An Iron Girl In A Velvet Glove- Triona Holden (2021)

Back in the late 1980s/early 90s I lived in Crouch End in North London where close by a recording studio used by Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics was a café called Josie’s. The first time I went in there it was like being in some parallel universe.  Around the café were photos of big stars from two or three decades before with a glamorous blonde woman, not unlike Diana Dors, often photographed in sparkly gowns and leotards.  This lady was obviously the same lady who was now making our coffee.  From the magnitude of the people she was photographed with and the lengthy span when these photos would have been taken this was someone who I clearly should have known, but I didn’t.

Finding out some information nowadays would involve ten seconds on Google but things were different then.  I felt I couldn’t just ask her.  I eventually discovered that this was Joan Rhodes, a long lasting star of variety and the early years of tv, famed as a strongwoman and for tearing up telephone directories and now the subject of Triona Holden’s book published by The History Press, which seems a fitting publishing house for this unique talent who was very much of her time but whose attitudes and qualities will still very much resonate today. 

Joan Rhodes (1921-2010) went down a storm on variety bills, bending nails and steel bars with her bare hands, lifting weights and members of the audience, tearing up phone books, being a one-woman tug of war team and once, famously, tripping and dropping comedian Bob Hope.  Looking very much a showgirl and not overly muscular she was billed as “The Strongest Woman In The World” and “The Mighty Mannequin.” She toured the world, performed for royalty, appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in the USA and latterly ran a café in Crouch End where I encountered her.

The author befriended Joan in 2003.  By then retired and living in the garden flat she occupied for decades in Belsize Park she didn’t let that many people into her close circle but was a fiercely loyal long-time friend to luminaries such as Quentin Crisp, artist Dame Laura Knight, Marlene Dietrich and Larry Grayson.  She had an extraordinary tale to tell, was ripped off through attempting to self-publish an autobiography and so it was left to her old friend to tell this story eleven years after Joan’s death at the age of 89.

It’s a fascinating glimpse into the recent past, where things seem familiar and yet so far removed from today.  Joan did love to tell stories and had amassed large amounts of memorabilia and written accounts of events in her life and yet the author still discovered things she had chosen to hide.  Born into poverty, abandoned by her mother as a toddler, Joan credited the rage this caused within her to be the motivation for her feats of strength.  A street performer who worked her way up the variety ladder into becoming a highly recognised performer much feted by the popular press who loved to print stories about her. 

All this made me feel that I wished I had spoken more to her when I visited the café.  The author does a very good job of putting Joan Rhodes into context for a modern audience, even for those who might not now know what a telephone directory was! The book was inspired partly by the interest of the young production crew of BBC TV’s “The Repair Shop” where the author had one of Joan’s stage outfits she had inherited restored.  This felt both a nostalgic and empowering tale of a very special woman, who lived life on her terms, who used a unique physical talent extraordinarily and who also possessed great warmth, determination and resilience.

“An Iron Girl In A Velvet Glove – The Life Of Joan Rhodes” by Triona Holden was published in 2021 by The History Press.

Pamela-Samuel Richardson (1740) – A Book To “Read Before You Die”

I’m a little confused about chronology.  Last time for this strand I read Henry Fielding’s “Joseph Andrews” published in 1742 in which Richardson’s main character is Fielding’s titular character’s sister and who makes an appearance.  I was surprised at the time that Peter Boxall’s “1001 Books To Read Before You Die” which I thought recommended books in the order that they appeared hadn’t mentioned “Pamela” but that’s because of my determination not to look ahead in the book.  I hadn’t seen it was the next title.  Dividing the recommendations into groups of five and choosing one, which has been my approach for this strand, here were my latest options:

Pamela – Samuel Richardson

Clarissa – Samuel Richardson

Roderick Random – Tobias George Smollett

Tom Jones – Henry Fielding

Fanny Hill- John Cleland

I think I can see what’s happened here.  Boxall has 1742 for the “Pamela” publication date, the same year as “Joseph Andrews” and has put Fielding before Richardson alphabetically.  I chose to read “Pamela” as I had a copy sitting unread on my shelves but this Penguin edition has the publication date of 1740.  It’s a bit of a moot point anyway as Richardson revised this book regularly and the edition I read was reworked by the author in the 1750s but remained unpublished until his daughters approved its appearance in 1801, which is the version Penguin Classics have gone for.  Sorry, if I’ve confused you thus far!

