Book Review: Gaslight by Eloise Williams

Book - Gaslight by Eloise WilliamsIt’s always strange to read a children’s book as an adult, requiring a kind of leap backwards to a previous version of yourself. Gaslight by Eloise Williams, is exactly the sort of book the younger me would have enjoyed – with the perfect mix of historical detail, mystery, suspense and danger. The fact that it is set in Victorian Cardiff (in 1899) adds an extra dimension of interest for a historian like me, as I can visualise the old city superimposed over familiar streets.   Continue reading

Book Review: Strangeland by Tracey Emin

Book - Tracey Emin's StrangelandI picked up Strangeland in the Hay Festival bookshop (just to take a quick look) and, ten minutes later, realised I was hooked. It’s a collection of autobiographical pieces written by Tracey Emin about her eventful life and, though it’s full of abuse and heartbreak, it’s certainly a gripping read. It’s described on the front cover as “the jagged recollections of a beautiful mind” and “jagged” is a good word for this strange and powerful book.     Continue reading

Book Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Book - The Miniaturist by Jessie BurtonThe Miniaturist is an intriguing work of historical fiction which immediately draws you in to the world of seventeenth century Amsterdam – a world ruled by Burgomasters and Guilds, where neighbours spy on each other and traders show off their riches. Burton tells the story of Nella, a young country girl arriving at the home of Johannes Brandt (her new husband and a wealthy merchant) who seems distant and uninterested in her. But he does present her with a wedding gift – a perfect miniature replica of her new home.    Continue reading

Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

Book - On Beauty by Zadie SmithI really enjoyed Zadie Smith’s debut novel (White Teeth), though I have forgotten most of the plot. I wasn’t sure what to expect with On Beauty, except perhaps more of the same insightful humour and character driven narrative. To be honest, it took the first 100 pages or so for me to really get into this book, but that’s probably because the cast of characters is large, and each one has their own say.    Continue reading

Book Review: Too Brave To Dream – newly discovered poems by R.S. Thomas

Too Brave To Dream - Poems by R.S. ThomasThe poet R.S. Thomas passed away in 2000, and two books on modern art were discovered in his library, with previously unseen poems inserted between the pages. Too Brave To Dream: Encounters With Modern Art brings these poems together for the first time, alongside the images themselves. The poems are varied, short and impressionistic, similar in style to the ekphrastic work published during his lifetime. They are surreal, reflecting the appearance of the art he is writing about, but they are also intriguing in their own way.    Continue reading

Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine ThienDo Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic tale written in lyrical prose. It begins in the present, with Marie (also known as Li-Ling) baffled by her father’s unexplained abandonment and suicide, and intrigued by the visit of the teenage girl Ai-Ming, daughter of her father’s friend, on the run from China and seeking safety abroad. The narrative soon delves back into the past, revealing the story of Big Mother Knife, Swirl and Wen the Dreamer, all mixed up with an ancient tale that never seems to end.    Continue reading

Poetry Review: And Suddenly You Find Yourself by Natalie Ann Holborow

Poetry book Natalie Ann HolborowNatalie Ann Holborow’s debut poetry collection presents us with a raw, emotional journey of self-analysis, exploring family estrangement, broken relationships and the vulnerability of human experience. Holborow turns life, love and myth into stark reality, with unnerving language and compelling imagery. This is poetry grounded in the physical, from the “silvered, reeking bass” consumed in a restaurant, to “the housefly buzzing, hysterical, / butting its skull to get out”.    Continue reading

Book Review: Falling Creatures by Katherine Stansfield

Falling creatures by Katherine StansfieldFalling Creatures combines the genres of historical fiction, detective story and gothic ghost story in a rather unsettling way, producing a novel that is both haunting and full of suspense, though it is actually based on historical fact. The author, Katherine Stansfield, grew up on Bodmin Moor, where the novel is set, and the tragic murder of Charlotte Diamond is a familiar story to local residents. At the book launch, Stansfield explained that she has always wanted to write about this case, but it was only recently that she discovered a way into the story.    Continue reading

Book Review: Now All Roads Lead to France – The Last Years of Edward Thomas by Matthew Hollis

Now all roads lead to FranceMost biographies begin at the beginning. Not this one. This one reads more like a novel – and the last few years in the life of much-loved poet Edward Thomas certainly provide an engaging plot. Hollis begins his tale with an introduction to Harold Munro’s Poetry Bookshop, which opened in London in 1913, providing a unique hub around which the poets of the day gathered… But Edward Thomas is not yet a poet at this stage in the story; he is a stressed poetry reviewer, churning out travel books and reviews, struggling to make ends meet…    Continue reading

Book Review: Time’s Echo by Pamela Hartshorne

Time's Echo by Pamela HartshorneTime’s Echo is one of the most gripping novels I’ve read in a long time. It follows the story of Grace Trewe, who is staying in York to settle the affairs of her late godmother (Lucy) who drowned in mysterious circumstances. Grace is a keen traveller, fully intending to move on once the house has been sold, but memories of surviving the Boxing Day tsunami still haunt her, and she soon begins to have nightmares of drowning. These strange dreams, which appear to be set in sixteenth century York, seem frighteningly real, until past and present begin to merge into something quite extraordinary…    Continue reading

