Posted in Book Reviews

Herald Review

24th January

East Side Voices: Essays Celebrating East and Southeast Asian Identity in Britain edited by Helena Lee. Book review

By Shirley Whiteside

East Side Voices

East Side Voices: Essays Celebrating East and Southeast Asian Identity in Britain

Edited by Helena Lee

Sceptre, £14.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

In 2020, Helena Lee, acting deputy editor of Harper’s Bazaar, created East Side Voices, a monthly literary salon in London highlighting the work of Asian writers. This compelling collection of essays features several of the salon participants writing about their experiences as part of the diaspora of Asian and Southeast Asians living in Britain.

Lee writes the first essay, recalling her realisation that despite living in a London suburb and having the same accent as her peers, she was different from her fair-haired, blue-eyed school friends. She began to reject anything linked to her ancestry and tried to become more British. She stopped using chopsticks and left Saturday morning Chinese school, striving for acceptance but still she was BBC (British Born Chinese). Some things however are universal; Lee’s mother had a telephone voice, posher and less accented than her everyday speech and it was only by meeting her in person that her friends realised her mother was “foreign”.

Katie Leung, a Dundee-born actor, is most famous for her role as Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films. She remembers being in primary school and the teacher asking her if her surname was pronounced Lee-young and she agreed. Leung thought it sounded like a name anyone could say, a white person’s name. It is interesting that she kept this version of her name until relatively recently, noting that at the age of six she was already trying to please white people. Leung says that there were acting roles she wasn’t considered for because of her ethnicity. On the other hand, if a role for an Asian female came up, her part in Harry Potter meant that she was often the first actor to be considered. Leung writes well, her prosaic attitude to her life and work, and her sense of humour, resulting in a significant essay about being part of a diaspora in Scotland.

Asian women are blighted by racist and sexist tropes: the demure, obedient little woman; the steely, relentless Tiger Mothers; and the sexy, compliant super babes. Discussing passing for white, mixed race writer Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, recounts the times she has passed but wished she hadn’t. Such as when white men tell her they rate women by race, White, Asian, and Half, wearing their racism with a strange kind of pride. Women are guilty of blatant racism too, like the random woman who says, “Alright, Ching Chong?” as Hisayo Buchanan walks past.

The current pandemic seems to have brought racist attitudes to the fore. Zing Tsjeng finds it easy to get a seat on the London tube as no-one wants to sit next to a masked Asian person. Terms like “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus” appear in the news and hate crimes against East and Southeast Asians in London increase dramatically during the first lockdown.

One of the saddest stories concerns Claire Kohda, daughter of a Japanese mother and English father. As a child she visits her father’s parents, dreading the lukewarm reception she and her mother always receive. Surprisingly, her grandmother has painted a portrait of Claire, which is and isn’t Claire. Her grandmother has painted her as perhaps she would like to see her: her skin lightened, her features made more European. It is a devastating example of passive-aggressive racism.

Helena Lee has gathered some excellent writers covering many aspects of life in Britain as they affect Asian and Southeast Asian people. This collection is illuminating, funny, sad, and reveals aspects of Britain that for too long have not been addressed. This is the first but hopefully not the last assemblage of Asian and Southeast Asian writers discussing their experiences of life in Britain. It is an important book and a cracking read.

Posted in Book Reviews

Consumed – Herald Review

Arifa Akbar’s sister died of the same illness that killed her favourite poet, John Keats

By Shirley Whiteside


Consumed: A Sister’s Story

Arifa Akbar

Sceptre, £16.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Reading Arifa Akbar’s moving memoir brought to mind a quote from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Consumed is subtitled, A Sister’s Story, and centres around Akbar’s quest to understand Fauzia, her older sister, who died suddenly after years of mental and physical ill-health. Akbar is cast adrift on a sea of memories that take on new meanings as she re-assesses her relationships with her family, and Fauzia in particular. Consumed is not a linear account of Akbar’s life. Instead, she expertly intertwines past and present, exploring the healing power of art, the history of tuberculosis, and the shocking loss of her artist sister.

Akbar’s recollection of her early life in Lahore, Pakistan, is full of sunshine and a sense of freedom. Looking back with adult eyes, she wonders whether Fauzia’s later troubles had their origin there. For reasons that never become clear, Fauzia’s father disliked his oldest daughter and failed to hide the fact. For Akbar, the reverse was true. Her father adored her, and she has joyful memories of spending time with him. The family left their familiar life in Lahore behind to move to London in search of work. Homeless and penniless, they find a room in a derelict squat in Hampstead. Akbar draws the comparisons between her family’s poverty and the affluent area in which they previously lived without a hint of self-pity. Her unsentimental style serves her story well, the emotional highs and lows given more power due to the lack of mawkishness.

