Showing posts with label Adèle Geras. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adèle Geras. Show all posts

Saturday, 22 November 2014


(This post appeared first on a blog called The Great British Bookshop. I'm very grateful to them for permission to publish it here again. Adele Geras)

It's been nearly eight years since I published a novel for adults. This is not because I've been lying around on sofas, eating peeled grapes, but because things have got in the way of my writing. These are both personal (moving from Manchester to Cambridge after living in the former for 46 years, my husband's last illness and death and so forth) and professional.
I haven't been idle.  Children's books have appeared during this time, but since A Hidden Life, I haven't published a novel for adults. And that's mainly because this particular novel, Cover your Eyes, has given me more trouble in the writing than any other of my books.  On the face of it, there's no obvious reason for this. I had the germ of the story right from the beginning, but in the first and second drafts and the subsequent fiddlings and fossickings that went on once the novel had actually been written, there were many different things to get right.
The first was that I needed to create convincing voices and stories for each of my heroines.  I like having more than one heroine in my books, and I enjoy going from one point of view to the other. Perhaps this is to stop myself from becoming tired of the single vision throughout, but it's also I think, (and hope!) a way of appealing to readers of different ages. The first thing you have to get right is the language. I made the decision early on to have Megan's sections in the first person, and that meant that the words had to be ones that were suitable for a young woman of 29. Eva's part of the story is in the third person, (a sort of modified form, which is really her point of view).
Also, I enjoy writing about the past. I blog on a site called The History Girls, which is for writers of historical fiction, and I count myself as one of those.  I like going back in time and to this end, I have always put a character who is about 75 or 80 years old in my novels to provide a view of the past. In my first adult novel, Facing the Light, (now only available as an e book from Quercus) the whole action of the novel takes place during the 75th birthday celebrations of my heroine, Leonora. Her memories of childhood, and of being young and middle-aged were layered into the narrative, and I wrote all seven of these 'past' bits first, before writing the rest of the book. I then slotted them into their appropriate positions at the end.
In Cover your Eyes, my elderly heroine is Eva, and she came to England in 1938 on the Kindertransport.  She has a secret that she has revealed to no one, and she is haunted, quite literally, by a ghost about whom she has never said a word.  She used to be a famous dress designer and she meets the other heroine of the novel, who's a journalist, when the latter (Megan), comes to interview her for a fashion magazine.  Eva's narrative is intercut with memories of times from her past, in the manner that I used in Facing the Light, but in this novel, I wrote the sections in the past as I went along.  Megan is recovering from being dumped by her married lover. Eva is sad because her beautiful home, Salix House, is going to be sold.  Stuff happens, and Megan ends up living in Eva's house, where she becomes aware of a certain strangeness - she sees and hears things that she can't explain.
I won't say more; I don't like spoiling the plot, but I hope that everyone who reads the book enjoys it. It went through several incarnations because it's very hard to weave a supernatural element into a typical 'women's fiction' story. I hope that there are things in this book which resonate with lovers of historical fiction* too. Even though only small sections of the actual story take place in the past, I like to think that what happened to Eva when she was four and came to England for the first time, tinges the book and gives it its flavour, rather like the Angostura in a drink of gin and bitters.
 * I have also written a children's book about the Kindertransport, called A Candle in the Dark, published by A&C Black, which is suitable for readers of seven and upwards.

Sunday, 11 September 2011


The Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture by Philip Pullman. Homerton College, September 8th, 2011.

Last Thursday, some three hundred people packed into a large auditorium at Homerton College, Cambridge, learned something of what it must have been like to have been one of Philip Pullman’s pupils. In a couple of words: a pleasure.

The Philippa Pearce Memorial Lecture is given every year in memory of one of the very best of children’s writers, whose Tom’s Midnight Garden was voted Carnegie of Carnegies and all of whose work shines with humanity, elegance and a deep knowledge of the way stories work a special kind of magic on children. The Steering Committee does a grand job every year finding a speaker to honour Pearce’s memory and this year, not only did they invite a luminary, but also one whose Philip neatly matches her Philippa and whose initials are identical. This harmony was obviously some kind of good omen.

Before the lecture, I went down to the station to meet Laura Cecil, who was Philippa’s agent, and David Wood who wrote the magical stage adaptation of Tom’s Midnight Garden. Then who should turn up but June Crebbins, whom I’ve known for years, and on the same train as Laura was Caroline Royds of Walker Books. We took a nice big taxi to Homerton where the halls were humming with people: Morag Styles , Victor Watson, Gillian McLure and others on the Steering Committee, Julia Eccleshare looking extremely glamorous, Jill Paton- Walsh and John Rowe Townsend and of course Philippa Pearce’s own daughter, Sally Christie, with Ben Norland and their elder son, and Ben’s mother, the wonderful illustrator, Helen Craig, who provided such perfect pictures for Pearce’s lovely last book A Finder’s Magic .

I’m sure the lecture will soon be available for everyone to read, but till that day, I’ll do my best to give an account. The title, taken from Burnt Norton, the first of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, was a clue. Philip spoke about TIME. He spoke mainly about Tom’s Midnight Garden. He discussed the different ways of presenting a narrative: the difference between the past and present tense, how you can often use both in a text, first person, where the camera is: all sorts of technical things were described and explained . He also demonstrated how different ways of writing produce different effects on the reader. He talked about the importance of where the camera is when you’re looking at a scene. He spoke of Pearce’s unerring way of knowing when to finish something, when to cut away. He made a couple of good jokes. He spoke at some length about folk tales and their unadorned and hard-hitting language and he drew our attention to the fact that when describing a photograph or painting one never uses the past tense. “She’s standing by the gate” we say, as he pointed up at a lovely photograph of Pearce herself which was set in the middle of the stage. He was clear, concise, and yet detailed throughout and it was wonderful to hear a real lecture about a real book by someone who understands better than most how fiction operates.

After the lecture, we went into the Dining Hall where books by both Philip and Philippa were set out for those who wished to buy them. I ran into Anne Rooney, smiling and happy in a lacy pink top and dark blue floaty skirt and we drank wine and agreed that we were glad to have come to hear this. I met Diana Boston, daughter of Lucy Boston, author of the Green Knowe books. I chatted to Louise Stothard of the Oxford Children’s Book Group of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups. I met Anne Marie Young who used to work at Cambridge University Press and whom I hadn’t seen for years.

And by the time we left Homerton, the clouds (which had been hanging about all day in a rather unconvincing way) had lifted and the sunset was streaming gold and pink on to every window we could see. It was the perfect end to a wonderful afternoon.

PS. I'm posting this photograph of Philip signing books after his lecture, courtesy of the photographer, Jill Paton Walsh and also Nicky Potter. Thanks to both.

“Both perhaps present…”

Saturday, 9 July 2011

WIN: An Awfully Big Festival Giveaway - Adèle Geras

To celebrate the ABBA Festival, I’m giving away four of my books. Three of them are out of print (STAGES TRUCK, LOLLY and A MAGIC BIRTHDAY) and the last is my latest novel for young adults, DIDO.

All you have to do is put your name, email and which book you’d like into the comments box and I’ll then do a draw for each book. No one can get more than one book. Here’s a little bit about each one to help you to decide which you’d like to go for.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

HUNGRY THE STARS AND EVERYTHING by Emma Jane Unsworth Hidden Gem Press pbk. £7.99

Sherry Ashworth teaches Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University is the author of books such as REVOLUTION and JUST GOOD FRIENDS which many ABBA readers will have read and enjoyed. She has, however, branched out and is now also a small publisher. The firm that she and her husband Brian have set up in Manchester is called HIDDEN GEM.
Its first offering is a début novel by a young woman with a background in journalism who contributes to the Big Issue and has published short fiction in magazines and collections.

The title isn’t one that trips off the tongue and it isn’t the sort of thing that’s easy to say when you’re asking for the novel in a bookshop or library. Most of the time (and I’m speaking as someone who has hung on to a poetic cluster of words at least once when I ought to have listened to wiser council) the plainer and more direct the title, the easier it is for the bookbuying public to want it. But to be fair, the book is about hunger and the stars figure in it too, so this is not so much a complaint as a little niggle.

HUNGER, etc is a somewhat unusual love story. Helen has a relationship with the Devil. She met him one Christmas Eve and since then, he’s turned up in her life at certain times and she knows when these occur by a variation on ‘a pricking of my thumbs.’ She has a birthmark over her palm which becomes burning hot whenever Satan’s around. The story is structured most ingeniously. In the present, Helen, who’s a restaurant critic, is having a meal at a very strange restaurant indeed called Bethel. Each dish she eats leads her into a memory and thus a patchwork of her life emerges. We are shown her love affair with Luke (this is where the stars come in) and how that developed. We learn of her relationship with Pete, who’s a chef. Details of her friendship with Kate, and her dealings with her family also emerge and I won’t give any more away except to say that I had the book pegged as one kind of thing and it turned out to be another. The ‘devilish’ or ‘spooky’ elements, and there are quite a lot of them, turned my thoughts in a certain direction and so I was quite surprised by the way things turned out, but in a good way.

