Blue Ticket – a review

Blue Ticket

Sophie Mackintosh’s  first novel, The Water Cure, announced an assured and confident voice in literary fiction and was deservedly longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2018.

Her second novel, Blue Ticket, revisits a similar dystopian world where all the usual facets of normal life are turned upside down. Calla, like all girls knows that when her first period comes she’ll take part in the Lottery: if she gets a white ticket she is suitable for motherhood; if her ticket is blue then she escapes this future and can make her own decisions. Only she can’t choose to be a mother. But what if she feels the overwhelming biological urge to have a child? This chilling novel follows Calla as she comes to terms with what her body is telling her, and follows her on a journey that takes her far away from safety and comfort.

Blue Ticket is not a lengthy novel but it packs a huge emotional punch and makes the reader question free will, a woman’s right to choose and the tyranny of patriarchy. Sophie Mackintosh uses a pared-down language that is utterly convincing and often very beautiful. This is a haunting novel with overtones of The Handmaid’s Tale or Brave New World but, as in The Water Cure, the reader is left with a sense of the strength of the human spirit. I recommend this novel without reservation.

It will be published at the end of August 2020.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss – a review

summerwater

Excellent, atmospheric novel set by a Scottish loch where unrelated families are trying to make the most of a rainy summer holiday. It’s both funny, realistic and also imbued with impending tragedy. The ending is so unexpected it takes your breath away. I enjoyed Sarah Moss’s previous novella, Ghost Wall and although completely different there are similarities in tone and setting. Highly recommended.

Summerwater will be published in August 2020.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – a review

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is a second collection from David Coldwell whose debut , Flowers by the Road, won the Templar Poetry Portfolio Prize in 2016.  In this new collection there are some very enjoyable and straightforward poems which will appeal to anyone who loves the wilds of Yorkshire. The main themes are change and time, growing up and mortality.

David Coldwell is also a visual artist and he observes the world with an often dispassionate artist’s eye. In fact the poems that work best are ones when the language is grounded in the landscape without straying into abstraction; when the word choices are monosyllabic, even harsh, producing their own bleak musicality. There are poems written in form, as in the technically accomplished title poem where the rhyming of cold… old, ground… sound or colours… flowers make the poem feel rooted in the landscape. Many of these poems are written in an informal, flowing free verse which, at its best, can be moving and is strongest when line breaks are really effectively used.

In Clocks Coldwell uses the familiar image of walking through a field and picking dandelion ‘clocks’, teaching a child how to blow off the seeds and count the hours; but what gives this poem its strength is the narrator’s acute awareness that time is passing and the young child will grow up and move away. The last stanza is particularly poignant:

Make a wish, you shout

with excited eyes of something only you know.

I take back your hand, swinging it as you skip

I already have, I say, before letting you free.

When a very specific image is described these poems really sing as in Bright Thing; here the poet captures memories of his father in ‘the roughness of his skin; the oil / and coolant ingrained that scratches against ink’. Again in The Conversation we see ‘the spider balled up in remnants’. This precision serves to ground the poem and can also bring out a generous sense of humour as in the poem In the end:

Ian downs a Pot Noodle cup

full of local ale;

Wendy paints the moon

and stars above a child’s eyes…

The vein of darkness and loss that runs through this whole collection is well articulated in Embers where the three intriguing final lines resonate long after the poem has ended.

And it troubled me,

watching that endless flow,

more than I can reason.

This sense of foreboding, is also evident in Swan where, what at first seems to be a conventional poem describing the loneliness of a swan, turns into something altogether different with intimations of a troubled future, albeit with an interesting juxtaposition of humour. ‘where a man sits in a morning suit / practicing his wedding speech/to a single mute swan…’

In Scarecrow, a  bittersweet, almost nostalgic poem, the line: Everything seemed simple certainly strikes a chord in these uncertain Covid 19 times; it could sum up our lives with a continuous harking back to ‘before’. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is an accessible collection of poems that will appeal to anyone who enjoys the Yorkshire landscape. It will be published in autumn 2020 by Maytree Press.

 

Conjure Women – a review

This excellent narrative is centred on Rue, one of the ‘conjure’ women of the title, who works as midwife and herbalist for the other enslaved people on a plantation in 19th century America. When Bean, a pale-skinned child with strangely dark eyes is born, Rue is horrified: ‘She felt then that she knew him for what he was, a secret retribution for a long-ago crime, the punishment she had been dreading.’. It is from this moment that the story begins to unfold.

In this wonderful debut novel, Afia Atakora has created strong women characters who live and breathe. Rue, her mother, Miss May Belle and a white woman, Varina, daughter of the owner of the plantation, are complex and conflicted and all linked in ways that are gradually revealed through the telling of the story. These are characters who will stay with you.

‘Conjure Women’ is a skillfully realised and rewarding read, set against the background of the Civil War and emancipation; and moving back and forward from ‘Slavery time’ to ‘Exodus’ to ‘Wartime’ Perhaps a little overlong and slow at times, it’s a very ambitious novel, particularly for a debut; and brings to life the harsh realities of living under terrible oppression and violence.

Afia Atakora could well be describing her own writing when she says: ‘The words blossomed black out of his pen like fast, elegant little miracles.’ This is writing of a very high calibre and I can’t wait to read more from this author.

Unprotected: a review

Unprotected

Unprotected by Sophie Jonas-Hill is a novel dedicated to ‘all those who have suffered loss and miscarriage, and keep on fighting’. But it’s not a misery-fest. Far from it. Lydia is a tattooist and, when her long-term relationship breaks down after a series of miscarriages, she’s both hurt and supremely angry. After a drunk night out drowning her sorrows, she wakes up in bed with a much younger man and the story really takes off.