Akbar’s mother, Bela, emerges as an unlikely heroine, refusing to teach her daughters to cook and keep house because she doesn’t want them to endure an unhappy marriage like her own. She makes an important contribution to this memoir, finding old photos and recalling painful events, helping her daughter untangle their family story.

When Akbar receives a phone call informing her of Fauzia’s illness, the sisters had not been close for several years. She goes to visit Fauzia at the Royal Free hospital, assuming that her sister will be discharged in a few days as she had been before. The doctors struggle to find the underlying cause of Fauzia’s symptoms and it is only after her death that a rare form of tuberculosis is confirmed. This leads Akbar to explore the life of the poet Keats, a favourite of Fauzia, who succumbed to TB aged just 25. This was not unusual in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the disease reached epidemic levels in Europe. Often associated with extreme poverty and deprivation, the illness’s physical manifestations – glittering, fevered eyes, crimson lips, and emaciation – would became fashionable, a sort of consumption chic, echoed in the 1990s fashion for so-called heroin chic. For the healthy, make-up to whiten the skin and redden the lips became popular society accessories.

Akbar’s desperate need to fill the yawning gap left by Fauzia’s death is skilfully and touchingly conveyed. She does not spare herself as she picks apart the fabric of her family’s life, from her parents’ unhappy marriage to her exasperation as Fauzia entered another phase of self-destruction. The relationship between the sisters is complex, ranging from their intimacy while sharing a bedroom as teenagers to their drifting apart as adults. Guilt plays a significant role, with Akbar feeling she didn’t do enough to help Fauzia, while also feeling that her sister took up too much of her time and energy. Disease consumed Fauzia, and Akbar became consumed with a need to understand her sister. It takes time but rediscovering Fauzia’s art finally brings Akbar a measure of peace. This is a beautifully written memoir with the ghost of Fauzia haunting every page.

Posted in Articles

MyVLF article about Tartan Noir: Scottish Crime Writing Heritage

Tartan Noir is a term much bandied around in bookish circles but where did it come from and what does it mean? Early in his writing career Ian Rankin met James Ellroy at a book signing. Rankin explained that he too was a writer and he was writing tartan noir, an affectionate nod to the iconic American Noir films and novels. The catchy phrase soon became a brand that encompassed many new crime writers emerging from Scotland with Val McDermid and Ian Rankin in the vanguard. But does Tartan Noir have a unique quality that distinguishes it from other types of crime fiction?

Scotland’s literature has long featured the duality of the human condition, the housing of two diametrically opposing thoughts in one mind, such as good versus evil. The most famous examples are The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg, which have inspired many of today’s Scottish novelists including Ian Rankin. These menacing tales show the best and worst of men, and the desperate measures they take to find redemption and save their souls. Since their publication in the 19th Century they have alarmed many a late-night reader. Traces of the American hard-boiled crime genre can also be detected as an influence in Tartan Noir police procedural and private eye novels, featuring sharp dialogue, down-at-heel settings, and a tough anti-hero. Mixed with the Scottish love of black humour, these influences make the heady brew that has been branded, Tartan Noir.

The first landmark Scottish crime novel, and often said to be the first Tartan Noir novel, is Laidlaw, written by the late William McIlvanney and published in 1977. DI Laidlaw, a complex character with a dry wit, is investigating the rape and murder of a young woman in Glasgow, using some unorthodox methods. It was the first in a series of three novels featuring Laidlaw, and the mixture of compassion and elegiac prose inspired a new generation of crime writers. ‘From those beginnings has flowed a veritable river of Scottish talent,’ says Gordon Brown, author, and a founder of the Bloody Scotland crime festival. ‘As a term it has been useful in raising awareness for Scottish crime fiction, a genre that, prior to McIlvanney’s work, was relatively thin on the ground.’ McIlvanney thought that the term Tartan Noir was ‘ersatz’, but his pioneering place in the Scottish crime canon is undeniable.

Val McDermid published her first crime novel, Report for Murder, in 1987, and Ian Rankin published the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, the same year. Neither achieved overnight success, but their hard work and perseverance eventually paid off. McDermid published The Mermaids Singing, the first in her hugely successful Dr Tony Hill and DI Carol Jordan series in 1995, winning The Crime Writers’ Association Macallan Gold Dagger Award For Best Crime Novel Of The Year. In 1997, Rankin won the same award with Black & Blue, a chilling tale about a copycat serial killer, and his career soared.