Emma Jane Unsworth writes well and the book is never dull. There’s a description of the high, canyon-like walls you pass on the approach to Liverpool Lime Street Station, which I’ve often wondered at and noticed, that is absolutely brilliant and I liked the way the book sends up in the nicest possible way the work of the restaurant critic and the chi-chiness of some eateries. It’s a promising beginning for Hidden Gems Press and for Unsworth herself. May they flourish and prosper.

CADDY'S WORLD by Hilary McKay. Hodder hbk £10.99

I know Hilary McKay is a prize-winner and a writer of long-standing excellence, but I feel that she’s not talked or written about enough, so I’d like to draw the attention of readers of this blog to her latest Casson Family book.
Those who know the Casson Family will need no introduction, but for anyone who doesn’t, they’re a most unusual normal family. Mother, always called Eve, is an artist. Dad lives away from home much of the time and I won’t spoil your fun by telling you why. The children are named for colours: Indigo, Saffron, Cadmium (Blue) and (Permanent) Rose. There have been five previous books about these children but CADDY’S WORLD takes us back to a time before Rose was born.
It has an exemplary beginning which I’m going to quote in full because it tells you most of what you need to know about the book in five lines:
‘These were the four girls who were best friends:
Alison….hates everyone.
Ruby is clever.
Beth. Perfect.
Caddy, the bravest of the brave.
(“Mostly because of the spiders,” said Caddy.)

You now have the skeleton of what the book’s about. The details, the way the story develops, the ups and downs and disasters and triumphs, the heart-stopping anguish and the laughter and the tears and every single relationship will now unfold before you as seamlessly and easily as though they weren’t written down but grew organically. It’s a masterclass in how to put together a novel of this kind and you only see how outstanding it is when you’ve read to the end and can look at the story in its entirety. Then you appreciate the careful structure, the way the small things at the start lead to the big things at the end, and especially, since it’s Caddy’s story, the way the bravery about spiders becomes much more than that.

The cover image of a pretty girl blowing bubbles will attract girls, which is fair enough but it doesn’t give any indication of the wit, sense, heart and toughness of what lies between the covers. This is the sort of domestic comedy (and sometimes tragedy) that seems to be less popular these days than flashy, fast, fantastical, whizzy books aimed mostly at boys. For anyone wanting a present for a ten or eleven- year- old girl (which she might lend to a brother who will find himself more interested than he thought he would be) this is just the thing. It’s more than time to shout about the glories of domestic fiction, which has just as much drama and incident as any adventure. The Casson Family books are a terrific achievement and this one is superb.

Sunday, 29 May 2011


This year, Keren David's WHEN I WAS JOE swept all before it. All the Year 9s who made up the judging panel loved it and the two next most popular books were BLACKOUT by Sam Mills and WHISPER MY NAME by Jane Eagland.

The judging process, as ever, brought out the best in the panel of pupils. They argued fiercely for their favourites and were intelligent and articulate and fun throughout. The whole thing ran like clockwork.

The work is done now and we now await the festivities on the 24/25th June when lots of the shortlisted writers come up to Preston for a dinner hosted by University of Central Lancashire (the prize's sponsors) followed the next day by the presentation of the award itself. That's always a lovely occasion. I'm really looking forward to meeting Keren, and the other writers who'll be attending.

Thanks very much to Jake Hope and Jean Wolstenholme and their cohort of excellent children's librarians, and also to UCLAN and the supporting publishers who send the books. Lancashire County Council lets us use their splendid meeting rooms so they deserve a hearty cheer as well.

Monday, 16 May 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU by Louisa Young. Harper Collins hbk £12.99.

The title of this book comes from the wording of an official postcard, sent by wounded soldiers during the First World War, to announce to their families the extent of their injuries. A facsimile of the card appears on the front endpaper. You’ll see spaces on it to be filled in by the soldier, announcing that he’s been admitted to a Casualty Clearing Station. There’s room for him to put in the date, and two options (of which he can delete one) ‘slight wound’ or ‘serious wound.’ The card then has the printed message: I am now comfortably in bed with the best of surgeons and sisters to do all that is necessary for me. This novel uncovers what ‘all that is necessary’ really means and I promise you, it’s quite an eye-opener.

Louisa Young is better known to ABBA readers, perhaps, as half of Zizou Corder who wrote the Lion Boy trilogy some years ago. She’s also the granddaughter of Lady Kathleen Scott, widow of Scott of the Antarctic and mother of Peter Scott. Lady Scott was a sculptor and the work that she did in the very early days of plastic surgery and facial reconstruction have clearly been part of the inspiration for this novel.

It’s a most unusual take on the First World War. We’re used to tales of courage and appalling conditions in the trenches; of deserters and conscientious objectors; of amazing gallantry; of friendships between the men and so on. Women are often very much in the background in such novels but here, they’re most important and each of the men we get to know is part of a love story as well as a war story. Riley Purefoy is the hero, and his journey through the narrative is particularly poignant and it’s to Louisa Young’s credit that we care about him so much and about whether he and his beloved Nadine will come through the trials that beset them by the end of the book. There’s a cast of doctors, artists, relations, friends which circulates around these two and the stories that spin off from the main narrative are heart-rending and terrifying and sad. But there’s also the fascinating account (sometimes hard to read, this) of the astonishing ways in which the faces of the dreadfully wounded were reconstructed by such pioneers as Harold Gillies. Sculptors like Young’s grandmother were called in to make casts of the men’s faces, and artists used to paint features on them which were as realistic as they could possibly be. This is something that I’ve not seen in other fiction about the First World War and if it makes you want to find out more, then there’s an afterword which tells us which books the novelist has relied on to make her fictional story as true to historical fact as it could be. It also tells us which of the characters in the novel are based on real people. One particular episode, perhaps the most moving thing in the book, turns out to be true but Young weaves it in seamlessly with the inventions and you can’t see the join. For anyone interested in this period, as well as for lovers of a cracking story very well told with no trace of sentimentality or soppiness, then this novel is just what you’re looking for.

THE HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET by Jamie Ford. Allison and Busby hbk. £12.99

If the First World War is much written about; if we feel we know it backwards, here’s a wartime episode about which I, for one, knew very little: the fact that in 1942, thousands of American citizens of Japanese origin were incarcerated in camps in the middle of the continent: rounded up from cities and communities where they’d lived for years and interned as ‘enemy aliens’ of a sort.

Rather in the way of two buses coming along when you’ve been waiting for a while, there seem to be some other books on this period and these events going about just now. There’s Lee Langley’s BUTTERFLY’S SHADOW for one, which was much praised by Lynne Reid Banks on a recent edition of The Book Show. And here we have a début novel with a very enticing title. It’s already a big hit in the USA and it’s easy to see why.

The story is simple and simply told. In 1986, Henry Lee, an elderly man of Chinese origin living in Seattle, sees that the Panama Hotel is being opened up after decades of being closed. Down in the basement of this hotel are stored all the belongings of the families who were rounded up in Seattle and sent away to the camps in 1942. Henry remembers, in chapters which go back to that time, his relationship with Keiko Okabe, a girl of Japanese origin and also how much he loved her. Their situation was complicated at the time by the fact that Henry’s father was violently anti-Japanese. So we have Romeo and Juliet and not only that but both Romeo and Juliet in this particular case are having to cope with being perceived as immigrants in the USA. Keiko, in fact, is more American than Henry. She was born in Seattle and can’t even speak Japanese, which makes her situation all the harder for her to understand. In the more modern story, Henry and his son have an edgy relationship and we learn about Henry’s wife who’s recently died of cancer. I shan’t spoil the story for readers by saying any more but it’s a good read which unfolds slowly and builds up to a very moving climax on several levels. There’s a great deal in it about jazz too, and the incidental colour and detail of life in wartime Seattle is fascinating. I thought it was a really interesting book about a period that's not very often written about, and I enjoyed it very much.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

I REMEMBER NOTHING by Nora Ephron. Doubleday hbk. £12.99

This is a bit of a pricey book. It’s also a very lovely object to handle, so anyone who can find it cheaply on Kindle or some such will be saving money but denying themselves the great pleasure of holding something that’s beautiful and satisfying. It’s a small, square-ish volume that fits most neatly into the hand. The typeface is lovely, the paper is thick. What, as a Nora Ephron character might say, is not to like?

Ephron is famous for having written the screenplays for When Harry met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. She also wrote a terrific novel called Heartburn * (better than the movie of the same name) about her divorce and what led to it. This novel has recipes in it and she’s a good cook. Anyone who’s familiar with any of the works I’ve mentioned will know what to expect: sharp, funny, clever and occasionally very moving short essays written by someone who knows how to grab your attention from the very first word. Ephron started her writing life as a journalist and it shows. This is prose with not an ounce of flab on it. Her general theme is ageing and the pleasures and indignities which accompany it. Every piece she writes is perfectly structured and whether it ends in a laugh or a tear or a mixture of both, the reading is nothing but unalloyed fun. She has very good instincts for the most part and you do (or I did!) find yourself shouting: YES! all through the book. But there are certain things she says with which I fervently disagree. For instance: never buy a red coat. I’ve bought lots from time to time since I was 18 and I’ve never regretted a single one of them.

