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The Mauricewood Devils

Book Review: The Mauricewood Devils shines light on a dark chapter in mining history

ON the September 5, 1889, at the Mauricewood Colliery, near Penicuik, Midlothian, 65 men and boys were working in the mine. Around lunchtime, some wooden boards caught fire and the flames quickly spread to a coal seam, creating a smoky inferno.

Two men survived and 63 died, including a 12-year-old boy. It devastated the lives of their dependents, many relying on the miners to keep their families from the poor house. Outside of the immediate area, the disaster is little-known today.

Drawing on her own family history, Dorothy Alexander has fictionalised the events of 1889-1890, telling the story through the eyes of Martha, the daughter of a miner, and her step-mother, Jess, both having lost the man they loved. She intersperses their narratives with contemporary, factual reports, which demonstrate how differently the authorities assessed the events. Alexander has arranged these in 50-word paragraphs in traditional ballad metre. These blunt reports, which concentrate on the financial losses, provide a callous counterpoint to the grief and despair of the families left behind.

The key to the story working as a novel is making Martha’s seven-year-old voice convincing and Alexander achieves this with aplomb. In order to relate the story, Martha must impart facts that most children wouldn’t know or understand but Alexander seamlessly slips them into the child’s narration. Martha is a bright and endearing character who has lived with her grandparents and sister Helen since the death of her mother shortly after her birth. Her grandmother is a hard woman who never fails to let Martha know that she “killed” her mother. The two girls are always hungry and spend most of their time out of school doing chores. They always look forward to their father’s visits with his second wife, Jess, knowing there will be ample food on offer.

Jess is a no less sympathetic character, waiting anxiously until March 1890 for her husband’s body to be brought up from the mine. She works at the nearby paper mill which affords her more choices than many women of the time. She has always wanted her husband’s two girls to live with them but their grandparents want to keep them close at hand. Jess tries to support the women whose men have already been brought up for burial knowing she must face that traumatic day herself.

Through Jess, we see the women who became known as the Mauricewood Devils in a different light from that which is recorded. When the authorities decided to cap the still burning mine, only 30 or so bodies had been recovered. Many families were left in limbo, grieving but without a body or a grave to mark their loss. Several women got together to demonstrate against the mine owners, demanding the mine should be opened and the remaining bodies recovered. Many were taken aback by the women’s courage in taking on such powerful figures; many were horrified that women should behave in such a manner.

The mine was finally reopened in March 1890, and the rest of the miners were recovered. It soon became clear that several men were still alive when the mine shaft was capped, which compounded the families’ horror.

Alexander has used the memories and stories related by members of her own family to add colour and authenticity to her story. The monologues bring a sharp focus to 19th-century life in small mining communities, through the eyes of both a child and an adult. The work was backbreaking with very few health and safety measures, and it wasn’t so long before this period that women and girls worked in the mines too. The social conventions of an underprivileged, working-class community are revealed as people try to pull together and survive the disaster. There was a fund set up to assist the dependents of the Mauricewood miners but the rules as to who qualified were strict. A woman who remarried was immediately cut off and once children reached 14 years they too were left to fend for themselves.

This is an engrossing story about a vital piece of social history. If that sounds dull, be assured that Alexander’s finely wrought characters are anything but. Martha and Jess sparkle amongst the poverty and coal dust, their voices ringing out down the years that have seen too many people lost in industrial disasters. It is an important tale, beautifully told, and deserves to be better known.

Published by Freight Books.

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The Button Box – Independent on Sunday Review

Lynn Knight, The Button Box: Lifting the lid on Women’s Lives: ‘The past is all buttoned up’, book review

The reader can dip in and out at any point, but reading chronologically offers a sweeping look at how women’s clothing has developed

There was a time, it seems, when everyone’s grandma owned a button box with a glorious assortment of colours and shapes that dazzled many a child. Lynn Knight remembers her own gran’s precious button box, an old Quality Street tin, and being allowed to use the buttons as money in her pretend shop.

She takes inspiration from these treasure troves to explore the social history of women’s lives in a book of 28 chapters, each dealing with a specific type of button and explaining how and why it was used.

