Book Blethers

On Reviewing


Click the image to go to the Blipfoto entry for 15 Jan. 2010

Keeper: Living with Nancy – a journey into Alzheimer’s, by Andrea Gillies (Short Books, 2009) – update

[see HERE for earlier post when it won the inaugural Wellcome Trust Book Prize].

I first read Keeper in the summer. I loved it. It’s a serious book about important issues, written with warmth and compassion. Yet, it was an uphill struggle to find an editor who’d take a review or would mention the book. The main objection seemed to be the ‘small publisher’. Really? Not the writing, the grammar, narrative, style, language, or ideas? 

Literature needs to be taken seriously. Not just posh literary writing for the élite but writing that creates an impact with the reader; that trickles out into society and begins to affect change. I don’t say this lightly, nor as a bookslut, but as someone who champions good writing. Independent publishers, or at least the smaller ones, shouldn’t have to fight to get their books reviewed in the mainstream press. It shouldn’t always be the same few who review books by ”big names’. I know that it’s interesting when ‘A’, who has published X number of successful books brings out another successful book, or even one that flops, but these aren’t the only books published. It seems that way, though, because these ‘big names’ always receive wide-spread attention. 

Keeper deserves attention. It deserves to be in every bookshop. It deserves to be sought after, talked about, discussed on the kind of telly most people watch, not just on the arts programmes. 

Here endeth today’s rant. 

I’ve posted an extract of the review from TLS on the review pages.

On Reviewing

I’ve recently added two reviews – Noah’s Compass by Anne Tyler and All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney – to the ‘Reviews’ pages, with links to their online posting in the literary ezine, The Literateur Magazine. Out of these contemporary studies of the modern male, I much preferred Tyler’s wry character-driven story of retired teacher Liam Pennywell’s attempts to reconnect with his family to McIlvanney’s  plot-driven exposé of Scottish religious and political tensions as seen through the eyes of Gerry Conway, a hard-nosed journalist with a soft-centre.

I have to admit my partiality to Tyler’s fiction. I’ve read and enjoyed almost all of her books. Although there are gaps, such as The Tin Can Tree, I’ve read everything from A Slipping Down Life (1969; reissued by Vintage, 1990) to Digging to America (2006) and consider her Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1998) one of the best books ever written.

This is McIlvanney’s fictional debut but not the first time I’ve come across his work. In my ‘other life’ as academic researcher I’ve read and disagreed with his monologue, Burns the Radical: Politics and Poetry in late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Tuckwell Press, 2002). In my ‘good reads’ review I gave it 3 stars: “McIlvanney’s book is thoroughly researched and well-written. He offers a lively new interpretation of many of Burns’s poems, well-known and the lesser known ones. It’s hard to agree with his views on Scottish contractarianism but that aside it’s a good addition to Burns scholarship.” 

My disagreement, such as it is, is with McIlvanney’s view of presbyterianism, the Enlightenment and how they affected Scottish society and not on his writing style.

Do I still have this in mind, though, when reading his fiction?

I worry whether my preference for Tyler over McIlvanney is down to gender? Would a male reader find the same things to disagree with in both texts?

Enjoy, but approach the reviews with all the above in mind.



My experience of war is confined to books, research, history, text, empty battlefields and tv news. Still, on Remembrance Sunday and on the 11th at 11am I remember.

I remember a woman, standing on the corner across the street from the Martin Luther King Library, in Washington D.C.. She was crying, or, to be precise, she was crying and screaming, very loudly, about war and the injustice of loss. I crossed the street to avoid her and took a longer route to the metro-line. I was embarrassed. Embarrassed about the scene she was creating – embarrassed at her womanly ‘madness’ – embarrassed at my own embarrassment. I spent the day in the Library of Congress researching Napoleonic war poems and thinking of the woman; thinking that, if she was still there at 5 o’clock, I would speak to her. I thought, if I was brave enough, I might take her for a cup of tea. 