She talks, amongst other things, about how she forgets everything, about the internet, about her family, about New York, about Lillian Hellman, about a meatloaf named for her in a restaurant and about white egg omelettes. She’s got interesting things to say about almost everything. This book would make the perfect present (and here I’m addressing the younger readers of this blog) for any mother who’s over 60. Together with its hilariously-named companion volume, I Feel Bad About My Neck and other thoughts on being a woman, it makes an exhilarating read for anyone who’s left their first youth behind them. Do try these books.

*Nora has three sisters. One of them, Delia Ephron, wrote a good novel about their father called Hanging Up. That, too, is worth reading.

MOON PIE by Simon Mason. David Fickling Books. hbk. £10.99

I read this book in proof and if that’s anything to go by, Simon Mason’s new novel will be much the same size and shape as Ephron’s essays, discussed above. I also think that if Nora E could read Simon M’s book, she’d love it. She may not share my taste in coats but I reckon we might like a lot of the same novels and this one in particular would strike a chord with her because her own mother became an alcoholic. Mason’s book is about the way two young children deal with the problem of a father who’s become alcoholic after the death of his wife.

The cover image, which I’ve only seen on the internet and not in real life, is attractive enough but I’m not sure it gives a very good idea of what sort of book this is. For one thing, Martha, the eleven-year-old heroine, is such an outstandingly-drawn character that you have a strong image of her in your head and an artist’s representation isn’t going to satisfy you. Also, the cartoon-ish style of the artwork somewhat belies the seriousness of the novel. Which is not to say that it’s gloomy or depressing. Trying to work out why a subject which should be so grim to read about is actually uplifting , I came to the conclusion that it succeeds in avoiding misery by emphasising throughout how very devoted the protagonists are to one another. The whole story is about different kinds of love, and that makes everything bearable and better in the end, even if it leads to heartache along the way. The Dad who’s drunk is not a baddie. Sister and brother are very close and brought even closer because of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Even a pair of grandparents who could be seen as less than lovely are doing their best and love the children, albeit in ways that Martha and her little brother Tug don’t quite know how to deal with.

The characters make this book live. They positively spring off the page. Tug is one of the most loveable and believable five year olds I’ve encountered in a book. Martha’s friend Marcus is wonderful, both as a character and as a support to Martha. It’s through him that her theatrical ambitions develop and the ending...well, I shan’t say a word about that. Critics will use the word ‘heartwarming’ about this book and they’ll be right. I’ve seen one review which suggested that the way Martha behaves and thinks is too mature for her years but I don’t agree. The whole narrative rings true and the reason that it does is due in part to the story being beautifully told in the third person and the past tense (somewhat of a relief to me, I have to confess!) Because it is, the writer isn’t limited to a young girl’s language. In any case, there are eleven-year-olds and eleven-year-olds. Martha is one of the mature ones, taking her place most appropriately alongside Anne of Green Gables, another famous redhead, who’s important in this book as well. The blurb on my proof says: “ A funny tender novel about families, dreams, being yourself …and pies.” All of that is true and I’d only add: it’s heartwarming as well.

FAMILY VALUES by Wendy Cope. Faber hbk £12.99

I’m adding an extra book this time round. Wendy Cope and I were exact contemporaries at university and also at the same college, and I’ve been a fan of her work since the (in restrospect) revolutionary Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis. I say, ‘revolutionary’ because Cope is a believer in rhyme and scansion and words making sense: quite unfashionable in some circles when she first came on the scene and still today not every critic’s cup of tea. Because she often writes humorously, there are those who classify her work as Light Verse, but it’s much more than that and in this volume in particular, many of the poems strike a more serious note, though never a solemn or pompous one. You’ll want to come back to your favourites again and again. Mine (and it was hard to choose) was a poem about the reading of the Shipping Forecast at the BBC but there are gems throughout the book and many wise reflections on life and love and literature. Great stuff.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Lancashire Book of theYear Award Shortlist by Adele Geras

On Friday morning, I was in Preston meeting the Year 9 pupils who will choose the Lancashire Book of the Year. This is the shortlist. I have only read Keren David's WHEN I WAS JOE but looking forward to reading the others.

Jim Carrington 'Inside my Head'
Keren David 'When I was Joe'
Joseph Delaney 'The Spook's Nightmare'
Jane Eagland 'Whisper my Name'
Hilary Freeman ' Lifted'
Chris Higgins 'Tapas and Tears'
Sam Mills 'Blackout'
Liz Rettig 'My Rocky Romance Diary'
C. J. Skuse 'Pretty Bad Things'
Keris Stainton 'Della Says OMG'

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

NIGHT WAKING by Sarah Moss Granta pbk.

Last Thursday, I had to take the coach between Cambridge and Oxford. I bought a return ticket. That’s seven hours of coach travel, but as it turned out, it was a really enjoyable journey and the time flew by because I’d brought with me a truly gripping and page-turny book. It wasn’t a thriller. I read far too many of those and they are, it’s true, very good at making travelling time pass speedily. This was a book I’d seen mentioned favourably on a book blog (Cornflower, I think) and the little bit I knew about it made me eager to read it. The ingredients, as I was aware of them before I began, were: a remote Inner Hebridean island, a couple there for the summer with two small children, a skeleton found in the garden and a bundle of letters from a woman writing in Victorian times. There were connections with the real Clearances which took place in this part of the world in the late nineteenth century. Every one of these is intriguing as far as I’m concerned, so I bought the book with no hesitation.

What I didn’t know and what became clear the minute I began to read is that Sarah Moss is a very good writer, bringing to a story that could easily have been mawkish and predictable not only a sure eye for both pathos and humour, but also a very intelligent discussion, in a completely non-didactic vein, of the conflicts that arise for women who are torn between their academic and professional work and the care of their children, one of whom doesn’t sleep at all well at night. Anna, our mostly bone-tired heroine, is a historian and she’s desperately wanting to finish her book. Her husband, Giles, whose family have owned the island of Colsay for centuries, is busy monitoring puffins and their behaviour and to say he doesn’t pull his weight when it comes to childcare is putting it mildly. Still, he’s not a villain, which is another unexpected and clever aspect of the story. Giles and Anna have a newly-renovated cottage to rent out and to it come a high-flying surgeon, his flaky and alcoholic wife and their daughter, Zoe, who has problems of her own.

I won’t give more of the plot away than that, but it’s very well put together, with the Victorian letters slotting into the narrative most ingeniously, and allowing us to see a different historical perspective of what went on in the island. The children, Moth and Raph, (Timothy and Raphael) are brilliantly depicted. Any mother of small children will sympathize with Anna in her sometimes overwhelmingly tiring and difficult situation. It’s never a book that wallows in grimness, though, because Moss tells the story with a wry humour which is laugh-out-loud funny from time to time, but mostly a good description of situations in which if you didn’t laugh, you’d burst into tears. Anna’s excursions into cookery in particular are very entertaining. The food management in the house probably deserves a review paragraph to itself. The children’s relationship with their meals and their biscuits is terrific. This writer describes things exactly. I noticed especially her account of a train journey taken without children for the first time in ages. It’s forensically accurate and I defy any mother not to be saying: Oh, yes! as she’s reading those pages. The novel is an excellent dissection of maternal love, and Anna speaks without shame or embarrassment about how close this sometimes comes to hatred of a sort. Moss is good at history: describing what it is, what it does, how it operates at different epochs and she also somehow manages to give us the look of the island with scant physical description. There are ghosts and birds and the sea and a very modern and familiar kind of marriage. Do seek this book out. It’s a real treat to find a good new writer. Yesterday I was in a bookshop and got hold of her first novel, COLD EARTH. I can't wait to read it.

THE THREE LOVES OF PERSIMMON by Cassandra Golds Penguin Australia pbk.

I hestitated before deciding to write about a book published in Australia, but now that we are all connected by Facebook, twitter and so forth, it ought to be the work of moments to acquire it if you should wish to do so. Which is why, yet again, I’m writing about Cassandra Golds, whose magnificent THE MUSEUM OF MARY CHILD I reviewed last year. It still saddens me that she’s not published in the UK. Any publishers reading this are advised to order her books and give them some consideration. She’s a most extraordinary writer and also one of those rare creatures who really does march to the beat of her own drummer. Her books are quite unlike anyone else’s and it’s this quality of being completely unusual that makes her work so appealing. Some British readers might remember her ‘CLAIR DE LUNE’ which has in it, in addition to much else, a mouse who sets up a ballet school. This mouse interacts with the human heroine and in her latest novel, Golds goes back to the mouse/human combination which was so well done in the earlier book.

