Some of the great books I’ve read this summer…

I’ve read several good books over the summer months. Choosing from a wide range of genres and topics, here are seven books I’ve really enjoyed for a variety of reasons and I recommend them all. The list is random – there is no rank order implied. J


  1. Le Vieux, Biographie d’un Youyou. Azzedine Grimbou / Michel Kokoreff.


I was given this little novel for my birthday and I love it. What a character – what a life he led! It’s in French so it’s really helped me learn a lot of interesting new expressions…


  1. Nervous Conditions,. Tsitsi Dangarembga.


I love everything by this novelist. She writes with a beautiful voice about woman’s issues and coming of age. A very introspective, informative story.


  1. How Not to Die. Michael Greger, MD.


This book underpins my own philosophy on eating cleanly. It is a wonderful idea, that we might be able to eat ourselves fitter or at least avoid certain complaints by eating certain foods! The writer has a nutritional science background, so it’s a useful lifestyle handbook. His style is colloquial and easy to read.


  1. The Marble Collector. Cecelia Ahearn


A friend of mine gave me this book, saying she ‘couldn’t get on with it.’ For me, this  demonstrates perfectly how negative reviews often don’t mean anything more than a mismatch between writer and reader. It’s a great story and so well written. I love it.


  1. The Summer of Second Chances. Maddie Please / The Drowned Village. Kath McGurl


Two books by two novelists I know and respect as writers. One story is bubbly, light-hearted and a fun summer read – the other is haunting and beautifully crafted.


  1. What Blest Genius? Andrew McConnell Stott.


This is a witty, well-researched and clever account of the 1769 Stratford-upon-Avon Shakespeare Jubilee that brought Shakespeare to the foreground. It has an exciting cast of characters, including David Garrick and the ghost of Will himself.


Huge thanks to Toni Morrison for my torchlight tremors

It is always sad to read that a longstanding heroine has passed away. For years, when asked ‘Who’s your favourite author?’ I’d answer ‘Toni Morrison’, seconds before I wondered if I should have said ‘Jeanette Winterson’ or ‘Cormac McCarthy’. But Toni Morrison was always the first name on my lips. So when I heard that she had died, it made me feel sad: even though eighty eight is not a bad age to go, there is still a sense of loss when someone who was so huge in the world of literature and so important to my own literary education dies. She developed and extended the black American literary canon and she championed black writers for more than ten years as an editor at Random House. She was my favourite writer for years. I loved her stories.

I’d read so many of her novels: The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Tar Baby, The Song of Solomon, Sula, and The Origin of Others. My goodness, that woman could write! She could transport you to incredible places with her words; she could evoke characters you could believe were real and she could certainly mangle your emotions. For me, this was evident in all her novels, but nowhere were my emotions mangled more than in her book, Beloved.

 Beloved is a book about slavery, about grief and trying to forget the horrors of the past. Beloved is the baby daughter who was murdered by her mother, Sethe, desperately trying to prevent her child from being snatched into a life of slavery. Years later, she turns up at her mother’s home, a grown woman. Her name, Beloved, comes from the unfinished etching on her tombstone. As a concept, the idea is a spine tingle in itself.

I was drawn in from the first chapter, where Morrison explains that Sethe’s house is haunted by a ‘haint’; the spirit of the murdered child is not at rest and she is angry. Sethe’s sons run away in fear. Only Sethe seems to accept the presence of Beloved’s ‘lively spite.’ So when her daughter returns home in the flesh, Sethe wants to make amends and to love her daughter above herself. Of course, Beloved does not make life easy for Sethe or her younger sister, Denver, or Sethe’s man, Paul D. Beloved is charming, angry, needy, spiteful and vengeful.

I read Beloved while in Israel many years ago on a semi-professional trip, travelling and meeting people by day and reading avidly at night. I’d be tucked up in a tiny bed in Jerusalem, under the covers with a torch, reading the pages while my roommates snuffled softly in the bed opposite. I couldn’t put the book down. Morrison’s incredible writing, at times economic, at times heartbreakingly beautiful, had me hooked. The plot took my breath away; I understood the dilemma. A mother’s boundless love, a mother’s guilt and the desire to put her child first, combined with a spirit-made-flesh who will suck her parent dry. It was chilling, thrilling and all-engrossing.

