Posted in Book Reviews

Gutenberg’s Apprentice – Sunday Herald Review

Men of many words

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Sunday 28 September 2014

The Gutenberg Bible, the first printed using the moveable type system, was a huge leap forward in the 15th century.

Prior to that, books were painstakingly copied by hand, a lengthy and expensive process that only the very rich or the church could afford.

Although it is Gutenberg’s name that has gone down in history – he was Time magazine’s Man of the Millennium – he was not alone in inventing and refining this new printing process. He was funded by Johann Fust, a Mainz merchant, and aided by Fust’s foster son Peter Schoeffer, who exchanged the refined world of a talented scribe for the filth and backbreaking work in Gutenberg’s workshop. The three men’s relationship ended acrimoniously and it was this that provided the spark for journalist Alix Christie’s debut novel, exploring the human story behind one of the world’s great inventions. The story is told in flashback as the mature Peter Schoeffer relates the momentous events of 1450-54, to an Abbot called Trithemius who wishes to record the details of Gutenberg’s experiments and eventual success in producing the first printed Bible.

Schoeffer is a successful young scribe working in Paris with expectations of rising to the top of his profession when he is suddenly called home by his foster father to Mainz. Johann Fust has decided to fund the work of one Johann Gensfleisch, better known to history as Gutenberg, who is secretly working on a new printing process. Schoeffer is horrified but deeply indebted to the foster father who took him in as an orphan, and he reluctantly joins Gutenberg’s workshop. He finds Gutenberg obnoxious and infuriating, a man sorely lacking the most basic social graces, who works his employees hard, rarely gives praise and keeps his true purpose a secret.

At first Schoeffer hates the work, especially the smelting as Gutenberg experiments with different metals to find the best one to create clean and precise letters. Slowly however he is drawn into the process and becomes as keen as Gutenberg and Fust to make it work.

Mainz comes to life with Christie’s vivid descriptions of the city, a power base in medieval Europe, full of gold- and silversmiths working for the church and nobility that earned it the soubriquet Golden Mainz. Merchants traded goods all over the world from Mainz, and its grand cathedral made it an important city for the church. Christie outlines the ongoing struggle between the merchant classes and the church for ultimate control of the city, a struggle that Gutenberg tries to avoid where possible. However, for some in the church the printing of the word of God is blasphemous, and Gutenberg and his collaborators must use all their wiles to outwit them.

Out of the three main characters it is Gutenberg who stands out, an unlikable man driven by his passion to create something revolutionary. His ruthless single-mindedness makes him intriguing and unpredictable. It is always a risk to make a leading character unsympathetic and Christie increases the risk by making Fust a rather drab man more interested in business than the happiness of his foster son. Schoeffer feels more like a vehicle to tell the story than a fully rounded character. Even the superfluous subplot of a romance fails to take the reader inside his head and heart, and he remains a cipher throughout.

Christie’s meticulous research shows on every page but ultimately the minutiae of the new printing process, from the carving of the letters to the clatter of the press, overwhelm her characters. As a trained letterpress printer herself, her love of her subject is obvious and infectious but the main players feel emotionally distant.

Fortunately, this is such a pivotal moment in history that the remarkable real-life events carry the story forward and knowing the outcome does little to spoil the pleasure of their eventual success. The bitter demise of the partnership is a sad coda to a story of such ingenuity but 48 examples of the Bible – some complete, some only parts – survive to this day. Hopefully Christie’s novel will bring much deserved credit to Fust and Schoeffer, but it is Gutenberg who lingers in the memory.

Posted in Book Reviews

After Before – Book Review for Book Oxygen

After Before
Jemma Wayne

Published by Legend Press 1 June, 2014

256pp, paperback, £7.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Jemma Wayne’s moving debut novel follows the lives of three very different women as their paths slowly intertwine. She examines how the echoes of trauma can become louder with time and how guilt and regret can poison even the happiest occasions. The novel opens at a stately pace but as the characters are developed it soon becomes an absorbing story of three women coming to terms with their pasts and finding a way to face the future.