Here, a mouse called Epiphany seeks to discover whether there’s a world other than the one she knows. She is one of the mice who live on Platform One in a railway station. We are never told where this railway station is. We don’t know where anything is in a Golds novel: not in the normal, Oh, that’s obviously a place in Australia kind of way. Her stories take place in their own strange universe. Not exactly fairyland but certainly not the real world either. Rather, the author picks bits and pieces of the real world and situates them in a kind of story territory that is unique. We have theatres here, and Botanic Gardens and railway stations and florists’ shops but all of them are not quite as we know them. Persimmon Polidori’s family is split into two camps. “The first and strongest camp was the fruit and vegetable faction. The second, rebel camp was those who (against the wishes of their relatives) had thrown their lot in with flowers.” Thus, Persimmon has a true rebel of a great-aunt called Lily. She writes to Persimmon from beyond the grave (why not? This is Golds territory!) and we discover very soon that Lily was ‘formerly known as Turnip’.

There is magic here and fun. Golds writes delicately and humorously. This is not a book for everyone, but for any child (and this child will most likely be a girl) who loves novels like ‘HENRIETTA'S HOUSE’ by Elizabeth Goudge and who is deeply, deeply romantic, this novel is perfection. Persimmon seeks love and with the beyond-the-grave help of Great-Aunt Lily in Paris I can reveal without giving too much away that Persimmon’s story ends happily as all the best fairytales should, but not before we’ve had some ups and downs with an array of more or less unsuitable suitors. Epiphany the mouse has some hair-raising adventures and the end of her tale is positively epic. Both she and Persimmon will stay with you for a long time after you finish reading this delicious book.

Monday, 24 January 2011

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

TO TOUCH THE STARS by Jessica Ruston Headline Review pbk.

This book is Jessica Ruston’s second novel and ABBA readers may remember that I also reviewed her first, LUXURY, when it appeared. That’s because I’m a Jessica Ruston fan. The shoutlines on the proof copy that I read say A glittering empire, a golden family, a guilty secret. Those are the kinds of temptations I can’t resist and Jessica Ruston comes up trumps again. This is the story of Violet Cavalley who is to millinery what Chanel is to fashion. She has risen from humble beginnings to become the head of a dazzling and lucrative empire. Her family is the wonderfully mixed bag of neuroses, desires, passions, rivalries and deceptions you’d expect in such a book and the secrets that have been part of Violet’s life from a time before she was even called Violet are as juicy as secrets should be and the revelations when they come distribute some kind of justice.

This sort of novel isn’t to everyone’s taste and it’s easy to say: froth, frivolity, fun and not pick it up for reasons of high-mindedness which somehow don’t afflict us when we’re reading children’s books. When it’s for children, we reckon it’s okay to be page-turny and pacey and over the top. We approve of books which get children to read just because of the pleasure they get from following a cracking story. The same should be true of books like this: they’re fun to read. They don’t require too much knitting of the brows, and they may not change the way you think, but not all books have to be serious and life-changing. Ruston manages a huge cast of characters and a very intricate set of relationships with great economy and aplomb and if you’re like me and love details of dress, hats, jewels and so forth, then you’ll revel in it. Line it up for your holiday reading.

ICE MAIDEN by Sally Prue OUP pbk

Sally Prue is one of a kind. It’s impossible to do an ‘if you like this person, you’ll like Sally Prue’ because she’s unclassifiable. Other people have written about fairies, or elves or creatures from the other side of the veil between this world and other worlds, but I can’t think of anyone who does it in quite the same way. Edrin is one of The Tribe. They’re the beings who live on the Common, in a perfectly ordinary small town in England. Most of the time,they’re invisible and they haunt the woods and fields and hedgerows and manage to find sustenance without encroaching too much on the world of the humans, who are mostly unaware of their presence. In this novel, though, we have Franz. The time is just before the Second World War and Franz’s family is German. He’s not quite clear what they’re doing in England and he’s lonely and distanced from his mother and father because they consort with Nazis and are part of something which the boy, even at his tender age, can tell is deeply wrong. Edrin is hungry. There are those in the Tribe who are against her and she’s drawn to the human boy, who, in his turn, first senses and then sees her. What happens after that is written like an adventure story but is in fact a very unusual love story. It’s hard to imagine walking through a landscape after reading this book and not watching out for the members of the Tribe behind every tree. Edrin is a wonderful creation and this book deserves to be read slowly. Prue is good at describing the natural world and she’s also funny. The end of the story has a good twist which adults may see coming but children won’t and what happens between Franz and Edrin is genuinely moving. Do read this book, especially if you loved COLD TOM, this writer’s prizewinning story about another member of the Tribe.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

PICK OF 2010 by Adèle Geras

Everyone’s doing it: choosing books they’ve enjoyed, or which they’d like to see under the Christmas tree, or which they reckon in some way deserve to be bought in the run-up to all the festivities. If you can match the reader to a book she’ll truly enjoy, then you’re doing well. Below are my favourite adult novels for this year, and I'm not counting the ones I’ve reviewed on ABBA during the last twelve months.

THE SLAP by Christos Tsiolkas (Tuskar Rock)

This book divided readers more than any other novel published this year. It was denounced as crude, misogynistic, and was also a favoured contender for the Bad Sex Prize which, incidentally, it didn’t win. The story is simple: a man at a barbecue in a suburb of Melbourne slaps a child who isn’t his own. The repercussions of this act propel the book forward, and we see what transpires through the eyes of several narrators. I thought it was terrific: energetic, lively, never for one moment boring and in parts most moving, especially in its depiction of the older generation of Greek immigrants who came to Australia after the Second World War and who have ceased to understand their own children. I reviewed a cracking Aussie thriller earlier in the year called TRUTH by Peter Temple and this, although not quite as good as the Temple, fills in the portrait of Melbourne with a bit more detail. I loved it.

PLAINSONG by Kent Haruf ( Picador)

Has anyone heard of Kent Haruf? I hadn’t until Scott Pack, on his blog, mentioned this novel and what a fine writer Haruf is. I found PLAINSONG and its sequel, EVENTIDE at the library and I’ve just finished reading the latter. My advice is: run, don’t walk to the nearest library to you and see if you can find them there. They are quite marvellous. A combination of Raymond Carver (very plain and unadorned prose) Cormac McCarthy (hard men, farmers, the land, a very small town in Colorado, an amazing landscape etc) and Elizabeth Strout(sensitive portrayal of feelings, emotions, especially of children and women and a build up of the story of a whole community in short chapters). I feel Haruf is my discovery of the year and I will now read everything he’s written. I can’t recommend him strongly enough.

A GATE AT THE STAIRS by Lorrie Moore (Faber)

This novel was on the shortlist for the Orange Prize this year and it’s unputdownable. There are a couple of ‘as if’s’ in it but it’s very good about middle class mores and excellent about subjects like adoption and attitudes to children in general. It's very easy to read and told from the point of view of a young woman from the country who’s a University student. She takes the job of a mother’s help in a family which is much odder than she first thinks.

ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout (Pocket Books)

I’m evangelical about this writer. I become like the Ancient Mariner and pin people against walls crying: You must read Elizabeth Strout! All three of her books are excellent but I’ve not written about this one before. It’s about a minister who’s widowed and left to care for a young daughter of five. The child has not spoken since her mother’s death. The rest of the novel follows from this. It’s superb: moving, well-written, and engaging.

THE HAND THAT FIRST HELD MINE by Maggie O’Farrell (Headline)

This novel is on the shortlist for the Costa Novel Prize this year. It has a double time frame: the present, and the Fifties and early Sixties. It’s about motherhood: its problems, its agonies, its great joys and as always with this writer, she has produced a story written with both sympathy and elegance. She’s also very good at plotting so you always have a strong interest in reading on to see how the whole thing fits together. Terrific.

SAPLINGS by Noel Streatfeild (Persephone Books)

Anyone who loved ‘BALLET SHOES’ and Streatfeild’s other children’s books will be happy to read this adult novel. It shows her brilliance at depicting children and adults and the interaction between them. She’s very good at exploring the small miseries of childhood and how important they are; she’s very wise about the emotional havoc that can be wreaked in families and she describes brilliantly things like boarding-school and evacuation during the Second World War and in general gives a full and rounded picture of family life in the Forties. She makes us care about every single one of her characters. This novel is a real find, and I do urge you to seek it out. For anyone who, like me, loves Dorothy Whipple’s books, it would make the perfect present.

LOVE AND SUMMER by William Trevor (Penguin)

The master of the short story has written a novella which is both a love story and a portrait of an entire community. A young man returns to the home of his youth to sell it after his parents’ death and sets in train a series of events which ends in tragedy. Misunderstandings, and wrongly interpreted signals play a part in a the story which is full of the warmth and ease of summer despite the shadows and the pain.

STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday)

Lovers of the previous Jackson Brodie novels will enjoy this one as well. She’s fantastically good at plots which seem unknottable but which always do get unknotted. Jackson is a wonderful character but in this story he plays second fiddle to the heroine: a policewoman with a heart of gold who rescues a child she sees being assaulted in a shopping precinct. What follows involves corruption in high places, awful things happening to children and a Yorkshire setting which is brilliantly evoked. This was a ‘hold in one hand while frying onions’ book for me.

ANNIE DUNNE by Sebastian Barry (Faber)

Another book which takes the reader to a vanished Ireland (see LOVE AND SUMMER above) this is the story of two small children who are sent for the summer to live in the country with Annie Dunne and her sister. That’s it. Barry is outstanding at writing from the point of view of old women and here he creates a truly memorable main character. This novel is one of those which feels as though it hasn’t been ‘written’ at all but somehow arises organically, like a growing tree. The very opposite is true of course and the book is skilfully and poetically crafted, but it reads like life; as though Annie Dunne were a real person. It’s not plot driven in the way the Atkinson is, for example, but enough happens of horrendous and momentous note to keep you turning the pages. It’s a beautiful, life-enhancing book.

THE THREE WEISSMANS OF WESTPORT by Cathleen Schine (Corsair)

The blurb on this book says it’s a version of SENSE AND SENSIBILITY. That’s as may be, but what it certainly is, is a very witty and entertaining story of what happens when Mrs. Weissman and her two adult daughters go and live in a small cottage by the sea. Mr Weissman has asked for a divorce and made his wife leave their apartment while he takes up with Felicity, a much younger woman. The daughters go with their mother, to help her and because they have love entanglements and work problems of their own. It’s a real treat of a book. It’s not Jane Austen but it does have some of her sharpness, perception and humour. She’d have enjoyed reading it, I reckon, and taken it as a compliment that Schine has used one of her novels as a jumping-off point.

I hope you enjoy some of these and please do put your own books of the year into the comments box!
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

GREEK MYTHS by Ann Turnbull, illustrated by Sarah Young. Walker Books, hbk £15.00

If I hadn’t recently moved house from Manchester to Cambridge, I would have tried to post an illustration from this book here but at the moment I’m not going to risk trying to deal with pictures of any kind. So you will have to Google Sarah Young and see for yourselves how very beautiful her work is. There’s something in it of Jane Ray; something of Jackie Morris, but she’s her own artist and has a beautiful, dramatic and lyrical way of putting the images on the page to enhance the text and enchant the reader. I’d have thought that a Greenaway medal nomination should follow shortly, although it seems to me that this style of illustration isn’t as loved as it ought to be. It’s formal. The artist has learned how to draw. The colours are rich and strange and touched with gold. It’s opulent and lovely and you could simply turn the pages and that pleasure in itself would be well worth your £15.00

But you also have, of course, Ann Turnbull’s sensitive, elegant and characteristically honest retellings of the Greek myths. If ever there was a book to turn children on to these terrific stories, this is it. Walker Books have produced it in time for Christmas and I can’t think of a better gift. They are the supreme publishers of gorgeous volumes for the young and this is one of the most lavish and tempting I’ve seen. I’m not a fan of sans serif fonts and wondered at first whether I’d be bothered by the one used here, but have to confess that it worked very well with the content of the stories.

Readers of this blog and members of the SAS know Ann Turnbull and know what a good writer she is. She deserves to be far better known, and far more widely read. She’s written many excellent novels (I reviewed ALICE IN LOVE AND WAR on this blog) but with these retellings, she will, I hope, reach a far wider audience. Certainly children of any age from about 7 will love this book and the sophisticated style of the illustrations means that it’s perfect as a gift for teenage readers.

Some of the best-known stories are here: Persephone, the Minotaur, Pandora and her jar (not box, as in the original story), Perseus and the Gorgon’s Head and Orpheus and Eurydice. But lesser- known tales take their place alongside these and we read, among other things, about Arachne, the birth of Pan, and the Kalydonian boar hunt. I like the way Ann uses K instead of C for names like Kalydon. I did the same thing in my novel Ithaka and many people have asked me why. I don’t know Ann’s reason for doing this but I did it because (and there’s no rational basis for the feeling I have) it makes things feel/look a bit more classically Greek.

These are stories which deserve to be remembered and this is the book to ensure that their wonders are spread about among the young. If you’re a teacher then it ought to be in your school library. It’s a treasure on every level.

WHEN I WAS JOE by Keren David Frances Lincoln pbks.£6.99

I was much relieved, when I came to the end of this début novel, to find the first chapter of the sequel, otherwise I’d have been really worried about Joe, (who isn’t really Joe at all but Ty) and his family and desperate to know how the whole story was going to pan out. The taster chapter of the next book, which is called ALMOST TRUE, is very dramatic indeed and leaves us with an even cliffier cliffhanger, but hey, it’s okay because we are sure that the second part is on its way and we’ll just wait till it appears. Making sure your readers want to turn the pages to find out what happens next, is arguably the most important talent any writer can have. I’ve put it in bold type because it’s so crucial. The most exquisite prose, the most carefully-wrought sentences, the most subtle of themes and the most intricate network of symbols count for nothing if people close the book before they’ve even properly got into it.

There's no chance of that here. David has written a really exciting thriller. It doesn’t dwell on violence but it doesn’t soft-pedal it either. It’s told in the first person by a fifteen- year- old boy who has witnessed a knifing and maybe has played a worse part in the incident than we at first realize. He and his family are taken into witness protection because their lives are at risk. Ty (or Joe as he becomes) is going to give evidence in the pending court case and there are those who are anxious for him not to say a word and who are moreover prepared to use any means to stop him: intimidation, arson, and in the taster chapter of the second book, fatal shooting.

As well as having to live an elaborate lie, Joe has to negotiate first love, school bullying, ambitions to be a sports star, absence of his beloved Gran, dealing with his at times flakey mother and with the police charged with his care. Towards the end of the book, Joe is moved again and has to become’s a lot for a boy to deal with and the fact that we always care about our hero and always sympathize with him is to Keren David’s great credit. She writes with humour and understanding and we are always right in there in the thick of the action with Joe. Her fifteen-year-old boy’s voice is convincing. Her depiction of the mixture of boredom and fear is spot on and I’m sure this will be a very popular book with teenagers. I can’t wait to see what happens. Roll on the publication date of ALMOST TRUE, and meanwhile, do put this novel in front of anyone who is moaning that books are boring. This one is the very opposite: involving, fast-moving and full of surprises.

Monday, 4 October 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

REVOLUTION by Jennifer Donnelly Bloomsbury hbk £10.99

Jennifer Donnelly’s A GATHERING LIGHT was a genuine crossover novel which delighted readers of all ages and was one of the first books published on the teenage lists genuinely (and quite rightly) to make its mark on the literary landscape. It was based on a true story, but took off from the original facts to create a time and a place and above all characters, with whom readers could happily engage.

Now Donnelly has written a novel that’s quite different but which is also one that transcends its genre. My copy is a proof so I don’t know whether the author’s introduction will be there in the final book, but it’s a fascinating account of how she came to write this novel. Made very vulnerable by the fact that she had a young daughter of her own at the time, she describes vividly how horrified and chilled she was to read of the fate of Marie Antoinette’s son, Louis, during and after the imprisonment and execution of his mother at the start of the French Revolution.
This feeling has grown into a book which combines three kinds of novel: a time-slip tale of sorts, a historical novel and the thing that somehow Americans know how to do supremely well: the personal odyssey of a teenage girl who has suffered a great tragedy in her own life.

Andi writes in the first person and we believe her completely. She’s a talented musician but is troubled by many things. Her parents have divorced. Her younger brother is dead and she feels great guilt about how this happened. Her mother is at the end of her tether. She has a marvellous friend called Vijay and a good teacher too, but she’s in a terrible state when the novel opens. We don’t, as sometimes happens in teenage novels, want to tell her to get real and pull her socks up. Rather, we’re drawn into her world because Donnelly has made her so real, so present, and above all, has given her so engaging a voice. We are worried for her, we feel for her, we sympathize with her and when she goes to Paris to be with her father and pursue research on a French composer of the 18th century called Amadé Malherbeau, we know that the adventures are about to begin.

Andi finds something that leads her back in time. Interspersed with her voice is an account of those days written by a young musician/performer of the time, and Andi becomes obsessed with finding out more. The adventures then happen, thick and fast and at first I wasn’t a hundred percent sure of the time-slip element but Donnelly pulls it off with some bravura and by the end, I was convinced. The dénouement is marvellously satisfying without being a cop-out. This is such a well-written, carefully structured and intricately organized book that you race through it longing to know more and even more. Along the way, you also learn a great deal about a side of the French Revolution that isn’t terribly well known. The musical knowledge displayed in the novel is awesome and it has its own playlist printed at the front of the book which will enchant anyone who cares to listen to the tracks recommended. But its greatest triumph is in bringing to the pages of teenage fiction a really terrific heroine whom we grow to care for and admire. I hope Jennifer Donnelly is already half way through writing her next book because I can’t wait to read it.

