Review, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (not!)

In this tale, which seems like the female and slightly less funny but more sinister version of The Rosie Project, Eleanor Oliphant is ‘weird’ and fine with being alone and with her routine until she decides she’s in love and is going to do something about it.

The narrative proceeds then to follow someone pursuing this path that would be ‘normal’ for most of the population but through the eyes of someone who doesn’t fit into the social spectrum deemed normal by the media and most institutions in society.

It’s a typical ploy used to exploit ‘other’ points of view so that we can have a laugh at them. She complains about the lack of other people’s manners while behaving in a way that the reader would immediately know is not socially polite. We are invited to look down and laugh at her through her very own narrative, in a sense.

By the end of chapter two I already disliked the book. Half-way through story I could no longer stand the exploitation and mockery of someone who the author was quite clearly suggesting had been abused and traumatised. There are horrible and sickening allusions and I couldn’t take it.

I read a review of the book on Shona Craven’s site and I agree with the following:

The biggest problem with the book as a work of literature is that there is barely a scene in it that rings true. As a character, Eleanor is utterly implausible, a crude caricature. Does she have autistic spectrum disorder? Post-traumatic stress disorder? Some kind of dissociative disorder? It’s barely worth speculating, as she is nothing but a figment of the author’s imagination. No-one like her exists in the real world. And as such, the book has nothing whatsoever of value to say.

But the reason it matters is that this is a book about a character who is part of one of the most marginalised and misunderstood populations in society – care-experienced young people. She is a young woman who has experienced childhood trauma, and moved around foster placements, and struggled to form relationships.

The average person doesn’t know a great deal about the care system. Neither, is seems, does Gail Honeyman, who has nonetheless written a novel about a care-experienced character who at the outset has no friends, no social skills and a ludicrously limited understanding of the world she has inhabited for 30 years. The novel is set in contemporary Glasgow, yet the author seems to have no interest in getting very basic facts right. She perpetuates a number of harmful myths about social services, including that workers conceal vital information from foster carers, that young people are not included in decision-making about their lives, and that trauma-experienced social work clients (whether adults or children) receive no meaningful support whatsoever.

This is an irresponsible book that ‘others’ certain behaviours for effect. It does feel harmful and it’s a sad state of affairs that people think they can understand others’ trauma by reading through the lens of mockery.

 

The last days of Bristol’s libraries

A year from now, Mayor Marvin Rees will begin campaigning for his next term of office and the number of libraries open in Bristol will be down by 63%. Most libraries will only open for three days a week.

There are now 27 funded by the Bristol City Council but after the horrific Conservative austerity cuts to local funding, piled on top of extra responsibilities for social care, there is less money to go around.

[The rest of this post is up on my new blog dedicated to the Bristol Library changes* taking place.

*Being defunded and divested of local control

Bristol author Jeff Dowson talks books, Bristol and his favourite screenwriters

Director, producer, and screenwriter Jeff Dowson, has added novelist to his string of titles recently and has launched his second series of books set in Bristol. His first is based around Detective Jack Shepherd and is set in the current time.

One Fight at a Time (2018) is the beginning of  Dowson’s new series, set in the 1950s and starring Ed Grover. It was a time when Bristol was a broken city and was going broke. Well, Bristol is going broke now too so the latest book feels particularly apt but why start a new series?

“I decided a change of style was needed for One Fight At A Time.  I wanted to write in the third person — Jack Shepherd belongs to a first-person tradition where the reader learns no more than the lead character discovers — and I wanted to sprawl a bit. Use a different writing style altogether.

“I looked around for an historical setting that would give me lots of scope. Ed is an American, in England with the Eagle Squadron long before the US enters the war, who transfers to the infantry before D Day. He battles his way across Europe from Omaha Beach to help win the war, spends another four years in West Berlin trying to win the peace, before being sent home. Just before his repatriation, Ed ends up in Bristol visiting a family he knows, and from there the front story begins.