With the door to potential publication firmly ajar, other Scottish crime writers came to the fore. Stuart MacBride set his DS Logan series of novels in Aberdeen, the mixture of comedy and carnage proving a hit with readers. Christopher Brookmyre set the bar high with his debut, Quite Ugly One Morning, and has continued to write novels with his unique blend of humour, action, and exploration of social issues. Louise Welsh made her debut with the unsettling, gothic novel, The Cutting Room, while Denise Mina hit the ground running with Garnethill, a tale about people surviving, or not, on the edges of society. Crime writers Quintin Jardine, Caro Ramsay, Allan Guthrie, and Alex Gray also became part of the Tartan Noir groundswell.

Today, the Scottish crime writing scene is even more diverse and for some writers the Tartan Noir label doesn’t fit as comfortably. ‘Tartan Noir now covers a wide church of work and, as such, does not so much reflect a genre or a style of writing but rather describes an ever burgeoning group of writers, writing crime fiction in and/or about Scotland,’ says Gordon Brown. For budding writers, it can also be a hinderance as Theresa Talbot, author of the Oonagh O’Neil series, says. ‘The drawback is it tends to pigeon-hole writers into a particular slot, especially with booksellers and publishers. When I was starting out several publishers told my agent ‘we like her work, but we have a Scottish crime writer on our books,’ or words to that effect. Also, there are loads of brilliant Scottish writers who just happen to be writing crime novels, but their books may not necessarily fit the stereotypical Tartan Noir model. We all tend to be lumped in together, but I have to say it’s a pretty lovely bunch to be lumped in with.’

When Graeme Macrae Burnet’s historical thriller, His Bloody Project, was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2016, it demonstrated to a wider audience the remarkable quality and diversity of Scottish crime writing. Claire MacLeary, author of the Aberdeen-set series featuring novice private eyes, Harcus & Laird, explains. ‘We are a small country, but we have huge variations in landscape, hence the wide divergence in the sense of place, from inner city tenements and Georgian squares to dramatic mountains and remote islands. Ditto language, from Shetland quasi-Norse through Doric to lowland vernacular.’

There is a Scottish crime novel to suit almost every taste, from the gentle humour of Alexander McCall Smith to the witty and knowing tales of Olga Wojtas and her time-travelling heroine, fifty-something Shona  McMonagle, erstwhile Marcia Blaine Academy prefect and an accomplished linguist and martial artist. The east coast is the setting for Jackie McLean’s intense DI Donna Davenport series, and Inverness is the surprisingly lively journalistic beat for Douglas Skelton’s Rebecca Connolly series. But Scottish writers do not limit themselves to writing about their homeland. ‘Witness myself,’ says Gordon Brown, ‘a Scottish crime writer whose latest book, ’Thirty-One Bones’, is set in Spain.’ Living in the far north of Scotland has not stopped writers Margaret Kirk, Neil Lancaster, and Alex Walters, from publishing gripping crime novels, giving rise to the moniker Highland Noir, even though their only similarity is living in the Highlands and writing crime novels.

The Tartan Noir brand has also had an impact on book festivals in Scotland and beyond. ‘Crime sells,’ says Claire MacLeary. ‘It has helped book festivals, large and small, to flourish, from the Edinburgh International Book Festival to Glasgow’s Aye Write! to smaller festivals on Bute and Islay. These furnish opportunities for aspiring crime writers to learn and network, most especially at Bloody Scotland, launched at Stirling Castle and dedicated solely to crime writing. The intimate setting allows newcomers to rub shoulders with stellar names like Val McDermid, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and founding board members Lin Anderson and Alex Gray. Bloody Scotland also offers in Pitch Perfect the chance for new writers to pitch their crime novel to publishers and literary agents. Likewise, Spotlight, a short pitch in advance of the main festival, an idea which has been successfully adopted by Aberdeen’s Granite Noir Crime Festival.’

Crime novels are much more than violent tales featuring nasty characters. They are also useful vehicles to explore current social and political concerns. Lesley Kelly’s Health of Strangers series scores a bullseye with her stories about the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement team. Presciently written before Covid-19 reared its ugly head, her characters are on the trail of a deadly virus and time is running out.

Several years on from Ian Rankin’s off-the-cuff remark, has the Tartan Noir brand outlived its usefulness? ‘It is a ‘pseudo’ brand that allows promotional opportunities globally that other countries/genres would love,’ says Gordon Brown. ’Scandi Noir is a great example of a similar branding attempt. It has also provided a standard around which many new and aspiring writers rally to and it is the bedrock that the Bloody Scotland crime writing festival is built upon. It may not be the favourite term for some, but it shows no sign of running out of steam anytime soon.’

‘Any publicity is good publicity,’ adds Theresa Talbot, ‘more so in the current retail climate, where independent publishers and booksellers are fighting for survival, and would-be crime writers are battling to make their voices heard in a crowded marketplace.’

