Book Review: Gather the Daughters, by Jennie Melamed

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_gather_the_daughtersTold by four young girls, this is a story of life in a cult where men rule and females obey.  Their stories unfold as each girl grows into an awareness of what life will be like for them once they reach puberty and begin childbearing.

At the start of the book it appears that the members of the cult have retreated to an island after an apocalypse of some sort has destroyed most of civilisation, but as one reads on, it seems more likely that men of a certain proclivity have taken themselves out of civilisation so that they can live the lives they want, free from censure and punishment.  The book is well-written and engaging, with details of the horrors the girls undergo being slowly revealed throughout the book.

One keeps reading, after coming to know the girls through their narration, hoping that all will turn out well. As the story becomes darker and more is revealed, it is almost impossible to cast the book aside, even though the subject matter is horrific.

The author is a person who works with abused children in a psychiatric role, and when I learned this, I was surprised that she could write about such things: not because she has written the book badly, but because she has written so well. I was upset to the point of wanting to put it away from me but I had to know how things turned out.

Gather the Daughters should come with a trigger warning, especially since we now know how many children are sexually abused and the effect this abuse has on them all their lives. Some may be able to read this book just as a novel with disturbing content, but for others it may bring up memories and feelings that are all too real.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Gather the Daughters
by Jennie Melamed
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9781472241719

Book Review: To the Bright Edge of the World, by Eowyn Ivey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

to_the-bright_edgeBeautiful writing depends on many factors: a desire to tell a good tale, interesting characters, a challenging setting, but above all, an ability to weave words through a landscape. Eowyn Ivey has done all this and more in her novel of exploration, love and cultural sensitivity s\set in Alaska in the late nineteenth century.

We find Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester commissioned to forge a new trail up the Wolverine River to the Yukon. While these place names may now be familiar after the gold rush, they were home to tribes and spirits from another time when he set off with his small group of men. The harsh environment plays an important role in this story, as do the tribes who cling to their seasonal territories. The relationship between explorer and Indian is based on a trust which is easily upset.

Left behind is Forrester’s young bride, Sophie. She also faces loss, loneliness and the pressure to resist her own intellectual curiosity. Her decision to develop her interest  in photography shows the challenges women faced when deciding to pursue activities beyond home and hearth.

The framing of the narrative is superbly achieved as an elderly relative of the Forresters’ seeks to archive the remaining family documents, back in the Wolverine territory. An unlikely friendship develops between the elderly, Walt, and Josh, the young curator of the museum, himself a Wolverine descendant.
A series of catalogue entries of artefacts and photographs as well as contemporary documents are interspersed between the chapters. This adds an air of authenticity which is deserved, as the research for this book was extensive.

I enjoyed the simultaneous stories and the way they all came together to create such a beautiful tale. Eowyn Ivey’s debut novel The Snow Child gave promise of more good reads to come. I was not disappointed.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

To the Bright Edge of the World
by Eowyn Ivey
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9781472208613

Book Review: This Must Be The Place, by Maggie O’Farrell

cv_this_must_be_the_place_smlAvailable now in bookshops nationwide.

Some people have complicated lives, complex families and confusing memories. Daniel O’Sullivan is one such person, and while he is a New Yorker by birth, this love story is set mainly in the wilds of Ireland. Throughout the book, we follow his journey to discover what really matters in his life. His marriage to a reclusive ex-movie star adds mystery to the tale and it takes some time to unravel his children and hers, his friends and her secrets, his mistakes and her quirkiness.

Maggie O’Farrell has written a sophisticated book which draws you into a love story with a difference. I am always surprised to see how a writer gets inside relationships and identifies the issues which surface years in to the partnership. It is not obvious where this story will lead and the changes of location as well as the people on the journey add variety to the telling.

Daniel is a linguist who embraces change in language, and wonderful words are very much a part of this story. While he lectures on words, he himself struggles to use language clearly to communicate feelings. This reticence leaves confusion behind, and the events of his childhood and time at university, need to be re interpreted to find the real truth.

I thoroughly enjoyed the world painted between the covers. I love language and found it being used superbly to captivate me over a cold winter week in bleak Christchurch.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

This Must be the Place
by Maggie O’Farrell
Published by Tinder PRess
ISBN 9780755358830

Patrick Gale: The Disappeared, with Jane Stafford

p_patrick_galePatrick Gale was born and raised in a prison. His novels, said Jane Stafford, have “an extreme recognition of character.”Armistead Maupin says, “I wait for them the way some people wait for springtime.”

