Book Review: Dark Earth By Rebecca Stott

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It is the year 500 CE, and in post-Roman Britain Isla, her sister Blue, and her father, a famed blacksmith, are exiled to an island in the River Thames. They all have dangerous secrets and when their father dies suddenly the sisters’ security – already fragile – is threatened. Should they look for mercy from their cruel and unyielding tribe, or take their chances in the lawless hinterland of the Thames?

Or perhaps there is a third way? On the north bank of the river is the “Ghost City”, the looming remains of Roman Londinium. Evil spirits are said to lurk in the forbidden ruins, but what Isla and Blue find is a hidden colony of fugitive women. This is a community of smallholders and craftswomen, augurers, and abandoned children. But can Isla and Blue find a long term future here?

Dark Earth is set in the “darkest corner of the dark ages”. This is a period of history about which little is known, a time when reason battles with superstition, when new-fangled Christianity is trying to supplant the native religions, and to overturn a culture of religious tolerance.

It is not always easy to understand such an unfamiliar culture (I occasionally had to resort to Google to find the meaning of an unknown word or concept). But Rebecca Stott weaves a credible story from what we do know. This is a world of casual violence, where everyone is in need of protection, where laws are made and enforced at the whim of the most powerful. Yet it is also a place where love and loyalty can thrive, where art and creativity can flourish. The detailed descriptions of metal working and the production of decorated swords act as a reminder that humans have always sought beauty, even in the darkest times.

But what sets this book apart is that women are at the forefront. If the men of this period are little-known, the women are invisible. As Blue says, the male leaders have a genealogy, but “where are the women? Who is going to remember them?” There is a passing reference to a boy king named Arthur: in their way Isla and Blue and their community of wise women are a female counterpoint to the court of King Arthur and Merlin, his magician.

In the end, however, “no city can stand for ever”. As the Ghost City represents a vanished civilisation, so too will the world of Isla and Blue disappear, to be mostly forgotten but leaving tantalising clues for future generations to interpret as they will.

Dark Earth, Rebecca Stott, 4th Estate, 2022, 9780008209223

Book Review: The Language Of Food By Annabel Abbs

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It is 1835, and aspiring writer Eliza Acton is mortified when her publisher tells her to abandon the idea of poetry and write a cookery book instead. But a change in the family’s fortunes leaves her determined to learn to cook and to accept the challenge. Together with Ann, her newly-hired kitchen maid, she slowly masters the art of cookery, creates a range of recipes, and publishes her book.

The Language of Food is based on a true-life story. Little is known about the real Eliza Acton, but her book – Modern Cookery, published in 1845, was a best-seller in its time, and many of her recipes found their way into the better known Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1861.

Annabel Abbs takes the few facts available to us and uses them to create two memorable characters – Eliza and Ann – whose voices alternate throughout the book.

Eliza may be initially driven by the need to make money but she soon finds additional motivation for her task. Looking at the few recipe books available at the time she is appalled  at how clumsily they are written – imprecise, unhelpful and not fit for purpose. As a poet she aims to make her own book more practical and also a pleasure to read: “like a poem, a recipe should be clear and precise and ordered”.

The Language of Food is a sumptuous read, full of food described in loving detail. There are frequent comparisons between cooking and poetry – “Fruits, herbs, spices, eggs, cream: these are my words and I must combine them in such a way they produce something to delight the palate. Exactly as a poem should fall upon the ears of its readers, charming or moving them”. An added bonus is the inclusion of some of the original recipes at the end.

However, this is more than just a celebration of food. Eliza starts to become aware that even the rich do not eat well. This was a time when women of the upper classes simply did not concern themselves with what went on “below stairs”, when it would have been shameful for the woman of the house to involve herself in the cooking. The result was bland, unappetising food.

She is also forced to confront the reality of poverty. When Eliza visits Ann’s parents’ home with its lack of food she thinks of “all the lavish food served and wasted in monied kitchens everywhere.” For Ann herself, the child of paupers, “a kitchen is like a puppet show, a fairy tale…”, far removed from her former life. The elaborate descriptions of food and cooking are made poignant when imagined through the eyes of a poverty stricken girl.