“I grew up in the 1950s,” Dowson says. “As a kid, I didn’t realise just how bad times were – I was protected from that by my parents who struggled physically and psychologically to get through the years following World War II. It’s only during the last 10 or 15 years that I’ve looked back at that time.

“The early 1950s is a rich vein to mine – the recovery from a world war, rationing, the black market, extortion, corruption, capital punishment, the terrors of being homosexual, racism faced by the actual ‘Windrush Generation’, soldiers coming home from leave with Lugers taken from dead Germans, the infamous underworld of 1950s club land, the growth of organised crime… the material just keeps on giving.

“Bristol influences my writing to a huge extent. I was born in Blaydon on Tyne, lived in the Northeast until I went university, then moved to Bristol at the close of the 1970s. I’ve lived here ever since. Like Jack Shepherd I know the place.  I want the city to be another character in the stories – like Edinburgh is to Rebus, Northumberland is to Vera, Shetland is to Jimmy Perez, LA is to Jim Rockford. I hope I’m doing that successfully.”

Dowson comes to the Bristol-novel scene with a wealth of experience and I ask him about the difference between screenplays and writing fiction in story form.

“Actually the skillsets merge much more than they used to, thanks to the advent of studio theatres and live multi-tasking technology. But the basic difference is still there. For the theatre you write in words and sentences. For the screen you write in pictures and moments. And you have at your disposal BIG close ups, in which you can see your characters thinking. Just take a look at Douglas Henshall playing Jimmy Perez and watch him thinking… Terrific.

When I started to write Closing the Distance, it was the first lonely thing I had done. Plays and films are collaborative efforts – sometimes involving hundreds of people. What was liberating with the book was discovering the joy of writing sentences again. But there I was, channelling Elmore Leonard, until my agent said, ‘Why is Jack Shepherd doing that?’
‘It’s obvious,’ I said.
‘No, it isn’t,’  she said.
I realised I was making transitions between sequences, visualising them in my head, but not getting them down onto the page. That problem took some serious work to solve.

I’m over it now. The stuff is still lean and fast paced, but it’s much improved.”

Seeing as he is going on to write his fourth book in the Jack Shepherd series and the second in his Ed Grover one, I had to ask for his advice to writers.

“Advice for other authors, oh God… Just write. Whatever else you do. However crappy it reads on the page. Write every day, however good or bad you feel about yourself, or the material… And in time you’ll find something you want to say and the way to say it.”

I ask him if he imagines his stories as screenplays and it’s more out of curiosity about the difference between the two mediums. I imagine that sticking to ‘showing’ what is happening rather than ‘telling’ must be great practice in writing.

“No, I don’t imagine my stories as screenplays; although there is a great deal of the screenwriter in me always. And I think it helps, because as a screenwriter, you have to get to the point. You can’t meander off into side roads or unnecessary thinking. Again, if I can call upon Elmore Leonard… I try not to write the stuff that the reader skips over.

I haven’t the patience or the concentration level to read long books. So I don’t write them. I believe that if you can’t say what you have to say in a riveting story over 350 pages you shouldn’t be in the trade. Books, all books, should be page turners. But no writer should give any reader too many pages to turn.”

Bristol  again feels like it’s going broke and due to the cuts foisted on the council by the Conservative Government, crime writing and thrillers feel like ever-more prominent echoes of reality. While looking through his website I spot a particularly great quotation from famed Screenwriter Cannell and it easily applies to our city too.

“One of my heroes, Stephen J Cannell, said about writing crime stories… ‘All the way through, keep asking yourself – what is the bad guy doing?’”

One Fight at a Time is out now. 

 

 

Louise Conan Doyle stars in her own mystery set in Bristol

Front cover of book Brimstone by John Allen

Californian author John Allen is so convinced that Sherlock Holmes was created by Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife that he has written the first in 12-part series of books in which she is the sleuth. Louise Hawkins Conan Doyle investigates her first mystery in Allen’s book Brimstone, set in Bristol, 1879.

