Review: Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars

For a good read on a winter evening, I can recommend Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars, a mystery set in 1960s London. I picked this up because I’ve enjoyed William Shaw’s detective stories set in the same period. The period detail isn’t so intense at the start of the book, but it forms a background to a mystery that gently unravels:

Soho, 1965. In a tiny two-bed flat above a Turkish café on Neal Street lives Anna Treadway, a young dresser at the Galaxy Theatre. When the American actress Iolanthe Green disappears after an evening’s performance at the Galaxy, the newspapers are wild with speculation about her fate. But as the news grows old and the case grows colder, it seems Anna is the only person left determined to find out the truth. Her search for the missing actress will take her into an England she did not know existed: an England of jazz clubs and prison cells, backstreet doctors and seaside ghost towns, where her carefully calibrated existence will be upended by violence but also, perhaps, by love. For in order to uncover Iolanthe’s secrets, Anna is going to have to face up to a few of her own…

What I liked best about this book was how it looked at identity, in particular the identity of those who live in London but aren’t from England. The missing actress Iolanthe is American Irish, or is she? And who is Yolanda Green? We learn more about her identity as the story unfolds. The detective in charge of her case, Brennan hayes, who also goes by Barnaby, is of Irish origin but hides it in order to progress in the police force. The café owner, Ottmar is an exiled Turkish Cypriot, who left his dreams of being a poet behind when he fled. He wrangles with life in London and what it is doing to his family, in particularly his sixteen year old daughter Samira. Then there’s Aloysius, a young black accountant from Jamaica who aspires to be middle class and English.

“‘I have a dirty secret, Anna … I want a house, Anna Treadway. I want a garden. With rose bushes in it. I want two children in school uniform coming in at four o’clock to do a jigsaw on the living-room carpet. I want roast beef on Sundays, crumpets at the weekend. A ticket once a year to watch the Proms.'”

And Anna, quiet Anna who has no life outside her work as a theatre dresser, well, Anna’s identity gradually reveals itself as the book progresses.

Miranda Emmerson’s writing really comes into its own in paragraphs like this, where Ottmar describes his cafe:

“The Alabora, with its turquoise walls and sunset coloured chairs, its silver-framed mirrors and red and gold embroidered bunting was a vision from a dream he had; but it was a dream of his childhood. It was a dream of visiting his uncle in Istanbul and sitting in the coffee shops watching the men smoking and playing chess.”

She does a great job of conveying the wishes and dreams of the different characters, even those that they can’t say out loud. And, like with all good stories, in the end the characters find their own resolutions, if not in quite the way they might have thought.

Miss Treadway & the Field of Stars is out on 12 January and costs around £12.99 hardback, £7.99 Kindle.

What I’m reading #amreading

IIMG_8551’ve been reading. Not writing really, because the kids have finished school and we’ve been to Cambridge, and stayed on a barge on the Suffolk coast and, actually, I spent most of June trying to get ahead with work. So, no writing, but I have pledged to read a book a day on any of the free days we have this summer. The kids have reached an age where they occupy themselves for a while, and I think there are plus points of backing off and letting them get on with it.

Inspired by Maddy’s books from her bedside table, this is a little about the books I’ve read in the last couple of weeks. There is some sort of theme – health, medicine, science, told through people’s stories – though I picked the books very much at random. One was a gift, another was sent to me for review, the third I ordered after reading about it online, and the fourth was one I pinched from my daughter as I had run out of reading material when we were on the boat!

henrietta lacksThe first book is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Kloot. I didn’t know anything about the subject, but I was interested because the book aims to draw out a personal story from science, the story of Henrietta Lacks whose cells were the first to be successfully grown in a lab. The cells which originated from a cancerous growth on Lacks’s cervix continued to grow successfully. They have been used on an ongoing basis for medical trials and tests ever since they were first cultured in the fifties.

Rebecca Kloot is a science writer and was a student when she first delved into Henrietta’s untold story. Medicine has a habit of anonymizing its subjects to protect them, but in this book Kloot tries to uncover a more about the woman behind the cells. It is clear from the book that being poor and black in the fifties meant that families like the Lacks family were wary of doctors, and well aware of stories of people being used in medical tests without their knowledge or against their will. And in some ways, that applies to Henrietta. She didn’t know that her cells were going to be taken and used in the way they were – and it seems that the doctor had no idea just how the cells would succeed and grow either.