A TALL STORY by Candy Gourlay. David Fickling hbk

I know I’m a bit late coming to write about this book. It’s been generally admired wherever I’ve seen it reviewed, but because I loved it, I think I ought to add my bit to the chorus of approval. Candy is a member of the SAS but I’ve never met her. From the evidence of this novel, not only is she a good writer but also someone whose own warmth and generosity comes through in her book. It’s the story of a girl from the Philippines living in London, (and by coincidence, also called Andi) longing to be on the basketball team at school, and about to meet a half brother from the Philippines. He turns out to be not only tall but a kind of giant: a fact that’s been kept from the family in London by everyone back in the Philippines. Over there, he is credited with the power to prevent earthquakes and the way that Gourlay intertwines the stories from back home with the life going on in London is economically and cleverly done. But above all, just as in REVOLUTION, it’s Andi’s voice, her warmth and her bravery, her humour and determination which make the book so enjoyable to read. Also, Bernardo does acquire a kind of magic in the end. Do read it if you haven’t already. It’s a truly original and engaging story.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

THE SECRET INTENSITY OF EVERYDAY LIFE by William Nicholson. Quercus pbk. £11.99

SAS members probably know William Nicholson best for his very successful and popular Wind Singer trilogy. He wrote the script for the movie Gladiator and also for Shadowlands. He’s a chap with copper-bottomed macho credentials, therefore, and also a man with a great deal of emotional intelligence. He’s recently written a novel for young adults called Rich and Mad which I haven’t read but which they say is very good, though apparently not for those of a nervous disposition when it comes to frankness about sex.

In The Secret Intensity etc, he takes a group of people who live in the Sussex countryside near Glyndebourne and interweaves their stories in a fashion that’s both skilful and absorbing. Recently, on Nicola Morgan’s blog (
and elsewhere there has been much discussion about the importance of pace and excitement and incident in novels, about page-turnability and this book is extremely page-turny without anything like an exciting plot to drive it forward. When I say that, I mean you’ll have to look to another book for abductions, vampires, dastardly plots against the government of the day, races against time, death bed reversals of fortune and wild chases in fast cars. You will not find heroic feats of strength, nor impossible puzzles. What you do get is exactly what the title promises: the sadnesses, regrets, longings and epiphanies of normal everyday life.

Laura is awaiting a visit from an ex-boyfriend whom she hasn’t seen for more than twenty years. Their love affair was incandescent, all-consuming, mad and life-changing. Her husband, Henry, is making a film for television about iconoclasts. He’s got a star to deal with whom he can’t stand and is worried because he can’t stop himself from fancying almost every woman his eye lights on, in spite of loving his wife enormously. Several other adult characters are also highlighted and it would be tedious to list them all, but into these people’s lives come the day-to- day concerns of their children, too, and Nicholson deals with subjects like bullying and peer pressure and the inner world of childhood in a most sensitive and imaginative way. Just as it’s unnatural sometimes to eliminate adults from children’s books, it’s also very refreshing to see children take their place alongside their parents in a novel for adults. This is the way things are in the real world. Ask any mother or father what their main interest/focus/ object of devotion is and you’ll find it’s their children but this truth isn’t something you find reflected very often in fiction.

Not knowing the whole truth about something, having to understand more before you can grasp what’s truly going on, and what a person is like is probably the main theme of the book. It’s very perceptive about a writer’s angst, secret fears, and unacknowledged doubts and terrific at describing love of every kind but there’s also a lovely scene in which Laura is searching for an outfit to wear to Glyndebourne. Nicholson understands perfectly the strange phenomenon of women going shopping and there are very few male writers who’ve nailed that properly. Zola was good at it, and so is Colm Tóibín but I can’t think of others offhand. [Please do leave some recommendations in the comments box if you know of any.]

Readers who are averse to characters who are middle-class and quite well off would do well to steer clear of this book (and in another post I may address the subject of the scorn that many reviewers seem to feel for literature about the upper middle classes and their concerns) but for everyone else, it’s a hugely enjoyable and satisfying read and I am eager to get hold of the sequel which is being published very soon.

THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS by Andrew Taylor. Michael Joseph hbk £18.99

Andrew Taylor has been one of my favourite thriller writers since I read the Roth Trilogy (The Four Last Things, The Office of the Dead, The Judgement of Strangers) some years ago. If you’ve not come across these before, by the way, you have real treat in store.

His latest book, (published on September 2nd) is a historical novel, set in an invented Cambridge college called Jerusalem in the late 18th century. It’s a ghost story, a crime story and a love story, beautifully and cunningly combined. Taylor has produced a richly atmospheric and exciting tale, which will keep you happily enthralled to the last page. By contrast with William Nicholson's book, this novel has almost everything you could possibly wish for by way of plot: drowned people, terrible happenings in the past, mysteries aplenty in the present, academic machinations, adulterous longings, abuse of one kind and another, and the whole thing written so well that you feel yourself instantly drawn into the time and the place. Here's another real page turner, and one which would make a terrific film or television series. If only Andrew Taylor and William Nicholson in his scriptwriting mode could get together on such a project...what fun that would be! Do try and read it. The hardback is a bit pricey (though less than the cost of some restaurant meals and totally calorie-free!) but this is a good chance to bombard your local library branch and make sure they order at least one copy.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

FAITHFUL PLACE by Tana French. Hodder and Stoughton hbk. £12.99

This is Tana French’s third novel. Her first two, In the Woods and The Likeness were both cracking good thrillers which kept you turning pages at a fair old lick all the way through to the end. They both suffered a bit, though, from what our family calls an ‘as if’. That’s to say: an element which somehow doesn’t ring true, isn’t plausible, makes you say, in short: As if that could happen! ‘As ifs’ don’t really spoil a thriller too much because quite often you’re carried along in the general excitement and your disbelief has to be suspended for quite a while.

Faithful Place is different. As I was reading it, I was struck by how very well-written it was. I kept thinking: if it wasn’t Tana French’s name on the front cover and if she weren’t so well-known as a crime writer, this book could stand alongside those of other Irish writers whose work is quite rightly praised as being evocative of a community and a time. It’s a bit like a Roddy Doyle novel with a crime at the centre of the story, I said to myself, though French is her own woman and nothing like Doyle in other ways.

The first person narrator, Frank, and his childhood sweetheart Rosie arranged to run away together to England when they were young teenagers. He went to their secret rendezvous. She never turned up. Frank was devastated and has not got over that day. He’s a policeman, he’s been married, had a child and is now separated from his wife. And all these years later, the house in Faithful Place where Frank and Rosie were going to meet is being demolished. Rosie’s suitcase is discovered. How did it get there? And where is Rosie and did Frank have anything to do with her disappearance?

Those are the the basic thrillerish questions but in getting to the answers you are given the lives and relationships of a close-knit family: brothers, sisters, mother, father. You become involved with their friends and neighbours. You are in the life of the street with its friendships and petty squabbles which can spill over so easily into full-scale hostilities which then get passed on through the generations. You’re in the houses and the pubs and the thoughts of a group of people who become completely real to you and whose fates therefore matter. Above all, you’re being told a love story of immense tenderness and beauty along the way. And you’re given a view of a part of Dublin that the author tells us once existed, though it doesn’t quite in the same way any longer. The solving of the crime is the least of it. I really loved this book. To my mind, it’s streets ahead not only of a lot of thrillers but also of a good many regular novels.

PRISONER OF THE INQUISITION by Theresa Breslin Doubleday hbk. £12.99

Theresa Breslin is an enormously versatile novelist. Whispers in the Graveyard won the Carnegie Medal in 1994 and a particular favourite of mine, Divided City, is about the religious divisions in Glasgow seen through the story of two boys, one of whom supports Celtic and the other, Rangers. During the last few years, though, she’s produced historical novels of a very high quality, like Remembrance, The Medici Seal and The Nostradamus Prophecy.

In this book, she turns her attention to the 15th century and Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella are on the throne; Christopher Columbus is sbout to embark on the explorations which will lead him to a New World and the fearsome Spanish Inquisition has its spies everywhere, and wields a great deal of power in the land. Monty Python has a lot to answer for. We snigger at “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” but in truth they were terrifying, with the power of life and death over many. Because of them, the menace of possible incarceration and torture darkened people’s lives.

The novel begins with someone being burned at the stake. By the end of the book, we’ve learned who that person is. Between those two points, Breslin unfolds a story of romance and danger, of love and betrayal, of Jew and Gentile and also of kings and queens and courtiers and slave ship owners and nuns and noble ladies and soldiers. Even Torquemada himself makes an enormously dramatic appearance. The book is written in short chapters in which we are told two stories. One strand of the narrative is about the beautiful Zarita and the other about the brave and resourceful Saulo. He’s the son of a beggar. She is rich but not all that she seems to be. Their fates are intertwined from the beginning and as we move through the book, the viewpoints alternate. It’s a fast-moving tale, but one that’s full of feeling and emotion. You care for both the hero and the heroine. The villains are truly villainous but Breslin never overdoes the bloodthirsty elements. There is could there not be?..but it’s not there for effect. It’s part of the times the writer is describing.