If you have never dipped your toe into the Tartan Noir pool, Black & Blue, Ian Rankin’s breakthrough novel is a good place to start. It combines the facts of a real-life serial killer, Bible John, who terrorised women in Glasgow in the late 1960s, with a fictional copycat, determined to make his mark. Dark, brooding, and utterly gripping, Black & Blue is everything a modern Scottish crime novel should be.

Shirley Whiteside is a writer, editor, and broadcaster based in Glasgow. She has reviewed books for a wide variety of newspapers and magazines and has been a judge for the Saltire Literary Awards. She produces and presents Booked, a local radio series where she talks about writing and books with authors of many genres, but she has a special interest in Scottish crime novels.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Oxygen Review

What We Did in the Dark

Ajay Close

Published by Sandstone Press 13 February 2020

322pp, paperback, £8.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

Catherine Carswell was born in Glasgow, in 1879, and became an author, journalist and biographer. She wrote a frank, controversial biography of Robert Burns that resulted in her being rebuked from the pulpit by Burns traditionalists. She was also sent a bullet with a note asking her to ‘make the world a cleaner place’. Carswell wrote two novels, Open the Door and The Camomile. Neither were autobiographical but both drew on experiences from her own life. She always glossed over her first marriage to Herbert Jackson, an artist and soldier, whom she married within a month of meeting him. Award-winning writer Ajay Close takes the bare bones of information about this marriage and fleshes out the relationship between Catherine and Herbert in a perceptive novel that has the pace and suspense of a thriller.

The year is 1904 and 25-year-old Cathie has been studying English Literature at Glasgow University. However, although an impressive student, she cannot be awarded a degree because she is a woman. Restless and longing for excitement, Cathie meets Herbert Jackson, a Boer War veteran and artist, and agrees to marry him within a few weeks.

The Jackson family seem more relieved than happy that Herbert is marrying, and the couple takes off for an extended honeymoon in Europe. Herbert seems agitated on the journey and explains that he is being watched by persons unknown. At first Cathie is sceptical but wants to believe her new husband. Soon it becomes clear that Herbert is paranoid, and Cathie feels caught in a trap of her own making. A nightmarish journey through Italy commences, with Herbert becoming more and more unhinged. When she tells him she is pregnant, Herbert says she has been sleeping with the Prince of Wales and tries to kill her. He watches her every move and accuses her of being unfaithful with any man who comes near. Most of the story is told in the second person with Cathie addressing Herbert. This transports the reader into Cathie’s mind as she struggles to work out whether it is Herbert or herself that is losing grip, adding to the claustrophobia of the relationship.

It would be easy to portray Herbert as the villain of the piece, but the inclusion of several letters to his brother during his service in the Boer War show a different side to the man. He is wholly unsuited to army life and the atrocities that the British inflict on their Boer prisoners – many of them women and children – affect him deeply. He fails to command the respect of his men and becomes convinced that they are deliberately trying to humiliate him. His army service ends in disappointment.

Fictionalizing the lives of real people is a task full of potential pitfalls but Close’s extensive research and compassion for her characters helps her avoid them. Cathie displays hints of the courageous, modern woman she would become, one who made legal history when she decided to divorce Herbert on account of his mental health disorder and won. This is a beautifully crafted novel about a gruelling period in Carswell’s life, and it is a fitting tribute to a writer who was almost lost to obscurity.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Lost Lights of St Kilda

Book Oxygen Review

Elisabeth Gifford

Published by Corvus 5 March 2020

276pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

Click here to buy this book

St Kilda, a small group of volcanic islands and towering sea stacks, is the most remote part of the UK, lying some 40 miles west of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides. Now home to one million seabirds, the archipelago was inhabited for 4,000 years, until 1930 when its last 36 residents were relocated to mainland Scotland as the tiny community could no longer survive in its splendid isolation.

Elisabeth Gifford has taken this ‘island on the edge of the world’ as her setting for a touching story of love and courage in the face of adversity. It is 1927, and Archie and Fred, students at Cambridge University, arrive on St Kilda to research and write their end-of-term papers. Archie is the son of the laird who owns St Kilda, Fred the nephew of one of the laird’s staff. They meet nineteen-year-old Chrissie, who has never left the island, nor had any desire to do so. Chrissie had a crush on Archie when she was a young girl and his arrival on St Kilda stirs up a whirlpool of emotions. Fred sees past Chrissie’s naivety and falls in love with her, knowing that he stands in the shadow of the more glamorous Archie.

Then the action switches to France in 1940. Fred has been captured and tortured by the enemy, but has escaped, to make a long and perilous journey through France, hoping to make it home in one piece. He comforts himself with memories of that magical summer on St Kilda, and the woman he left behind.