I remembered her black hair flying in the wind, her blue coat flapping open, her flat shoes and the way that she stood, with one foot up one foot down on the high kerb. I remembered her tear-stained face. I remembered the medal she held up to the sunlight… When I returned in the early evening, she was gone.

I always think of her in November and always regret avoiding her; avoiding the harsh reality and the stark, mad, angry truth of war.

I asked recently in a ‘tweet’, ‘What is your favourite war poem’.  The response brought some surprises and some familiar titles, and I was introduced to poems I wish I’d known sooner. Out of the response I’ve compiled a ‘Twitterthology of War Poems’. 

Wilfred Owen’s ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ was mentioned most frequently so it’s pasted in below.

What, or whom do you remember?

  • Here, Bullet, Brian Turner, from @StepUpFinance
  • ‘Drummer Hodge’, Hardy Kipling: “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied …” from @TallStoriesBook
  • ‘i sing of Olaf glad and from big’, by ee cummings, from @redredbeard
  • ‘In Parenthesis’, David Jones, Moments of real sublimity. Unjustly thought of as impenetrable. ‘Canoe’, by Keith Hughes. Modern, Hugely moving. Good analysis of it in Paulin’s Secret Life of Poems, from @ahmpreston
  • ‘High Flight’ by John Gillespie Magee from @lilliesleaf
  • “In Flanders Fields” by McCrae, “Dulce et Decorum est” by Owen, “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner” by Jarrell from @thebookmaven
  • An old one by Siegfried Sassoon: ‘Suicide in the Trenches’, from @paula_sherrill
  • It might not be the most original choice but the power of the words still hit you. ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ by Wilfred Owen, from @insidebooks
  • I remember being moved at school by anything Siegfried Sassoon, from @RobAroundBooks
  • ‘War Music’, …selections from the Iliad, by Christopher Logue, from @annthewriter
  • ‘On Somme’, or ‘The Silent one’, by Ivor Gurney, from @DavidDOCT
  • ‘Attack’, by Siegfried Sassoon. Utterly unprecedented from @clivebirnie
  • ‘The Soilder’, by Rupert Brooke, from @stujallen
  • ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, from @iamamro
  • ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, from @CafeNirvana
  •  ‘Still Falls the Rain’, by Edith Sitwell, from @Margit11 
  • Has to be ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’, from @the_rts 
  • ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, from @hoodedpigwoman 
  • ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, by Wilfred Owen, from @RedMummy



Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped5 Five-Nines that dropped behind.


Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! –  An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime . . .

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.


If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.


8 October 1917 – March, 1918

Keeper wins Wellcome Book Prize

keeperKeeper: Living with Nancy – a journey into Alzheimer’s by Andrea Gillies (Short Books) has won the inaugural Wellcome Book Prize (2009). The prize “celebrates the best of medicine in literature by awarding £25,000 each year for the finest fiction or non-fiction book centred around medicine.”

I read this unassuming paperback in the summer and was blown away with its emotional depth and by the literary quality of Gillies’ writing. I’ve reviewed it for print and will post a link on the ‘reviews’ page once it’s published. Meantime, here’s what the publisher says of Keeper:

Andrea Gillies made the decision to take on the full-time care of her mother-in-law, Nancy, an Alzheimer’s sufferer. With her family, she moved to a remote peninsula in northern Scotland to a house with space to accommodate Nancy and her elderly husband, and there embarked on an extraordinary journey.

Keeper describes the emotional strain of living with Alzheimer’s, the trials faced by both sufferer and carer, when patience and obligations are pushed to the limit. The book is also a brilliantly illuminating examination of the disease itself. It explores the brain and consciousness, and tackles profound questions about the self, the soul and how memory informs who we are. [Short Books]

In awarding the Book Prize the Wellcome Trust considered Keeper to be “a very humane and honest exploration of living with Alzheimer’s giving an illuminating account of the disease itself”.  Jo Brand, who chaired the judging panel said at the award’s ceremony:

 “Andrea Gillies’ account of living with Alzheimer’s is the perfect fusion of narrative with enough memorable science not to choke you. It’s a fantastic book – down to earth and darkly comic in places. The judges found it compelling”.