Eliza’s concern is both for the rich – who eat badly through ignorance – and for the poor, to whom nourishing food is simply not available. Her mission is now to make cookery both simple and pleasurable for all, whatever their station.

Finally, this is the story of two women trying to escape the restricted roles defined for them in the Victorian era. I have to confess that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the speed with which Eliza learns to cook well, or by the relative absence of culinary disasters but, that aside, this was an enjoyable and compelling read.

The Language of Food, Annabel Abbs, Simon & Schuster, 2022, 9781398502222

Book Review: Violeta by Isabel Allende

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Set in an unnamed South American country, Violeta is the rollercoaster story of a strong and determined woman, a woman who battles dramatic changes in destiny. Violeta endures the ruin of her family, some less-than-perfect relationships, and almost permanent worry about her children. All the time she is doing her best to ensure her own survival – physical, economic and emotional – and that of her extended family and those who have befriended her along the way.

What emerges is a portrait of an unconventional woman who meets life head-on and who will do whatever it takes to survive. Violeta’s life is mirrored by the tangled politics of Latin America in the 20th century. Isabel Allende – who has first hand knowledge of these events – draws a picture of the ruthlessness and corruption of the different regimes, of the frequent “disappearances”, and of the way that individual fortunes could rise and fall with the volatility of the times. She does not hesitate to point a finger at United States interference in the affairs of other countries, or at those who turned a profit from the conflict.

The story is bookended by two pandemics, beginning with the Spanish flu in 1920 and ending with the Covid outbreak of 2020. Some aspects are eerily similar – the face coverings, the restrictions on movement, and the paranoia – but there is an added level of brutality in 1920.

The writing is so vivid that Violeta sometimes reads like an autobiography. Allende has obviously drawn on her own life experience, and the reader is tempted to speculate how much of the author resides in her protagonist. Despite the suffering, there are moments of joy and deep humanity, and the writing is often lyrical.

The novel contains some unforgettable characters. There is the unprincipled Julián, who “ran liquor, drugs, and girls, and provided other highly compensated services”. Miss Taylor, the English governess who turns out to be a free-thinking Irishwoman. And the staunchly loyal Torito, who is anything but the simple giant that he appears to be.

An added bonus is the way that different cultures are woven through the story. Close to home we have Yaima, the local healer who “was the link between the earth and the spirit world, with great knowledge of plants and shamanic rituals”, priests, businessmen and a colony of German refugees. But we also encounter a Norwegian bird-watching diplomat, the US underworld, and the brittle high-life of Havana…

A new title from Isabel Allende is always a treat, and I enjoyed every page of this book. Thoroughly recommended.

Violeta, Isabel Allende, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022, 9780593496206

Book Review: Navigating the Divide by Linda Watanabe McFerrin

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Navigating the Divide is a selection of writings by Linda Watanabe McFerrin, including poems, travel essays, short stories and extracts from her novels. However this is no conventional anthology. The fiction is jumbled up and scattered among the poems and travel writing, in a fashion which seems random but starts to form a pattern. The end result is a patchwork in which the poetry and the prose illuminate one another, a complete new work in itself.

Even in her prose writing it is clear that the author is a poet. The travel essays are like prose poems, playing with words and ideas, throwing up startling images. Her descriptions are sensuous: the city of Nice “like a thick grenadine, trickled over us”, and “coconuts, split, by the side of the road, a fetid smell, like graves turned over”.

The fiction conjures up a sense of place, describing Tokyo, or Haiti, or San Francisco, with a traveller’s eye. And the poems pick up the themes of the prose.

The “divide” of the title is much more than the gap between literary genres. The author uses her personal experience of two very distinct cultures – American and Japanese – to explore the gulf of understanding between different societies.  We see how contrasting responses to the same events – such as the juxtaposition of the American Halloween with the Hispanic Day of the Dead – can lead to a sense of alienation.