Henrietta died soon after her cells were taken, and her family had no idea what had happened, although snippets emerged over the years as researchers contacted them, leaving them with a feeling of unease and fear. Rebecca Kloot made a commitment to uncover as much of the story as she could, and she developed a relationship with Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. The book is a dense read which took me a couple of weeks. Kloot does a good job of covering as much of the history of the family, of Henrietta herself, and also puts this into the context of in vitro cell research as it developed in the latter half of the twentieth century. I think it is important that people’s stories are told, and though out the book you can really feel Deborah’s passion to find out about her mother. By the end of the book, though, Deborah has died. Henrietta Lacks died in 1951. Incredibly, her cells are still being used in research today. They live on, and so does Kloot’s story.

baby XThe second book is Baby X, by Rebecca Ann Smith. I’ll be writing more about this later in a review for the Contemporary Small Press Blog, but to sum up, this book looks at a near future where a baby is growing in an artificial womb. It personalises the science by telling the story through the voice of three women – Alex, the lead researcher, Karen, the ‘mother’ of Baby X, and Dolly, an assistant in the lab. (Dolly – wasn’t that the name of the first cloned sheep?) I write ‘mother’ in quotes, because Baby X has been created with a donor egg, and is growing in a lab. Issues of parenthood, of motherhood are raised by this book. I read it all through in a day, and I wondered if it was going to be a little slow, but I was gripped within the first few chapters. Smith unravels a complex story in a clear manner, and succeeds at taking us back and forth in the time line, from conception to present day to future investigation into the project. There is a mystery to unravel, and one action that appears to be the crime, while in fact another crime has taken place that is gradually exposed through the book. There is always a challenge in melding science and story: the science must underpin the story unobtrusively. I probably have a greater interest in the science and medical part of the story than most people, but I’d say that Smith has the balance right. She has created a gripping story, in a world that isn’t too far from our own.

Will and II stumbled across Will & I, by Clay Byars in an article, How Clay Byars battled paralysis to finish his memoir. Despite the tabloid style title, the premise interested me – a first person story, Clay writes of his experiences since having a stroke aged twenty, one that should have killed him. The stroke occurred as a result of surgery to deal with a problem with one of Clay’s arm, which arose after a car accident.  The book is written in a gentle style, mixing snippets of Clay’s current life with his past experiences. It has taken him around fifteen years to write, perhaps unsurprising considering the traumatic nature of what it addresses.

I’m always interested in people telling their own stories of how they have fought back: remarkably Clay lives with his dogs on a remote farm, despite still having issues with walking and limited use of both arms.  The other aspect of this book which is indicated by the title, is that Clay has a twin, Will. I would have liked to know a little more about their relationship – Will is a fairly shadowy figure for much of the book, but maybe it’s right that Clay can only write his view. As indicated in the LitHub article, there are elements that resonate with Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, but of course there are differences: put harshly, Kalanithi died, Byars has survived. Both, though, give us a chance to see life through someone else’s eyes, in a way that makes us appreciate the value of what we have.

extraordinary meansMy final book is the one I borrowed from my daughter. I’m sure you’ve been there – on holiday, time to relax, but you’ve read all your books. I borrowed Extraordinary Means by Robyn Schneider. In the near future (as per Baby X), a new strain of TB emerges, one which is resistant to all known treatments. In a throwback to the last century, those with the condition are sent off to live in communities where they can’t infect others while they recover – or die. The book tells the story of teenager Lane who is sent to Latham House. He makes new friends, and in facing death decides to truly make the most of his life. As YA books go, this is fairly standard: boy meets girl, with the quirk of everyone having a potentially life threatening illness. We even get the stats: four out of five kids leave Latham cured. Which of Lane’s new friends – Nick, Sadie, Marina and Charlie – will get to go home, and will life ever be the same if they do? The plot was good enough to keep me reading, but I think again, as with Baby X and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks it’s the way that the science was dealt with that makes this book worth recommending. There is a great end section with an accurate history of the development of treatments for TB which I imagine 90% of teen readers will skip! It also details how Schneider, a bioethicist, came to write the book- she came up with the idea while sitting in a Cinema of Contagion class!