Allen was born in California and first latched on to the idea that Arthur Conan Doyle couldn’t have been the writer after he read a 1980s essay by Martin Gardner called “The Irrelevance of Arthur Conan Doyle.” Gardner claimed that Arthur was “too gullible and to easily duped to have created Sherlock Holmes.”

Allen’s thirty year fascination with the true Sherlock creator culminated in his book Shadow Woman published in 2017. He has also published original research about his stylometric method for author identification.

The claims include the theory that Louise and Arthur co-wrote the Sherlock Holmes portion of the first Sherlock Holmes Adventure, A Study in Scarlet while Arthur wrote the Utah narrative of that novel. Louise wrote each of every other early Holmes adventure, up to and including The Hound of the Baskervilles, two of the intermediate stories –those collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes– and Arthur wrote two of those intermediate stories.

Allen says, “I have never been to Bristol. But I have grown quite fond of Bristol from afar, researching it extensively for the Louise stories that will be set there. I’ve walked remotely through Bristol’s streets via Google Maps street level view. I’ve studied old maps of Bristol and refer to them frequently. I’ve studied Temple Meads Station, and New Gaol Prison, and police stations, and pubs, and churches, and the observatory. I would really like to visit, but time and distance and money are considerable barriers.

“Regarding why I located Louise’s first novel in Bristol. I did so because she lived there as a teenager, at least she lived in Clifton. She was a resident student at Badminton School for Girls, and I have the census records to prove it. I discovered them while working on Shadow Woman, and I consider it one of the great discoveries of my effort.

“Louise Hawkins [w]as a resident student at Badminton School in 1871. She was only thirteen at the time, tied for youngest of the students.”

Allen is not the first author to set their Sherlock Holmes-ian tales in Bristol. In Cavan Scott’s Cry of the Innocents, Sherlock and Watson visit the city to investigate the killing of a priest. The series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch has filmed in Bristol a fair few times and you can follow the film trail from here.

The ‘original’ Sherlock, just as in the new Louise Conan Doyle books, never did go to Bristol but the city is mentioned in The Boscombe Valley Mystery where one of the characters visits for three days to be with his barmaid wife. Sherlock will not be making an appearance in the new series either.

Further information is available at the following URL: louiseconandoyle.com.

Brimstone is published 18 May on Amazon

My naivete at Corbyn being in power and a letter to an MP

 

to: “MCCARTHY, Kerry” <kerry.mccarthy.mp@parliament.uk>
date: 6 July 2017 at 17:06
subject: Re: consultations about budget cuts and a question about business rates

Dear Kerry,

Thank you once again for being so open to discussion.
Your question to Sajid about local councils keeping more of their money https://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2017-06-26a.346.5&s=Bristol#g362.3) at least puts his response on record, however vague it is.
As a very worried Bristolian I would love to know what you think of the possibility of opposing the cuts that have been imposed on Bristol. Jeremy Corbyn is sure to be in power within months and if we allow the cuts to go through and the libraries and services shut down and cut off, it will be so hard – if not impossible – to get them back.
Is this not the best time to refuse to impose the cuts? Labour are so close to power now and there must be some leverage.
Also, what do you think of the possibility of the Local Government Finance Bill not being debated and passed since it was not in the Queen’s Speech? It is looking extremely unlikely that we will be able to keep 100% of our business rates from 2020, so what do we for the budget already announced?
I am not asking you to reply in place of Marvin, I’m just hoping for some perspective on what’s possible.
Where do you think Glenn Vowles got it wrong in his article?
Thank you so much,
Joanna Booth (@stillawake)
There was no response and our libraries are still in the plans for being defunded, shut down, and turned over to mutual public trusts, which in turn will see many of them defunded and shut down.