“Pamela” is highly significant as it was the first best-seller which spawned translations, parodies (Henry Fielding’s “Shamela” being the most famous), spin-offs by other authors (ie; “Joseph Andrews”) and sequels.  Merchandise appeared with “Pamela” references and it became an important landmark in both English and European literature. It’s structure, whilst not original, was significant.  It is largely an epistolary novel, written as letters by Pamela mainly to her parents, the rest is her journal, also intended to be read by her parents- there’s only a small intervention from the author, who adopts the guise of editor.

This gives this novel a different feel to what had gone before, which intended to be rambling road tales with many a digression and stories within stories.  Pamela is dealing with things as they happen, the plot develops as it goes along because she is writing either on the day events occurred or just after.  The plot as such can be summed up in the subtitle “Virtue Rewarded”.  Pamela spends a chunk of this novel trying to preserve hers.  She is a lady’s maid whose mistress has died and the son, known throughout as Mr B., is after her and goes to great lengths in his attempts to seduce her.  Coercive behaviour is highly present in the fiction of today and here, 280 years ago, we have a chilling, persistent example with Mr B.  Spread over two volumes, the first for me does achieve greatness.  The master’s plots to seduce Pamela and her foiling his lustful plans really drew me in.  In the second volume we get quite a lot of Mr B., through Pamela’s words, including a 48 point treatise on what makes a good wife and things become admittedly more of a slog.

I do find the whole background of this novel fascinating.  Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) was a printer, not an academic, and the idea came from a commission to produce a set of standard letters that could be used as templates for would-be letter-writers.  Pamela is not a lady, although she has been brought up in that environment, the parents she writes to are much simpler folk.  Pamela knows she is likely to be ruined if she gives in to Mr B. and around her Richardson devises a set of memorable characters who will help or hinder Mr B.’s plans. 

In our modern world the resolution is not that satisfactory.  I wouldn’t trust Mr B. and the way things turn out would have been likely to have been surprising and yet pleasing to Richardson’s contemporary readers.  All in all, this is a highly important if not totally involving work.  I did feel, when I was mid-way through the first volume that this might be the earliest work I would give five stars to- but the protracted, more didactic nature of the second half meant that it was not quite there for me.

The Penguin Classics edition I read with an introduction by Margaret A Doody states that “Pamela” was first published in 1740.

The Sun Walks Down – Fiona McFarlane (Sceptre 2023)

In 1883 in the desert environment of the Flinders Ranges in Southern Australia a six year old boy, Denny Wallace, disappears following a storm.  This is Australian author Fiona McFarlane’s second novel (there’s also been a prize-winning collection of short stories) and it is very much a character-led ensemble piece with a sizeable cast of fascinating characters.

This is the search for Danny and those involved include his family, the authorities and native trackers.  For me, the characters who burn brightest include his fifteen year old sister Cissy, who seems more on the ball than the adults, who borrows a horse from her teacher and is determined to locate her brother; Karl Rapp, a Swedish painter, in search of a perfect sunset; the newly-wed Minna Manning, throbbing with passion whilst her groom Robert, a policeman, is out looking for the boy and the mother, Mary, who waits stolidly at home.

The cast also includes an out of his element vicar; an aborigine whose youth was marked by his excelling in cricket, which no longer seems relevant, and a land-owning woman who yearns for the fur coat of a tracker.  We catch up with these throughout the narrative and there are occasional digressions into back stories which often serve to enrich our understanding of these characters.

It is very well-written with the sense of the desert environment strong where long-established livelihoods are threatened by the lack of rain.  Plot-wise, it is a little light in dramatic tension but atmosphere, characterisation and description made this a memorable, immersive read.