So, there are a number of threads that tie these books together. Science through personal experience, fact or fiction, is one strand that links them. Another, though, is that they are all books that I would like to have written, all books that speak to what I am writing. Clay Byars is brave enough to take his personal experience and write into it. Robyn Schneider and Rebecca Ann Smith both create fiction from fact, and while Rebecca Kloot remains on the side of non fiction, it is creative non fiction that tells someone’s story. Looking at the books as a whole inspires me to keep writing and researching in the hope that at some point someone will be gripped by the story I have written too.

IMG_8553

 

 

Review: Dear Amy by Helen Callaghan


I’ve just finished reading Dear Amy, a chilling psychological thriller. This is the blurb: “Margot Lewis is the agony aunt for The Cambridge Examiner. Her advice column, Dear Amy, gets all kinds of letters – but none like the one she’s just received:

‘Dear Amy,
I don’t know where I am. I’ve been kidnapped and am being held prisoner by a strange man. I’m afraid he’ll kill me.
Please help me soon,
Bethan Avery’

Bethan Avery has been missing for years. This is surely some cruel hoax. But, as more letters arrive, they contain information that was never made public.”

In the novel we follow Margot as she gets sucked into a nightmare, driven by the kidnap of Katie, one of the pupils at the school where she works (alongside her part time gig as agony aunt.) If you’re a writer, you’ll know the term ‘unreliable narrator’, and it becomes clear as you read the book that Margot the teacher and competent agony aunt isn’t the person you first think. He husband has had an affair and left her: from the very start we can see that she is emotionally vulnerable, but more of the secrets of her past emerge page by page. Margot’s story is inextricably intertwined with the letters she is receiving, and with the missing girl.

As the book progresses, so does Margot’s divorce: there’s a confrontation with her husband’s lover too. And we learn more about why Margot is taking medication, why she has been sectioned to a local psychiatric hospital in the past. The more Margot unravels, though, the closer she gets to finding out why Bethan Avery is writing to her after being missing for twenty years, and how this might help her save Katie.

I read most of the book on a train journey to and from London, and was sufficiently interested to wangle a free hour to finish it off the next day. It is gripping and scary: perhaps not one for bedtime reading for the nervous. The plot twists and turns are coherent and well planned. At almost every point of reveal you have the ‘ah’ moment where you realise how everything you read on the previous pages links in. There is a growing new relationship for Margot, which is nice in the sense of wrapping up all the ends, but the book works just fine without the ‘ideal new man’ aspect!

Dear Amy is released on 16 June and costs £7.99 on Kindle and around £12 hardback at time of writing.

Read With Me

Disclosure: I received the eBook of Dear Amy free of charge via Netgalley.

Don De Lillo’s Zero K, and Making Readers Care about your Characters

Don De Lillo is one of my favourite authors. I relish reading books that deal with difficult issues and those that face death head on. Add those two facts together and I should have loved Zero K . In his latest release, Don De Lillo looks at the issues of euthanasia combined with cryogenics, giving the wealthy and ill the chance to decide when to die, along with the promise of living for ever. De Lillo does a good job of creating atmosphere, but the setting he achieves is cold and clinical. There is a lack of heart that detracts from the whole reading experience: perhaps I just didn’t care enough about the characters, Jeffrey, the protagonist, his father, Ross, and his dying stepmother, Artis.


In De Lillo’s Cosmopolis we were swept into a chaotic futuristic New York. The lead character, Eric, isn’t necessarily likeable, but he is compelling, and I stayed hooked as his day deteriorated. In Zero K, the coldness of the cryogenic theme seeps through both the setting and the characters. Jeffrey travels to a remote part of  Russia to see Artis and Ross before she dies in a strange facility that preserves the body until such time comes that technology can bring people back to life. This unnatural act is mirrored in the strange, pared down surroundings of long corridors, endless doors, and the writing itself echoes this remoteness, this blankness.