And Knight raids her own button box – which includes donations from her grandmother, Aunt Eva, and mother.

She begins by looking at jet buttons and their journey from Victorian mourning wear to glamorous evening gowns. Real jet, a form of fossilised wood that can be polished to a brilliant shine, is fragile and prone to damage. Most are actually pressed glass, which is cheaper and more durable but still bears a striking resemblance to the real thing. It is such little-known facts that make Knight’s book such a delight.

Linen buttons, “the lowliest button of all”, were cheap and had myriad uses from basic baby clothes to men’s working shirts. They also had one important quality; they could survive the mangle intact. Three pearl buttons, which graced a home-made dress that Knight’s mother wore after being adopted, lead to an examination of the hand-made clothes and tokens that women made for babies before giving them up for adoption. Knowing they would never see their child again, they poured a lifetime of love into a small memento.

The suffragettes used buttons and clothes to indicate their support for women’s votes, with the WSPU colours of purple, white and green becoming very popular and on sale in upmarket shops.

The Button Box: Lifting the lid on Women’s Lives, by Lynn Knight. Chatto & Windus £15.99

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Viral by Helen FitzGerald – Independent on Sunday Review

Helen FitzGerald, Viral: ‘Humiliation, guilt, and a mother’s fearsome revenge’, book review

FitzGerald’s depiction of teens on a drink and drugs-fuelled holiday in a notorious party town feels unnervingly close to the mark

Helen FitzGerald’s eleventh novel opens with a killer sentence – not suitable for a family newspaper – that sets the tone for the rest of the book, which is a forensic exploration of a family mired in a modern crisis. When one family member goes off the rails, there are unexpected repercussions for the rest.

Teenager Su, adopted from South Korea as a baby, lives in Scotland with her snarky sister Leah, her musician father Bernard, and her mother Ruth, who is a judge in the Scottish court system.

Leah is only allowed to go on holiday to Magaluf if she takes sensible, hard-working Su with her.  Su reluctantly goes along and submits to Leah’s efforts to turn her into a party girl in the hope it will bring them close again. Things don’t go to plan and Su, drunk and possibly drugged, performs a sex act on several young men in a night club.

To make things worse, someone has filmed it and posted it to the web where it goes viral. Leah and her friends go home and Su, humiliated and feeling cast adrift, decides that finding her birth mother is the answer to her problems.

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Little Aunt Crane, Independent on Sunday

Geling Yan, Little Aunt Crane: Survival amid China’s crisis, book review

Geling Yan explores a period of Chinese/Japanese history which is little-known in the West

Geling Yan is an award-winning author and screenwriter in her Chinese homeland, with several of her works being adapted for the screen. In this novel, she explores a period of Chinese/Japanese history which is little-known in the West; the fate of the Japanese who had been encouraged to colonise Manchuria prior to the Second World War.

At the end of that war, Japanese villagers in Manchuria find themselves facing the advancing Chinese army alone. Some immediately flee back to Japan, but others left behind commit mass suicide rather than become captives. Sixteen-year-old Tatsuru chooses life over honour, but her freedom is short-lived as she is captured by people traffickers and sold to the Zhang family. She becomes Duohe, bought to give birth secretly to the children that only-son, Zhang Jian and his wife Xiaohuan, are unable to have themselves.

Yan sets the scene well; the Japanese villagers’ fear is palpable as they hear the Chinese army approach. Their docile acceptance of an honourable death is a chilling demonstration of their fear of reprisals and loss of face. Tatsuru’s brave march through hostile China, as she tries to stay ahead of the army, imbues her with a quiet strength and stoicism. Those who cannot keep up with the group are either left behind or killed, even babies and children. Tatsuru does her best to save those she can before being captured, put in a sack and sold like a bag of rice.

Her relationships with Zhang Jian and his wife are complex and shifting, her fertility both a blessing and a curse for Xiaohuan. She provides the couple with their longed for children but the price each pays for this unusual arrangement cannot be underestimated. At first, Zhang Jian is uncomfortable compelling Tatsuru to have sex with him, silent tears her only reproach. Later, he is torn between gratitude to Tatsuru for giving him his children and his love for his fiery but increasingly distant wife. Initially, Xioahuan finds the little Japanese woman unfathomable but slowly they reach an understanding and a strange kind of friendship is born. They become co-mothers of the children and formidable when they join forces in any disagreements with Zhang Jian.

