Review: The Last Dog on Earth by Adrian J. Walker

 The Last Dog on Earth by Adrian J. Walker starts off in the voice of Lineker –the dog– and the tempo and voice and narration are just as upbeat and ebullient as you’d suspect a joyful labrador to be. Unfortunately, this dog is pretty much house bound with his agoraphobic (and people phobic) master Reginald who has become utterly antisocial due to personal tragedy at the same time as England (and the world?) and all its political and social systems have collapsed.

The narrative takes place through the two voices of Lineker and Reginald who take turns narrating their sides of the story. The conflict they need to deal with is that brought on by the world as they hunt down a home for a 7-year-old girl who comes to their door.

Emotionally, this is a gruelling piece of work and Walker take no prisoners in his sustained literary pursuit of pushing through the worst of society and humanity.

The writing and the theme are excellent. I was very glad to have read it and it was by no means a trivial task to do so.

There were some obvious parallels with concentration camps, and there was a none-too-subtle setup of the book as an answer to how people end up commiting such atrocities. Then there was a bit of an homage to Tolkien at one point with the cloaked figure in a bar being a saviour etc. I won’t spoil the story, I just thought the bar scene was a bit of a wink to readers of this type of ‘journey’ novel.

Ultimately Walker examines the idea of nature and what we can all become with enough pressure and circumstance. The idea is applied to both Reginald and Lineker and I am still not sure which was the toughest to read.

The Last Dog on Earth is published on 7 September, 2017 and is the first of a two-book deal Walker has signed up to with Del Rey.

 

Exposure by Helen Dunmore, Review

Exposure is utterly compelling but equally stressful. Dunmore wrote characters so well and this is a thriller that unfolds by following the lives of people caught up in a tense situation during the Cold War.
I could not stop reading until I discovered whether the characters would be okay, especially since little children were involved.

Dunmore often said she was interested in showing what ordinary people would have gone through in dramatic times and she does this scarily well in this, one of her last books before she passed away last month.

Helen Dunmore had lived in Bristol since graduating from the University of York in 1971 and was the first winner of the Orange Prize. She died at the beginning of June from cancer, which she revealed she had when releasing her book Birdcage Walk. This last book of hers was the only one set in Bristol.

Great Stories by Chekhov, review

Known far more for his plays such as the Cherry Orchard and Three Sisters, Chekhov is regarded as the father of the short story as well as the first modern fiction writer. His famous Chekhov’s gun comment is still regarded as some of the best advice for storyline progression:

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. … One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off.”

His short stories are a wonderful example of how he rejected conventional forms to examine the lives of ordinary people in prosaic situations.

His impressionistic depictions of Russian life and the human condition resound with emotional honesty, focusing on character rather than plot and revealing subtle but important truths. Thomas Mann held Chekhov in highest esteem, declaring, “His short stories rank with all that is greatest and best of European literature.”

This compilation of seven tales attests to the timeless appeal of the Russian author’s short fiction.

Selections include “Misery,” an account of a sleigh-driver’s attempts to communicate his overwhelming grief; “A Father,” a meditation on the conflict between rejecting a monstrous parent and giving him his respectful due; “A Problem,” which proposes that criminals cannot reform unless they pay for their misdeeds; and “In Exile,” an examination of whether it is better to dream of happiness or to accept a living hell.

Other tales include “Ward No. 6,” relating a conflict between an asylum inmate and the institution’s director; “My Life: The Story of a Provincial,” in which a rebellious young bourgeois joins the working classes; and “Peasants,” an exposé of the dehumanizing effects of poverty.

If you haven’t read Chekhov since school then I highly recommend picking up this book and diving in. I enjoyed it tremendously.

http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Anton-Chekhov/Great-Stories-By-Chekhov/20352081

Every Which Way Crochet Borders by Edie Eckman

With crochet, a title such as Every Which Way Crochet Borders is beautifully literal. The borders are delicate, colourful, and well explained. The explanations are clear and concise. There is some preparatory content before the borders are written out in patterns.

There are 139 new border designs with step-by-step instructions and symbol charts. The instructions are clear enough for beginner crocheters, and the patterns are creative and fun enough for more advanced hookers.

The styles are creative and fresh, which is brilliant in crochet because there is so much information and so many patterns already out there. I loved this book and would buy it myself. I’d use it for knitting and crochet projects.

Every Which Way Crochet Borders by Edie Eckman is out now.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore is big news in the publishing world. Birdcage Walk is already the book at bedtime on Radio4, she has had a programme on the BBC to talk about her poetry and has received national coverage. That’s some doing, but then Dunmore is a multi-award-winning author whose book A Spell of Winter was the first Orange Prize winner. She has also just announced she “was diagnosed with a cancer that has a very poor prognosis“.

