Book Review: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

HisforHawk

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald is a rare book – as rare as Mabel the goshawk. Last August I read it in proof for review, expecting it to be a maudlin, self-indulgent memoir. It has since gone on to win the prestigious Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year, and is currently finding new readers who love it on the other side of the Atlantic. Macdonald’s writing rips up tired conventions and reveals how to write in a tone and language that is both literary and commercial. Needless to say, she won me over.

A unique and beautiful book with a searing emotional honesty, and descriptive language that is unparalleled in modern literature. —Costa Book Award citation

Review:

Early one morning, “overtired, overwrought”, Helen Macdonald races from Cambridge to the countryside, thinking that a goshawk sighting will soothe her jangling nerves. Watching a pair of goshawks “soaring above the canopy”, she reminisces about a day she spent with her father when she was a child. She was bored, restless, waiting for a sight of a sparrowhawk, and he explained to her the meaning of patience: “when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it […]. If you want to see hawks you have to be patient”. She brings home in the pocket of her jacket “a small clump of reindeer moss […] a little piece of that branching, pale green-grey lichen that can survive just about anything the world throws at it”. Three weeks later, this little memento becomes imbued with weighty significance when she takes an unexpected telephone call: “it was the reindeer moss I was looking at when my mother called and told me my father was dead”.

Macdonald’s fraught memoir juxtaposes an interior journey through the different stages of grief with an exterior struggle to train a goshawk. She travels from despair to hope, and denial to acceptance; but what rescues the book from cliché is her weird, wonderful style, her intellectual passion, and the associations she forges between wide-ranging topics. H Is for Hawk is partly a literary and biographical study of T. H. White and his books, partly a literary history of goshawks, landscape and culture, and partly a psychological study of grief; the writing is rich and revelatory.

An experienced falconer, Macdonald had never trained a goshawk, a large bird of prey a little short of three inches smaller than a golden eagle, but, after her father’s sudden death, she has a recurring dream about a time when she released a goshawk into the wild: “She opened her wings and in a second was gone. She disappeared over a hedge slant-wise into nothing. It was as if she’d found a rent in the damp Gloucestershire air and slipped through it”. The decision to train one, she proposes, is an “inevitable” one for her to make.

Macdonald’s lyrical prose depicts her inner climate with vivid imagery, fresh similes and metaphors, and loose, run-on sentences that cast familiar places, tasks, and objects in a strange, ethereal light. Here, for example, in a scene of high drama and suspense, Macdonald is simply buying a goshawk from a Belfast breeder on a Scottish quayside.

[A] man was walking towards us, holding two enormous cardboard boxes like a couple of oversized suitcases. […] The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clattering of wings and feet and talons and high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. […] She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

She takes the bundle of wilderness into her home. The goshawk perches in her living room, and she names her Mabel.

According to T. H. White, “the thing about being associated with a hawk is that […] it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest” (The Goshawk, 1951). J. A. Baker followed a pair of peregrine falcons through the Essex landscape for over a decade and he also expressed his observations in psychological terms:

I found myself crouching over the kill, like a mantling hawk. My eyes turned quickly about, alert for the walking heads of men. Unconsciously I was imitating the movements of a hawk, as in some primitive ritual; the hunter becoming the thing he hunts. I looked into the wood. In a lair of shadow the peregrine was crouching, watching me, gripping the neck of a dead branch.  We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. (The Peregrine, 1967)

Training a goshawk takes time and patience: two of the things which Macdonald does not have at this point in her life. Her University post is coming to an end and she should be sorting out a new job and finding new accommodation. Instead, she retreats from the world, cuts herself off from human contact and lives within the constrained confines of her Cambridge living room; the telephone is unplugged, the curtains are drawn over the cityscape, and her freezer is filled with day-old chick carcasses. In her self-imposed solitude, she watches the hawk, waiting for that moment when it forgets that she is there. It is a stage in hawk training known as “manning”, and it demands total vigilance and stillness. Attempting to become invisible to the hawk to encourage it to take food from her hand, Macdonald empties herself of all thought, and, in a moment of high intensity, she experiences a similar transfer of consciousness as White and Baker: “as if it was another person’s heart, or something else living inside me. Something with a flat, reptilian head, two heavy, down-dropped wings”.

Arranged in two parts, and a “Postscript” of follow-on research, the fragmented memories arranged “like heavy blocks of glass” enact the emotional impact of bereavement on the psyche. Training the goshawk, she narrows her perception to the hawk’s view during a gruesome period of hunting with Mabel in the English countryside; she “slip[s] into the exquisite, wordless sharpness of being a hawk”. Nature seeps over the boundary of her selfhood. She becomes as wild as Mabel: she kills half-dead rabbits caught between Mabel’s talons, pushes bits of animal bones into her waistcoat pocket, and trespasses across land containing pheasant runs. Her humanity is exposed in the compassion she retains for the prey which Mabel brings down: as Mabel gorges on their innards she is obsessed with killing them quickly to prevent their prolonged suffering.