Bristol Libraries join in with 4000-book giveaway for Crimefest

CrimeFest celebrates 10 years on Saturday 5 May and in celebration is giving away 4000 books.

The UK’s biggest crime fiction convention has teamed up with publishers, Goldsboro Books and libraries in Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow and South Tyneside to give away up to 4,000 crime novels for free, two weeks ahead of the crime fiction festival.

The initiative started in Bristol as a thank you to the city that has hosted the convention since 2008, and now CrimeFest want to extend that to crime fiction fans throughout the country. Eleven publishers and Goldsboro Books have generously donated books by thirty-five authors to this crime fiction giveaway being hosted at twenty libraries from across the UK Crime fiction lovers from will be treated to books by 35 authors.

The libraries taking part in Bristol are:

• Bishopston Library, Bristol North Baths, Gloucester Road BS7 8BN

• Marksbury Road Library, Marksbury Road BS3 5LG

• Knowle Library, Broadwalk Shopping Centre, Wells Road BS4 2QU

• Henleaze Library, 30 Northumbria Drive BS9 4HP

• Fishponds Library, Robinson House, Hockey’s Lane BS16 3HL

• Whitchurch Library, 7 Oatlands Avenue, City Centre BS14 0SX

CRIMEFEST – 17 – 20 May 2018 ‘One of the best Crime-Writing Festivals in the World’ – The Guardian

The authors and publishers taking part in the giveaway are:

• Claire Allan, Her Name Was Rose (Avon)

• Cara Black, Murder in the Pigalle (Soho Press)

• Sam Blake, Little Bones (Twenty7)

• Angelena Boden, Cruelty of Lambs (Urbane Publications)

• Anthony M. Brown, Death of an Actress (Mirror Books)

• Anthony M. Brown, The Green Bicycle Mystery (Mirror Books)

• Alex Caan, Cut to the Bone (Twenty7)

• R.M. Cartmel, The Richebourg Affair (Crime Scene Books)

• Rosie Claverton, Terror 404 (Crime Scene Books)

• Barbara Cleverly, A Spider In The Cup (Soho Press)

• Candy Denman, Dead Pretty (Crime Scene Books)

• Joy Fielding, Someone is Watching (Zaffre)

• Clio Gray, Burning Secrets (Urbane Publications)

• Camilla Grebe, The Ice Beneath Her (Zaffre)

• Adam Hamdy, Pendulum (Headline)

• James Hazel, The Mayfly (Zaffre)

• Corrie Jackson, The Perfect Victim (Zaffre)

• Diane Janes, Death at Wolf’s Nick (Mirror Books)

• Amanda Jennings, In Her Wake (Orenda Books)

• Ragnar Jonasson, Whiteout (Orenda Books)

• J.S. Law, The Fear Within (Headline)

• A.J. MacKenzie, The Body in the Ice (Zaffre)

• Michael J. Malone, A Suitable Lie (Orenda Books)

• Claire McGowan, The Lost (Headline)

• Simon Michael, Honest Man (Urbane Publications)

• Peter Murphy, A Higher Duty (No Exit Press)

• Lloyd Otis, Dead Lands (Urbane Publications)

• Daniel Pembrey, Night Market (No Exit Press)

• Agnes Ravatn, The Bird Tribunal (Orenda Books)

• Mark Roberts, Blood Mist (Head of Zeus)

• Leigh Russell, Death Bed (No Exit Press)

• Guy Fraser Sampson, Whiff of Cyanide (Urbane Publications)

• Jason Star, Savage Lane (No Exit Press)

• James Swallow, Nomad (Zaffre)

• Neil White, From the Shadows (Zaffre)

• S.W. Williams, Small Deaths (Crime Scene Books)

 

CrimeFest takes place between 17 – 20 May 2018, crimefest.com

Review, Reiki Insights by Frans Steins

Frans Steins is the co-founder of the International House of Reiki and Shibumi International Reiki Association with his wife, Bronwen Stiene, with whom he has co-authored several of his books. Reiki Insights is the latest publication and Steins looks back on some of the founders of Reiki and some of the principal insights into the system. This isn’t a practical workbook but an exploration with some depth and a light and warming touch.