Then, in the middle section of the novel, Toni Morrison did something truly amazing. Beloved starts to talk. In a language which is jumbled, poetic and terrifying, the character who could not speak when she first arrives at Sethe’s house tries her voice and we begin to understand what she is, why she is. I have never trembled so much under blankets at the end of a torch’s beam. It was truly powerful.

Beloved is a novel with many themes: mother’s love, the psychological impact of slavery, regret, pain and guilt; it is about what it means to be a mother and it is also about the conflict between manhood and motherhood. It is probably the most impactful book I have ever read. In some ways, it is the most important. It unveils horrors and it is traumatic, disturbing and beautifully written.

Toni Morrison is believed to have said ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ I wonder if Beloved was that book for her? For me, it was a life-changer, a novel in another class above most other novels I had read. And now Toni Morison has died, I want to express how much I loved her writing, and how especially I adored Beloved. It was a tale for which I felt the most respect, the most admiration; it was my favourite novel for which I felt the fattest love.

For, as Morrison says in Beloved, ‘Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.’

Three recommended books to celebrate International Romani Day

 It’s long been a belief of mine that kids of all ages should see themselves reflected in and represented by the curriculum taught in schools. Too often novels and historical books can inadvertently leave out groups of people so that many learners never find people like themselves in aspects of their own education. Of course, there are many sociological and historical reasons for this and I’m not blogging about patriarchy or dominant cultures today, but it’s really important for everyone’s education that there is a ’just like me’ moment for every learner in the classroom every so often, so that all kids understand where they come from and that they are represented, they have role models, so that they know they have a valid and important place in the world. I’m sure many of us understand this experience or the lack of it from our own education.

If I asked you to name a book that dealt with the experience of Romani people, you might come up with Zoli by Colum McCann, or perhaps Lawrence’s The Virgin and the Gypsy or Gypsy Boy by Mikey Walsh. You might even have read something by Damian Le Bas. Hopefully, you wouldn’t say ‘What about The Hunchback of Notre Dame because of the Esmerelda character?’  That’s one stereotype too far but, sadly, that’s just one of the ‘types’ some people are familiar with.

Many books about Romani people are written by non-Romani people – I don’t have a problem with that – but it’s good to read other books written by those who have personal experience, and that is where writers such as Walsh and Le Bas have so much to offer readers.

So here are three books on International Romani Day that I adore, and that I believe might have an important place in the classroom too. They have each influenced me so much in their own ways, both in terms of my own writing and in terms of my experience of the world today, and I’d love to see them as frequently used resources on the curriculum.

I have heard lots of discussion from teachers about teaching Roma children, opinions that often reflect the sense of difference rather than the embracing of diversity. I’m not going to comment on it in this blog, except to say that many Romanichal children can feel invisible in the classroom in more ways than one.

The first book on my list is The Pariah Syndrome by Dr Ian Hancock. What an inspiration that man is! I knew a fair amount about the history of the Romani people and their journey across Europe from India before I read his book, and I knew about the various attitudes of others towards them and how that impacted on history, the subsequently ostracised way of life and the need for distance. But the detailed documentation of the slavery and the ill-treatment across time cited in Hancock’s book was so shocking that it gave me nightmares. It is a part of history that everyone should know about and understand. Dr Hancock has also been a powerful influence on my own writing, especially in one novel that deals with events from a historical period.

The Pariah Syndrome is an important book; it should be read widely, not just by Romani people but by anyone interested in justice and the impact of centuries of mistreatment. Dr Hancock is an incredible man, and his lifetime’s work is so important. He’s honest; he pulls no punches: his writing is well researched and completely readable. Also, he highlights how important education is to everyone and especially to those of us who don’t start from a privileged position. The Pariah Syndrome is my first recommendation – in fact, anything written by Dr Hancock is wonderful.

Louise Doughty’s Fires in the Dark may be most people’s go-to novel about the Romani people because it deals with porrajmos. Books and films about the holocaust of World War Two don’t always focus on the 500,000 Romani people slaughtered, and Fires in the Dark is a powerful novel that highlights the horrors and realities of Romani experiences. (If you want an excellent film that does the same job, do look at Korkoro, a 2009 French drama film written and directed by Tony Gatlif.)