I’m naked, in bed, with the boy from the after-party. Shit, shit, shit! I am naked, in bed, with the boy from the after-party!

To make it worse The Archers omnibus is about to start on the bedside radio:

And boy, that really ain’t cool, now is it? Not when you’re trying to pretend like you’re not a middle class, forty-two-year-old, white woman.

The relationship with The Boy becomes more entangled, and Lydia begins to realise he’s also very vulnerable and she’s made a huge mistake.  When she becomes obsessed about rescuing a young girl she’s seen getting into a cab the plot thickens, with echoes of the organised abuse of underage girls. We see how the pain of Lydia’s own losses as well as an unsupportive mother and unreliable friend make her want to save everybody else, at her own expense.

There are some brilliant characters in this novel which make it a pleasure to read. The Boy is incredibly sexy and we see how Lydia would be attracted to him after so much rejection and a sense of failure, in spite of his potential instability. The character, apart from Lydia herself who really stands out is Big Al; he’s taught Lydia the art of tattooing and is a warm, protective father figure. Even when their roles are reversed and Big Al works for her, he’s the one she relies on to help when the going gets really tough and frightening.

If you enjoy a thoroughly contemporary novel that explores some big themes unflinchingly, I’d recommend Unprotected. In Lydia Sophie Jonas-Hill has created a memorable character, both unconventional and flawed, with something of Fleabag’s vulnerability. It’s great to see a woman who makes her own decisions in life, even if they may not be the best ones, and who is prepared to fight both for herself and for other vulnerable people.

Unprotected is available from Retreat West Books. Copy and paste the link to buy on your tablet etc

https://retreatwestbooks.com/ebooks-from-retreat-west-books

 

 

DOGGERLAND: a review

Doggerlandby Ben Smith,
published April 2019

All around, to every horizon, the blades of the wind farm turned.

Review:
Far from land, out in the North Sea a boy (Jem) and an old man (Greil) live and work on a vast wind farm. They maintain and service the 6,000 turbines of which 850 are broken and more are malfunctioning – ‘dark blooms and scabs of rust… seepages of oil and grease … slumped down at an angle, their foundations crumbling like silt.’ This is an elemental world coloured grey – mineral and metallic – where everything is constantly changing and being eroded by the sea; even the old man’s cheeks are ‘flushed purplish grey, like metal discoloured by a flame.’ The sea itself is polluted and sterile, with nothing moving in it apart from human rubbish and plastic. In an evocative description we see:

swathes of shining fluid that coated the surface of the water… shoals of plastic bags and bottles… the brittle shells of electrical appliances.

In this bleak environment set in the not too distant future, the two main characters are so rarely named they could be any of us, or represent each end of one life: youth and old age; innocence and experience. Their only contact is with the captain of the quarterly supply boat who brings the processed meals they live on and occasionally trades with them. To ease the boredom and acute isolation the man and boy play tricks and try to outmanoeuvre each other like an elaborate game of chess. The old man salvages artefacts from the seabed, evidence of the Stone Age civilisation who lived there when it was ‘Doggerland’ before sea levels rose and it was submerged. The boy’s main obsession is to find out what happened to his father who worked on the farm before him and who mysteriously disappeared. When he finds a shoe at the beginning of the novel he thinks it could be his father’s.

This inventive novel, written with a pared-down style that still admits genuinely beautiful poetry, has echoes of Waiting for Godot and The Truman Show. A very impressive debut from Ben Smith about isolation, selflessness and the indefatigable human urge to create and explore.

Background information about Doggerland:
Named after the Dogger Bank (familiar to listeners of BBC Radio’s shipping forecast) which in turn was named after the 17th century Dutch fishing boats called doggers, the prehistoric existence of a now submerged area of land linking Britain to mainland Europe was established in the late 19th century. It featured in a short story by H G Wells. In the 1990s interest was revived by archaeologist and academic, Bryony Coles, who named the area “Doggerland”

doggerland mapMap of how Doggerland might have looked.

Around 6,000 years ago, the nomadic Mesolithic people were forced out of Doggerland by rising water that engulfed their low-lying settlements. Modern fishermen often find ancient bones and tools that date to about 9,000 years ago.

skull of wooly mamothNorth sea 1999,DoggerlandThe skull of a woolly mammoth, discovered in the North Sea in 1999, in the area then known as Doggerland. Image: OGMIOS/CREATIVE COMMONS

Now (2018 onwards) archaeologists working for Swedish energy firm Vattenfall are examining a set of ‘cores’ recently extracted from the seabed as part of the developer’s surveys for its Norfolk Boreas offshore windfarm. The core samples provide an almost unbroken record of pre-historic environmental change from the end of the last Ice Age through to the flooding of Doggerland. The research will shed light on how quickly our ancestors would have needed to adapt to the changing coastline, as rising sea levels flooded the North Sea through the English Channel and cut off the British Isles from the European mainland. Climate scientists say a similar situation could affect the billions of people who live within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of a shoreline today, if polar ice caps continue to melt at an accelerated pace.

References:
https://www.nationalgeographic.org/maps/doggerland

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/environment/lost-landmass-doggerland

https://www.nextnature.net/2009/04/mapping-a-lost-world

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doggerland

 

The Word For Freedom: a review

The word for freedom

An excellent and very enjoyable anthology of short stories, by both established and new writers, inspired by 100 years of women’s suffrage, The Word for Freedom is the brainchild of the author, Rose McGinty. Sales of the book will raise money for the work of Hestia, an organisation with a crucial role in running refuges and giving support to women and their children escaping domestic abuse in London.

The stories themselves range from the historical (set at the time of the Suffragettes) to the contemporary, and we see women at all stages of life and in a variety of settings. There is darkness of course, but also humour and above all hope that women can overcome whatever life throws at them.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who calls him or herself a feminist.