“ ‘The best thing for being sad,’ replied Merlyn […], ‘is to learn something’ ” (T. H. White, The Once and Future King, 1958). While the memoir focuses on a particular time-period, Macdonald’s ideas cover a kaleidoscopic range of topics. As well as falconry, it includes topics as diverse as memory and narration, Arthurian mythology, the cult of chalk and history, aeroplane spotting, and environmentalism. A throwaway line from a male friend who advises her to “ ‘leave goshawks to the goshawk boys’ ”, sparks a literary quest to trace gendered bias in falconry books. She is surprised to learn that goshawk behaviour is described according to negative female traits. Goshawks “ ‘can be moody and sulky’ ”, “ ‘disagreeable’ ”, “ ‘[n]ever was there a more contrary bird’ ”, all of which makes them difficult to “man”. However, she finds that, in seventeenth-century falconry guide-books, they are “ ‘stately and brave […] shye and fearful’, and ‘it is the falconer’s role […] to provide for all his hawk’s needs so that she might have ‘joye in her selfe’ ”.

It is an odd decision to exclude a similar detailed analysis of The Peregrine than is afforded to T. H. White’s writing. Macdonald explains that she turned away from Baker during this period because his quest was a hopeless one, but her description of Baker’s obsessive search for the peregrines in her 2006 study of falcons resembles her own quest for consolation in the natural world: “the diaries of a soul’s journey to grace […] the diaries of a man seeking to become invisible”. She does not accept the view he presents, that “the world was dying, and his hawks were icons of extinction: ours, theirs and his own” (Falcon). White’s shadow hovers over the pages while Macdonald conducts “a quiet conversation, of sorts” with him. She challenges White on his “novice austringer” skills, and takes him to task for ignorant cruelty in the way he trains his goshawk, and she wonders about White and his time alone with Gos. “His young German goshawk was a living expression of all the dark, discreditable desires within himself he’d tried to repress for years: it was a thing fey, fairy, feral, ferocious and cruel”. Rebecca Solnit has written recently about how, as a child, she “disappeared into [books] like someone running into the woods” (The Faraway Nearby, 2013). It is an apt description of the kind of vanishing act that Macdonald accomplishes in her nuanced readings of White’s literature and biography. It is a two-way transference: he haunts her memoir and she inhabits his writing, transitioning smoothly between her voice and the voice she creates for him.

In places, though, it’s as if Macdonald doesn’t trust her reader to make the connections she wants her to see, and the narrative is forced into a narrow pattern that flies in the face of its expansive ideas. The relevance of reindeer moss, for example, is over-emphasised; the opening is set up to show its significant symbolism in the narrative theme of “patience made manifest” that plays out over the course of her journey. At other times, for example, in her etymological detours, she doesn’t push as far as she could go. “Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’ ”. There’s a missed opportunity to complete a link with bereavement and patience through her reading of White, although its meaning resonates within the wider context of loss. The “I” in the passage below is White’s, nonetheless, the patient suffering she depicts is also her own.

I must not look the hawk in the eye. I must not punish the hawk, though it bates, and beats, and my hand is raw with pecks and my face stings from the blows of its bating wings. Hawks cannot be punished. They would rather die than submit. Patience is my only weapon. Patience. Derived from patior. Meaning to suffer. It is an ordeal. I shall triumph.

In Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer On Writing (2003), Margaret Atwood considers “all writing of the narrative kind, and perhaps all writing, is motivated, deep down, by a fear of and a fascination with mortality—by a desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring someone or something back from the dead”. In hawk mythology, hawks carry messages from the dead to the living. Macdonald developed an interest in falconry as a child, and it was as a child that she first read The Goshawk. In her “archaeology of grief” happy memories of bird-watching with her father punctuate the narrative: “my dad had been my dad, but also my friend”. Re-reading The Goshawk, she follows a path back into the woods of her childhood reading, and to the desire she once had for a different ending to White’s book; that his lost Gos would return to him. When it’s time for Macdonald to send Mabel from her fist up into the sky, to wait and watch for her return, she is fearful that she will fly off forever. Metaphorically, she is also flying with Mabel to bring her father back from the “tangled woods”.

It is to be expected in a memoir about a hawk, which is also about grief, that the hawk would represent flight of some kind, after all, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers/that perches in the soul’ ”, but the shifting symbolism of Macdonald’s goshawk is not so easily defined. In the first part, it is perhaps hope deferred. When her father dies suddenly, time stops, and she slips into the space between that part of her story which has ended and the new one which is not yet written: training a goshawk is a bridge over the chasm in her selfhood. The second stage in hawk training is termed “carriage”, walking outside with it perched on her falconer’s glove in order to reintroduce it to the world; the goshawk is perhaps the outward manifestation of her grief in the manner of the young girl in Anne Hébert’s poem, “The Tomb of Kings”, who carries her heart on her fist in the form of a blind falcon. Fixing a single meaning onto the goshawk, though, limits the imaginative scope that Macdonald’s empathetic writing opens for the reader; it is also impossible to pin it down. It is easier to establish what the goshawk does not represent: a romantic way of thinking about the natural world.

