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Greatest Hits – Sunday Herald Review

Review: Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

Greatest Hits by Laura Barnett

LAURA Barnett follows up her best-selling debut, The Versions of Us, with a tale about Cass Wheeler, a singer-songwriter who found worldwide fame in the 1970s before mysteriously retiring from public life. Barnett fashions Cass as a kind of British answer to Joni Mitchell, with her ethereal voice and folk-influenced music. The story takes place over one day as Cass listens to her old albums to prepare her choice of songs for a greatest hits album, a primer for her return to making music. She wonders whether her incredible success has been worth the sacrifices she has made. With every track, she is thrust back into her past. Most of the chapters open with the lyrics to a song that Cass has written, the story of her life in music. In fact, Barnett has collaborated with Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams to write the lyrics and music, which have been recorded and released as a soundtrack to accompany the novel.

Francis, Cass’s beloved father, is overjoyed by his daughter’s birth in 1950. Her mother, Margaret, is less than thrilled, seeing her as “… a small, damp-headed creature, ugly and mottled, screwing up its face against the light”. Margaret is a cold and withdrawn woman who escapes her unhappy marriage by taking off for Canada with a new lover in tow. Francis is broken by his wife’s desertion and the young Cass feels betrayed and abandoned. Through this, Barnett subtly foreshadows Cass’s own dilemmas as a wife and mother, and her secret fear that she will fail the people she loves most.

Music is Cass’s saviour and she forms an intense professional and personal partnership with Ivor Tait, who brings the best out in the shy teenager. Together they head for Swinging London and form a band, Vertical Heights, writing songs, gigging in pubs and clubs, and travelling around in a ramshackle van. With shades of A Star is Born, Cass is offered a record deal as a solo artist. The rest of the band feel betrayed, none more so than Ivor whose drinking spirals out of control. The clichés continue as Cass and the reluctant Ivor set off on a punishing touring schedule, filled with grubby dressing rooms, and the obligatory alcohol, drugs and groupies. This section of the novel is too long, treading water rather than progressing Cass’s story. The saving grace is Barnett’s expressive descriptions of Cass becoming lost in her music. “No place but this place, no time but this time, and she is nowhere, and everywhere, diving and swimming in this pool of sound.”

The music, fashions and social mores of the 1960s and 1970s are colourfully depicted, with Cass and Ivor caught up in a whirlwind of writing music, recording, and touring. Cass does take time out to have their daughter, Anna, but the pressure to return to work leaves her exhausted and constantly feeling she is short-changing both her child and her music. Meanwhile, her relationship with Ivor is in tatters. He is still furious that Cass was picked out for stardom while he has had to stand in her shadow.

The singer spreads herself too thinly as she tries to be a good daughter, wife, and mother, while staying true to herself and her art. Broken by a tragedy, she stops making music altogether. She is, she says, an ‘Ex-mother. Ex-daughter. Ex-wife’. Poignantly, she also considers herself an ‘ex-musician’. At its heart, Barnett’s novel examines the compromises women make in order to pursue a fulfilling creative and personal life. She offers no easy answers but Cass does eventually find a measure of forgiveness and peace.

Posted in Book Reviews

Reader, I Married Him – Sunday Herald

Reader, I Married Him

Edited by Tracy Chevalier

(The Borough Press, £12.99)

CHARLOTTE Bronte was born on April 21, 1816, in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Along with her sisters, Emily and Anne, she would go on to write some of the best-loved novels in English literature. To celebrate her bicentenary, author Tracy Chevalier asked 20 female writers each to pen a short story inspired by Charlotte’s classic novel, Jane Eyre. Like many short story collections, this is a curate’s egg, with good, bad and indifferent contributions. Some authors have stretched the brief to breaking point, but those who have stayed close to the source of inspiration have produced interesting stories.
Chief among these is Salley Vickers’s Reader, She Married Me, a radical re-imagining of Bronte’s story from the dying Edward Rochester’s point of view. In this tale, the much-loved Bertha Mason’s mental illness is an acute case of postnatal depression, reactivated when her baby daughter dies. Rochester tries to care for his wife while dealing with his own grief. He finds comfort in the calm presence of Jane Eyre, his foster child’s new governess, but realises too late that the quiet strength that he had come to rely on masked an arch, passive-aggressive manipulator. There is a sharp barb in the story’s title, which echoes the most famous line from the novel.

Likewise, Helen Dunmore’s, Grace Poole, Her Testimony, leaves a strong impression. Again, Jane Eyre is cast as the villain of the piece, Poole claiming she was never fooled by her demure demeanour. Poole remains fiercely loyal to the first Mrs Rochester, and does not hide her lack of respect for Mr Rochester who is, she says, “a sly one”. With her lack of education and fondness for porter, Poole blends into the background of the great house of Thornfield, but she hears and sees far more than anyone realises.