Then there is the divide between individuals, often a result of misunderstandings or trickery. People  may assume masks – formally during Halloween or Carnivale, or for the purposes of disguise or deception. The lone traveller may enjoy chance encounters with strangers, while wearing the mantle of loneliness.

Navigating the Divide deals with the big themes of life: love and loss and death. It is infused with a sense of spirituality, in all its forms. This is a fragmented world, one in which rational explanation co-exists with zombies and ghosts. There can be no answers to the questions posed by the book, because there is no single reality.

Navigating the Divide, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, Alan Squire Publishing, 2019, 9781942892144

Book Review: Hideous Progeny By Vaughn Entwistle

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Hideous Progeny imagines a meeting between Mary Shelley, creator of Frankenstein, and Andrew Crosse, a scientist and early experimenter with electricity. In this version of events, Mary’s writing was inspired by her attendance at a lecture delivered by Crosse, and she is visiting him in later life in an attempt to lay the ghosts that have dogged her ever since.

Over the course of a day we see flashbacks to Mary’s earlier life, experience a severe storm and mind-boggling experiments, and witness a local mob trying to destroy the “wizard” Crosse and his unholy studies. Meanwhile, a parallel narrative moves to the final months of Mary’s life, when her brain tumour is advanced and she is slipping in and out of consciousness.

The novel takes us through the (mainly tragic) events of Mary’s life. It references her journals and the lives of those close to her: her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and her children, most of whom did not live for very long. Lord Byron haunts the pages, and his daughter Ada Lovelace features in the story.

However, this is in no sense a biography. It is more an exploration of an inner life, a portrait of a woman haunted by the past – not just her lived past but also her fictional creation.

Like Frankenstein itself, Hideous Progeny is a Gothic novel, with an electric thunderstorm, scientific experiments, hallucinations, and intruders with malevolent intent. As with all the best Gothic tales it has supernatural – or at least fantastical – elements. It is multi-layered, bringing together Mary’s life and work with contemporary ideas about science and religion, a blend of knowledge, ignorance and superstition. We are sometimes left to wonder what is real and what is the product of Mary’s fevered imagination, as her brain tumour and increasing use of laudanum take their hold.

There are clear parallels with Frankenstein: “hideous progeny” is Mary’s own reference to her novel – both the book and the monster within it. The looming presence that always hovers around the periphery of Mary’s vision is the ghosts of her past and the monster she created. “Your story left me lost and alone, wandering in a frozen wilderness,” the monster tells her. “So I stole from you all that you have ever loved… I am within you… a malevolence growing in the brain that spawned me.”

Finally I was left to wonder, what would Mary Shelley have made of this book?

Hideous Progeny: Mary Shelley and her Monster, Vaughn Entwistle, Masque Publishing, 2020, 9780982883099

Book Review: The Infernal Riddle Of Thomas Peach By Jas Treadwell

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In 1785 the solitary and mysterious Thomas Peach is living in an isolated house in the Somerset countryside. No-one knows anything about him – his family, his source of income or why he keeps a locked trunk full of books he never seems to read. Or even whether his wife – who lives in an invalid state in an upstairs room, and has never been seen by anyone apart from Peach himself – actually exists.

Book cover with brown background and black marks, with statement that Nothing is as it appears

Things start to change when he loses his income and is forced to seek the company of others. As a consequence, he meets the enigmatic Clarissa Riddle, who is said to be possessed of demons. As events unfold, the reader is left to wonder what exactly is going on…

The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach is written in the style of the 18th century, with much exposition, addressing the reader and directing the reader’s thoughts. It frequently references the classics, particularly Richardson’s Clarissa. However the book it most reminded me of was Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, a long rambling work in which the story – such as it is – unfolds slowly amidst a long stream of narrative.