The Sun Walks Down is published in the UK by Sceptre on 9th March 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

In Memoriam -Alice Winn (Viking 2023)

There are some very strong debut novels which have already appeared in the first quarter of 2023- here’s another one.  I haven’t read that many World War I novels- I do have a little collection of fiction, non-fiction and poetry sitting on my shelves which I haven’t got around to.  I find it easy to put off reading about this time in history as it is so grim.  I was, however, intrigued by a strong publisher’s push and a description by Maggie O’Farrell as this as a “devastating love story between two young men on the Western Front.” I decided to grit my teeth and get on with what I suspected would be an emotional reading experience.

We first meet Sidney Ellwood and Henry Gaunt as sixth formers at Preshute, a public boarding school, perusing the school paper which produces a Roll of Honour for those killed, wounded and missing in the early years of the war, a conflict which you know they are inevitably going to be drawn into.  To begin with they are somewhat glib and their relationship is both caring and detached, maintaining a public indifference which masks a longing for one another.  Already they are children acting the part of grown-ups but nothing like their need to function in a completely different way once they sign up.

The description of battles, of everyday life in the trenches, of the limited chances of survival is exceptionally strong.  The action at times becomes overpowering.  A prisoner of war sequence is written as gripping thriller.  These boys should be rabbits-in-the-headlights, it is extraordinary to read how they were forced to adapt to these horrendous new experiences.  Life at home is also conveyed well, the anger the young soldiers must have felt towards their parents’ generation bothered by petty trivial matters without any understanding of what is being endured.  The young women handing white feathers to those too young to enlist or on leave and not in uniform I found absolutely chilling.  From time to time as the war advances  further issues of the school newspaper’s Roll Of Honour makes for very sobering reading.

I’m not sure how I feel about the author embracing aspects of the First World War that have become so familiar they are in danger of losing their power- the class divisions in the trenches, war poets, the footballs -at one point I became nervous that she would use the WWI football anecdote everyone knows but she states in her historical note at the end that she thought this would be too much.  I wasn’t totally convinced by her portrayal of the relationship between Gaunt and Ellwood and this for me was a little more tricky.  I appreciate I’m looking at a same-sex relationship from a modern perspective but I felt a little more could have been made of the issues regarding these very young men, forced to operate in a horrific adult world and exploring their feelings and sexuality within this.  In the war scenes their youth came across so strongly, in the love scenes less so.  I just think the balance was slightly off-kilter with these characters which meant I did not feel their relationship came across as real as I had hoped.

Reading about this war it is hard to comprehend how Europe survived after this.  I imagine it was largely, hard to believe this in our modern world, was because it wasn’t spoken about.  My grandmother lost a brother in the Somme, I cannot remember her ever talking about him.  This is the reason why, even a century plus on, I think it is so important that we have writers of the calibre of Alice Winn who can so vividly bring this dreadful time to life.

In Memoriam will be published by Viking on 9th March 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Birnham Wood -Eleanor Catton (Granta 2023)

It’s been 10 years since Eleanor Catton’s last novel, the doorstep sized “The Luminaries”, scooped the Booker Prize breaking both longest novel and youngest winning author records.  This book marks the long-awaited return for this New Zealand author and has a very different feel from her last highly-celebrated nineteenth century set work.

We are in modern New Zealand.  Birnham Wood is the name of a group of radical horticulturalists, a no profit organisation who carry out guerrilla gardening, planting crops in areas which do not belong to them.  An area called Korawai (fictional) cordoned off due to a landslip offers a great potential opportunity.  The land belongs to the newly knighted pest control expect Owen Darvish, awarded for services to conservation but he is in the middle of secret dealings with an American billionaire.  The Birnham Wood group get caught in the middle in what can loosely be described as an eco-thriller.

One thing I remembered about Eleanor Catton’s work is that she likes long sentences which slowed me down last time round but here it all becomes more and more readable as the plot advances.  I felt with “The Luminaries” that I was missing out on something allegorical I couldn’t  quite pick up on- here things seem more straightforward- it’s a state of the nation environmental novel with leanings towards thriller genre writing where the lines between the goodies and baddies are blurred and moral boundaries are crossed.

