Germans.'"

Nevertheless, many witnessed the aftermath of unspeakable atrocities, and even the more ordinary horrors of war stayed with some for life, like the ex-pilot who, long after, had to stop working in the field as a geologist when her health gave out: "A doctor came, took a cardiogram and asked 'When did you have a heart attack?'
'What heart attack?'
'Your heart is scarred all over'.
I must have acquired those scars during the war. You approach a target and you're shaking all over. Your whole body is shaking."

Perhaps the saddest aspect of their story, though, is what happened afterwards. Much later, by the time these interviews were conducted, their contribution was being recognised and feted, but immediately after the war they faced little but hostility, particularly from other women: "I lived in a communal apartment. My neighbours were all married and they insulted me. They taunted me, 'Ha-ha, tell us how you whored around there with the men'" – this to a decorated sergeant of riflemen who'd likely had rather too much else to think of at the time. Many of the girls' mothers, when they wanted to enlist, had protested "who will marry you afterwards?" and this proved prophetic; many indeed did not marry. Unlike the men, they tended not to wear their medals and felt their contribution was seen as an embarrassment. Yet, though some wished not to have their full names given, they were eager for the chance to tell the stories they felt had been airbrushed out of history: as one said, "it's terrible to remember but it's far more terrible not to remember".

Basically, then, this is not only a worthwhile exercise but a very gripping, if sometimes harrowing, read. But I must protest, once more, at the current practice, in historical and factual books, of including unnecessary prefaces detailing at inordinate length the author's "journey" in writing the book. I don't know if editors and publishers ask for this, but the writers seem to relish the chance to discard, in these prefaces, the sober style suited to their subject matter in favour of sentimental and self-obsessed gush about themselves and their work process. Here's my two-penn'orth as reader: dear writer, I don't give a damn about your "journey". I don't want to know why you wrote the book, how you felt when writing it or how many publishers you sent it to. Just spare us these "me, me, me" prefaces and get on to your subject. I recommend this book heartily, but I also recommend ignoring the fifty (!) pages it starts with. Go straight to the interviews.
Sheenagh Pugh
Smith begins by pointing out that the Russian Revolution, like the French one in its day, polarised opinion and is still hard to talk about in a non-partisan way. He has gone to great trouble to present the events of 1890-1928 in a dispassionate, neutral way as far as possible so as to avoid being pigeonholed as a partisan of one or another side.

For the most part, I think this works well. He does give a very clear and detailed account of events and conditions, of how these led to revolution and how, inevitably, they also led to said revolution veering off-course. It's pretty easy to read, except when it occasionally gets bogged down in undeniably necessary statistics. But one result of this approach is that the drama of the story, to some extent, goes missing and key players do not emerge as personalities as strongly as they might - if by the end we know that Lenin was a charismatic speaker, or Trotsky a haughty man who couldn't unbend, this is because we have been told so rather than because we have seen it in action, so to speak. One might say it is unfair to criticise the book on these grounds, since it has stated its factual, dispassionate remit, but charismatic personalities do have a bearing on events, and one reason, alongside those he suggests, that revolution happened in Russia but not in Britain or Germany may well be that the leaders who could have fired it were missing in those countries.

It's also perhaps not completely consistent about this approach. During the civil war that followed 1917, there were several independent warlords leading bands of more-or-less thugs about the countryside supporting sometimes Whites, sometimes Reds and more often only their own interests. Some indulged in vicious atrocities, and he names several, but one name he doesn't mention in that context is the anarchist Makhno, who according to accounts I've seen, some of them eyewitness, was as rabid a sadist as any, shooting total strangers through train windows for the fun of it. He mentions Makhno several times, but never imputes these acts to him, so that one might read this book and imagine him better than his ilk.

I'd also have liked rather more, in the chapter "Society and Culture", on the amazing literary flowering of the 1920s, among young writers (especially in Odessa) who might have been excused for thinking of nothing but where the next log of wood for the stove was coming from. On the other hand, it was gratifying that he dealt with the changing position of women more fully than many might have done.

My principal source of information on that time up to now was the 6-volume autobiography of Konstantin Paustovsky, who lived through it and describes it so vividly that one might be there. This is a different approach, and for those desiring a thorough, dispassionate overview, there couldn't be a better. I'd recommend reading it in conjunction with such an account as Paustovsky's, to get something of the "in that dawn" feeling , the heady sense of being alive in interesting and extremely dangerous times.