While the goshawk is an ancient survivor—Macdonald points out that in looking at a goshawk you are looking at history—she discourages a nostalgic longing for landscapes of the past, for rural idylls that exist only in the imagination. In Falcon (2006), she describes how falcons “can’t be seen except through what anthropologist Franz Boas describes as your Kulturbrille, the invisible mental lens your own culture gives you through which you see the world”. Her writing about landscape and history and memory is situated within a movement in nature writing that reframes the tradition of writing about the self in relation to the natural world, such as in writing by contemporary writers, including Robert Macfarlane, and Kathleen Jamie. Following a memorial for her father, an event which marks a turning point for her emotionally, Macdonald realises she has been looking in the wrong places for consolation:

I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so. So many of them had been quests inspired by grief or sadness. […] ‘Nature in her green, tranquil woods heals and soothes all afflictions,’ wrote John Muir. ‘Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal.’ Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. […] Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.

H Is for Hawk is a mature, accomplished work: a touchstone for future memoirs, bibliomemoirs, and writing that deals with the natural environment and the self.

[Link to Original Review- ‘Grief and the Goshawk’, in TLS, Oct 29 2014]

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki (Canongate)

A tiny sparkle caught Ruth’s eye, a small glint of refracted sunlight angling out from beneath a massive tangle of drying bull kelp, which the sea had heaved up onto the sand at full tide. She mistook it for the sheen of a dying jellyfish and almost walked right by it. The beaches were overrun with jellyfish these days, the monstrous red stinging kind that looked like wounds along the shoreline.

From barnacle-encrusted jetsam that washes up on a beach in Desolation Sound, British Columbia, Ruth Ozeki weaves together a highly innovative tale about time and the self. Ruth the narrator, like Ozeki (is Ozeki), is an American writer with Japanese ancestry; a novelist. For ten years Ruth has worked on a memoir which she began as a way to record both her mother’s decline into Alzheimer’s and also “her own feelings and reactions”. Suffering from writer’s block and unable to contemplate reading over what she has written to “consolidate the structure” of the “ungainly heap” she turns to the diary inside the Hello Kitty lunch-box she has found on the beach.

Ruth goes in search of sixteen-year old Nao, both in the literal purple prose of the handwritten diary and online for traces of evidence that she was a ‘real’ person. She looks everywhere and anywhere across time where Nao has left her mark. So far, so normal.

What raises this novel from good to dazzling is the way that Ozeki draws attention to the creative process and blurs the division between teller and tale, reader and writer. Ruth the novelist writes a tale about a novelist-turned-memoirist called Ruth who turns from writing herself into being to reading another self into being – that of a teenager called Nao (pronounced Now) who has written herself and her great-grandmother into being – and the whole is written into existence by Ruth (the narrator) who annotates the tale. At a further step, Ozeki as creator brings the reader into existence to read a tale formed out of the “gyre memory” of oceanic drift.

If all of this sounds pretentious it most definitely is not. A Tale for the Time Being is highly engaging, thoughtful rather than didactic. Nao’s diary is concealed within the covers of a “hacked” copy of In Search of Lost Time. Alongside her record of peer-bullying, a depressed father and decent to the darker side of life (she writes her diary in a “French” café in ElectricTown, Tokyo) she relates part of her great-grandmother’s autobiography. Jiko is a 104 year old feminist–radical-Buddhist nun who lives in a remote temple. Nao visits her for part of the novel and gains insight and solace but not enlightenment. Back at home her life is still tortuous. Also within Nao’s diary are pages from a family “secret French diary”: stories within stories.

Strong narrative voices add authenticity to the parallel narratives. Nao’s forced jollity grates at times, after all, there’s only so much teen angst anyone can take.

I had to look on the bright side and try to make the best of things. At least Dad hadn’t hijacked the bus and driven it off the side of the mountain. At least he was still here with me, and maybe- maybe he wouldn’t leave. Maybe I could do something to make him stay. Because even though he promised to come back and pick me up at the end of my vacation and take me to Disneyland, what if he didn’t? What if the special doctors couldn’t fix him? Or what if, on the way home, the urge to die got too intense, and he suddenly had to hurl himself onto the tracks in front of the oncoming Disneyland Super Express? He didn’t really care about shaking hands with Mickey-chan after all.

Ozeki peels back the emoticons and exclamatory tone and injects pathos and compels us to sympathise with Nao as much as we want to tell her to take it down a notch or two. Ruth adds scholarly footnotes to Nao’s diary where she explains references to complex theories, unfamiliar concepts and contextual material (quantum physics, Zen Buddhism, WWII kamikaze pilots) and these are further cross-referenced to appendices that expand on specific topics, such as Schrödinger’s cat and Hugh Everett’s theory of “many worlds”. The effect of Ruth’s writing in the margins of Nao’s diary draws attention to both the tale and its telling.

An outsider in Whaletown, a “spectre of the past” (“whales are time beings”), Ruth shares a wooden house outside of town with her ecologically-aware husband Oliver, who teaches permaculture. Oliver considers that the lunch-box has probably broken off from one of the “eleven great planetary gyres”, a “drifter” from the wreckage of the Japanese tsunami. In the forest, he observes “time unfolding … history embedded in the whorls and fractal forms of nature”.