Despite the involving plot the main strength for me is (as in her last book) the relationship between characters, particularly Mira and Shelley, the two leading lights of Birnham Wood- Mira, inspirational, starting off enthralled by the prospect of new action for the group, Shelley, more practical, feeling disillusionment creeping in.  There’s great tension between these two friends which is convincing.  I’m not sure how I felt about the ending which wasn’t what I was expecting.  This is another strong title from Eleanor Catton, with less lofty ambitions than “The Luminaries”.  Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 10 years to read more from her.

Birnham Wood will be published by Granta in the UK on 2nd March.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Fire Rush – Jacqueline Crooks (Vintage 2023)

This big buzz debut was one of the titles I featured as one of my potential highlights of the year.  Jacqueline Crooks has published short stories but this semi-autobiographical work is her first full-length novel.  It is also my first five star read of 2023.

This is a confident, lyrical, powerful work.  The author handles tonal change very well and is able, through an involving narrative, to sustain the pull of heritage, underwater imagery and the rhythms of the often undulating, often sparse dub instrumental versions of reggae music throughout a novel rich in plot and characterisation.

We start in 1978 in Norwood, a London suburb, with three girls, Yamaye, the narrator, Asase, prickly and sassy and Rumer, a white girl from the Irish travelling community who escape underground to dances in a church crypt, “a three-pin plug, charging ourselves to dub riddim, connecting through each other to the underground” whilst tensions with police, the use of stop and search laws and the men who hit on them on the dancefloor weave a potent web. 

A second section features Yamaye removed from her community, falling into a difficult lifestyle with restricted choices within a squat finding her expression in toasting over the rhythm tracks in a Bristol nightclub.  Circumstances force her to Jamaica in a third part to search for her heritage and regain meaning to her life.  Each section feels different and yet there is a flowing overlap which feels like it could stifle the main character at any moment as she struggles to keep her head above water.  This phrase is apt as there is so much water within the images of this book from the calling from the Caribbean over the oceans, the lingering ghosts of slave ships and release from the enchainment of the seas all having a part to play.

There’s a great cast of characters, vividly drawn.  The language is rich and rooted in a Black British Caribbean which feels poetic and powerful and often mystical and elusive, acknowledging a sisterhood of many previous generations, occasionally keeping meaning at arm’s length but then pulling in for a warming hug.

I really enjoyed this- from the fyah of the fierce girls dancing in the damp, smokey club to the fire of the title, the spiritual energy from a much simpler Jamaican life, there is much growth and development which kept me involved throughout.  It is a very strong debut and Jacqueline Crooks deserves to make a significant impact with this.

Fire Rush will be published by Vintage/ Jonathan Cape in the UK on 2nd March 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

I Have Some Questions For You- Rebecca Makkai (Fleet 2023)

I first discovered Rebecca Makkai in 2020 when I read her 2018 AIDS-era novel “The Great Believers” in one of the grimmest periods of lockdown.  I described the sensation of “feeling purged by the end but with the sense that I had received a tremendous reading experience.” It ended up as my Book Of The Year.  This, her 5th novel is the first since then.

It features a first-person narrative by Bodie Kane, a girl who found herself, due to unusual circumstances, as an outsider in an elite boarding school in the 1990s.  Her narrative is set in the present day and is addressed to one of her old teachers.  As an adult Bodie has never been able to move far away from the murder of an ex-room-mate, found drowned after a late-night visit to the pool.  Twenty-three years later she is back at the school teaching a podcast course and one of the students is manipulated by Bodie into re-examining the case.

This is a privileged American academic world largely within two time-zones, when Bodie was a student and then as a visiting staff member.  Since then, much has happened- different attitudes, MeToo and cancel culture means the later intake are a very different set of students, less accepting of the young Bodie’s environment and in the meantime a black man has been languishing in prison accused of a murder that an online community, which Bodie is very much a part of, seems never totally convinced he committed.