I have to confess that the discursive style made me impatient and that the initially intriguing mysteries were too slight to maintain my interest. I did enjoy the descriptions of the social life of the time, particularly the gentlemen’s club in Bristol. And I liked the character of Arabella Farthingay (it would have been good to see more of her in the story).However I was not entirely convinced by Clarissa Riddle, or by the conclusion of the tale.

This book might appeal to devotees of 18th century literature. However I think that some readers might be put off by the style and the slow pace of the narrative.

The Infernal Riddle of Thomas Peach by James Treadwell, Hodder & Stoughton, 2021, 9781529347326

Book Review: The Kingdoms By Natasha Pulley

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It is 1898 and London – now renamed Londres – is ruled by the French. In this version of history Britain lost the Napoleonic Wars: the aristocracy has been abolished, but slavery has not. Now there is a wave of strange and unexplained amnesia. One of the amnesiacs is Joe Tournier, a slave who happens to have a genius for engineering.

Book cover - The Kingdoms

With no memory of his past Joe is always searching for the missing element of his life, guided only by flashes of the past: a man who waits and a woman called Madeline. When he receives a mysterious postcard sent a hundred years earlier he finds himself drawn to a remote Scottish lighthouse, and a sequence of unpredictable but bizarrely logical adventures.

The Kingdoms is a sort of mixture of alternate history, time travel and steampunk. As we move backwards and forward in time we see different possibilities: societies that have been shaped in different ways, and lives that could have been lived but were not.

Joe is diagnosed with paramnesia, “the blurring of something imaginary and something real… the sense you’ve seen something new before”. But in this case his hallucinations may be grounded in reality, a manifestation of a different life he could have lived.

I have enjoyed all of Natasha Pulley’s novels, but I think I liked this one the best. I could empathise with the characters (even in their occasionally brutal moments) and the story was full of ambiguity.

It posed some intriguing questions. What would Britain have been like if it had lost at Trafalgar and Waterloo? Better or worse, or just different? How far can brutality be justified in the pursuit of a greater good? And, of all the paths our lives could have taken, is one more “real” than the others? Or can different versions exist concurrently? A great read and thoroughly recommended.

The Kingdoms, Natasha Pulley, Bloomsbury, 2021, 9781526623119

Book Review: Land Of Big Numbers By Te-Ping Chen

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Land of Big Numbers is the debut collection of short stories by Te-Ping Chen, a journalist who has worked in China, Hong Kong and the US. Most of the stories take place in China, but some follow the fortunes of Chinese ex-pats in America. They cover subjects as diverse as a politically radicalised student, a magical fruit with strange powers, and a would-be inventor who builds machines from bits of cast off rubbish.

Land of big numbers book cover - red background with yellow writing

Whatever the subject matter, the stories share some big themes. A sense of alienation runs through the book: commuters jostle one another on trains; parents and children fail to understand one another; families are scattered; and people migrate to anonymous cities without knowing what they are looking for. Even those who move to the US cannot escape a feeling of dissociation. It is a feeling that is summed up in the image of the house on a cliff, a dingzihu or isolated house that has been cut off from its neighbours and whose inhabitants are trapped with no way out.

At times the stories seem dystopian. We have a city where visitors are obliged to wear a card that “synced with the city’s sensors and recorded the bearer’s activity”; piped music designed to “soothe tempers”; and electronic games played like sport in a stadium packed with spectators. We have the chilling statement that “if you want to understand your own country, then you’ve already stepped on the path to criminality”. And a group of people stuck for months in an underground station, literally trapped by mindless bureaucracy.

But at the same time we have the minutiae and small pleasures of everyday life. There are kindnesses towards friends and neighbours, flowers left for a dead man, and food raised in a bucket for the inhabitants of the dingzihu house. And people can still dream, whether of love or of riches, of the perfect invention or of an unknown, but better, future.

The stories in Land of Big Numbers are sometimes dark, sometimes humourous, sometimes fantastical. They are small cameos of Chinese life and Chinese people, a window into a very different culture. I look forward to seeing more from this author.