Anticipating the effects of global warming on the native trees, he was working to create a climate-change forest on a hundred acres of clear-cut … He planted groves of ancient natives- metasequoia, giant sequoia, coast redwoods, Juglans, Ulmus, and ginkgo- species that had been indigenous to the area during the Eocene Thermal Maximum, some 55 million years ago.

Through Oliver’s battles against misinformation and fierce local opposition to his planting scheme Ozeki examines the connectedness of life across time. On a trip to a secret clam garden they consider the irony of “native” Pacific oysters, which originated from Japan: “ ‘You used to be able to walk barefoot on the beaches’ ”, Oliver says, as they look over a landscape of razor-sharp oyster shells, and Ruth wonders “when the last oyster was harvested in the beds around Manhattan ”.

A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be …

You wonder about me.

I wonder about you.

Who are you and what are you doing?

What are you doing now?

I have only scratched the surface of this heartbreaking, uplifting novel. A Tale for the Time Being is a testament to the power of words – a tale whose ideas and characters resonate long after the final page.

Note -I read the paperback version which comes with a ‘fully interactive paperback jacket’. It’s also available in a hardback and eBook bundle.

Do check out Ruth Ozeki’s website: Ozekieland – webworld, for more details and information.

A Tale for the Time Being is on the shortlist of the 2013 ManBooker Prize, announced tonight (Tuesday) – I do hope she wins.

[reposted from EarthLines Review]

Book Review -Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

US ed. LifeAfterLifeLife After Life cover image“One wonders about the divine plan and so on.”

“More of a shambles than a plan,” Ursula agreed.

What if you could live your life again? What if you could revisit those small moments when seemingly inconsequential decisions led you down the wrong path. What if you were given the opportunity to live your life over and over again and again … until you got it right?

This is the premise behind Kate Atkinson’s widely lauded new book, Life After Life. It begins with a scene in a cafe in November 1930. A woman draws out “her father’s old service revolver from the Great War” and takes aim. The narrative leads away from and up to this point. Ursula Todd is born, dies and is reborn. Again and again from 11 February 1910 to 11 February 1910, Ursula Todd lives and dies over and over. She lives through the ‘Great War’, the inter-war years, the blitz, post-war rationing, the misery and tedium of an abusive marriage, Germany in the 1930s. She lives right up to retirement from the civil service in 1967 until she finally has the strength of will to carry out the deed she comes to realise she is born to do.

For me, three things stand out:

1- three-dimensional characters whose names and lives evoke the time periods they live through – names, such as, Ursula, Teddy, Sylvie, Hugh, Izzie, Bridget the housekeeper and Mrs Haddock the midwife- even Maurice is a name perfectly suited to the brother whom no one likes. They live and breath each era through the particularity of things, from the idea of Englishness in the family home, “Fox Corner”, “jam roly poly and custard” for pudding, “a Radiant” gas fire, “Sam Brown … singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ “, “a good woollen frock for eight pounds”, a solitary supper of “Welsh rarebit – off a tray on her knee” , the blitz:

a figure in the dark who went with her as far as Hyde Park. Before the war you would never have dreamed of hooking arms with a complete stranger – particularly a man – but now the danger from the skies seemed much greater than anything that could befall you from this odd intimacy.

2- rich with descriptive imagery and quotations from (amongst many) Shakespeare, Donne, Marvell, and Stevenson, that add texture and philosophical depth to the story. “the headache that had begun before dinner as a dull ache was a crown of thorns by now”, “Ursula’s lungs felt as if they were full of custard, she imagined it thick and yellow and sweet”. Miss Woolf, the leader of a London air-warden rescue group, midst the horror of the blitz looks beyond the war, and wonders about “how much German music we listen to” which leads her to conclude that “great beauty transcends all.” Ursula reflects on life, her life, and the meaning of life.

A buttery, unseasonal sun was trying hard to nudge its way through the thick velvet curtains. Why dost though thus,/Through windows, and through curtains, call on us? she thought. If she could go back in time and take a lover from history it would be Donne. Not Keats, the knowledge of his untimely death would colour everything quite wretchedly. That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility)- one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events. It was quite wearyingly relentless but the only way that one could go was forward.

3. a complex yet soothing narrative structure. I normally can’t follow stories that rely on flash back and dual or parallel stories – I get bored when structure gets in the way of story, but the way Life After Life is constructed is very readable, easy to follow, compelling and yet highly complex. The structure is the story. The story returns again and again to November 1910 so that it becomes a touchstone. We know that life begins again for Ursula, that she will have the chance to live past the event which closed her immediate past life -that moment when “the black bat unfolded his wings”, “when darkness falls” is not an ending but a beginning. Atkinson leads us through the story with dated chapter headings and section titles, such as,”A Lovely Day Tomorrow” and “Armistice”, “A Long Hard War” and “The End of the Beginning”, and these act as flagposts to the way the story develops and prevents us from getting lost in the circular story.

Life After Life is really good. It’s a story to return to as a writer as well as a reader – to learn from as well as to enjoy.

Become such as you are, having learned what is

… Life wasn’t about becoming was it? It was about being.