Gifford switches the narrative between the summer on St Kilda and the war scenes in France, fashioning a spellbinding story predominantly from Chrissie and Fred’s points of view. Slowly, what happened during that idyllic summer is revealed, as are the dramatic consequences of the decisions made.

The novel’s descriptions of a unique way of life are fascinating. The St Kildans’ complete reliance on catching vast numbers of fulmars for their meat, oil and feathers is reflected in the risks the men take to capture the birds. Their feet bare, they scale the towering cliffs with only one man grasping a rope, suspending them in limbo between triumph and disaster.

There is ample evidence too of ancient civilizations living on the archipelago which Archie explores whilst Fred studies unique rock formations. The community takes turns in hosting ceilidhs; dancing, singing, and storytelling taking place in smoky, stone houses on ‘main street’. The older inhabitants regale the younger ones with folklore passed down through the generations by word of mouth. The community becomes smaller and smaller with each passing year. People die who could be saved if there were a hospital within reach, while youngsters leave to find work on the mainland.

Gifford’s writing is lyrical, drawing the reader into the extraordinary world of St Kilda, with its exceptional beauty and close-knit community. She does not shy away from the many hardships of island life, nor the inherent dangers: high winds can blow sheep (and people) over the giant cliffs to certain death. The relationships are finely wrought, the love triangle between Chrissie, Archie and Fred especially. These are three-dimensional characters and it is easy to invest in their lives and loves. Gifford has written an unusual novel, a romance full of heart and soul, without resorting to schmaltz, cliché or purple prose. The magnificent front cover of the book hints at the extraordinary novel within. This sweeping story is a pleasure to read and Gifford should be showered with prizes for her efforts.

Posted in Book Reviews

Sex Money Power Review

Review: Sex Money Power, by Sarah Pascoe

Sarah Pascoe

Sex Power Money

Sara Pascoe

Faber & Faber, £14.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been an array of books investigating women’s lives and their experiences of sexism and misogyny, including the likes of Laura Bates’ influential tome, Everyday Sexism, and Do It Like a Woman, by Caroline Criado Perez.

Comedians have entered the fray, too, with Jo Brand’s Born Lippy: How To Do Female, and Kathy Burke’s Channel 4 series, All Woman. Brand and Burke come across like your favourite, potty-mouthed aunties offering sage advice with plenty of laughs along the way.

Bit in her second book, Sex Power Money, comedian and actor Sara Pascoe takes a more analytical approach to confront her own prejudices and ‘fear of the male libido’. Whip-smart and funny, Pascoe digests reams of research into an eye-opening journey through social, cultural and linguistic anthropology. She has an engaging, conversational style of writing and an intriguing supply of curious facts: mushrooms have thirty-six thousand sexes, a baby’s brain grows by 1% a day in its early weeks, penises are designed to remove competing sperm from females and Pascoe was once a backing singer for Robbie Williams’ musician father.

One of the big questions of this book is whether we will ever be able to escape what she calls the Conundrum of Heterosexuality, that is, women venerating status and men worshipping youth (though she carefully acknowledges that this does not apply to all).

Elsewhere, an illuminating comparison between the development of humans and apes highlights how and why certain gender roles came about; as human brains became larger, their hips became narrower and this led to babies being born smaller and totally helpless. So, a baby had a better chance of survival – sheltered from predators, enemies, cold and hunger – if it was part of a familial group. In contrast many animal species are precocial, dependant on their parents but mobile within minutes of birth.

Pascoe also poses some provocative questions around topics such as sex workers, examining her own preconceptions about them and the language used to describe them, also exploring the websites where men complain about sex workers who don’t smile enough and advise each other on the parking situation at their homes. She believes media coverage also influences the way we think about, the most infamous example being the coverage of the Yorkshire Ripper’s victims, with some being labelled “prostitutes” and others “innocent” victims. Somehow a perceived lack of innocence became justification for a lack of empathy, as if the prostitutes were complicit in their violent murder. Plus ca change, if recent media coverage of the Jeffrey Epstein affair, with its talk about “coercion” and “forced sex” is concerned.

Like many, Pascoe believed women working in the porn industry were somehow damaged and in need of rescue. What other reasons could there be for them to allow themselves to be filmed performing sex acts? This opinion, she admits, was formed without ever talking to a porn actor or researching the industry. If female porn actors are undertaking work and being paid for it, why is there such a stigma associated with women?

Pascoe uses the 1993 film Indecent Proposal, Hollywood’s idea of what happens when sex, power and money collide, as a sort of case study. The casting of Robert Redford as the billionaire who makes the indecent proposal is laughable, given his heart-throb status. Was anyone convinced his character had to pay for sex? The proposal is made not to the wife, played by Demi Moore, but to her husband, played by Woody Harrelson. The wife becomes an object to be borrowed, rented out for a million dollars, which – conveniently – will solve the couple’s financial worries. Back in the real world, Pascoe asks how poor you would have to be to resort to survival sex and looks into what sort of people take advantage of the desperate.