To set against the excesses of the Inquisition, there’s a lot here about the birth of modern navigation, the advances in science and having Christopher Columbus as a character in the story means that we know that at least one plot strand will end happily. How Breslin leads Zarita and Saulo through to their respective fates makes for a really exciting, fast-moving and very enjoyable novel.

Thursday, 22 July 2010


Crossover fiction is the name given to a novel on the YA lists that’s also enjoyed by adults. There’s A Gathering Light. There’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. There is even The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, though that was written for slightly younger children. What I’m interested in here, though, is fiction that travels the other way - originating on the adult lists and ending up appealing to teenagers. I’m going to do this from my own experience, and I’m not claiming that modern teenagers would share my loves, but they’re worth an anniversary blogpost, I reckon. As a kind of extra, let me mention that Kevin Brooks, on a recent panel discussion about books for teenagers, said that two Booker winners, Vernon God Little and Life of Pi were perfect YA books. I’ve not read either and can’t comment, but I offer you those two recommendations.

I’ve never gone back to these texts that were so important to me when I was about 14 or so because I fear that some of them at least may not stand up to scrutiny. I had a terrible shock recently when I revisited my beloved Malory Towers and I don’t wish to repeat the hideous disillusionment. I’m writing more about the memory of what they were like to read, and anyone who’s interested can rush to the internet and find out more about them or even try to buy them and read them. If anyone does this, I’d be fascinated to know how they seem to you and how you enjoyed them as adults.

The first of my crossovers is a long string of novels known as The Whiteoaks Saga. There were lots of novels in this series (Finch’s Fortune, Renny’s Daughter, The Whiteoaks of Jalna etc.) and series were just what we needed back in the olden days (I’m talking 1958-61 or so) because we didn’t have soap operas on telly. Actually, we hardly had telly at all where I was, which was at boarding-school. So these novels about a Canadian family of British origins living in a fine old house called Jalna were seized on and adored by lots and lots of us. I even refer to "Renny's Daughter” (which as I remember was my favourite of the whole lot) in my own novel The Tower Room. My heroine loses her copy and looks everywhere for it because she can’t bear to go to bed without it. These books were full of adultery, passion, children in conflict with their parents, handsome men, beautiful women, delicate poetic types, neurotic and beautiful women and so on. The staples of such fiction I suppose, but I loved the whole family. They had terrific names: Renny, Finch, Eden, Adelaide, and so on. There was even a girl called Pheasant and it says something about us and the books that we read about her without once cracking a smile at the ridiculousness of her name. That’s how besotted we were with the whole of the Whiteoaks crowd. There’s a website here
which tells you a lot more about Mazo de la Roche and the origins of the books. I’m still not going to go back and read them, but I do recommend them heartily for lovers of no-holds barred romantic fiction in a slightly exotic setting.

My second backwards-crossover is John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga. If you Google the name, the whole of the first page brings up references to the television adaptation. And who am I to quarrel with that, when it brought together the gorgeous Damian Lewis, the delicious Ioan Gruffudd, and the lovely, lovely Gina McKee? There was also an earlier tv version with Eric Portman and Susan Hampshire and this was the one that had vicars changing the time of their Evensong services to fit in with the schedules because they found their congregations had all stayed home to watch it. Television is fine and dandy, of course, but long before it there were the books and these, I’m quite sure, WILL stand up to re-reading and scrutiny and I do intend one day to go back to them. Galsworthy may be an old-fashioned writer but he was a good one and his tales of an upper middle class family from the last years of the nineteenth century till after the Great War are enthralling, absorbing and totally gripping...or they were to me when I was about 15. I loved Irene, I loved Fleur. Old Jolyon, the aunts, the children, Soames – I was fascinated and intrigued by the whole lot of them. I adored the houses, the fixtures and fittings, the clothes and jewellery- the world that Galsworthy described appealed to me enormously. I’m sure that it’s from reading these books that I became interested in that period of history and went on to study Proust. I enjoy books which are panoramas of a whole epoch, summed up in the goings-on of a single family with a lot of off-shoots. Any family story is full of conflict, jealousy, betrayal, great love, problems with errant children, clashes with siblings etc and this is one of the great examples of the genre. I think some of my admiration for A.S Byatt’s The Children’s Book stems from my devotion to The Forstye Saga. [Another of the best books of this kind and a true masterpiece is Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann but I came to that as an adult so it doesn’t count. I also think it might defeat most teenagers, though I could be wrong about that.]

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake was a complete revelation. I never liked the Tolkien books nor the C.S.Lewis novels and so this was a most uncharacteristic choice for me. I started it under the impression that it was ‘difficult’ and felt chuffed with myself for being clever enough even to consider it. The first few hundred pages had me completely baffled but also totally knocked-out by the sheer bizarreness of everything: the setting, the characters, the world that Peake created was literally mind-blowing. I don’t think I fully understood it. I don’t think I fully understand it now, and in this case the television adaptation was a huge disappointment because I’d imagined this castle and its inhabitants so vividly that the ‘real’ thing was a pale shadow and not nearly as doomy and black as what I’d had in my head. These are truly fantastic books and I think ones that are still popular with a certain kind of teenager.
You may have noticed that I’m a fan of series. This is because if you can make characters you like last for lots of stories, the pleasure goes on and on. My last two choices are, however, single books: stand-alone novels, in today’s parlance. For present-day teenagers, finding books which tell them all they need/want to know about sex is easy. From Judy Blume’s Forever to William Nicholson’s Rich and Mad not to mention the availability of all kinds of information (and worse) on the internet, the subject is fully covered. Today’s kids can be well-informed about such matters at least on a theoretical level if not on an emotional (or a practical) one. We weren’t so lucky, back in the day. I’m talking of a time even before the Lady Chatterley fuss....after that book came out, we had a copy of it going round school and I have to confess that I found it boring then and I’ve never got to grips, so to speak, with D.H. Lawrence even now. My fault, probably, but he’s a writer I don’t like very much. All this is by the way...I’m writing about the wonderful and thoroughly naughty and therefore totally delicious Peyton Place by Grace Metalious which was published in 1958 and stayed on the best seller lists for an amazing 59 weeks. I remember what the book looked like: the name picked out in glossy red letters, the first example of a bonkbuster any of us had ever seen. Gosh, it taught us a lot, that book! It was a terrific story whose details have now disappeared into the mists of the past but from which I vaguely recall an illegitimate baby, a person loving someone from the wrong side of the tracks and the hell that ensued between parents and children over one thing and another. It’s recently been reissued and I could easily get hold of it, but I just want to preserve the memory of reading it after lights-out, by the light of a torch under the blankets.

The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault has to stand for all her books which I devoured. I’ve read The Bull from the Sea as an adult and still think it’s wonderful but I haven’t gone back to this fantastic story of the love between Alexias and Lycis which so thrilled me when I was a girl. I love historical fiction and Renault is the one who set the standard. She’s been a huge influence on my own writing, too, I think. So that’s my five....but I can’t resist, in these days of perfectly justified Wolf Hall mania, mentioning an outstanding novel set in the time of the Tudors and called Man on a Donkey by HMF Prescott. It’s about the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the Pilgrimage of Grace and for anyone who likes Mantel and CJ Sansom, it makes fascinating reading. It’s in print from Loyola Classics and deserves a much wider readership. I urge you to try it.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Lancashire Children's Book of the Year, 2010.

Well, it's that time of year again! Yesterday Narinder Dhami accepted a cheque for £1000 and a cut-glass decanter from one of the young judges and became the winner of the Lancashire Children's Book of the Year award for 2010 for her novel Bang Bang You're Dead.
The Council Chamber at Preston was as impressive as ever, with its green marble columns and its fearsomely throne-like chairs up on the stage. I was sitting at the top table, so to speak, and in front of us, the ranks of parents, children, librarians, teachers and short-listed authors were ranged in a kind of semi-circle. Some of the young judges spoke about their experiences and the shortlistees came up and told us what it had meant to them to be shortlisted. Then after the ceremony, the authors signed copies of their books in an adjoining cabinet room and then we all went off to have a splendid buffet lunch.The sun was shining throughout, which added to the sparkliness of the occasion.

I'd been there since the night before. UCLAN, who sponsor the prize, hosted a wonderful dinner at the University and it was good to meet Anna Perera, Cathy McPhail, and Vat Rutt, and to see Lesley Wilson and her husband and Joseph Delaney who is regular on this shortlist. The sticky toffee pudding was marvellous! Narinder Dhami and her husband arrived early on Saturday morning, and it was good to meet them, too.