Vera is a young woman with a wild past for which she is trying to make amends. She is engaged to Luke, a committed Christian, and clings to him as her past deeds threaten to engulf her. She copies his dedication to his religion hoping that the darkness inside her will fade away as she finds her way to Jesus and God. Luke’s indomitable mother, Lynn, is dying of cancer and Vera decides that she must look after her. Lynn is hostile and dismissive of Vera, not least because she sees in Vera the career she might have had herself had she not sublimated her ambitions and become a wife and mother. Lynn too has a secret, a locked room in her home that only she may enter. There she lets her imagination and creativity run free in contrast to the respectable, middle-class matron she presents to the world.

The third woman is Emily, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who is desperately trying to forget the horrors she has witnessed. When Vera gives up trying to win Lynn over it is Emily who becomes her part-time carer. Slowly the two women establish a kind of mutual respect that becomes friendship.

Wayne’s lead characters are vividly drawn, each very different and each dealing with guilt and regret in their own way. Vera is brittle, on the verge of shattering, and hangs on to Luke as if he were a life raft. What she cannot see is that to move forward she must learn to forgive herself. Lynn is full of bitterness for what might have been had she followed the career she had planned for herself. While loving her husband and her two sons, she can’t help looking at Vera with her burgeoning career and feel cheated.

The inscrutable Emily and her flashbacks to the Rwandan genocide provide the dark heart of the novel. Her fear during the vicious Hutu attacks is palpable and her restless need to keep on the move is unsettling. Emily thinks she has left the massacres behind in Africa but such trauma will not be quelled by force of will and must be dealt with. In the twentieth anniversary year of the genocide, she is a window through which these terrible events can be observed and remembered.

Wayne’s ambitious debut skillfully draws the strands of the three women’s lives together. She takes care to differentiate each woman’s voice as she takes the reader inside their heads to listen to their thoughts and fears and hopes. The Rwandan flashbacks are disturbing – as they should be – but in no way salacious. Instead they explain why Emily has become so quiet and self-contained. Wayne deftly draws the reader into a complex and gripping novel that rewards perseverance beyond its slow start.

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Herring Girl by Debbie Taylor – Review

Herring Girl
Debbie Taylor

Published by Oneworld Publications 7 August 2014

465pp, hardback, £16.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

For her fourth novel, Debbie Taylor takes her inspiration from the converted lighthouse that is her home in the North East of England, and her previous job as a psychologist. Switching between 1898 and 2007, her story encompasses reincarnation, family ties, and finding friendship in the most unusual places.

Ben, who lives in North Shields, at the mouth of the Tyne, is twelve-years-old and has always felt he was born in the wrong body. With puberty beckoning he is becoming increasingly desperate to avoid the changes that will bring. He finds a friend in Laura, a transsexual, who not only gives him tips on how to pass as a girl but also introduces him to Mary, a psychologist who specializes in past life regression. Through sessions with Mary, Ben discovers a past life as Annie, a sixteen-year-old herring girl who lived in the same area more than a hundred years before. But Annie’s life is cut short and Ben’s sceptical father, Paul, must agree to more regression sessions in order to discover Annie’s fate.

Taylor uses the split narrative well and brings a late-Victorian fishing village to life with the vivid sights, sounds and smells of the herring trade. The language is evocative of a very different time and place but meaning is never obscured by the North East dialect. Annie is an appealing heroine, loving her family and not afraid to stand up for herself in her job as a herring girl, processing the fish fresh from the boats. Taylor paints a tough life, especially for women, and the social history, such as how to walk out with a lad without gaining a bad reputation, is fascinating. Annie, the stoic Sam with whom she falls in love, and their friends and family form the heart of the novel and seem more vibrant than their twenty-first-century counterparts.

That is not to say that Ben is not a sympathetic character, nor Mary, the psychologist, who helps him to go back into the past and discover what happened to Annie on that fateful last night. Together they make a formidable investigative team, aided and sometimes hindered by their friends and family. Taylor introduces television director Ian, an old flame of Mary’s, who wants to follow Ben’s sessions for a documentary. Ian is rather a cliché, selfish and self-obsessed, willing to trample over everyone, including Mary, to get his programme made. However he does provide a frame for the regression sessions and asks critical questions about Mary’s theories on reincarnation. Are schizophrenics really just hearing the voices of their past lives? Does Ben want to be female because Annie’s life was cut short before she had the chance to really become a woman? This is an interesting area of psychological exploration and Taylor helpfully provides a list of further reading on reincarnation.

It is not necessary to believe in reincarnation to enjoy Taylor’s story. She writes with such verve and conviction that it is easy to suspend disbelief and enjoy every moment of this gripping tale.