Land of Big Numbers, Te-Ping Chen, Scribner UK, 2021, 9781471190599

Book Review: The Other Daughter By Caroline Bishop

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The Other Daughter is Caroline Bishop’s first novel, a multi-period story set in England and Switzerland. In the present day Jess has travelled to Switzerland in search of answers to questions about her own life. Meanwhile, back in the 1970s, her mother, Sylvia, is trying to forge her career as a journalist. In the course of her work she meets some Swiss women who are fighting for the most basic rights.

The background to the novel is the struggle for women’s rights in the 1970s. It looks back to a time when Swiss women had only just got the vote and were still fighting for legal recognition. Women in Britain had more rights, but society and social expectations still needed to catch up. An additional element is the scandal of the “forced placement” scheme in Switzerland, in which children were removed from poor families and sent to work on farms, sometimes in brutal conditions.

This is also a story about family secrets and personal identity. Secrets are gradually revealed as the book progresses: Jess has had some shocking revelations, but there are more to come. She knows that she was born in Switzerland, and that there is a mystery around the circumstances of her birth, and she is determined to find out more. But at what cost?

The novel poses many questions. How important is it to know the truth? And what makes us what we are? What would have happened if an alternative path had been taken? As the publisher’s blurb describes it, “you only get one life – but what if it isn’t the one you were meant to live?”

I found this a satisfying and absorbing book. I particularly enjoyed the historical aspect – although I previously knew something of the struggles of Swiss feminists, I was completely unaware of the child placement scheme. And, at the same time, the personal stories of Jess and Sylvia created a real page-turner. I couldn’t put it down – a recommended read!

The Other Daughter, Caroline Bishop, Simon & Schuster, 2021, 9781471190056

Book Review: Unto This Last By Rebecca Lipkin

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Unto This Last is the story of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and his troubled relationship with his student Rose La Touche, an obsession that begins when Rose is ten years old. It is also the story of his uneasy relationships with others who are close to him, in particular his parents and Effie, to whom he was once married.

The background to the novel is Ruskin’s growing fame as an art critic. He also becomes known as a teacher, guest lecturer, and an Oxford professor. At the same time he sees himself as a social reformer, with his own particular brand of socialism. He is concerned to improve the lives of the poor, but even more intent on enriching all lives through art and education. “Man should not desire to be rich, but content,” he says, as he urges his students to engage with nature, to see clearly what is before them. For him, art is not an accomplishment, but a fundamental means of communication.

As the book progresses we follow Ruskin on his travels, to the Lake District and to France and Switzerland. And to Venice, which provided the inspiration for one of his most famous works, Stones of Venice. We also meet other members of the Victorian cultural elite. Primarily these are artists: Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgiana, and members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. But there are others, including the free-thinking intellectuals Thomas and Jane Carlyle.

The story is told from multiple viewpoints, including those of Rose and of Effie, the subject of Ruskin’s ill-conceived marriage. This enables the reader to feel the frustration of others when dealing with him. What emerges is a picture of a complex man, brilliant and charismatic but often flawed. The Ruskin of this book has an inclination towards melancholy and is prone to fits of madness.

We come to know a man who is more at ease in nature and among old buildings than with people, hence his yearning for the unattainable Rose. Clearly the present is influenced by the past: Ruskin’s character has been formed, not just by his genius, but also by his regimented childhood and his domineering mother. And, like everyone around him, he is constrained by the strictures of Victorian society.

However, it is sometimes hard to have much sympathy with Ruskin, with his irascibility, his mercurial temperament, and his particular way of viewing the world and other people. He is described as warm and generous, but it seems to be a warmth towards humanity as a whole, while his largesse is often funded by his father. Those who are closest to him don’t always fare so well.

Unto This Last is an extensively researched novel, full of detail. It provides a fascinating glimpse into one man and his social milieu. I knew little about John Ruskin before I began reading, but I am now tempted to read some of his works for myself.

Unto This Last: A Novel, Rebecca Lipkin, The Book Guild Ltd, 2020, 9781913208820