Chevalier’s own contribution, Dorset Gap, features Jenn, a quietly self-possessed young woman walking off the effects of a rave in the Dorset countryside. She is accompanied by Ed, who is trying to find a crack in her inscrutable carapace. Finding a book full of musings from previous walkers at Dorset Gap, Jenn, who is re-reading Jane Eyre, adds a quote from the novel. Ed, trying to impress her, also adds a quote from the novel but his lack of familiarity with the book is all too obvious.
Kirsty Gunn, Elizabeth McCracken, Susan Hill and Francine Prose deserve honourable mentions for their contributions but the collection seems awkward with not all the stories comfortably fitting the brief. For instance, it is hard to detect the echoes of Jane Eyre in Linda Grant and Lionel Shriver’s tales, although they are otherwise perfectly sound short stories. As a commemoration of the birth of Charlotte Bronte this collection is a qualified success. It is worth reading to enjoy the stand-out stories, and perhaps to puzzle over the connections between Jane Eyre and some of the more ambiguous stories.

Posted in Book Reviews

The Ice Twins by SK Tremayne – Sunday Herald Review

SK Tremayne: The Ice Twins (HarperCollins)
Shirley Whiteside
Sunday 15 February 2015

SK Tremayne is the nom de plume of a best-selling author and award-winning travel writer who, for the time being at least, wishes to remain anonymous.

This is a stratagem that is sometimes employed by writers who wish to radically change gear or genre, allowing them to break new ground while avoiding any preconceptions based on previous work.

Tremayne’s tale opens in London with a couple in crisis. Sarah and Angus Moorcroft have lost Lydia, one of their young twins, in a tragic accident and the stress is taking its toll on their marriage. Then Angus is left Eilean Torran, a tiny Hebridean island, by his late grandmother, and he and Sarah decide to take their surviving twin, Kirstie, to live there. Angus knows the island well from his childhood holidays and Sarah is caught up in his enthusiasm.

This introductory section of the novel works well as the couple are seduced by the urbanite’s fantasy of living a cleaner and simpler life away from the noise, dirt and crime of the big city. When they arrive, the reality is sobering as they realise the island’s old cottage is “a brutal nightmare”, so overrun by rats that food has to be stored in baskets hanging from the ceiling.

Just before they leave London, seven-year-old Kirstie begins to act strangely. “Why do you keep calling me Kirstie, Mummy?” she asks. “Kirstie is dead.” At first Sarah humours her daughter, believing that she is confused and this is part of her grieving process. After all, the twins were very close and startlingly identical, with blue eyes and pale blonde hair.

Once on the island Kirstie becomes more and more insistent that she is Lydia. At the local school she frightens the other children with her strange conduct and they retaliate by chanting “Bogan” at her, which is Gaelic for ghost.

Kirstie/Lydia’s confusion over her identity and her erratic behaviour are both strange and moving. As she comes to terms with losing her closest companion, she also has to cope with her parents’ marriage dissolving before her eyes. She is anxious and bewildered by her own actions, making her by far the most sympathetic character in the novel.

As her relationship with Angus disintegrates, and Kirstie/Lydia becomes more emotionally distant, Sarah feels “lost in the hall of mirrored souls”. Things come to a climax during a ferocious storm that leaves Sarah and her daughter stranded on the island as the wind and rain batters the cottage, ripping holes in the roof.

Tremayne uses some powerful metaphors to enrich the atmosphere of the story. The island’s name, Eilean Torran (Thunder Island), introduces a sense of foreboding and its isolation echoes the family’s isolation, encapsulated as they are in their own world of grief. The dilapidated condition of the cottage reflects the state of Sarah and Angus’s marriage, something that needs love and care to bring it back to life; and the menacing graffiti figures painted on the interior walls of the cottage by recent squatters are like the ghosts that haunt the family’s relationships with each other.

By introducing elements such as supernatural occurrences, wild storms, dark secrets and Sarah’s increasing dread, Tremayne builds the unsettling mood of the piece. The astonishing beauty of the landscape forms a stark comparison to the ugly thoughts forming in Sarah’s mind as she begins to suspect that her husband has been lying to her for some time.

At times the unfolding of the novel’s plot is plodding and lacking a sense of urgency. The language is occasionally clunky as, for example, when a photo shows Kirstie and Lydia looking “desolatingly happy”. Thankfully the locals are not depicted as couthy or twee but as ordinary people living in an extraordinarily magnificent but challenging part of the world.

After the complex and dramatic build up, the resolution to the story is a little disappointing. It concerns a piece of information that puts a new slant on what has happened to the Moorcroft family and, while it makes sense, it seems incongruous that it hasn’t been revealed before.

This is a pity as the advantages and hardships of island life are well depicted and the Gothic mood is suitably creepy. While Sarah, who narrates large parts of the story, is an appealing character, it is the fate of the troubled Kirstie/Lydia that intrigues.

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.

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