However, my favourite novel of Doherty’s is Stone Cradle. The main two characters, Clementina and her son Elijah, and the documentation of their lives strike a chord with me. I feel that I know both characters and their children. Since the novel is historical, dealing with three generations, it fills in some interesting gaps about the changes of the travelling lifestyle and the subsequent impact on the lives of Romani-descendant house dwellers in England. It reminds us about the old language and old ways that may have eroded over time.  I found Stone Cradle deeply moving on many levels, as a story, as a depiction of realistic characters and as a record of the way things used to be.

My third choice is Tsigan by US poet, Cecelia Woloch. I’d recommend all of her poetry books although they can be a little difficult to get hold of in the UK and Europe. I love her use of language, her ability to tell stories and to evoke images and emotions. Her poems are a celebration of the lives of people who have suffered generations of disempowerment, poverty and exile. Often the poems are deeply reflective and personal.

Her work should be on the Literature curriculum in schools: in fact all three books from my list enable readers of all ages to achieve a better understanding of Romani people, their lives and their legacy. I recommend them to you.  Baxt hai sastimos tiri patragi…

Pausing to think about The Stopping Places

I read Damian Le Bas’ book The Stopping Places in two days.

It’s the sort of book that should be available everywhere, on all shop bookshelves, in libraries, schools and universities, and widely read. It offers a first-hand account about the Romani people, the culture and their experiences in society, in history and in the community.

It touches on something I’m always concerned about, that there are so few books written by Romani writers which depict real Romani people, as opposed to the romanticised or demonised stereotypes so often used in novels and folk-lore.

Moreover, there are so few realistic books about Roma issues and lives available to children in schools and to older readers, so books like The Stopping Places enable Roma readers find themselves represented in literature and non-Roma readers are able to broaden their understanding.

Damian Le Bas writes beautifully, with clarity and warmth. He is also able to bring the situations in which he finds himself and his emotions to life: much of what he writes resonated with me. In particular, his experiences at school, the conflicting attitudes of his family and those outside his family, and his sense of difference being something he should keep quiet about.

I enjoyed reading about his mother and father, and his Nan in particular reminded me of my own Nanny: her sayings, her cooking, her positive attitude to life and the present.

By tracing the old stopping places, the atchin tan of travelling communities, Le Bas is looking to find out more about himself, his heritage and his identity. I empathised with his desire to discover; I shared his quest for knowledge and followed the journey in his van through the South East to the South West and then upwards, to North Wales and Scotland, with interest.

I was fascinated by the people he met: those who welcomed him, who challenged him and those who would rather stay separate. His experiences at Halden Hill in Devon and at Appleby Fair did not surprise me.

I am familiar with the suspicion which follows travelling communities. Le Bas writes without comment or judgement, but not without emotion. We understand his reactions to moments of intimidation and we rejoice in the recognition and affirmation he receives from kindred spirits on his journey.

The description of Romani values, customs and language struck a chord with me. Le Bas tells it as it is, with warmth and affection, and he evokes a community where allegiance and tradtions run deep, where the struggle for survival has been paramount amidst prevailing suspicion, mistrust and misunderstanding for centuries.

There are no answers; he is not seeking to justify or explain: his book is a journey of his own, a way of understanding his past and present.  For me, there is one clear resolution which jumps from his book, and that is the importance of education. Erudite and articulate, Le Bas demonstrates the power of the written word, the impact of experiences shared, the need for research and understanding, the joy of empathy and ongoing discovery.

The Stopping Places is a book which is long overdue; it has taken too long for such a celebration of identity to reach the public. It should be read widely. It has its place on my shelf, in between Ian Hancock’s The Pariah Syndrome and Cecelia Woloch’s Tsigan. It is an important book, and one which can only open doors to more of the same writing.

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Stoner, a gem of a novel.

Have you ever experienced the phenomenon of a book you should have read, but somehow it has slipped your attention? For me, John Williams’ Stoner was one such novel.