Life After Life is out now everywhere- Kate Atkinson’s website is the best place to find details of how and where to buy a copy.

She’s got a very interesting Pinterest for Life After Life on the go that’s worth a look too.

Merivel: A man of his time, by Rose Tremain

What better way to break a blogging hiatus than with Rose Tremain’s newest, wonderfully rich and gloriously intelligent novel – Merivel: A Man of his Time (Chatto & Windus).

Tremain returns to the characters, setting and time period of Restoration, her Booker-Short-listed novel of 1989. Having survived the Great Fire, Sir Robert Merivel lives in ease and relative luxury at Bidnold Manor in Norfolk, the estate gifted to him by King Charles II. It is now 1683 and he is provoked into activity with news that his daughter Margaret is leaving. He realises that life is passing him by.

The novel is shot through with self-deprecating irony and is Bunyanesque in style and structure: the action moves from “The Great Enormity” into “Captivity”, strengthened by the “Great Consolation” and through the “Great Transition”. The discovery of “The Wedge”, Merivel’s autobiography, forgotten beneath his mattress for nearly twenty years, usefully introduces his back story, as well as providing a link to his soul quest. He uses it to reflect on his earlier life of debauchery and deceit and to reveal his self-delusion. He travels to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles in an attempt to bring vitality and interest to his life but ends up living like a pauper within the Royal household. His journey is fraught with real and metaphorical dangers and he returns to London transporting a bear he names Clarendon. He reads Montaigne and Descartes and discusses Newtonian physics, William Harvey, and bemoans his “tendency to hypothesise” with amateur chemist, Madame Louise de Flamanville.

He plans to move to Switzerland but Merivel is drawn back to London to the dying King’s bedside where Time catches up with him. Can he change? The Wheel of Fortune turns full circle. He is older and wiser – Bidnold and the wider social and political climate have changed too.

Funny and wise; humane, Tremain pricks our social conscience as she did in Restoration. Merivel is a joy to read. It’s rich with intelligent insight into seventeenth-century history that gives it a texture beyond mere storytelling.

Review: A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson

Suzanne Joinson spoke at the W&A conference last week – spoke so engagingly and movingly about the writing process and the process of getting a manuscript into her agent’s hands and then into print, that I needed to read it. Thanks to Bloomsbury for sending on a review copy so promptly. 

It answers the question so often asked about why we go to book events – it’s because writers are thinkers. We engage with their thoughts and then want to read and digest how these are manifest on the page.

In this case, the book lives up to expectations and judging by the reviews and ratings on Good Reads it causes readers to think and reflect.

I reviewed it for We Love this Book (below) but the word count limit meant I had to leave out a lot I wanted to say about it – it’s about mothers and daughters, about being lost and finding yourself, about how we make up our lives and ourselves from those around us and from our family. But it also makes political points about cultural tourism and cultural engagements that are little more than surface dressings. Joinson is particularly good at giving her characters strong voices through their language choice, especially Eva, the protagonist, who has a very vivid imagination.  Read it, think about it. Even if you hate fractured narratives you can take it apart to see how Joinson cleverly puts it all together.

A flavour of the wonderful imagery:

The girl’s hair was damp and her eyes were panic-filled, like a horse in a thunderstorm. Millicent tipped her own head back so that her eye-glasses retreated along her nose. Then, with quick movement, as if pulling up an anchor, a blue-red creature came slithering out along with a great swill of watery substance and was caught, like a fish, in Millicent’s hands. [p. 5]

As you can tell – it’s highly recommended!

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson (Bloomsbury)

ISBN 9781408825143, Hardback, £12.99

Straddling present-day England and Victorian China, Suzanne Joinson’s glorious debut switches easily between lives and times, between the immediacy of unbelieving missionary Evangeline [Eva] English’s first person journal disguised as ‘Notes’ towards her guidebook for lady travellers, and a third person narrator who charts the journey of another lost soul, Frieda Blakeman, who travels both to uncover the truth of Irene Guy, her mysterious benefactor, and, like Eva, to find herself.

Blind to cultural ‘difference’, zealous Millicent has a method of Christian conversion she calls ‘gossiping the gospel’ which leads Eva and her too-trusting sister Lizzie, who records everything on her Leica camera, into a danger from which neither passages from Bunyan and the Bible, nor unhelpful traveller guides, such as Burton and Shaw, can save them.

Frieda is unhappy with her job of making cultural connections across the globe and of her affair with married bicycle-shop owner Nathaniel. She finds Tayeb, a homeless, jobless, illegal immigrant fromYemen, asleep outside her front door and together they piece together her fragmented life. In their pairing, Joinson adds a further layer of complication to the tale.

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is compelling and vividly realised through unforgettable characterisation and skilful plotting. Leitmotifs, such as birds, bones, and milk weave through strong imagery to create an original story about ‘the layering of different selves that create a life.’