Many thanks to Jean Wolstenholme and Jake Hope for being such a fantastic organizational force. With a cohort of terrific librarians to help them, and good teachers to oversee the reading in the schools, they manage, year after year, to create a buzz and excitement around this prize that makes it truly special. The young judges are amazing and argue for the books they love best with passion and great intelligence and good humour; a reminder, if any were needed, that teenagers are not the dumbed-down, spoiled and ignorant creatures of some of the worst tabloid headlines, but lively and interesting and altogether delightful.

I won't be living in Manchester next year, but I'm going to make the trip three times a year from Cambridge, (where I hope very much I will be living) to be the chair of the judges again in 2011. Please, all you writers of teenage books out there, do urge your publishers to send your book in for consideration by the the most discerning Year 9s in the county.

And if you're shortlisted, I'll see you at the dinner. I will lobby for a repeat of the sticky toffee pudding!

Monday, 31 May 2010

Lancashire Book of the Year, 2010 by Adèle Geras

The final judges' meeting took place on Friday, May 28th and after a long debate, with much good argument and many disagreements of a literary kind, the votes were counted up and by a very narrow margin indeed, the winner was declared to be BANG BANG YOU'RE DEAD by Narinder Dhami (Corgi pbks) So many congratulations to Narinder who I believe is coming to the actual award ceremony on June 26th. I'm looking forward to meeting her and to seeing other shortlisted authors too, like Leslie Wilson and Tim Bowler. All the shortlisted books had their passionate advocates as well as readers who didn't like them quite so much. That's to be expected. I don't think argument and debate have ever actually CHANGED a person's impression of a book! The young judges were, as usual, intelligent, lively, loquacious and funny. It was a treat to be there.
As usual, the whole event ran like clockwork thanks to the good offices of Jean Wolstenholme, Jake Hope and the wonderful librarians of Lancashire. Long may they flourish!

PS: I forgot to say when I wrote about the award: we had an adult panel shadowing the children and reading all the books on the shortlist. The book which won the adult vote was GRASS by Cathy McPhail. It's an economical, exciting and moving thriller and I was happy that it got the recognition it deserved. It's published by Bloomsbury in pbk. Do give it a try.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

REVIEWS by Adèle Geras

BAD FAITH by Gillian Philip Strident Publishing Ltd pbk £6.99

When I say that Gillian Philip’s novel is hard-hitting, I’m not indulging in clichéd critic-speak. I ought to flag up a warning here: this book is not for those of a tender disposition. It’s not ever gratuitously violent but Philip is too honest a writer to gloss over the detail of the terrible crimes that do occur. ‘Hard-hitting’ is what goes on in several places in a literal sense, but there’s much more to this book than the physical acts which are committed in it. It’s a dystopia of a most unusual kind. The world is recognisably ours in many ways but the One Church now rules supreme, under the sway of one Ma Baxter who sounds cosy and as though she might be part of the Baxter soup empire but who is very sinister indeed. No one is safe from religious spies and thugs and the reach of the One Church goes everywhere and runs counter to anything good we’ve come to expect from Christianity. In this atmosphere, Cassandra and her dear friend, Ming, together with Cass’s beloved brother have several very urgent matters to deal with, involving not only murder in the present day, but also terrible family secrets and revelations from the past, both distant and recent. To say more would compromise the thriller aspect of the book, which is very exciting and involving but what can be said is that Philip’s writing is terrifically engaging throughout: both colloquial and fast and at the same time poetic and lyrical when it needs to be. And she has a cracking first sentence which makes you want to read on. “Before I slipped on the mud and fell over the Bishop, our family didn’t have a lot to do with murder. A little, but not much.”
Well, you have to find out what’s going on, don’t you? And if you do, you’re in for a roller-coaster of a read, full of believable and likeable characters, horrid villains of an unexpected kind and the effects of violence given their proper weight and not glossed over, comic-book style. It’s the kind of book that holds your attention throughout and Cassandra, whose first person account it is, is a heroine we come to care for during the course of the book. Also,(and this is something I always appreciate in a novel) Philip writes about places so that you can really see them and imagine yourself there. I enjoyed Bad Faith enormously.

WASTED by Nicola Morgan Walker Books pbk £6.99

Here’s a novel from Nicola Morgan, another writer from Scotland who also deals honestly with matters which might cause squeamish people some alarm. I still haven’t quite got over the beginning of her Fleshmarket which depicts an operation without anaesthetic carried out on a woman. Nothing in Wasted will make you look away, however. It’s a very well-written and well-structured story which depends for its effects on a clever device. Jack, for reasons explained in the story, conducts his life by the toss of a coin. He lets this coin make all his decisions for him and this leads to several places where the outcome is hanging on this gamble. At various points in the text, Morgan outlines the different results that might follow, depending on whether you get Heads or Tails. The reader is therefore somehow complicit in what happens to the characters, rather in the manner of a game. This could become too clever for its own good or simply tricksy, but the strong and likeable characters whose fates we actually come to care about prevent this from happening. The plot, even stripped of its gambling element, would be engaging in itself. It’s a story of young love, of rivalry, and of guilt and young people will be fascinated by it. Like Philip, Morgan is good at sense of place and the way she sometimes switches perspective from her main narrators (Jack and his friend Jess) to, for instance, the cat means that the book is constantly surprising you. Every so often, Morgan stops the novel in its tracks and asks the reader to choose the outcome and the pages are interspersed with quotations from philosophers and scientists about chance, fate and so forth. Intriguing and fast-moving, this is sure to be a favourite with boys as well as girls. Morgan has written non-fiction about the brain but here it’s the heart she’s mainly interested in and what can happen when the emotions have to cope with the vagaries of chance. .

PS...Further to my quilts post, I had a very nice email from Susan Prichard to whom I sent the link and she says this: "I read your blog with interest - just to let you know the shop does
indeed stock magnets, which you can also buy on line. Follow this link:

Many apologies to Sue and the V&A.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Quilts 1700-2010 by Adèle Geras


... from my usual book reviews. I’ll be going back to those on Wednesday May 26th, when I’ll write about Nicola Morgan’s latest, Wasted and Gillian Philip's Bad Faith. Meanwhile, I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to a most wonderful exhibition at the V&A . It’s called Quilts, 1700-2010 and it ends on the 4th July, which gives you a few weeks to get there. If this is your kind of thing, it’s very much worth your while, because it seems to me to be a real example of how to arrange and curate an exhibition. This link will take you to the V&A site where you’ll find a few more details about such things as how to get there, book, etc. There’s also a link on the V&A site to curator Susan Prichard’s blog, which is fascinating. It’s worth booking in advance as this is an enormously popular show.

There’s everything here you could possibly wish for to look at. Not only domestic quilts, made by (mostly) women for practical purposes, but also very elaborate ornamental patchworks and quilts, patchworks for display and commemoration and (most moving, these are) quilts made in times of adversity. Convict women sailing to Australia in 1841 made the Rajah Quilt on the journey and I give notice to all Sassies that I’m bagging that story as the basis of a future book. Then, echoing that, there’s a quilt made at Wandsworth prison by present-day male inmates, who were helped by a most unusual and interesting charity called Fine Cell Work to create a piece which describes their thoughts about being in gaol. It’s inspiring to see the effect that needlework has on men who’ve never had a chance to express themselves in such a way before. See this link.

Sailors and soldiers have made quilts. Women and girls in a Japanese prisoner -of- war camp made a most beautiful piece on which each of them has embroidered her name. There are bedspreads, cot blankets, bed curtains, decorative pieces and in some what’s touching is the lack of skill of the maker. That’s beautiful in its own way. Contemporary artists have added pieces which give their take on the art of patchwork and quilting. I loved a piece called Liberty Jack which makes a Union flag out of thousands of bits taken from Liberty prints. That’s by Janey Forgan.. There’s a quilt made of Chinese bank notes. Grayson Perry’s contribution is characteristically striking and Tracey Emin has provided a contrast to her famous unmade bed in a really beautiful four-poster hung with velvets and satins and embroidered with slogans. But these are not the real highlight of the show, which for me was the wealth of memory and imagination on display from all kinds of people through the years. Traditional patchwork and quilting is still flourishing. Below I give a link to a most gorgeous book by the excellent Jane Brocket which will guide anyone who’s interested in pursuing the art of patchwork themselves.

I’m a knitter rather than a needlewoman, but I’ve always thought of patchwork as a kind of metaphor for life and one of my very earliest books is about an elderly lady who tells stories from a patchwork she’s made to a child in bed under that same quilt. Barn Owl Books rescued this from oblivion for a while and I was delighted to see it back in print but now it’s out of print again. I’m providing a link anyway.

The exhibition shop is full of things, most of which are very expensive and some of which are annoying. Why is it that you can never buy postcards of the very things you love best? Still, a pack of 20 cards for £7.50 is good value. I just wish there were a fridge magnet because I collect those. Still, never mind. It’s a tiny criticism of a really marvellous exhibition. Do visit it if you can. Hurray for the V&A and congratulations to Susan Prichard and everyone who helped her put it on.