Pascoe covers a lot of ground in this meandering assessment of how humans handle sex, power, and money but she manages to lasso the result into a fascinating and cohesive exploration of the human condition.

While it primarily considers how women are affected by changing social mores, it is by no means an “all men are bastards” study, with Pascoe readily admitting that they also suffer from societal expectations.

The book is dedicated to Arminda Ventura, who was murdered by her ex-husband when she divorced him. Educational and highly entertaining, Pascoe’s book is a fitting tribute.

Posted in Book Reviews

Love Without End – Herald review

Love Without End: A Story of Heloise and Abelard

By Melvyn Bragg,

Review by Shirley Whiteside

In 12th Century France, Heloise, a clever and well-educated young woman, and Peter Abelard, a revolutionary philosopher, became famous for their intense and scandalous love affair. That they were separated by the strict morals and mores of their day made their love story endure. Their letters tell of the triumphs and tragedies they experienced, and how their love withstood their years apart. Melvyn Bragg uses the frame of a man writing about the pair in 2017, helped by his estranged daughter, to explore and comment on the lovers’ story.

Heloise, renowned for her learning and exquisite command of Latin, leaves the isolation of a countryside convent and moves to Paris to live with her uncle, Canon Fulbert, unaware that he is actually her father. Forbidden from attending lectures at the nearby Cathedral school because she is a woman, she rails against the quality of the tutor she is offered. ‘An ignorant Bible-babbling clerk, who comes to this house and tells me what I knew as a child.’ Heloise, like everyone else in Paris, wants to be taught by Peter Abelard, a brilliant, radical philosopher who is becoming famous throughout France for his scholarly, ecclesiastical lectures. Bragg succeeds in showing how important philosophical debates about the true meaning of the Bible were in this century, and how the rivalries between philosophers became ferociously competitive. Canon Fulbert manages to secure the services of Abelard as tutor to Heloise, revelling in the reflected glory this appointment shines on him. Abelard and Heloise’s intellectual jousting soon leads to a feverish, physical attraction and the two become lovers, hiding their lust in plain sight of the unwitting Canon. When Fulbert does find out about the affair, he executes a hideous revenge on Abelard which Bragg relates in clinical detail.

Bragg’s depiction of 12th-century Paris is oddly lacking in atmosphere. The bustling city, a world centre of learning, does not feel like a dangerous hotbed of radical new ideas. Bragg keeps telling the reader that Abelard is charismatic but he fails to show why women swoon over him and his students are so devoted. Similarly, Heloise is a nebulous figure and does not spring into life until she becomes a Bride of Christ and struggles to leave her love for Abelard behind. Their legendary romance was said to be astonishingly passionate but in Bragg’s hands their couplings are dull and prosaic. Even as their relationship turns from lust to love, there is no impression of an irresistible magnetism drawing them together.

Back in the present-day, Arthur is in Paris researching and writing a novel about Heloise and Abelard when Julia, his daughter, unexpectedly arrives for a visit. She offers to read and comment on Arthur’s work, hoping it will bring them closer. Damaged by her parents’ divorce, she wants to know why her father walked out of her life. Their relationship shares some traits of Heloise and Abelard’s, as Julia questions and spars with Arthur’s interpretation of the lovers’ letters. Julia finds Arthur’s willingness to excuse Abelard’s arrogant and chauvinist behaviour puzzling. Equally, Arthur cannot understand why Julia can’t see the couple in the context of medieval society.
As a frame, Arthur and Julia’s story feels more like a vehicle for Bragg to comment on the various interpretations of Heloise and Abelard’s relationship than a story strand populated by flesh-and-blood characters. Arthur is one-dimensional while Julia’s childish goading of her father soon becomes wearing. Their story lacks tension and the resolution is a damp squib. Perhaps Bragg felt that the intricacies of life in the 1100s needed explanation and context for the modern reader, but the father and daughter story feels redundant.

The lives of Heloise and Abelard were full of drama but in this plodding novel their story is diminished and lacks the thrill and turmoil of forbidden love. Bragg has obviously spent time researching the religious politics of the period and reading the couple’s letters but this has resulted in a rather dry lecture rather than a story full of lust and jeopardy. An opportunity to bring these fascinating characters to life again has been sadly missed.


Posted in Book Reviews

Mrs Tim series – Book Oxygen Review

Mrs Tim Carries On, Mrs Tim Gets a Job, Mrs Tim Flies Home

D.E. Stevenson

Three Furrowed Middlebrow Books published by Dean Street Press 6 January 2019

Paperbacks, 255pp, 221pp, 229pp

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside


D.E. Stevenson was a best-selling author in the first half of the twentieth century, with over seven million books sold during a long and productive career. She is little known today but these three republished books should go some way to remedying that situation.