*Cross-posted from We Love this Book

Writers’ & Artists’: How to Get Published Conference 2012 [pt. 2]

A summary of the 2012 Writers’ & Artists’  ‘How to Get Published’ conference, 7th July 2012. A full day is hard to summarise – there were talks, graphs, powerpoint presentations, panels, book signings, coffee and walnut cake… 

Part 2

Bloomsbury’s best selling Christmas book of 2011 was Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s vegetarian cookbook titled River Cottage Veg Every Day which sold over 10000 copies. Impressive. Kerry Wilkinson – self-published author of the hugely popular Jessica Daniel police crime series, sold over 300000 copies of his books, including his debut, Locked In, over the final quarter of 2011, without the benefit or need for a large publicity department, print reviews, agent, or connections across the publishing world.

How did he do it? Does this mean writers don’t need an agent or a publisher?

Kerry took us through the process of uploading his book to Amazon and shared details of how he maximised sales so that readers read his books and come back for more.

When he’d completed his first novel, Locked In, he ‘couldn’t be bothered’ going through the hoops of the traditional route to publication. He self-edited it. He researched how books are sold and worked out where and when to sell it to maximise sales. Knowing that over the Christmas period new Kindle owners would be looking for books, he chose this time to upload and to promote his books. More than that – he sought out readers and reading groups. He joined reader forums to talk about books – to talk about his books. He knows how to cross-promote and he promoted his upcoming book along with his current title.

Here are Kerry’s Tips for selling books:

Write what you want to write. Kerry writes for himself but he writes what people like to read. He tapped into a ready market with the crime genre.

Don’t bother about other writers – connecting with your reader is the single most important thing that a writer can do.

Pay attention to forward advertising – Kerry promoted his next book in each new book – this is something he thinks traditional publishers should do.

Contrary to ‘received opinion’ on ‘platform building’ and online presence, Kerry doesn’t spend a lot of his time blogging and talking about writing. He does interact with readers on reader forums.

Start your ebook immediately with page one – don’t copy traditionally published books which aren’t designed for ebook reading.  A more exciting opening will create a more exciting taster or ‘sample’ that readers can click through on Amazon before buying and lead to more sales.

Get the pricing right. Kerry’s first book sold for £1. His third book sells for £3.

Make a simple cover for your book. Photoshop is easy and makes an effective cover. Don’t overload it with a fussy image or too many words.

Create a simple website that’s uncluttered. Include key information in bold – when the next book is coming out, what it’s about, how much it costs and where to buy it. Include a link to Amazon.

Kerry’s mantra is – Think like a reader.

Kerry told us he writes every day. Interestingly, he still has a day job and more interestingly, he’s signed a publishing contract with a mainstream publisher: see his very frank Q&A with Sam Missingham in FutureBook [29/12/11] where he describes how he was contacted by agents after he’d sold thousands of books and where he also explains why he’s gone down the traditional route.

The final session of the day was an agent panel. Rachel Calder was joined by Patrick Walsh of Conville and Walsh and Lucy Luck of Lucy Luck Associates.

All agreed it was difficult to get published with an agent, that it was difficult to land an agent but that it was equally difficult to be published without an agent.

Confused?

Here’s the statistics they shared:

Sayle Literary Agency receives around 60-80 unsolicited submissions a week, from these they will sign up 3 or 4 new writers per year

Lucy Luck receives around 50 unsolicited submissions a week, from these she might sign up ten writers, and from these, 3 or 4 a year will sign a publishing contract

Conville and Walsh receive around 4000 unsolicited manuscripts a year, around 100 are ‘treated’ or developed, and from these, around 7 are sold on to publishers

They talked about how the acquisition process has changed in recent years so that the editorial decisions now include the whole company, including, marketing, publicity and sales departments. Publishers pay less than previous years and the editorial balance has moved to agents who now spend a lot of time developing manuscripts before taking them to market.

Often, a conversation around the edges of a book result in exciting things. All of the agents agreed they will work to develop a manuscript with a writer whose voice they consider has potential. Lucy Luck gave the example of her client, Catherine  O’Flynn, with whom she worked to bring out her prize-winning first book, What Was Lost. A willingness to take criticism is a key attribute in an unpublished writer.

– Patrick Walsh is convinced that ‘cream always rises to the top’.

A lively closing Q&A ensued where delegates queried the different agents on the best way of maximising success with their submissions. While they repeated most of what Cressida Downing said in the morning session on how to submit ‘properly’ by following the guidelines on their websites, there were also smaller points worth highlighting:

Don’t call or write in advance of sending a manuscript to query whether they’ll accept it – just submit

Research agents carefully so that your manuscript ‘fits’ their current titles and author list

Your covering letter should be short and to the point and personal to the agent

Never use the term ‘peruse’ and never call your book a ‘fiction novel’

A ‘platform’ or blog can help an agent to decide but on its own it won’t make an agent sign up and is more useful for non-fiction writers and projects

FSG is ‘fantastic for the whole publishing industry’ and shows the disconnect between what people want to read and what agents & publishers want to publish. It’s a ‘win-win’ situation and while writers and literary editors are ‘snotty’  it doesn’t diminish the benefit it has brought to publishing. It’s a ‘black swan’ event.

The main thing all of the agents look for in a manuscript is a strong writing voice.

So there you have it – write what you want to read, take time over your submission package,  or self-publish. It’s up to you.