Book Review: White Lies by Lynn Michell

Book - White Lies by Lynn MitchellI actually won a copy of this book on Twitter by explaining why I preferred a different cover – one which was white (to go with the title ‘White Lies’) featuring an image of a young girl (see below). The novel begins in the present, as Eve patiently types up her father’s memoirs, whilst also reflecting on her own childhood memories of living through the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, in the 1950s. We soon begin to realise that there is something left unsaid, something that Eve and her sister never knew about…    Continue reading

Book Review: The Real Jane Austen by Paula Byrne

book - The Real Jane AustenIn this fascinating book on the life of Jane Austen, Paula Byrne has curated a museum exhibition through text, using objects to tell the story. She focuses on key moments in Austen’s life, painting a ‘real’ picture of the author (whom we tend to imagine sitting demurely in a drawing room) as a well-travelled, theatre-loving, fashionable, ambitious woman, with a spirit of adventure and a love of the sea, who observed, at close-hand, the dangers of political revolution…    Continue reading

Poetry Review: Beginning With Your Last Breath by Roy McFarlane

poetry book Roy McFarlaneBeginning With Your Last Breath is a rich, powerful and moving debut from Roy McFarlane, a poet based in the West Midlands. It is split into five distinct sections, each one exploring a different aspect of the poet’s experience. But the book holds together through the shared themes of identity, family, love and loss, in the context of racial tension and cultural change. The cover image reflects the story of the poems within; it shows a painting by Sonia Boyce – She ain’t holding them up, She’s holding on (Some English Rose), 1986 – the image of the mother figure holding onto her family amidst the struggles of life and racial identity.    Continue reading

Book Review: Sweet Caress by William Boyd

book - sweet caressA Guest Post written by James Fenchurch

I will confess that before I picked up Sweet Caress I was already a confirmed William Boyd fan, and this novel only reinforced my view. His hallmark for me is his gift for creating a vivid sense of place and time through rich, detailed and precise language, within the framework of a completely unexpected story.    Continue reading

Poetry Review – The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America

Book - The Other TigerIt is strange to hear someone reading a poem in another language (a language which you don’t understand at all) and then to hear that same poem read again in your own language. There is a sense of building anticipation, as you hear the emotion behind the words, with particular intonations that seem to stand out… Yet the meaning must come later, inevitably with a sense of both satisfaction and loss, as no translation will ever convey the strength of the original…    Continue reading

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Book - My Brilliant FriendI thought about reading something by the famous Elena Ferrante a few months ago, looked up her books online and was surprised by rather quaint, odd-looking covers and mediocre titles. But the obsession in the media with Ferrante’s true identity did its work, and curiosity eventually won. My Brilliant Friend (the first of her ‘Neopolitan Novels’) captured my attention immediately (once I’d got past the hideous cover and lengthy character index) with a missing mother and a tale of lifelong friendship.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Doll Funeral by Kate Hamer

book the doll funeralI loved the main character in this book. Ruby is different. She has a bright red birthmark around her left eye, and she can see things that other people can’t, like Shadow (the boy who mysteriously appears out of nowhere) and the Wasp Lady (who swoops at her as she walks up the stairs). At the age of 13 she is delighted to discover that she was adopted as a baby, and decides to track down her real parents, who will surely come to rescue her from Mick (who likes to use his fists) and Barbara (who lets him).    Continue reading

Christmas at Bullerby and other Swedish Children’s Stories

bullerbyMy family have always celebrated Christmas the Swedish way, on Christmas Eve, because  my Grandma on one side of the family was Swedish. One of my favourite books as a child was Astrid Lindgren’s beautifully illustrated Christmas at Bullerby. It was first published in Britain in 1964.      Continue reading

Book Review: City of the Beasts by Isabel Allende

Book - City of the BeastsThis is an unusual book – magical yet almost believable, mythical yet real. It is the story of a boy (Alex) and his eccentric grandmother (Kate) travelling deep into the mysterious Amazon rainforest, further and further from civilisation, in search of ‘The Beast’, a strange and ancient creature which may or may not exist. I had read other works by Allende, and enjoyed them. This is different – a kind of modern fable aimed at younger readers.    Continue reading

Time Travel with a Twist – A Book Review

Jodi Taylor bookJust One Damned Thing After Another by Jodie Taylor gives you time travel with a twist. It’s got all the best elements of Doctor Who and Harry Potter rolled into one and, better yet (for historians like myself), it’s full of genuine, historical research, alongside plenty of humour. Madeleine Maxwell (Max) finds herself a job at St Mary’s, a crumbling old house full of intriguing characters, explosions and surprises. She becomes a trainee historian, learning the ropes, until one day she gets to actually travel back in time. And then the excitement really begins…    Continue reading