The essential focus of the system of Reiki is foremost about rediscovering our original nature. Everything has original enlightenment beans within it, all we have to do is water them, give them light and keep the weeds out.

The Reiki precepts are repeated often and in reading them and following them, the healing and inner purpose of this system permeates the book.

  • Do not anger
  • Do not worry
  • Be grateful
  • Be true to your way and your true self
  • Be compassionate to yourself and others

There is some history of Reiki in this book but the main message is about practice. One must practice the precepts, one must meditate.

Reiki Insights is primarily a meditative journey into the inner depths of the system of Reiki.

It is presented as a series of short chapters, each of them a teaching, so that you can pick it up, choose a chapter and read it. After you have read the chapter, sit down and meditate upon the words. Let them sink deep into your mind, body, and energy, so that you can feel what is in between the sentences. By reading and experiencing Reiki Insights in this way, it will lay a foundation for inner change, from not knowing your true self to knowing your true self.

If you’ve never seen or felt reikin in practice, here is Steins performing a healing treatment demo.

In this wonderful book, Frans Stiene addresses ancient wisdom and meditation tradition in a very practical way to bring it to the modern world. It conveys a beneficial, heartwarming, and transformative experience, and will create happiness and joy for those who read it.
Orgyen Chowang Rinpoche, author of Our Pristine Mind

Reiki Insights is available to purchase.

Review, The Body Library by Jeff Noon

The Body Library is the second book in the Nyquist Mysteries series published by Angry Robots but this is the first of Jeff Noon’s books I’ve picked up.

There is a fluidness to Noon’s writing that initially made me think The Body Library would be like Ishiguro’s dream-like The Unconsoled. As I read further, however, I felt more like I was in the atmosphere of 1408 by Stephen King or the movie Dark City —  the noir settings and slip-away realities where what’s around the corner can’t be articulated and yet … Things change and reality is different but the writing is well-structured so it’s easy to follow. The writing is as much of a treat as the setting and the story and the characters.

In this magical realism structure, writing such as that below, fits in seamlessly before we go back to the pace of the noir setting.

INK   … his eyes closed and he sank further down into the dark into the flow the fluid all was fluid a black liquid in which his body floated drifted suspended submerged breathing yes still breathing in the liquid in the blackness of the pool he sank down and lay there suspended and dreaming and being read yes being read head to foot every part of him his mind his thoughts his blood and bone his eyes his limbs his heart yes all of him read again and again as a book of flesh where the ink was seeking the stories all the stories of his life every last one being read by the pool of ink in which he lay suspended drifting floating submerged breathing yes breathing still and being read and his eyes…

I loved the story with its world of writing and the mechanics of it all come to life. In 1959, Storyville, Private  Eye John Nyquist is set on the trail of a man who doesn’t seem to be doing much apart from talking to people but as the trail leads to a tower at the edge of the city and an illicit book — the Body Library — he both can’t and can escape.

When narrative structure becomes legislated and mandatory, abstract experimental works become intoxicating. The writer’s life becomes a metaphor for the human condition, which Noon brings to life and then deconstructs again. And when you break down life there’s always some pain right in the middle of everything.

A great read with a creepy child and a place where you can check in any time but you can never leave.

The Body Library is published on April 3 2018.

Review, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The writing is consistently tremendous. The content? … well, I don’t know. It belies a young person writing literature after having learned of the world mainly from headlines. The characters are the biggest problem and Benjamin’s bizarre immaturity the other.

The story idea is great even if the setting is rather Hollywood and shallow. Four children of various ages — the oldest 13 — are told the date of their deaths. What happens next? Each character gets their own section and their own years.