The three time settings gives a clever slant.  The three levels of looking back all presented in a form of an address to a member of staff Bodie had not seen since schooldays provides a fascinating set of perspectives.  As this structure demands, it is a very tight, controlled piece with lots of ruminations of the same events all stemming back to one night after a school production of “Camelot”.  I can, as a British reader, find writing set in American educational establishments rather distancing- it’s such a different world and there was a point where I felt my interest would wane but a leap forward to the post-Covid world regained my enthusiasm.

Within the narrative there is a nifty use of references to cases of abuse and murder, in an off-hand, suggestive manner, for example, she relates listening to a radio news item at one point and mentions was it the one where such and such happened, or the one where…or the one where.. This happens quite a few times within the text and is a sobering reminder that the case that Bodie experienced is one of so many where violence has destroyed lives.

I was impressed and involved but not in the same way as I was with “The Great Believers” where I felt a great emotional pull.  This is a very different book and is a highly contemporary and relevant one.

I Have Some Questions For You is published in the UK by Fleet, an imprint of Little Brown Viking on 23rd February 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy. 

Hungry Ghosts- Kevin Jared Hosein (Bloomsbury 2023)

One of the titles I was really looking forward to this year by this Caribbean novelist and poet described by the BBC news website as “one of the most talked about forthcoming books in literary circles”.  It is admittedly impressive.

Set in 1940s Trinidad, yet the date feels largely irrelevant as there is a sense of timelessness which permeates the characters’ lives.  There are two main locations, one a large house lived in by Dalton and Marlee Changoor.  His wealth has come from unknown, suspicious means and the locals doubt the background of his younger wife.  The second setting is the barrack, an impoverished courtyard around which a number of families live, including Hans, his wife Shweta and their son, Krishna.  Hans is within both locations as he works in the Changoor grounds.  His aim is to escape the barrack and find land in the nearby Bell village but there are very few ways to escape the barrack.

The author creates a range of vividly drawn characters from their present existence and back stories.  This is a superb storyteller at work.  They are all very much products of their environment, an environment which is richly depicted with much description.  It’s been a long time since I have had to look up so many words, a number related to descriptions of flora and fauna and the surroundings- many used potentially for their sound as much as meaning, really bringing home that this is the work of a poet.

When Dalton Changoor goes missing the lives of the older characters are transformed.  I found the early sections of the book outstanding.  The younger generation’s lives are linked with a casual violence and as the novel continued the ripeness of the words and the environment soured, becoming over-ripe and I found myself getting queasy.  There was still much that impressed yet I found the subject matter led to passages that were difficult to read.  They will stay my mind but not for reasons I’d like.  There’s a slight over-egging of the horrors of life which dominated in the latter sections where I longed for some balance from the nightmarish world-view.  At one point some of the characters consume hallucinogenic mushrooms and it is as if this psychedelic paranoia pervades the novel from this point on.

Characterisation and story-telling great, it just became a little too much.  There is no doubt that Kevin Jared Hosein has written a haunting, impactful tale which has the feel of a modern classic whilst rooted in a historic, oral tradition.

Hungry Ghosts will be published in the UK by Bloomsbury on 16th February 2023.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the advance review copy.

Small Things Like These – Claire Keegan (2021)

“Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?”

It’s been a long time since anybody bought me a novel as a present wanting me to read it because it has made such an impression on them.  So thanks to my dear friend Louise as this book was one of her favourite reads of last year as well as enjoying wider critical acclaim; a place on the 2022 Booker Shortlist and the winner of the Orwell Prize given for political fiction.

First of all this is a short novel of 110 well-spaced pages with a generously sized font and I must confess I do struggle with the short novel as a form, perhaps even more than I do with short stories.  I approach them with hovering anxiety- that I might not get them, that the short form adopted will require too much reading between the lines extracting the story from what is not there as much as what is there.

I don’t know why I feel like this, if need be, I’m very well versed enough as a reader to extrapolate meaning so I don’t know why this would be a dealbreaker but faced with a couple of tempting novels – one short, one longer I’d generally pick the longer.  I do hope it’s not a latent miserliness in me, subconsciously thinking about value for money as there is certainly much value within this short work.