I reviewed A Place Called Winter last year, it is a wonderful evocation of place, and Harry Cane is a fascinating character. I had no idea, until this session, that it was a fiction based on fact. His upper middle-class great-granddad did in fact abandon his great-grandma and their children for a promise of free land in the Canadian frontiers. He only discovered a few facts about this thanks to his mother’s letters, found while packing her up to an old people’s home.

He has created the character of Harry Cane, including as much detail as he knew, in honour of his Grandma, whom he was close with. He had to create the reason that his great-granddad abandoned his happy-seeming life, wife and kids near London – so he came up with a gay love affair, which at the time would have been punishable by 7 years hard labour had it been discovered. He filled in the dot-dot-dots from there.

His great-grandfather’s purpose for escaping to the prairie turned out not to be a made-up occurrence – in discussion with a historian he realised that this was in fact more common that he realised. I have encountered this factor in living in far-away places during a summer in Franz Josef. The reason the town was a diplomatic nightmare is because everybody who didn’t fit anywhere else ran away to there. Thieves, computer criminals… that town had the lot!

cv_a_place_called_winterStafford asked Gale whether it was an advantage for him to use biographical material. He said “I had a breakthrough moment when I was 40 – I realised I had lived enough to mine my own life and family for information.” The most difficult thing for him when writing A Place Called Winter was to write like an Edwardian man “where the very idea of an upper-class education was to ensure you didn’t know much of any practical use.”

While writing A Place Called Winter, which is his first truly historical fiction book, Gale realised rather belatedly that he was going to have to include World War I, because his great-grandfather would have lived through this in Canada. Through the character of Petra, a close female friend of Harry’s in the book, he shows the way that WWI cracked open the shell for women in so many ways that it could never be closed again.

Recently Gale has discovered that he enjoys writing dreadful characters. The character of Modest in A Perfectly Good Man was meant to have only two chapters, but instead took over the book. In A Place Called Winter, the character of Troels is a sociopath, and a rapist – he is completely beyond help. He used Troels’ character to show the danger of the prairies – to create something out of nothing, it takes a certain bloody-mindedness – so you get left with a town full of psychopaths. What then?!

The Act of Writing
The way in which Gale approaches multi-viewpoint novels is interesting. He writes, in fact, one character at a time. He explains this in saying it is easier for your characters to maintain ignorance of others’ motives in this way.

Gale finds writing a novel gets harder with each book. He finds it hard to convince himself that it is worth pursuing. He hasn’t had writer’s block, but he has had an overactive inner critic – he has named it after Jennifer Woodcock, a nasty wee girl he went to school with.

He is now doing a lot of work for the screen and says, “The great thing about writing for the screen is economy. You don’t have as long as you want. Most writers thrive on control, a certain amount of restriction sets free your imagination.” He is currently serialising Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, which was initially a literary serial – this is proving challenging, as she had many characters that disappeared without explanation.

Gale has never had a grown-up job, so the main research he does is into what people do for a job. He likes to talk to somebody that does that job – one instance being that of a venereologist (a Clap doctor). He took advice early on to write his first draft prior to researching the topic too deeply – something he lives by.

He believes that there is a need for gay sections in bookshops, simply because there will always be teenagers who need this. What is gay fiction is another question – Gale says there is now a prize in the UK for gay novelists or gay characters in novels.

This was a fascinating session, and I will certainly be reading more of Gale’s backlist. He was an engaging and natural speaker, and the chair Jane Stafford did a fantastic job. It would be well worth your while catching him tomorrow in the session ‘Novel Ways of Thinking’, with Muriel Barbery, Joe Bennett and Paula Morris.

Attended and reviewed by Sarah Forster

Patrick Gale: The Disappeared
11am, Friday 11 March, The Embassy

Next session: Novel Ways of Thinking, Bats, Sat 12 May at 11am

A Place Called Winter
by Patrick Gale
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9781472205308

Book Review: A Year of Marvellous Ways, by Sarah Winman

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_a_year_of_marvellous_ways

A Year of Marvellous Ways is like reading a long form poem; full of lyrical language and rich with metaphor, the story is lush and multi-layered.