Pre-Raphaelite Women: Poetry in Response to Art

La Ghirlandata by Rossetti

La Ghirlandata by Rossetti

I have always been attracted to the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, and intrigued by the lives of the women who modelled for their paintings. Muse by Dawn Marie Kresan is a collection which focuses on these women, particularly on Elizabeth Siddall, who was actually a poet and artist in her own right. Bethany Rivers’ pamphlet Off the wall also takes much of its inspiration from artwork, and contains some poems on similar themes to those explored in Kresan’s book.   Continue reading

Poetry Review: A Whole Day Through From Waking by Jacci Bulman

Jacci Bulman poetry collectionWritten in a bare, modest style, Jacci Bulman’s first poetry collection explores life in all its frailty and vulnerability. The language hooks you in, following the story inside each individual poem. Bulman plays with punctuation and form to reveal a raw, broken humanity. Themes include the uncertainties of youth, the agonising reality of grief and illness, and a celebration of life and hope.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness

Book - The Last Hundred DaysSet in communist Romania, in 1989, The Last Hundred Days is a fascinating, vivid portrayal of the last months of the Ceauşescu regime. The absurdity of living in a city full of corruption, lies and paranoia is emphasised by the fact that the story is narrated by a young, nameless English student, an outsider who is adrift and immune, in a world full of danger and repression.    Continue reading

Book Review: Requiem by Berlie Doherty

book requiemBerlie Doherty has written numerous books for children and young adults, short stories, plays and poetry. Requiem (one of only two novels which she has written for adults) was first published in 1991 and has recently been republished by Cybermouse Books. It is an intense, emotional story told from the perspective of young, talented Cecelia Deardon. Cecelia is intelligent enough to win a scholarship to the local convent school, but she will always stand out as the girl who has no money. She loves singing, but Mother Mary Rose forbids her from joining the choir, humiliating her at every opportunity.    Continue reading

Book Review: Cove by Cynan Jones

Book - Cove by Cynan JonesA man out at sea in a kayak is struck by lightning. He awakens, injured, confused and adrift, with no idea where he is or how he got there. He must, somehow, survive. This is a story which you will read in one sitting. It is acute, addictive and raw. The writing is stripped down, simplified, becoming more potent in its purest form. It is filmic and close, mimicking patterns of thought. Continue reading

The Magic of Medieval Poetry – Simon Armitage Translating Pearl

Medieval Poem PearlSpeaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, Simon Armitage admitted that, when translating the Medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, someone literally had to take it off him, before he would allow it to be finished. “Translation is addictive,” he explained, “and much easier than writing your own poetry, because you can concentrate on it for longer, and it’s far less open-ended”. He added that “working with poets from the past is like tracing family members or finding ancestors; it’s like harmonising, like singing along to the Beatles in the car, two voices together.”    Continue reading

Book Review: Addlands by Tom Bullough

Book - Addlands by Tom BulloughAddlands is a book that takes you to another place – a rural mid-Wales that no longer exists, where time was slower and life was hard. It begins in 1941, as the farmer, Idris Hamer, ploughs his land with determination, content with his place in the natural world, surrounded by his dogs, his horse, “seacrows, starlings and lapwings”. We move from moment to moment, gaining vivid, brief impressions of life in the Funnon, passing through the years, chapter by chapter, until finally we reach 2016, where the story concludes, aeons away from its beginnings.    Continue reading

Poetry Review: The Immigration Handbook by Caroline Smith

Poetry - The Immigration Handbook, by Caroline SmithThe Immigration Handbook is an impressive collection which varies in tone and style. Smith uses simple language, small details and powerful imagery to present to us the extraordinary lives of ordinary people, caught up in situations beyond their control. As the asylum caseworker for a London based MP, she has spent years helping immigrants to navigate the complexities of an underfunded, overstretched bureaucratic system.    Continue reading

Book Review: The Unforgotten by Laura Powell

Book - The UnforgottenThe plot of The Unforgotten twists and turns, keeping the reader gripped until the very end. I read it in two days, and I would certainly recommend that if you’re going to start reading it, you clear your diary first. It begins in 1956 with a series of horrific murders in the small Cornish seaside village of St Steele. Betty Broadbent, aged fifteen, has left school and now helps her eccentric mother to run a boarding house. She is shocked and scared by the murders, but feels sorry for Mr Forbes, the local butcher, whom everyone suspects.    Continue reading

Book Review: Pigeon by Alys Conran

Book - PigeonPigeon is a moving story of childhood friendship, heartache and survival. It starts with the boy, Pigeon, and his friend Iola, as they race up hill towards the ice-cream van, united, hopeful, yet haunted by the bleak world that surrounds them. The novel is set in North Wales, in a small impoverished town. It was published simultaneously in Welsh and English, and plays both on ‘pigeon’, (the unloved, overlooked, yet ever-present bird), and ‘pidgin’ (the power of language, and the enigma of bilingualism).    Continue reading