 Link HERE to go to the Wellcome Trust Book Prize website 

Q&A with Kathleen Kent, author of The Heretic’s Daughter

The Heretic’s Daughter

by Kathleen Kent (London: PanMacmillan, January 2009; September 2009)

ISBN 978-0-230-70443-5, 352pp • £16.99 hbk

ISBN 978-0-330-45630-2, 400pp • £16.99 pbk

 heretic's daughterAs much a coming-of-age tale as an eye-witness account of the witch-trials in New England, in 1692, The Heretic’s Daughter encompasses an ugly period of American history. For Kathleen Kent, though, Salem is not simply a metaphor for American extremism; it’s where history becomes ‘her-story’. In her debut novel, she interweaves family fireside tales with the written documents of the past to craft a compelling tale with grand themes encompassing extremism, slavery, and personal liberty.

Since first publication in the US in hardback in September 2008, The Heretic’s Daughter has slowly gained a large and dedicated readership. To date it has garnered a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, 91 reviews on Amazon (mostly 4 and 5 stars), reached the New York Times Bestseller list and received many glowing reviews in the national and international press. LINK HERE to the publisher’s website for reviews and book information.  

The UK paperback version of The Heretic’s Daughter was released on 4 September 2009. heretic's daughter paperback ed uk

Kathleen Kent graciously agreed to answer a few questions about her quietly assured debut novel.

Q: I’m very interested in the difference between personal history and documented history and the gap that often opens up between them. You say on your website that, to give authenticity to your story when writing The Heretic’s Daughter, you drew on your own family history and also researched widely in private and personal documents. What was your strategy for dealing with any uncomfortable ‘gaps’ between document and legend? Did you forge a middle way? Or did you choose one interpretation and follow it through?


A: I have always felt that the most interesting and compelling historical fiction is firmly anchored in fact and so I used many of the authentic names, dates and places from the Salem witch trials to give the reader a sense of life in 17th century New England.  That being said, I wanted to unfold a very personal rendering of Martha Carrier, one that had been passed down to me by my mother and grandmother.  From an early age, I had heard stories of Martha being an outspoken, strong-willed woman.  That perception of her was reinforced by the witch trial documents which revealed she had had quite a few disagreements with her neighbours, some of whom, when deposed by the courts, stated they had long suspected her of being a witch.  In crafting the novel, though, I had to make some selective choices which changed the historical fact for the sake of pacing or believability.  For example, I made the decision to make Sarah, the narrator of the novel and Martha’s daughter, a few years older—nine years of age, instead of six— because I believed an older child would make a more convincing story-teller.  The Salem witch trials, in a sense, became the back-story in the beginning chapters of the book, albeit an important one, because I wanted to more closely illuminate the themes of religious intolerance, the destructive forces of superstitious dread and the corruption of a small community through hysteria and rumour- mongering; themes which I believed were timeless and universal.                                                                               

Hatchette Book Group provide a good index of source material consulted in preparation of The Heretic’s Daughter. CLICK this link

Q: Within the story, you allude to previous authors who have written of the Salem witch trials, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Miller.  Do you think, as they did, that we learn more ‘truth’ about our present situation from historical fiction than straightforward historical accounts?

A: History is written by the survivors and “factual” history is often taught within a very narrowly defined band of ethics and sensibilities.   Many people, authors included, have challenged that narrow band of what’s considered true and have revealed a greater spectrum of human emotions and experiences; especially from a woman’s perspective. Currently, there does seem to be a greater blurring of boundaries between “fact” and “fiction.”  There are genres of “historical fiction” and “fictionalized history” which can be tricky if you’re searching for archaeological remnants.   But I do think that bracing, accurate historical fiction can reveal so many philosophical, moral and cultural truths about our ancestors and our heritage that a dry recitation of dates and places cannot.