The title of the book is a graveyard, the prelude talks of death, the prologue includes a death, the historical parallel is the French Revolution with its guillotine-ahoy-solution to regime change, and the setting is Bristol but at a time when Clifton  was not the provider of upper-middle-class comfort it is now, but a purveyor of destruction for those trying to build there.

Birdcage Walk is the first Bristol novel by prolific award-winning writer and long-time Bristol resident, Helen Dunmore, and it is the book that she was working on while being quite ill (although unawares).

The novel itself is eminently readable; I finished it in one night. Dunmore has cleverly taken some of the most important but seldom-talked-about aspects of Bristol and turned them into a story. (The half-built Georgian terraces in Clifton are also mentioned in the Devil’s Mask.)

A reading from the Devil’s Mask in front of the Royal York Crescent terraces, which in the story are half-built.

There is a lot there to combine, however, and coming out at the end of it all, there is a confusing sense of not knowing the unifying theme behind the story. What does the hero go through to emerge out the other end and how does she need to change in order to escape her fate? This is no Fair Fight by Anna Freeman, which is by far the best historical account of Bristol I have read so far and with incredibly well-written characters.

The point of the Birdcage Walk  seems to reside in the phrase “Her Words Remain Our Inheritance” and the constant presence of death. Nothing else really unites the book apart from its author’s sense of impending doom.

The story is set in 1792 but begins with a modern-day ‘prelude’, which introduces an unrelated grieving character who stumbles upon the grave of Julia Fawkes, next to Birdcage Walk, and finds out little about her.

This prelude is meant to introduce the reader to Fawkes as someone whose (important?) work has been erased, but it’s a bizarre narrative ploy. It’s the equivalent of an unnecessary dialogue introduced for the sole purpose of relaying some information to the reader.  It’s ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’. Dumore writes of Fawkes – the character/actual person – that “She writes with the confidence of one who knows that an eager readership is waiting for her. Her voice is original, persuasive and disturbing, for she is writing about equality, the rights of women and the poor, and about the damage to society caused by hereditary privilege.” This we are meant to take on faith because as Dunmore writes, “not one word of Julia’s writing survives.”

There is one writer, however, whose writing has survived and who spawned the feminist movement in Britain; Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1792 – the same year the novel is set and with Wollstonecraft being about the same age as Fawkes is depicted in the novel. Wollstonecraft who also wrote about the French Revolution, is the mother of Mary Shelley who has quite a link to Bristol. Shelley was married to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who along with Coleridge and Wordsworth, would often meet in Bristol. She also wrote Frankenstein, which is set to have been inspired by what Shelley saw of the slave trade when she summered in Clifton in 1815. So it’s great that Dunmore wants to highlight people whose voice didn’t make it through the centuries but similar thoughts did make it to present time. Would Fawkes’ work be any different to Wollstonecraft’s in its essence?

Birdcage Walk is set in 1792 against the backdrop of Europe’s political turmoil and violence. There is a property boom in Clifton, which is about to come crashing down with the declaration of war in 1793 but while we follow our protagonist Lizzie, the doom is still impending. The freedoms that the French Revolution promises are slowly revealed over the course of the novel to come with death and terror. I’m not sure if there are meant to be parallels between the entitled who are toppled in the French Revolution and the austerity imposed around the world by the elite 1% but they aren’t hard to spot. But again, there is no real message that comes through about revolution and uprisings as a lesson for our protagonist.

There are feminist glimpses in the story – a bit overt – such as the inability of women to own property (until quite a lot later) and of everything belonging to their husbands. Lizzie’s ever decreasing sphere of freedom in a relationship that slowly turns potentially abusive is another exploration of the lack of rights of women.

Everything slowly seems to progress towards death and terror until the very end.

In  1792, there was no Clifton Suspension Bridge  yet so Clifton houses may have overlooked Leigh Woods but to get there you had to cross by boat. Who was the ferryman in the story? Diner, the main character.

It’s a compelling premise – what happens after things come crashing down? I could not get into the spirit of what Dunmore suggests the book is about; writing “about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history.”

I also couldn’t quite understand how the main character, Lizzie, fit into that category since she didn’t really write anything.

I loved the Bristol mentions in the book and it was very local to me. My husband used to live on the Royal York Crescent and the dressmaker’s next to the surgery is a place I walk by frequently.