With four characters it’s hard enough to love all of them but I loved only one – Klara and by extension her daughter and Raj. The rest were, to use a word that reviewers have used a lot with this book, underwhelming. Pathetic even, really.

Varya, I couldn’t stand even though I felt sorry for her being introduced as a sexualised girl at 13 and maybe that was meant to mirror her sexless life later — she was ultimately stunted at the original visit — but I can’t help but think that Benjamin herself probably thinks more like a man in order to see this girl with her ‘palm-sized breasts’ at this age. It’s a horrendous description to add to such a young person because you are left with the image of someone’s hands on this little girl. It was an exploitative beginning, manipulative even. I can’t tell if it was deliberate, though.

There’s no life-changing hero’s narrative in this story except for those who get their life lessons from Hollywood and scripted TV.

There’s also an odd sense of balancing events in the background occasionally. We hear about the British Mandate being lifted off of Israel, which is a  recurring motif about having somewhere to call ‘home’ but we never hear about the Palestinians, the many UN resolutions against Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and of the daily torture and killings of the Palestinian people. Their home is destroyed so someone else gets to have one. The only criticism of Israel that is presented in the book is the support of Iraq and that it’s now a satellite of the US and incredibly powerful. The latter can be dismissed, the former was never brought up and could not be dismissed.

This idea could have been amazing. What a shame.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin was published January 9, 2018 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons

 

Betting the House, Review

By Tim Ross and  Tom McTague .

Betting the House never once veers from its purpose – to explain what happened during the 2017 general election, including the campaign and the night itself. The authors are political journalists who produced this work within six months; an incredible accomplishment, no doubt in part to their partners who held down the fort, and a bunch of editors.

There is little heart in this book; little acknowledgment of the deaths and the pain and the destruction that a Conservative government has brought upon the country and its people. There is no acknowledgment of the unnecessary austerity measures brought into force by the Conservatives, supported by their coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and often unchallenged and supported by the Labour ‘moderates’*; no acknowledgment that austerity brought on suffering to such an extent that the British voters chose to leave the European Union in a shocking referendum. The referendum is mentioned often but the policies that led to it not at all.

In this respect, the authors ignore the vile nature of the political part of the election results.

The right-leaning bias of the book is no surprise, Ross previously wrote about the 2015 election, Why the Tories won https://www.waterstones.com/book/why-the-tories-won/tim-ross/9781849549479

The ways in which the bias permeates the book is a curious one. The images of May and the Tories are consistently positive. She is strong and steady and just wants to get on with her job. She avoided the cameras and interviews because all she wants to do is her job and she wants to do it right. She is strong throughout Lent and even though she is diabetic and can only have crisps as a snack, she resisted even in critical moments.

Corbyn on the other hand, is not given such positive treatment. The epithet ‘socialist’ is nearly always applied to him even though ‘free-market loony’ is never once applied to May. The concept of the free market is used un-ironically when a Conservative MP disagrees with the idea of providing specific help with struggling regions because it’s meant to be the free market that decides these things.

I can’t tell if Betting the House is the voice of the right-wing, devoid of any interest in anyone but themselves — or simply a very efficient way of telling the story of the election. It is a book that leans heavily right in an almost immoral sense but it also reads well.

I feel I learnt a lot about elections and what I mostly gleaned is that those who spend the most money win the elections; something Trump and social research have always known too. Lynton Crosby’s campaign for Theresa May was not the winning one he’d hoped but the PR magnate and his company made £4m for two months of work. The Australian PR man was the one who won it for David Cameron in the previous election.

Some of the insights are maybe unintentionally fascinating such as when Jeremy Heywood, Britain’s most senior civil servant, and the Queen’s private secretary, Sir Christopher Geidt, get together to decide who would form a government because “the country needed a government, and it must not be left to the Queen to decide”.

It’s these fascinating little tidbits that make me wish the authors were on the better side of the political spectrum.

Betting the House by Tim Ross and Tom McTague is out now.