 Q: “Martha was not a witch. Merely a ferocious woman!” The women and girls of Salem and surrounding settlements were accused of witchcraft and ultimately condemned because of the testimony of other young girls. New England society, religion and judiciary was male dominated so that it could be argued that male society put women against women. Cotton Mather, the great seventeenth-century theologian, called Martha Carrier, “the Queen of Hell” because of her strength of character. How deliberate is your portrayal of Martha Carrier?  Did you begin with her strength and build the other characters around her or did her strength grow out of the weakness of the other characters?

A: When I first began writing the book, Martha was the narrator.  But this posed some problems right away because the trials and imprisonment of nearly 150 men, women and children continued after Martha was hanged.  I felt a big part of that story had not been told, so I made the decision to develop Sarah as the first hand witness to the cruelty and deprivation of the witch hysteria.  Sarah was arrested as a witch and tried, along with her three brothers, spending months in prison.  I felt that Martha’s character initially might not be likeable to the reader because she was so unyielding in her defence of her family and her property, but it was also important for me to illustrate her remarkable bravery and fortitude.   Martha was the only person, according to the surviving records, who not only held steadfastly to her innocence, but who confronted her judges for listening to a group of hysterical, accusing girls.   It is through Sarah’s eyes that Martha’s strength is revealed.

Q: Martha Carrier’s story has always been a part of your story – what made you decide to write it down for publication?

A: Since college, I always had in mind to write this novel.  But I lived in New York City for nearly twenty years working in various commercial enterprises before I felt I had the time and resources to devote to such an ambitious project.  In 2000 I moved with my family back to Dallas, my childhood home, and made the conscious decision to begin the research and writing of The Heretic’s Daughter.  I spent close to five years researching and travelling to New England, gathering historical fact, family legends and local Massachusetts lore about the Carrier family.

Q:The Heretic’s Daughter is as much about coming-of-age as about witchcraft. Did you have a teenage audience in mind as you were writing?

A: I wrote for an adult audience primarily, but because the book encompasses themes that are relevant to teenagers (peer pressure, gossiping and the vagaries of being in the throes of raging hormones), it has been discovered by younger readers as well.  There are currently schools, middle schools and high schools,  that are including the book in their curriculum and suggested reading lists as a companion reading piece to The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible.    Some of the most enlivening and enthusiastic audiences have been the students attending the schools where I have given talks.  

Q: Your next book fills in the gaps of Thomas Carrier’s past and delves into the mysterious Red Book so that, presumably, your focus moves to Cromwellian England. How difficult have you found it to research another country and an earlier time-frame?

A: There is a wealth of information available about Charles I and Cromwellian England, so it was relatively easy gathering the necessary historical facts.  And because the second book is also a fictionalized account, I had a lot of latitude in describing the life of Thomas Carrier, a man who lived to 109 years of age, stood over 7 feet tall (according to Benjamin Franklin’s paper “Poor Richard” of 1735) and who, according to Carrier family stories, was one of the executioners of King Charles I of England. 

Q: Some historical fiction writers, like Sarah Waters, Matthew Pearl and David Ebershoff, add a note about their source material at the end of their books. Do you find this kind of information unnecessary in a work of fiction?

A: I did not include a list of source material for The Heretic’s Daughter and many readers wrote to me, asking me to give them ideas for additional reading on the subject of the Salem witch trials.  For the second book I will be including a selected list of source material because separating fact from fiction can be a very satisfying discovery; a sort of treasure hunt for the mind.

Q: Most writers enjoy a love/hate relationship with book critics. The Heretic’s Daughter has generated a fair amount of reviews which have been mostly favourable or highly commendable. As a beginning author how much attention do you give to book reviews? Will they change the way you write?

A: Being a first time author, it was tremendously gratifying to see such great reviews.  But from the beginning I tried to let my agent send me the reviews she felt were the most significant and I tried to ignore the rest, because really it has nothing to do with writing.  I didn’t read many of the reviews for the same reason I didn’t go into a commercial book store during the years when I was writing this first novel; it would have been very easy to talk myself out of writing a book with so many terrific authors already on the shelves.   Paying too close attention to other people’s opinions will change the process and, first and foremost, I think writers should write for themselves.