A book about facing death, about  the wait before death, about choosing to walk towards death, is always going to be a hard read. I was compelled to keep reading, but with less relish than other of De Lillo’s works. But does that mean this isn’t a good book? I’ve checked out the other reviews on Amazon. The reviews are written by a mix of those who have read De Lillo’s other works and those who are new to him. Universally, the ordinary reader/reviewer does not seem to be grabbed by Zero K. The chilly atmosphere has deterred even those who like me are fans, who approached the book with eager anticipation. De Lillo’s books are generally critically acclaimed, however, and this raises the question in my mind, ‘Do I have to like a book for it to be good? ‘. On a superficial level, the answer is, of course, no. One person may love a book, another dislike it intensely. We all have favourite genres and will say with passion, ‘I hate sci-fi!’ or, ‘I love chick lit.’ Although I don’t enjoy the atmosphere of Zero K, it contains good writing. In fact, if De Lillo wasn’t so good at conveying atmosphere, perhaps we couldn’t feel so chilled by the book.  And writing about difficult people and difficult issues sometimes makes for an amazing read.  I’m also reading Chernobyl Prayer: A Chronicle of the Future at the moment which is harrowing, but in which Svetlana Alexievich really manages to convey the humanity of people affected by the incident.  Another book that I am midway through is Brian Keenan’s An Evil Cradling . Keenan is the best writer that I have come across in the selection of hostage memoirs that I have been studying, In the first half of the book he drags us down into his mind while he is in solitary confinement during the initial period that he is held. Again, this is not an easy read, Keenan feels that he is going mad, and he writes into that madness. But it is compelling. I want to read on to find what happens next, even though I know the outcome from newspaper reports, from reading John McCarthy’s version of their shared experience. Keenan does not attempt to make himself likeable, I think his aim was to communicate his experience with veracity, but there is enough humanity in what he wrote to make me care. 

 This also makes me reflect on my own writing. I asked a friend to read the first section of the book’s second draft, and she reflected that she wasn’t sure if she liked my characters.  There is a fine line here.  My characters don’t need to be totally likeable, the people I’m writing about need to have flaws, need to have the possibility that they will change, but they also need to be compelling enough, likeable enough to make the reader keep on reading. Returning to Zero K, perhaps this is just what De Lillo’s characters lack. Jeffrey, Ross and Artis don’t make me care enough. And considering one of DeLillo’s books that I loved, The Body Artist, in which the lead character Lauren, loses her husband and deals with a strange sort of haunting,  the way de Lillo writes makes me care. When I pick up a book, I want to care, I need to care about the characters.  For me, there is no point reading a book unless I engage emotionally, unless I really care what happens. It is easy to care about the people who lived through Chernobyl, about Brian Keenan, because they are real.  Perhaps, unusually, this time, De Lillo has failed in the writer’s duty to make people care. Without emotional engagement, a novel is no better than a list of words, and that is something I will take away and remember when editing my own writing. 

 

Zero K is released today and costs between £7 and £12 at time of writing, depending on format.

Review: The Girl with Nine Wigs


Sophie is facing a rare cancer at the age of twenty one. In The Girl with Nine Wigs, a diary written with European openness and hard hitting humour, she shares the journey she didn’t expect to take.
No eyelashes, no hair on her head, Sophie seizes the challenges of cancer treatment, adopting new personae with each new wig. She picks green feather eyelashes to wear with Platina, the wig that says, ‘Yes, indeed, I’m wearing a wig.’

“time could take away my weddings and divorces, my children and corrective underwear.”

No amount of dressing up takes away from the scary knowledge that every twinge, every headache could be a new tumour. Sophie writes honestly about the changes to her body, like the first hair loss – her pubes – and how this impacts on the life of a 21 year old student. She writes about her first time clubbing after five months in hospital, about meeting new guys, and dates and sex when she has to wonder whether her wig will come off.

Sophie has some great friends, some from ‘before cancer’, some who she meets as part of her new experience. She has a supportive family, who have just gone through the challenge of her mother’s breast cancer. She has humour and perspective on her side as she writes, but throughout all the positives her very real battle comes out.

Every person’s story is unique, every person with cancer has a different experience, but in The Girl With the Nine Wigs Sophie Van Der Stap has truly written something unusual and well worth reading. You can also hear Sophie’s story … and meet some of the wigs … in her TEDx talk. The Girl with Nine Wigs: A Memoir  costs around £8.99 in paperback or £2.99 on Kindle at time of writing.

The Secret Diary of Agent Spitback

Review: Not Another Happy Ending


I have spent a lot of the last two years reading writing about writing, as I studied literary criticism. In Not Another Happy Ending I’ve been doing much the same but in a fun and light-hearted way for a change. David Solomons’ book, adapted from the screenplay for the film of the same name, takes all sorts of clichés about writing and shakes them up.