Dorothy Emily Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, in 1892. Her father, David Alan Stevenson, was one of the famous Lighthouse Stevensons, and she was cousin to one of Scotland’s most celebrated writers, Robert Louis Stevenson. When she married Major James Reid Peploe in 1916, she also became related to the brilliant Scottish Colourist Samuel Peploe. In these new reissues, Alexander McCall Smith provides a charming introduction to Stevenson’s work which he rates highly for their simplicity and her ability to tell amiable tales well. All three books are written in the style of a diary which gives the reader a sense of intimacy, reading the private thoughts of Mrs Tim as she documents her life with her family, friends, and comments on major world events.

Mrs Tim Carries On opens in February 1940, the early months of World War II, when Hester Christie waves her husband, Major Tim, off at the railway station. He has been stationed to France and when she gets home Mrs Tim is distracted from having a good cry by the presence of her friend, Grace. Hester’s stiff upper lip is very much in evidence.

Mrs Tim has two children, a faithful maid in Annie, and a comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle. If Mrs Tim had been portrayed in a film, Celia Johnston (Brief Encounter) would have been perfect for the role. There are also shades of Greer Garson in the wartime saga Mrs Miniver, as Mrs Tim navigates the changes brought by the war with true British pluck. Although highly amusing, Mrs Tim’s diary entries also document the privations of the home front during World War II and the reactions to their first air raid.  Major Tim’s perilous escape from occupied France brings the dangers of the war very close to home. As a stalwart military wife, Mrs Tim helps out at the regiment’s comfort depot, and is always on hand to provide advice or a shoulder to cry on for other military wives. The humour may be gentle but Mrs Tim is occasionally waspish in her assessment of the people she meets, which adds a little spice to her tales.

Mrs Tim Gets a Job illustrates the continuing privations of post-war Britain, as Hester scrabbles around to find enough clothing vouchers to buy her daughter a uniform for her new boarding school. With her son already at boarding school and Major Tim stationed in Egypt, Mrs Tim is at a loose end but solves this problem by taking a job in a country hotel run by the redoubtable Erica Clutterbuck and is soon engulfed in the lives of hotel guests as well as her own friends and family.

In Mrs Tim Flies Home, published in 1952, Stevenson ends the gentle adventures of Hester. After an idyllic eighteen months living with Major Tim in Kenya, Mrs Tim returns to Britain to her almost adult children and starts to pick up the threads of her life once more, in a country that is slowly recovering from the war. Initially, she thinks that life in Old Quinings will be somewhat sedate but soon finds herself embroiled in local matters. It is a sweet tale with which to close the amusing diaries of Hester Christie, known to all as the amazing Mrs Tim.

The three Mrs Tim novels offer a fascinating glimpse into a now-vanished world and also remind us that women are so often written out of history. Although Mrs Tim lives a very secure and privileged life, Stevenson’s delightful tales show how war impacts every level of society. These novels will appeal to anyone who has a military spouse, those interested in the history of the Home Front during World War II, or anyone who enjoys an easy but very entertaining read.

Posted in Book Reviews

Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolazkin – Herald Review

Solovyov and Larionov

Solovyov and Larionov

Solovyov and Larionov

Eugene Vodolazkin

Translated by Lisa Hayden

Oneworld, £14.99

Review by Shirley Whiteside

Eugene Vodolazkin, an award-winning author, was born in Kiev and now lives in St Petersburg, Russia. Solovyov and Larionov is his debut novel, although it is the third to be translated from Russian to English. It tells the story of Solovyov, a young history student at the tail end of the 20th Century, who is given an unusual topic for his thesis; the life of the Imperial General Larionov.

Solovyov has been living and studying in St Petersburg for some years, keen to leave his impoverished childhood behind and forge a new life for himself. He tends to be an observer of events, watching other people and analysing their actions and motives. He applies the same level of analysis to his studies and throws himself into the study of General Larionov. Solovyov’s need to carefully consider all the angles of a person or situation means that the novel progresses at a stately pace. At times this is a little frustrating but the expressive language that Vodolazkin employs, and the amusing asides, makes up for the lack of momentum. ‘In the eyes of the young Larionov, every movement his great-grandfather made, even the very knock of his peg leg on the parquet floor, was filled with a special dignity.’ The narrative voice is strong and imposing, demonstrating a confidence not often seen in debut novels. ‘What, one might ask, unites two such dissimilar individuals as the historian Solovyov and the General Larionov, if of course it is permissible to speak of uniting a budding young researcher and a battle-weary commander who, furthermore, is no longer on this earth?’