I’m very grateful to Kathleen for providing such honest and incisive responses. Women play such an important part of The Heretic’s Daughter that it isn’t surprising to find their significance in the book’s genesis. In stating “that bracing, accurate historical fiction can reveal so many philosophical, moral and cultural truths about our ancestors and our heritage that a dry recitation of dates and places cannot“, she aligns her writing with American authors, like Hawthorne, who have followed the history/fiction trajectory plotted by Walter Scott. Male authors continue to dominate the historical fiction genre and it’ll be interesting to watch Kent’s progress in this field.  

You can connect with Kathleen Kent on The Heretic’s Daughter page on Facebook  at 

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

The Quickening Maze, by Adam Foulds

(London: Jonathan Cape), ISBN 978-0-224-08746-9, hbk, 264pp £12.99

quickening mazeI do hope Adam Foulds’s book wins the Man Booker Prize tonight. The Quickening Maze is a beautifully written, highly engaging, innovative book. It’s also thoroughly researched. Foulds brings to life a period of history surrounding events at High Beech Asylum in the early 1840s. Written with close attention to historical accuracy but told with creative license, Foulds weaves a magical tale of madness, the creative imagination, duplicity and love. 

In The Quickening Maze we follow the interconnected lives of John Clare, Alfred Tennyson and his ‘mad’ brother, Septimus, Matthew Allen also known as the ‘mad doctor’, the asylum inmates, Romany gipsies, Allen’s family and cynical brother Oswald, and Stockdale, the brutal warder. We follow Allen’s daughter Hannah, first in her adolescent ‘crush’ on Tennyson and as she develops a mature understanding of the responsibilities of adult life. Told through multiple narrative viewpoints, Foulds is adept at switching between ‘voices’; one moment we hear Hannah’s petty jealousies and acknowledgement of the harsh truth of beauty, the next we hear John Clare’s psychotic imagining that he is Boxer Jack Randall or Lord Byron.

With her hope blasted and withered and unexpected tears not impossible, Hannah had intended not to like the Tennysons – she wouldn’t have been there at all if Father hadn’t insisted – but she hadn’t succeeded. The ladies were clever and distinct, sharply characterful and expressive, particularly the older sister, Matilda, who might have put Annabella in the shade. (p. 179)

John Byron looked away. This was not the proper thing, not the sport he loved. As the men tumbled he heard a knock against the floorboards, clear and sharp as a stonemason’s hammer, and there was laughter. A full moon, he noticed, looking away. He saw that one of the small, high windows was crammed with its cold white. A doctor acquaintance of his had once told him that a full moon vexed the mad. They certainly seemed vexed. (p. 202)

Above all, it’s Foulds’s poetic imagery that impresses most. The natural world surrounding High Beech impinges on the lives of the inmates and guests, drawing them out and away from its oppressive confines yet into the hypnotic maziness of the forest. The Quickening Maze paints a heartbreaking portrait of Clare fighting creeping psychosis and an equally sympathetic portrayal of Tennyson’s poetic melancholia. It is, though, a difficult book to read. I twice put it down before finally, with the Man Booker deadline approaching, put everything aside to finish it. I’m glad I did. Foulds forces the reader to listen to the cadences of his writing, to engage with the poetic force of his syntax, to slow down and pay attention to each word.

John rambled back into the woods, the musky spring odour and wheeling light. He saw a tree lying on its side, barkless, stripped white, ghost-glimmering through the others. Strange for it to have been felled at this time of year, with the sap rising, making the trees strong and wilful and difficult. Perhaps it was diseased. And every shred of bark taken for the tanning trade. He pitied it, felt suddenly that he was it, lying there undefended, its grain tightening in the breeze. (p. 234)