Have you ever written a dramatic domestic scene where the tension builds as the kettle rises to the boil? Read ‘Not Another Happy Ending’ and you’ll be taking the red pen to all mentions of kettles. What about stories of would-be novelists who get the deal of their dreams, and discover that the reality of being a successful author isn’t all they had hoped? Well, that’s the cliché that Solomon’s book explores. There’s a handsome French publisher, with a hapless assistant, who takes up Jane’s first novel, a ‘misery-lit’ thinly disguised story of her childhood. The book sales start slowly, but then take off. Jane wins an award, meets a Hollywood screenwriter who soon becomes her boyfriend, and reconciles with her father. For the first time in a long while, she’s happy. But … and there’s always a but … she has to write another book. Second novels are called ‘difficult’ for a reason, and Jane’s struggling with the weight of expectations, while her screenwriter boyfriend is happily working on the screenplay of her first book.

There are plenty of fun twists and turns in the tale – a pub quiz team, a character from Jane’s book who becomes real, a run down cottage in the wilds of Scotland, and a book launch on a double decker bus. In Not Another Happy Ending David Solomons has done a great job of delving into the preconceptions surrounding becoming a successful writer and shaking them up.

This is an easy read, and I’d recommend it for holiday reading for writers … and anyone else who wants a fun romance where the girl gets her guy, of course!

You can also watch the film on Netflix – the trailer is below.

ETA: Having now watched the film, it’s fine, it’s fun … but the book is better!


Not Another Happy Ending costs around £7.99 in paperback and £3.49 on Kindle at the time of writing

What I’m reading, what I’m writing #whatimwriting #amwriting


I’ve been reading A House in the Sky: A Memoir of a Kidnapping That Changed Everything for more in depth research on being a hostage. In many ways this is one of the best books written (ghostwritten) that I’ve read on the subject so far, because Amanda Lindhout goes in more deeply to the felt experience of being kept prisoner. I don’t know if this difference is something to do with gender – the other books I’ve read so far are written by men, but I have more idea now about the parts that she found truly degrading: the dirt, the hunger, the chain pressing into her ankles, having to ask permission to go to the toilet, the lack of privacy. Her hostage experience starts off in a situation where she has a dialogue with her captors, where she still has some power, where there are boundaries, but by the end of her time in captivity it seems like she has become a thing to them, an object. I’ve written about this before in the context of doctors and patients: I think at some point during a doctors training they have to make the leap where they can regard the patient as ‘other’ in order to protect their own psyche. That’s where you end up with damaging beliefs for the health professional, like ‘doctors don’t get sick’. (And a better, more experienced doctor can cross the divide in both ways, empathising with the patient when needed, treating them as an object when slicing into them, perhaps.) And I can see how this objectification (?) can be necessary for a hostage taker in order to mete out the brutal treatment that Amanda Lindhout received. The challenge as a writer is in capturing the humanity and personhood of the person who is doing terrible things. The second draft of my book is going to have to go deeper, darker into Adam’s experience: at the same time I have to make his captors more human, more multifaceted.

Other things that came out of reading the House in the Sky were details of re-entry into normal life. Amanda’s teeth were damaged, she experienced stomach cramps when trying to eat after months with little food. She describes the feeling of the soft bed, her first night in a hotel after months on a mattress on the floor. And she touches on uncovering just what had been done to free her. I also looked at some videos from Nigel Brennan, her fellow captive, where he talks about what his family had to do to get him back. It is interesting that some parts of what was happening to them in captivity did get back to their families, small details that the families had no way of verifying at the time.

Reading other people’s written experiences is good, but I do wonder whether I should also be out interviewing people. I’d have no qualms doing this for non fiction, but I feel more hesitant about doing it for fiction and I’m not sure why. Part of it might be the long, indefinite process. I have no contract for this book, so no publication date, and I have no intention of being tied to any sort of deadline before I’m a lot further into the process! I also have qualms about seeking out people who have been through trauma, so it was interesting to read this account, where the author Holly Muller speaks about her experience of interviewing Austrians about their experiences during WW2. She suggests that people were keen to talk to her, and I agree that people can find speaking about trauma therapeutic.