Worse still, when it came to my attention, I thought it was probably about drugs and bought it expecting something similar to Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing….

Stoner is the story of William Stoner, and it is probably  one of the saddest book I have ever read. Perhaps that’s not entirely true, as a lot of my current reading and research is about hidden cultures and wasted lives, racism, prejudice and diaspora. But in terms of a simple novel, sparsely but beautifully written, Stoner is the story of a man with incredible potential, a heroic figure who settled for something less than he wanted. Stoner proves Louis Macneice’s words to be true.

These are, as I began, cumbersome ways to kill a man.
Simpler, direct, and much more neat is to see
that he is living somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.

William Stoner’s story is a familiar one. His parents run a farm and, as a young man,  he helps out. The family  are living hand-to-mouth and his father decides, despite the financial sacrifice, to send young William to university in Missouri, in the hope that he can bring new ideas on agriculture and farming home to the family, so that they may hope for a better standard of living. In his second year, William discovers Literature and, after this epiphany which renders him speechless,  he is buoyed on the beauty of words, through a Masters and a PhD, and he begins a career as a lecturer.

He has little experience of women, so he courts the ethereal Edith and he expects to find happiness. He is inarticulate and naive, and no good can come from such an awkward liaison. The descriptions of his wedding night and his early married years are truly tragic. Love continues to elude him in different ways: his daughter, Grace, the erudite and thoughtful Katherine.

Friendship is not satisfactory either, although some people admire him and are loyal. He makes enemies at university: he has small triumphs and disappointments.

A shy son of the soil, inarticulate but able to appreciate beauty, Stoner is a tragically heroic figure. However, the novel asks questions of the modern reader. Stoner was written in the early sixties, so there are clearly valid  accusations of misogyny in Williams’ characterisation  of women. Stoner’s women are neurotic, feckless, passive: they are alcoholics, harpies, shrews, sexually repressed. Their behaviour ranges from  wildly demanding to weak and pliant.

Stoner himself can be accused of being harsh in his judgement of others. He is often negative and derisory to other men and he readily gives his free time to visit the house of a female student he admires on the pretext of helping her.

Williams’ attitude to Stoner’s antagonists is also outdated: Hollis Lomax is an uncomfortable stereotype: his body is described as ‘grotesquely misshapen.’ Stoner does not come out well from the incident where he fails the intelligent Walker’s oral comprehension examination. Stoner is blinkered, at best, and more probably  discriminatory and despotic.

However, read in the context of its time and place, Stoner is the sad exposition of a life which is unfulfilled and stoically endured, and it makes for a poignant read. Stoner is a victim, a fool and a martyr, and he has been fortunate to have an education which has offered him opportunity for advancement and autonomy.

Nevertheless, his life is tragic: despite his unflinching resolve, he achieves little of value in the sum of his days and I had the strong sense, while reading, that perhaps the stoical acceptance of mediocrity was part of the culture of the generation who were born just after the turn of the twentieth century. Stoner is an Everyman figure who made me feel fortunate not to have been born in those earlier times of war and depression, misogyny and patient endurance.

The book ends as we might expect, and there is a strong sense of the futility of human existence.

However, even in these current times of war, depression, misogyny and prejudice, it is a useful reminder to consider how far we have come, if we have.

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Three excellent novels I’ve just read all prove that Larkin was right.

I’ve just read three novels, all literary fiction, which are really enjoyable and memorable, albeit for different reasons. Whether you just like a profound and meaningful  narrative, or whether you’re inspired as a writer by well-conceived and well-written novels, there three are highly recommended.

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler, is full of surprises in terms of the storyline. It is well written, dealing with sibling love and rivalry but the real point of the novel comes at the point where we find out about the protagonist’s sister, Fern. It’s a shock to discover why the main character, Rosemary, grows up so unhappily and is so incapable of forming stable relationships. Her brother Lowell is in a similar predicament, differently manifested. As we discover what happens to Fern and that Rosemary’s entire childhood was an experiment, the novel makes profound sense and is very moving. My moment of real epiphany was the understanding that all relationships between parents and their children are bound to fail to some extent, and that while parents may try to do their best, their efforts are undoubtedly flawed and invariably subject to scrutiny. This is a provocative and important novel, and I haven’t given away the most powerful part. The narrative resonates with grief and frustration, and the central discussion point is mankind’s treatment of others in the name of science and discovery. I won’t spoil the story. However, Larkin was right! 

Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright’s novel, The Green Road, is a perfect example of how a simple idea, beautifully written and detailed, works so well. The story concerns four kids who have grown up, have created their own lives and return home to their mother for Christmas. Hanna, Dan, Emmet and Constance are very different to each other and  their lives are explored by Enright before they return to their family home and their mother, Rosaleen.Of course, it is their independence and different lifestyles which cause problems, and the mother’s loneliness and stubborn nature. The novel is is fast paced, packed with beautiful description, perfect prose and vivid setting. Enright is a fabulous story-teller: the characters are visual and credible, likeable yet flawed. The humanity, grief and vitriol are tangible. Yes, Larkin was right.

I really enjoyed The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. Readers may make comparisons with Doyle and Welsh but McInerney is a talent in her own right. I loved the characters, the setting, the interplay, the roving first person, third person narrative. The novel tells the story of  Ryan who grows up with five siblings, no mother and a loser of a father, Tony. Ryan’s relationship with Karine is a redeeming factor but his decline to crime and failure is inevitable. McInerney creates some fabulous characters. Maureen, who kills a man with a holy stone. Her son, the dangerous Jimmy Phelan. Georgie, a lost and hopeless victim, and Tara Duane, the next door neighbour who takes advantage of fifteen year old Ryan. At times, the narrative is poignant but it is also funny. The characters stoically accept their lot and still rail against life’s injustices; the narrative is exciting and fast-paced. The storyline is, at times, incendiary. And of course, as Ryan learns too quickly, Larkin was absolutely right.

These three novels are highly recommended, whether you’re a parent, someone’s child, or both. Highly entertaining, poignant, inspirational and, of course, all three stories come to the final conclusion that Larkin’s resonant  words are an inescapable realisation, a part of parenting, of growing up. Read the whole poem, This Be the Verse. It’s as uplifting as it is demoralising.

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Absolutely the best novel I’ve read this year

I totally love this book. Without doubt, it will be my book of the year. The blurb on the front cover predicts that it will be a classic in years to come. That’s a huge claim, so I began reading it with interest and a bit of scepticism. But it is out there with the best.

It breaks every writing rule I’ve ever been taught. Flashbacks in novels were something we were always told we should consider with caution, only using them sparingly and if really necessary. This novel throws them in all over the place. A character, a moment’s action,  then we slip back into the past for fifteen pages and relive a previous experience. And it works so well.

I was once advised not to use anthropomorphism in my writing. In this novel, the pine trees watch and stoop in sorrow, the rain sings, a half-eaten sandwich lets a character remember she’s hungry. This writing breaks all the rules and sometimes the narrative might even repeat phrases or images- Ruby’s hair is a river, her legs are long as the Nile – but it is a thrilling read and each page pounds the reader’s heart like a drumbeat .

Ruby by Cynthia Bond is about a Ruby Bell, a free-spirited, fatherless child; about the man who loves her, Ephram Jennings, and their community. It is about the abuse of women and what repeated abuse does to them and to the abusers. It is about loyalty, about the reasons and  repercussions of madness.

In Ruby, the occult and organised religion are inextricably connected, the supernatural is a part of everyday lives and oppression is commonplace. Ephram’s mother suffers at the hands of his preacher father:  she ‘ripped out the seams of her own dreams and patched them into his.’ Ruby is abused from childhood onwards and she learns to accept and expect her treatment:’men were a slight discord that she waited to pass.’

Ephram is a gentle soul who wants to rescue Ruby, despite the community and his obsessively religious sister opposing him. He is determined to save Ruby although she is damaged, alone and ostracised, and he is eagerly pulled into her life. He cleans her, tidies her home, and attempts to stand against the injustice inflicted on her despite tough opposition.’Maybe crazy was a cold you caught.’