I approached the ‘How to Get Published’ conference with scepticism – was it a way of making money from writers who haven’t yet landed a publishing contract or agent? Will I learn anything useful I can pass on to writers and that I can use when submitting my own writing? Is there any point in listening to a different writer’s journey to publication which will probably not replicate mine? On balance, yes, it was really useful and worth the round-trip from Scotland to London. There are countless self-help books on creative writing and how to submit your manuscript – you’ve read them all and so have I, but nothing quite matches hearing it first hand combined with the opportunity of speaking directly to experts and those who work in the industry – especially when that advice is realistic and backed by evidence.

With thanks to Bloomsbury for conference hosting and organising.

– link back to Pt.1

Review: Finding Soutbek, by Karen Jennings

Finding Soutbek, by Karen Jennings (Holland Park Press)  ISBN: 978-1-907320-20-0

Finding Soutbek is a wise and troubling story about the burden of history that asks whether it’s possible for a nation to transition from social, political and cultural separation into a democratic and fair society. In this debut novel, Karen Jennings merges diverse voices representing the ‘Rainbow Nation’ to expose the stark contrasts and divisions of the post-Apartheid generation living on South Africa’s western coast.

The setting is a fictional town split into two communities separated by a dry riverbed, separated geographically but also by race (the lower towners are white), by class (the upper towners are fishermen – the lower towners are wealthy farmers and city workers), and by wealth (the lower town is filled with holiday homes and “retired couples come to live out their days with a sea view”). As the story begins, fire sweeps through the upper town, destroying homes and possessions. A storm sweeps in behind, leaving the upper towners homeless and destitute, reliant on the goodwill and kindness of the lower towners. Cape Town is too far away; the government will only send food when they have none. With much hand-wringing, and after a week of families sleeping on the beach and in the abandoned fish factory, the town’s first “colored mayor”, Pieter Fortuin, provides temporary shelter in the “brand new” town hall in lower town.

Jennings draws out the inequalities and injustices subtly, with quiet power and deep humanity through an assured control of the narrative. Structured in layers, the story of contemporary Soutbek is related in parallel with extracts from its past through lengthy quotations from New Monomotapa: The History of the Soutbek Region, recently published in a flurry of media attention. The mayor had collaborated with retired academic Terence Pearson to compile the book from recently discovered diaries of a seventeenth-century Dutch explorer named Pieter van Meerman, in which he suggests that the early settlers founded a utopian society at Soutbek; “the birthplace of assimilation and integration”. Fortuin hopes that “The History” will bring prosperity back to Soutbek and provide an inheritance that his son will be proud of, while “the Professor,” as Pearson is known, hopes to rebuild his career.

Deft characterisation reveals their personal burdens. There is the mayor’s wife, Anna, rescued from a life of poverty and beatings; Sara, an orphan the mayor brings home to care for Anna; “the Professor”, nesting like a destitute in the detritus of his unwritten magnum opus; Willem, the mayor’s nephew, living in poverty in upper town; David, the mayor’s boarding-school-educated son ill at ease in his hometown -“The History”, it seems, will solve all their problems. As Jennings shows, it is a burden too large to bear.

Cross-posted from Fiction Uncovered:

a community website at http://www.fictionuncovered.co.uk which offers eight selected writers – and an even broader group of writers through recommendation and endorsement – a chance to reach readers. The website also encourages contributors to uncover lost or forgotten fiction as well as new fiction.

Review: The Dead Beat, by Cody James

REVIEW: The Dead Beat, by Cody James (Eight Cuts Gallery Press, 2010)

 

  

“Art and lit are lack-lustre now. Passion replaced by facile intellectualism. Throwaway culture resulting in throwaway art.” [@codyjames77: Tweet: 20:52; 15 Oct. 2010]

 

‘I’m pretty sure I wanted more out of life than this’ (The Dead Beat)

Crafted out of a time during 1997 when comet Hale-Bopp appeared in the night-sky above San Francisco, The Dead Beat is pitch-perfect in its portrayal of the frenetic aimlessness of restless minds for whom the most pressing issues are getting the laundry done and fretting over ‘trying to decide what to do’.

It would be easy to dismiss this slim but certainly not slight novel. The diseased text is riddled with adverbitis and over-written to the point where every major point is driven home so that, WE GET THE POINT. But, that is the point, I think. The protagonist/narrator Adam is a drug-addled, blocked writer who lives among the detritus of revered literary revolutionaries in a cockroach-infested house in Berkeley, San Francisco. He draws his three housemates from the ‘s’ for ‘stereotypical slacker’ in the new writer’s manual-: Lincoln, a manic-obsessive who stalks Mia, the ‘ordinary’ girl up the street, Sean, a suicidal bisexual, and Xavi, whose OCD consigns him to a living nightmare in their boarded-up hovel. Adam works a ‘crummy job at the record store’ and tries to write. When he’s high, he’s abusive and picks fights with his housemates. Crashing down, he’s crippled with guilt and self-loathing and he self-harms. He suffers hallucinations and paranoia, is plagued with ‘The Spiders’ and ‘little black animals’ and the strains of ‘a whole classical symphony’ that plays loudly inside his head.