Against the backdrop of a China being remade by Chairman Mao, Yan takes a great sweep of history and boils it down to an intensely personal story, while Tyldesley’s smooth translation retains the lyricism and keeps the novel  rooted in its time and place. At times lyrical and always deeply moving, Yan’s grand tale is one to savour.

 Little Aunt Crane, by Geling Yan (Trs by Esther Tyldesley). Harvill Secker,  £14.99

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Ghost: 100 Stories to Read with the Lights On chosen by Louise Welsh

Book Review: Louise Welsh uncovers two thousand years of the ghost story

EVERY culture, from ancient times to the present day, has its own ghosts, ghouls, and bogeymen. In all corners of the world there are ceremonies and rituals performed by the living to placate the dead, some barely changed in hundreds of years.Many of these have their roots in early ancestor worship and tales that have been handed down through the generations. Ghosts can take the form of people, animals, ships, and even the funfair favourite, the ghost trains. Usually they haunt a particular place or appear at a set time. Legends of manifestations have inspired many writers to delve into the supernatural and ghost stories have become an enduring literary genre.

Award-winning author Louise Welsh (pictured), no slouch when it comes to shredding nerves in her own works, spent 18 months researching and reading ghost stories. The result is this excellent and varied collection of spectral tales and unsettling yarns. The stories, arranged chronologically by date of first publication, feature such luminaries of the genre as Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, M R James and Stephen King.

There is also a strong representation of Scottish writers, from Robert Burns and James Hogg, to Ali Smith and Jackie Kay. It is a large, handsome volume that can be dipped into at any point but reading it chronologically does show how the genre has developed over the years. It also makes it easier to discern recurring themes and motifs from early stories to modern-day tales.

Welsh has taken a relaxed view on what constitutes a ghost story and the collection has benefited from some interesting selections. Truman Capote’s A Beautiful Child features a very much alive Marilyn Monroe but Welsh says that reading it she felt she was “in the company of a dead woman walking; a ghost”.

Comedic stories are also included, such as Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, a witty tale where a ghost haunting an English stately home has the tables turned on him by a crass American family. These pieces offer light relief among some dark and disturbing tales, giving the collection a satisfyingly varied rhythm.

Welsh asserts that part of the attraction of supernatural stories is their potential to explore so many facets of the human condition, such as love and loss in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Demon Lover.

Whether directly or indirectly, they can also explore societal taboos, such as death, incest, madness in Robert Nye’s Randal, and flesh-eating in Mark Twain’s Cannibalism in the Cars. Women feature prominently in many ghost stories with the White Lady ghost being a common theme around the world. She is often a woman who has been wronged by a man and after dying tragically, appears in rural settings.

Governesses also feature as victims or unreliable narrators. Being neither gentry nor servant, these women were a ghostly presence in many households. Tales of ghost children can be very unsettling but in Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Old Nurse’s Tale, the ghost child isn’t malevolent, merely lonely and seeking a friend. The always-popular vampire stories are represented by Bram Stoker’s Dracula’s Guest, and Jewelle Gomez’s New York set, Off-Broadway: 1971.

Although largely an anthology of European stories, Welsh has included tales by African, Japanese, Scandinavian, American, Native American, and African-American writers. This is important, offering an opportunity to detect the similarities and differences in what frightens or disturbs peoples around the world. Stories set abroad, such as W W Jacob’s horror classic, The Monkey’s Paw, are as much about the fear of other cultures than phantoms.

The collection opens with The Haunted House by Pliny the Younger, written in the first century, and ends with James Robertson’s Ghost, a one-page tale written in 2014. In between, Welsh has assembled an enthralling collection of stories about apparitions, hauntings, evil-doers, madness, and psychological distress. She admits that some of her favourite stories failed to make the cut because of copyright or length but this does not detract from the overall quality of the collection.

Some of the tales could easily be read on a dark, stormy night without raising a shiver but there are some that really do benefit from being read in a brightly lit room. It will delight any lover of the ghost story genre.