It’s an entertaining read and its timeline and plot make for compelling reading but its characters lack the depth that would have really made this novel stand out.

Birdcage Walk was published on 2 March, 2017. It’s currently being broadcast on Radio4.

 

 

Life Chances, a novel that traces Broken Britain, from the University of Bristol

The University of Bristol team, Productive Margins, have not only produced a novel but have also set up an Etsy shop to sell the products they have created.

The novel is called Life Chances and it tracks the journey of an aspirant journalist as she explores ‘Broken Britain’, uncovering the personal stories of refugees, migrants, and families living in low-income situations and dealing with the UK authorities. They discover that it is not easy to gain a foothold on the economic ladder or find security for your children.

The authors (community members, researchers and artists) lived the lives of the characters while writing the novel, primarily by making jewellery and enacting the jewellery co-operative that is a major storyline. Fiction has now turned to fact with Life Chances authors Moestak Hussein and Akilah Tye Comrie setting up ‘Life Chances CIC’ for real. The jewellery-making business aims to help people living in marginalized communities to take back control of their lives.

Life Chances is written and edited by Simon Poulter and Sophie Mellor (Close and Remote), Nathan Evans, Moestak Hussein, Akilah Tye Comrie, Trasi, Safiya, Saediya and the wider community of research volunteers in Bristol and Cardiff.

The novel is one of the outputs from the University of Bristol-led Productive Margins project that aims to find new ways of engaging communities in decision making with regulatory services and policy makers.

Bristol Book events coming up in February

11 February – 14:30
Waterstones, The Galleries
Children’s author Maz Evans talks about her book Who Let the Gods Out?

Waterstones, Broadmead, Bristol, BS1 3XD
T: 0117 925 2274 W: www.waterstones.com

 

 

 

11 February – 11:00 to 16:00

Waterstones, The Galleries

Walker and travel writer Christopher Somerville will be at Waterstones signing copies of his new book January Man and the Times Britain’s Best Walks.

https://www.waterstones.com/events/christopher-somerville-in-the-shop/bristol-galleries

 

 

11 to 19 February – 14:00 – 16:00
Foyles, Bristol
Half-Term Story Corner
Children’s Event, Free Event
For the little ones during half-term, there will be colouring, drawing, quiet reading time, and complimentary squash and biscuits!

There will be a cosy corner set up in the children’s section between 14:00 and 16:00 throughout the whole week of half-term as well as free refreshments and giving away stickers.

Foyles, Cabot Circus, Bristol, BS1 3BH

23 February – 18:30 – 20:00
Spike Island

As part of the Novel Writers series, Emma Flint talks about her novel Little Deaths.

It’s the summer of 1965, and the streets of Queens, New York shimmer in a heatwave. One July morning, Ruth Malone wakes to find a bedroom window wide open and her two young children missing. After a desperate search, the police make a horrifying discovery.

The sexism at the heart of the real-world conviction of cocktail waitress Alice Crimmins for the 1965 murders of her two young children forms the basis of British author Flint’s gripping debut.

Spike Island, 133 Cumberland Road, Bristol BS1 6UX

27 February 2017 – 19:00
Waterstones, The Galleries

Dorit Rabinyan talks about her new novel All the Rivers. chance encounter in New York brings two strangers together: Liat is a translation student, Hilmi a talented young painter. Together they explore the city, share fantasies, jokes and homemade meals and fall in love. There is only one problem: Liat is from Israel, Hilmi from Palestine.

https://www.waterstones.com/events/festival-of-ideas-at-waterstones-dorit-rabinyan/bristol-galleries

Waterstones, Broadmead, Bristol, BS1 3XD
T: 0117 925 2274 W: www.waterstones.com

28 February – 19:00
Waterstones, The Galleries

Simon Sebag Montefiore talks about his internationally acclaimed book The Romanovs, the Waterstones Non-Fiction Book of the Month.

 

Elizabeth Blackwell, born in Bristol, a doctor in New York

From the Writer’s Almanac for 3 February.

“It’s the birthday of the first woman to graduate from medical school, Elizabeth Blackwell, born on this day in Bristol, England, in 1821. She wanted to become a doctor because she knew that many women would rather discuss their health problems with another woman. She read medical texts and studied with doctors, but she was rejected by all the big medical schools. Finally the Geneva Medical College (which became Hobart College) in upstate New York accepted her. The faculty wasn’t sure what to do with such a qualified candidate, and so they turned the decision over to the students. The male students voted unanimously to accept her. Her classmates and even professors considered many medical subjects too delicate for a woman, and didn’t think she should be allowed to attend lectures on the reproductive system. But she graduated, became a doctor, and opened the New York Infirmary for Women and Children.”