‘My brain was racing so fast that it felt like I was standing still, kind of like those old, cheesy depictions of time-travel, or kind of like comet Hale-Bopp’.

Resonances to the Beat Generation add both texture and depth to the story. Adam’s self-portrait is straight from Kerouac’s note No. 27: ‘In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness’ (from ‘The Belief and Technique of Modern Prose’) while other connections/references are overt:

Ginsberg ‘had died earlier that month… ‘[w]hen I was a kid, I had read three things in that reading room that had blown my mind. On the Road by Jack Kerouac, America by Allen Ginsberg, and a short poem by Philip Whalen called, Plus Ça ChangePlus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose; the more things change, the more they stay the same’

‘ “I wonder if the Haight was this dirty in the ‘60s?” he [Xavi] said out loud, looking around at the urban debris—fast food wrappers, used needles and condoms, vomit, those lone, floating, plastic bags from supermarkets—that littered the verdant surroundings.’

I’m probably not the ‘Ideal Reader’ whom Cody James had in mind while she was writing The Dead Beat. The story is a world away from my safe, Presbyterian-guilt-ridden corner of Scotland and it has everything I go out of my way to avoid – foul language, profanity, careless drug abuse, not to mention gratuitous sex and female stereotyping. Yet, the style, substance, language, dialogue and characterisation are all relevant to the story she tells. And she tells it well. James’s achievement in The Dead Beat is two fold: she gives a voice to the dead-beat generation and, in juxtaposing abhorrent lifestyles with poignant introspection, evokes sympathy for the human tragedy that lies within its blackest heart.

The Dead Beat, by Cody James is available as an e-book [I read an advance proof copy of the paperback edition]

From 1 November it will be available as a paperback [in a one-off hand-numbered edition with extra material]

There’s more information on Eight Cuts Gallery Press on their website.

See also Cody James’s website

Book Review: The Looking House, Fred Marchant

Fred Marchant. The Looking House. Graywolf Press (2009)

Fred Marchant’s latest collection begins where he left off in House on Water, House in Air: New and Selected Poems (2002) so that the prologue poem, “House on Water, House in Air,” acts as a link or gateway to his earlier work and takes us deeper into his compassionate exploration of human suffering. Arranged in three interconnected sections, The Looking House moves in a deliberate path from intellectual uncertainty to revelation, from a place “where the riverbank is firm,/but crumbling,” where “a boy among the living/thinks that nothing is near, or worth/believing in,” to poems that expose human indignities, such as, old age, mental breakdown and death, and poems raging at larger indignities, such as war and torture, to a final, dawning realisation of nature’s soothing balm. Marchant’s great achievement in The Looking House is to create a new anti-war poetics out of seemingly disparate subjects and images.

The first poem proper, “Ard na Mara” begins with remembrance and return, at a house both “beside the sea” and “above, during a summer spent in Ireland, far away from war.

The war in Viet Nam still ongoing, but I was well out of it,

as far as I could get. I went in 

to Donegal once a week for newspapers and wine gums.

 Dominated by images of past conflicts, there’s no respite in his selfimposed

exile.

across the rocks, and then looking up, you’d feel dwarfed

by the one wall left standing—

a fragment of Sweeney’s castle—just a stone wing-blade,

but you got the idea: fortress,

and the fear of raids. Later when I first read the opening

of the Agamemnon, I thought

 the Greek signal fires must have been lit on points like this,

 the war won but not over

Since his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps as a conscientious objector, Marchant has quietly raged against “war won but not over.” His indignation stalks this assured fourth collection. In The Looking House he continues to prick at his own and the wider American consciousness; looking back from present conflicts to when he struggled to understand by writing it down, “to tell why I joined/and how I came to quit the war.”

[…]

Marchant tells us, in “Credo,” that he’s interested, not simply “in words alone,” but “what lives in between them.” The controlled imagery and motifs include thresholds, doorways, a windowsill, apertures that provide closure as well as openings; beginnings and endings: “hiatus: opening, rupture, fissure, gap,” “Knock on the doorframe and step out.” The magnificently imagined title poem, “The Looking House Stanza,” gathers up the disparate subjects of memory, war and mental breakdown into a “room without roof,/by a window minus its wall,” where, Lear-like, boundaries break, lives unravel with the revelation of “how little we knew about fatal/sorrow, and indignity without end.” The final two poems return to the hopeful expectation of “a boy’s face, turned up” in the prologue-poem. “Pinckney Street” depicts nature’s “respite,” the “shook ‘foil’ Hopkins wrote about—/ the minutes we have of grandeur, hope, gratitude” while in “First Song Again” the “lofted/Blue heron wing” recalls “the long, sleek, and pointed call/that rose, as if in response, out of the estuary/ of night and storm” of that summer spent in Ireland away from the Viet Nam war. So, perfectly, full circle, Marchant ends as he began, pondering humanity, urging us to

Trust above all the imminent return

Of the small, but persistent

            Impulse to sing.

The complete review is available in the current edition of Pleiades, Vol. 30:No.1, 202-204