It is a Christmas story, which makes it both an excellent gift and something to return to each December.  It’s a read in a day title and should be sought out by those who like a festive dose of Ebenezer Scrooge each year (or annually watch “It’s A Wonderful Life”).  With great economy and narrative skills the author weaves a haunting, simple story with much hidden power behind it.  There’s a lot of unsentimental kindness which feels a salve to the soul.

In 1985 in a small Irish town the Furlong family are preparing for Christmas.  Bill, the father, is a coal and timber merchant kept busy by the cold weather.  The true life Magdalen Laundries, a Church-run network of sweatshops for girls fallen on hard times touches Bill’s life but the circumstances will need to be discovered by the reader of these 110 pages as I’m not revealing any more plot.

Claire Keegan certainly leaves the reader wanting more and I will certainly seek out other works by her.

Small Things Like These was published in 2021.  The paperback edition is now available.

Unleash The Magnificent You! – Christopher Bradbury (2022)

January is the month for self-help books. “It’s February now!” I hear you cry, “we don’t have to bother with any of that New Year’s Resolution stuff! ” but indulge me a while.  Firstly, I read this in January and more importantly, as we all suspect, the first month of the year is not the best for lasting, positive change.  On a recent health-check a very astute nurse said weight-loss plans are probably not best begun at this time of year when there are unopened Christmas treats lurking and that three quarters full bottle of Baileys calling out to you on the cold January nights so I’m pleased to tell you that Christopher Bradbury’s inspiring self-help book is not just for January and that Magnificent You can be unleashed the whole year round!

There’s no doubt the author’s an optimist- just look at that cover promising us a “Gazillion ways to turbocharge your life”.  I didn’t count up to verify but certainly any of even the smallest changes suggested has the potential to transform lives.

What is provided here is an overview in short snappy chapters full of pearls of wisdom.  There’s little new in the world of self-help, the reason why some succeed more than others is the way in which help is presented and how it is taken on board by the individual.  I like this general overview approach.  It starts by getting the reader to examine personal values, identifying the most important for you as an individual and encouraging thought on ways to stick to them.  Potential is unleashed when these values are combined with your vision and Christopher Bradbury is on hand to help with this.

He does so in 60 sections and 380 (in the hardback edition) motivational pages.  He suggests we can pick and choose the sections which feel most appropriate- I’d say don’t do that, find time to read the whole thing.  I’m not a parent so I might have decided to skip the parenting section, for example, but there’s so much good advice therein which I could apply to other situations that I would be missing out.

I made notes and I’m glad I did as I now have a little personalised handbook on areas such as kindness and compassion, fear, flexibility, thoughts and emotions, worry, gratitude – the list goes on.  He’s practical as well and there’s the odd good statistic to back things up, which makes me happy.  Here are my Top 3:

Only 10% of what we worry about actually happens- therefore 90% is wasted energy.

Only 3% of people write down their goals and these people achieve 5-10 times as much as the other 97%

And one to stop you in your tracks:

The average smartphone user checks their phone 63 times a day, 70% within 5 minutes of waking up.

I also want to add a couple of sayings to help with everyday life.  Take a bow the one beloved by “Love Island” participants, “It is what it is”- but then it really is and taking this on board would remove much stress over what you cannot control and slightly cheesy but none the less effective for that is “Yesterday is history and tomorrow is a mystery.  But today is a gift, so enjoy it before its gone.”

There will inevitably be moments when the author’s whistlestop tour approach will have you wanting more detail and I for one would welcome a bibliography or further reading suggestions linked to the areas raised but he does always provide enough information to start you well onto your road for change.

As a general self-help book this is strong and the emphasis and linking to personal core values (if you only do one exercise make sure it is the one that starts the book which encourages you to identify these) makes it stronger and seem more relevant.  Go on, get that Magnificent You unleashed!

Unleash The Magnificent You is published by Lightning Source and is available to purchase on Amazon.  Many thanks to the author for the opportunity to read and review this book.