From Changing the Face of Medicine:

She also published several important books on the issue of women in medicine, including Medicine as a Profession For Women in 1860 and Address on the Medical Education of Women in 1864.

Elizabeth Blackwell was born in Bristol, England in 1821, to Hannah Lane and Samuel Blackwell. Both for financial reasons and because her father wanted to help abolish slavery, the family moved to America when Elizabeth was 11 years old. Her father died in 1838. As adults, his children campaigned for women’s rights and supported the anti-slavery movement.

In her book Pioneer Work in Opening the Medical Profession to Women, published in 1895, Dr. Blackwell wrote that she was initially repelled by the idea of studying medicine. She said she had “hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book… My favourite studies were history and metaphysics, and the very thought of dwelling on the physical structure of the body and its various ailments filled me with disgust.” Instead she went into teaching, then considered more suitable for a woman. She claimed that she turned to medicine after a close friend who was dying suggested she would have been spared her worst suffering if her physician had been a woman.

Keith Stuart, A Boy Made of Blocks, Bristol Novel

a boy made of blocks

The Guardian’s Game Editor Keith Stuart is the latest author of a Bristol Novel to make it onto the Richard and Judy Book Club’s list.

A Boy Made of Blocks is a story inspired by the journalist’s own attempt to connect with his son who was diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum in 2012, by playing Minecraft.

Stuart is from Frome but the story is set in Bristol. As well as being on the Spring 2017 Richard and Judy list, it was also chosen by Mumsnet as their book of the month.

Published August 9, 2016

Nan Shepherd, The Weatherhouse, review

canongate weatherhouseI chose this book because of the cover, which is stunning. The blocks of colours are reminiscent of a golden time, especially in terms of classic old books and detective novels.

Instead, I found a completely different world to what I expected. I hadn’t realised this was a story written in 1930, and didn’t realise it until after I’d given up reading. It makes a bit of sense that I struggled with the dialect, not realising it was Scottish at all. I thought it was perhaps some type of olden colonial American.

There was a cast of characters at the start, which these days is redundant because an author is expected to be able to introduce her characters well enough for them and their connections to be made obvious and remembered.

I read up to 11% (according to Kindle) and I still hadn’t found a storyline. I think a house had an extension built on it to connect it to another house and this extension was the titled ‘Weatherhouse’. I struggled with the dialogue because I couldn’t understand the dialect. Other readers will hopefully have a better time with it.

<< ‘He’s eident, but he doesna win through,’ he would sometimes say sorrowfully. ‘Feel Weelum,’ the folk called him. ‘Oh, nae sae feel,’ said Jonathan Bannochie the souter. ‘He kens gey weel whaur his pottage bickers best.’ To Francie he was still ‘The Journeyman.’ >>
I have no idea what the above says.

Also, I was frustrated by descriptions of a tale that I couldn’t understand.

<< "Granny loves a tale. Particularly with a wicked streak. “A spectacle,” she said, “a second Katherine Bran.” Katherine Bran was somebody in a tale, I believe. And then she said, “You have your theatres and your picture palaces, you folk. You make a grand mistake.” And she told us there was no spectacle like what’s at our own doors. “Set her in the jougs and up on the faulters’ stool with her, for fourteen Sabbaths, as they did with Katherine, and where’s your picture palace then?” A merry prank, she called it. Well!—“The faulter’s stool and a penny bridal,” she said, “and you’ve spectacle to last you, I’se warren.” Granny’s very amusing when she begins with old tales.’ >>
I couldn’t understand how Granny was amusing because I didn’t understand what she was saying.

There was a particular use of the adjective ‘delicious’ to describe a room, which irritated me no end. It’s probably quite a clever use of delicious to mean tastes good, that then leads on to a room decorated in ‘good taste’. Perhaps. All I could think was of someone sitting in ice cream.

What the book is about:
The women of the tiny town of Fetter-Rothnie have grown used to a life without men, and none more so than the tangle of mothers and daughters, spinsters and widows living at the Weatherhouse. Returned from war with shellshock, Garry Forbes is drawn into their circle as he struggles to build a new understanding of the world from the ruins of his grief. In The Weatherhouse Nan Shepherd paints an exquisite portrait of a community coming to terms with the brutal losses of war, and the small tragedies, yearnings and delusions that make up a life.

– I will have to try reading it again at a different pace and with further context. It certainly wasn’t for me right now.

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd. Downloaded from NetGalley.