Covering themes of love, loss, failure, redemption and magic, A Year of Marvellous Ways is the story of an 89-year-old woman, waiting for ‘something’ that was foretold in a dream. It’s 1947, and she has seen love, death, birth, and two World Wars. An extraordinary woman, she lives in a caravan near an abandoned church in Cornwall, part-eccentric, part-wise woman. Self-sufficient and happy in her own company, at one with both land and sea, she knows her life is coming to an end, but that there is one last task for her to complete.

Marvellous Ways – for that is the woman’s name – is at the centre of the plot, and it is her interactions and relationships with the people and things around her that make the story come to life, in particular the arrival of the damaged Francis Drake (no, not that Francis Drake, but another clever christening of a character. Other characters are often also creatively named – Peace, Paper Jack, Mrs Hard).

The story travels back and forth between 1947 and Marvellous’ past, as she slowly reveals herself and her understandings of the world to Francis. Francis’ past is also slowly revealed, so that we see how he came to wash ashore in Marvellous’ world, disturbing her equilibrium. To say much more about the plot would be to reveal too much – and I don’t want to ruin it!

A Year of Marvellous Ways demands, and deserves, close and careful reading; the complexity and lyricism, with the shifting of perspective and time, make the story a bit hard to follow if you’re not concentrating. For that reason it’s not a particularly relaxing read, and I saved it for commuting rather than bedtime. This is no criticism; rather that Sarah Winman has crafted an intricate, compelling story that is worthy of the reader’s full attention.

A compliment also to the book designers; I’m not sure if the retail versions of A Year of Marvellous Ways have a double cover, but my review copy is encased with orange card, with a cut out showing the boathouse, an important building in the story. Inside is the cover proper, with images of stars, starfish, leaves and fish (or possibly mermaid’s) tails … all part of the imagery contained within the story. The edges of the pages are tinted blue, reflecting Marvellous’s connection to the sea. The beauty of the book design matches the beauty of the prose within. I’m going to read A Year of Marvellous Ways again.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

A Year of Marvellous Ways
by Sarah Winman
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9780755390922

Book Review: A Place called Winter, by Patrick Gale

Available in bookstores nationwide.cv_a_place_called_winter

I was drawn to this book by a fascination I have long held with frontiers. When I was 9 or 10, my mum bought me a Christian series of books beginning with Love Comes Softly, written by Janette Oke. It was all centred on a bereaved couple making their way towards love though God, in the great unspoiled world that was the American frontier.

A Place called Winter is in no way similar to my formative book – but it is based partially on the frontier, in Saskatchewan; and involves love in unexpected places.

As the book opens, we are in an asylum with the main character Harry Cane. He is subjected to a hot water treatment, designed to cure him of his mental illness. This, of course, is what homosexuality was classified as – in turn-of-the-century London, as well as out in the wild North. Soon after his stay in the Essondale asylum, he is taken by a more progressive doctor to an experimental farm, where he is allowed to remember, and to heal.

In the book that follows, Harry remembers what came before. He had a wife and daughter in London, where he lived as a gentleman because this is how his deceased mother wished for he and his brother to be brought up: by a series of schools who knew nothing but how to bring men up as gentlemen. He was a man of means, before a bad piece of investment advice led to financial ruin, leading his family to need to return to his wife’s familial home. Their marriage was not a simple love match, but they enjoyed each other’s silence, and it suited them to marry. This may have stayed the case if it were not for his affair with a male voice coach and singer from his sister-in-law’s group of ‘Gaeity Girls (and Boys)’ which led to blackmail, and ultimately to him having to re-make his fortune beyond the shores of England.

He takes a ship to Canada, to seek his fortune, and as luck would have it he meets a man, Troels, who helps him to settle in a piece of land near Winter. The land is remote, but he has a neighbour, Paul, who lives with his sister Petra; and the three become close. The love story that follows is gentle and full of self-doubt, but the two men draw closer. After an unhappy incident during harvest, Harry marries Petra so that she can have a baby, and they assume a happy arrangement for a few short years before war breaks out.

Harry is a brilliantly-drawn character, but due to the lack of variation in narrative points of view, I didn’t feel like I understood the other characters as deeply. I guess I must be getting greedy, after reading so many novels that flawlessly jump from one person’s life-view to another’s. For all that, this book is a wonderful ill-starred love story, told well in the moves between past and present.

I would recommend this to lovers of frontier fiction, and those who enjoy a good love story.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

A Place Called Winter
by Patrick Gale
Published by Tinder Press
ISBN 9781472205308