The community, a town interestingly called Liberty, is determined to destroy Ruby and Ephram is her only ally. Simply, that is the story, the narrative delving into character, background and action.Description is abundant and luminous: the red soil; Celia’s white cake made with twelve egg yolks; Ma Tante, the black magic woman;a demon entering a man about to commit a rape; a preacher inciting men to hate women while his wife watches from the bushes; Otha’s horrifying madness.

Ruby is made to suffer because she is beautiful and different. Ephram suffers because he has a beautiful heart and because, unlike other men, he is unselfish, kind and seeks justice for Ruby. His sister, Celia, becomes Church Mother, during which time she learns to despise what she sees as her brother’s weakness and her protective feelings turn to hatred and revenge. Each incident, each character is described in a way which is breathtaking. Cynthia Bond uses words cleverly, jewels which make each moment shine with light, and as a reader I was hypnotised by the novel’s devastating violence and captivating pastoral beauty.

Ephram is a heroic man, the courageous soul who drifts above the debasing abuse perpetrated by the rest of humanity. Ruby is the victim who accepts and embodies the debasing treatment she is given. The novel is exquisitely written and it is the type of narrative which inspires other writers to play with words and imagery and to create characters which stick to the reader’s soul, leaving visual and emotional  impressions which stay in our thoughts long after the final thrilling pages.

I can’t praise this novel highly enough. It’s sublime. Read it. Let me know what you think.

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The Invention of Wings: book review

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is about the brutality of slavery in America’s deep south, at the point when some attitudes had started to change. The novel charts the period between 1803 to 1838 and the first person perspective moves between Handful, a ten year old slave, and Sarah, the girl to whom she is given as a present, wrapped tightly in lavender ribbons. Although ‘owning people was as natural as breathing’, eleven year old Sarah Grimké is uncomfortable with her new gift and this is the beginning of her awakening, and it is the pivotal event to her later pioneering work towards human and women’s rights.

I read this book straight after I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, set in 1962 Mississippi, and both novels roam between the viewpoint of the oppressed slave worker or housemaid  and the developing awareness of the privileged female mistress. It is a device which works well, as the reader is propelled through the injustices and abuses of the women in subjection, who are invariably feisty and strong. We compare this character to the pampered white woman who instinctively understands that the situation in which she finds herself, a mistress who has power over another’s physical and emotional welfare, is not tolerable. In both novels, I found the perspectives of Handful and of The Help’s Minny and Aibileen much more fascinating than those of Sarah or Skeeter, but having both characters’ voices juxtaposed creates the desired impact, enabling the reader to follow the progression of character and plot.

Sarah Grimké was a real person who, against her parents’ wishes,  attempted to teach Bible classes to the slaves on her plantation. She hated the degradations of slavery and as a child she aspired to be a lawyer. As an adult, she became a Quaker and was frequently attacked for her abolitionist and feminist views. Sue Monk Kidd charts the development of Sarah, from a tentative girl with an awareness of her own conscience to a woman who is no longer afraid to compromise or to speak her own mind.She says, ‘To remain silent in the face of evil is itself a form of evil.’

Handful, and her mother Charlotte, are fascinating characters who display courage and cunning in the face of oppression.The comparison between slave and mistress is brought into sharp focus when Handful tells Charlotte ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.’There are passages which are difficult to read. The first time Handful sees a slave being beaten, Charlotte’s punishment for taking a piece of cloth, Handful’s treatment at the workhouse are sharp reminders of both the evils of slavery, past and present.

Sue Monk Kidd’s choice of subject matter and her ability to create two credible voices are  central to the novel’s brilliance. Both Handful and Sarah have different lives, they are different characters and their chapters are written to highlight the vast gulf between them, both in terms of personality and experience. They are, however, both heroic. They both begin as children with tentative voices and find strong ones as  grown women. Handful’s way of speaking with a slave tongue is no caricature: Sue Monk Kidd creates a real character. She is defiant and we admire her.’You got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.’

Sarah has money and privilege, but she is controlled by her parents’ and society’s expectations of class and gender. She is an awkward child who stutters initially  and is isolated, struggling to speak confidently  before she develops her convictions and is able to articulate them. ‘If you must err, do so on the side of audacity.’