I grew to love this book. Foulds forced me to retrace his steps, dragging out Bate’s biography of John Clare, Ann Thwaite’s book on Tennyson’s wife and every undergraduate book on nineteenth-century poetry I possessed.Bate John Clare I found he’d stuck closely to his sources and paints a pretty accurate depiction of life at High Beech – though in calling it High Beach, he uses its later name. I re-read Clare’s poems and raked around for Tennyson’s Arthurian poems and read into the poetic sensibilities that Foulds’s book recreates. Tennyson's wifeWhat is so brilliant about Foulds is how he manages to convey so much without reverting to or relying on endnotes to guide the reader. He creates a fully formed and informed world, peoples them with believable characters, some of whom we think we know, others are of a type with which we are familiar. He tells us nothing new yet completely remakes our view of Clare, Tennyson and Allen. It is quite an achievement.

The Quickening Maze is one of six books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize so it’s garnered high praise since its publication earlier this year. Here’s a link to Neel Mukherjee’s  review  in The Telegraph of 10 May 2009

Foulds discusses the ‘audacity’ of the scope of his book on the Man Booker websiteand talks about his connection to Epping Forest and the poetic landscape on The Guardian’s podcast where he is particularly well informed on the contemporary relevance of historical writing – looking at the predicament of enclosures in relation to Clare’s poetry as well as entrepreneurial schemes such as Allen’s.  He also explains his approach to Clare’s madness through Adam Smith and how his source material informed his writing. Adam Roberts has written a superb review of Foulds’s treatment of Tennyson on the OUP blog.

On Reviewing III: poetry

the looking houseI reviewed Fred Marchant’s The Looking House (Graywolf Press, 2009) recently – a beautifully produced and eloquently argued collection. This slim volume of 66 pages is the equivalent to reading a novel of 250+ pages. It’s actually more than that, about three or even four times that amount because The Looking House is a collection that covers a range of topics, such as war, ageing, death, torture, and autobiography.

Poetry is a distillation of ideas. You have to enlarge the ideas, unpick them, see how they ‘work’ and make them up again before you can write about them. Writing a poetry review is like making a jigsaw. First, you look at the bigger picture.

I read The Looking House as a whole, in sections, and then individually, to work out if there was an overriding  theme or image and to get a sense of how they fitted together (if at all) and to get an idea of Marchant’s style and tone.

 Next, I separated the edges from the inside, or picked out certain elements, such as

1.  language – is it formal, colloquial, archaic, etc ?

2.  form  – how is arranged on the page, first as a collection (it’s in three sections with a ‘prologue-poem’), secondly, as poems, are they in  rhyming couplets,  narrative verse, sonnet-form, modern, set stanzas, etc ?

3. – description – does the poet use  metaphor, imagery, symbol, motif, etc?

I got a sense that Marchant’s tone changed. He becomes more strident as the collection goes on. By answering the question of why the tone changed I found I had a starting point to look at the whole collection. Because as he becomes more strident he also injects moments of light to create a paradox.

In The Looking House Marchant picks over his life and questions the decisions he made during the Viet Nam War. He reveals both how they impacted and still impact on his life and also on the lives of those around him. From his autobiographical experiences he also makes some strong points about the senselessness of war, of the abuse of power and about how decisions are made. As well as pondering on war Marchant also looks at the human condition. For all the bleakness and wretchedness in his poems, Marchant always finds that glimmer, that chink of hope in the hopelessness. He does it through recurring images, such as the ‘heron’ and through intertextual reference to other poems and poets, like GM Hopkins.

By unmaking Marchant’s collection I discovered his range and depth and startlingly unique poetic vision.

Here’s just one poem from the 35 in the collection:

‘Pickney Street’

A view from the crest of Boston to the river—

a walk and my friend stopping to say that

for three weeks each year

and beginning tomorrow

this will be the most

beautiful place in the city—

our respite in the brick-faced buildings

blushing in sunlight,

in star magnolias swelling,

about to burst into bright badges,

medallions of tangible life and light

the shook “foil” Hopkins wrote about—

the minutes we have of grandeur, hope, gratitude.

from The Looking House (2009), p. 60.

Click this LINK to the Graywolf Press page on The Looking House for more information about Marchant and his poetry.