Solovyov learns that General Larionov was a distinguished, and notoriously bloody, commander in the White Russian army during the Russian Civil War. He became a heroic figure for the Imperialists but intriguingly was allowed to live out his life in the new Soviet Union without his past Tsarist loyalties being used against him. Instead, to Solovyov’s amazement, he appears to have been left alone and even given a pension by the Soviets. The General settles in the Crimean resort of Yalta, spending his days on the beach looking out to the Black Sea. When he dies, he leaves behind a memoir, but it is incomplete. Solovyov travels to Yalta to try and track down pages rumoured to have been lost.

No doubt, a more intimate knowledge of Russian tertiary education and research communities would reveal many more insider jokes, but Lisa Hayden’s translation is full of Vodolazkin’s wry humour. ‘In her case, this was not a matter of the historian’s external features, something the scholarly community permits itself to mock, due to her height (187 centimeters) and the emergence of a mustache after the age of forty.’ Solovyov does not escape his dry wit either. On a visit to the beach at Yalta, a novelty for Solovyov who grew up in the interior of Russia, a place known only by the train station name, Kilometer 715, provides Vodolazkin with an opportunity to gently poke fun at the young man’s naivety on forgetting to bring fresh underpants with him. ‘After Solovyov sat down to buckle his sandals, the contour of his swimsuit developed on the back of his shorts, as if on wrinkled photographic paper.’

While in Yalta, Solovyov meets Zoya, whose mother was an assistant to the General in his later years, providing a living link to the General. She reminds Solovyov of his first sexual experiences back in Kilometer 715, timed to coincide with a train passing so that his grandmother wouldn’t hear what he was up to with a local girl. The self-possessed Zoya, who works at the Chekhov Museum, is just one of many surprises that await Solovyov in Yalta.

With its humour and philosophical reflections – do we ever learn from our past mistakes, as humans and as nations? – this is an ambitious undertaking for a first novel. It is to Vodolazkin’s credit that he pulls it off, creating a substantial, beguiling work that engages the reader on several levels. It encompasses a detective story, historical events, and even a little romance.

Posted in Book Reviews

Wonder Valley – Book Oxygen Review

Wonder Valley

Ivy Pochoda

Published by The Indigo Press 20 September 2018

282pp, paperback, £12.99,

Reviewed by Shirley Whiteside

There is a dream-like quality to Wonder Valley, Ivy Pochoda’s third novel. Sometimes it is beatific, sometimes surreal, and sometimes the stuff of nightmares. Set in modern-day California but not in the affluent areas often portrayed in films and television programmes, this work is located in the grimy, smelly underbelly of the sunshine state and the city of angels. It opens with a traffic jam on an LA freeway, people sweating in their cars as they try to get to work. Suddenly a naked man appears, running between the cars at a steady pace. Tony, hemmed in by his boring job and inflexible wife, is overcome by the sense of freedom that the naked man inspires and he abandons his car and runs after him. The incident is all over the news channels and the internet. While Tony is stopped, the naked runner goes on.

Six disparate characters are revealed in a series of vignettes set in 2006 and 2010, the year of the naked runner. There is Britt, a young woman trying to escape her former life. She turns up at a chicken ranch in the desert where interns work in return for bed, board, and spiritual healing from the charismatic Patrick. Patrick has twin sons, Owen and James, who hate being on the chicken farm as much as their mother. Previously inseparable, they are suddenly split apart by a single act of rebellion. Britt joins in one of the most disturbing episodes in the novel, when two hundred chickens are individually beheaded and plucked, ready for sale.

Not far away in the desert, Blake and Sam are holed up in a shack hoping that Sam’s bad leg break might heal. They are a curious pair, petty criminals who have stuck together for years, surviving rather than living, and always one step in front of the law. Sam, short for Samoan, tells Blake about the myths and legends of his people and Blake steals medications to help his friend cope with the pain of his rotting leg. When another person joins them in their shack, the bonds of their friendship become strained.

The most heart-rending story is that of Ren, a young man who has just been released from juvenile detention on the East Coast. He hasn’t seen his mother for years but decides to travel to the West Coast to find her. What he finds is a shell of the woman she used to be, camping out on the pavements of Skid Row, who has no interest in Ren’s idea of home.

Slowly, and with skill, Pochoda brings these characters together in a melancholy tale of people who have been bruised and abused by life and spent their time running away from rather than running towards something. Pochoda gifts each of her characters with a rounded backstory and a sense of dignity that their circumstances have denied them. Despite the endless sunshine there is a dark side to SoCal, a whole society of people living on the fringes, hanging on by their fingertips, and occasionally glimpsing the clean, bright, safe world just out of their reach.

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