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Despite the fact that The Invention of Wings is based on real events and real people, it is a gripping  read, full of  tension- filled action and characters which inspire and create empathy. It is well written, in terms of character, voice, setting and plot. Sue Monk Kidd’s ability to use language powerfully and yet retain the individual character’s viewpoint is impressive and the short chapters build at a powerful pace to create a novel of real impact and value.

Most of the male characters are flawed. However much we might admire some of the attributes of Isaac, Goodis, Denmark and Sarah’s father, they are lack empathy, sensitivity or the guile and strength of conviction displayed by Sarah, her sister Angelina,  Handful and Charlotte. Then there are the really bad men,  Burke Williams and the faceless white workhouse men. Sue Monk Kidd jolts us with the perpetual reminder that the times she writes about were ones where women had fewer privileges and their expectations were low. White women could not own property or make decisions for themselves. The situation of a slave woman was so much worse and The Invention of Wings is very much about the importance of aspiration and desire to make changes happen, to develop the ability to soar above society’s restrictions.

It is a very satisfying novel in terms of women’s ability to fight back, but it is also a source of inspiration and anguish to understand the depth and nature of their suffering. It’s a reminder that we can all  stretch our wings. ‘We’re all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren’t we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we’ll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that’s all.’

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The Widow: a quiet but powerful voice

I’ve never been a real crime novel fan although I did enjoy Into the Fire by Manda Scott, mainly because of the sustained tension and the gripping and likeable characters. I heard about The Widow from Madeleine Milburn at a writers’ conference and she lauded the book because of its immediately interesting and arresting voice. The widow, Jean Taylor, is the only character who speaks in the first person although there is a roving perspective from the reporter to the detective to, occasionally, the victim’s mother and, once, the husband. The use of changing narrator, first to third and character to character makes the book edgy and interesting and sustains the tension. Fiona Barton, the novelist, has a background in journalism, so the reader is in safe hands.

The premise is a missing child and the suspect is Glen Taylor, Jean’s smug husband. Jean is passive, possibly even browbeaten, yet we suspect that she knows more about Glen’s suspicious behaviour than she admits. She seems to be a traditional, loyal wife but her admiration for Glen is occasionally interspersed with phrases like ‘No more of his nonsense,’ which makes the reader wonder if she knows more than she is telling the police: she may even be complicit. We don’t find out until the end of the novel and one of Fiona Barton’s strengths is that she keeps the tension pulsing until the final pages.

Jean is not an interesting character outside her role of widow:  she initially offers nothing but tacit support of her husband until her final rebellion. She is repressed and weak, but there is always the sense that she might be stubborn underneath and there may be another side to her. By the end of the novel we know what part she has played in the story of Bella’s abduction, but we do not understand much more about her as a character, other than her incompleteness and her dependence.We don’t discover if Glen has anything to do with the missing child, or what may have happened to toddler Bella, until the final chapters but Fiona Barton is clever in her manipulation of information, detail and inference, which makes for a compelling read.

Jean’s enigmatic character, and the fact that she isn’t really compelling except for her knowledge about the her husband and the crime he may have committed, is perfectly balanced by the relationship between the reporter, Kate, and the detective, Bob. Both characters retain the archetypal attributes a reader might expect in both professions: Kate is manipulative and cunning beneath a sheen of empathy and Bob is determined, tough yet conscientious and all-heart. They share motives but their methods are different and there is an interesting professional symbiosis between the two characters as the novel progresses.

Barton builds the tension perfectly and, as each perspective changes, we gain a full picture of the impact of Bella’s disappearance on all the characters’ lives. Bella’s mother, Dawn, develops from a distraught, struggling single mother to a media-savvy campaigner, and her metamorphosis is credible.

Despite all of the characters being exactly what you would suspect under the labels headlining each chapter – The Widow, The Detective, The Reporter, – Barton succeeds in making the novel harrowing and it is a gripping read. I think this is because the story is about a snatched child and it is the pathos and the concern hanging over Bella, contrasted with the buzzing media, the blustering cops, the panicking mother and the insidious denials of the suspicious husband which make us want to read on to the end.

Madeleine Milburn is right. The different voices, especially that of Jean the widow, who is placid,  enigmatic and wilfully ignorant, carry the story along at a fast pace and make the tension work well. The through-line of Bella’s disappearance is intriguing. Barton has been bold in her use of a stolen child as subject matter, and the inference of what might have happened. It is simultaneously unpalatable and yet consuming for the reader.

From reading The Widow, I learned that characters’ perspectives and voice can propel a novel and make it captivating, as can a theme which resonates with public interest. The Widow didn’t really need stronger or more interesting characters, although I looked for them. The main protagonists were pawns in a game of mystery and crime detection and what really catapults the story from chapter to chapter is the compulsion to find out what has happened to little Bella. We hope it will be alright but we fear that it won’t be. Jean the widow is the key to the answers and her calculated silence  must be unlocked to reveal the missing details. It is an interesting novel in the crime genre, handled with skill, confidence and expertise.

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‘The One in a Million Boy’ reviewed

‘The One in a Million Boy’ is a novel by Monica Wood, telling the story of unlikely protagonists, misfits who become close to each other, finding out about themselves as they explore new relationships. Ona Vitkus is 104 years old and her friendship with the eponymous unnamed boy is the central focus: he is interviewing her about her life, on tape, and encouraging her to aim for records in the Guinness Book. Ona has lived since the beginning of the 1900s,so she has fascinating stories to tell, and it is through the flashbacks to her recollections that we learn about her experiences and how she has become a complex and rich character.

Perhaps the other most interesting central character besides Ona is Quinn, the boy’s father, who is as compulsive a guitarist as his son is a collector of data.Early in the novel, the boy dies of a rare illness and it is the people  who loved him- Ona, Quinn, his ex wife, Belle- who develop and learn from the legacy of the eleven year old boy who touched their lives. Quinn is paying the penance for being a bad father: his need to play his guitar has kept him away from his son and Belle is wrecked by grief.

Quinn: playing guitar was the single occasion in his slight and baffling life when he had the power to deliver exactly the thing another human being wanted.

Some readers will compare this book to ‘Elizabeth is Missing’ because it is about an old lady. I enjoyed this book much more: ‘Elizabeth’ did not work for me so well in terms of the main characters but Ona is no stereotype: she is complex, charming and brave. She is flawed but not frail and she has learned to be resilient throughout her life and her past stories are utterly credible.

It is rare that we see Ona as simply an old lady: she is an independent and feisty woman, but Monica Wood carefully intersperses her strong moments with reminders that Ona has an ageing body. As readers, we respond with admiration but never pity.

What sets ‘The One in a Million Boy’ apart from many other novels in the same genre is how well written it is and how it never resorts to labels or stereotypes. The presence of the boy, with his love of facts and figures, is with us throughout the novel and it is his death which sets the other characters on the path to self discovery. Monica Wood’s story goes beyond loss and grief, though. Ona is an intriguing personality and her background story of immigration and integration is one which shapes her present day character. She may be old in years but she is always learning:

Because the story of your life never starts at the beginning

Wood tells us about the boy who visited her and helped her feed her birds:

He reminded her that she’d once found people fascinating. That she’d lived more than one life.

The boy’s interviews with Ona are one sided- we can only guess what he has asked her and that makes his presence, and somehow his absence, more poignant.

Although I found Quinn’s professional stroke of luck at the end of the story, and the result of ‘the song’ written by Ona’s husband a little implausible, the last few chapters of the novel make the whole book exceptional. There are readers who will be emotionally moved by the ending: it is surprising and cleverly contrived.’The One in a Million Boy’  is a layered story which charts the reconstruction of  three people who believed their lives were damaged beyond repair. The final pages are inventive and shrewd and I was thrilled by Monica Wood’s dexterity in making the ending of the story very resonant.Ona says:

You know, one meets so many people, the years pass and pass, but there are certain times, certain people— . . . They take up room. So much room. I was married to Howard for twenty-eight years and yet he made only a piddling dent in my memory. A little nick. But certain others, they move in and make themselves at home and start flapping their arms in the story you make of your life. They have a wingspan. . . .

This book comes highly recommended: it flies in the face of tokenist novels about characters who are ‘different’ and celebrates the real and valuable friendships which can come from people whose lives may appear, on the surface, to be incompatible.

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