#indiechallenge – First Time Ever (Peggy Seeger)

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The blurb

Born in New York City in 1935, Peggy Seeger enjoyed a childhood steeped in music and politics. Her father was the noted musicologist Charles Seeger; her mother, the modernist composer Ruth Crawford; and her brother Pete, the celebrated writer of protest songs.

After studying at Radcliffe College, in 1955 Peggy left to travel the world. It was in England that she met the man, some two decades older and with a wife and family, with whom she would share the next thirty-three years: the actor, playwright and songwriter Ewan MacColl. Together, Peggy and Ewan helped lay the foundations of the British folk revival, through the formative – and controversial – Critics Group and the landmark BBC Radio Ballads programmes. And as Ewan’s muse, Peggy inspired one of the twentieth century’s greatest love songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’.

Peggy’s life comprises art and passion, family and separation, tragedy, celebration and the unexpected – and irresistible – force of love. It would by any standards be an extraordinary story, but what elevates her account is the beauty of the writing: it is clear-eyed and playful, luminous and melodic, fearless, funny and always truthful, from the first word to the last.

The publisher

Faber & Faber calls itself ‘one of the world’s great publishing houses’. It was founded in London 90 years ago. I’d associated it more with the highbrow end of the market and with poetry, but it also does things like the QI tie-in gift books.

How I got this book

Around my way, there’s a tradition of leaving unwanted items outside one’s front gate in case someone else likes the look of it and takes it away. I liked the look of this and took it away.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; possibly ‘Biography’, though Seeger in fact recommends someone else’s biography of her to be read alongside this to fill in the gaps; ‘A press over 20 years old’; ‘Non-fiction’, and, despite the blurb’s strenuous attempt to ignore the fact, ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

I think Peggy Seeger is great. I saw her perform at Cambridge Folk Festival a few years ago, and when I asked her to sign one of her CDs she complimented my hat. So there. Anyway, she’s a member of a great musical dynasty and she’s a great musical figure in her own right. In this book she looks back on a long life, with a complete absence of self-pity and an honesty that sometimes made me wince. There was much that resonated, including the thoughts on class, and the impulse to hope that keeps you writing in the face of looming political despair. It’s fascinating as history and as a reflection on the art of performing music and, most of all, as a portrait of the development of a person.

#indiechallenge – Smash All The Windows (Jane Davis)

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The blurb

For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.

Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.

If only it were that simple.

The author and publisher

Jane Davis is the author of eight novels; her first novel won the Daily Mail First Novel Award; her seventh was Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year 2016; and Smash All The Windows won the first ever Selfies Award.

She’s someone who takes writing and self-publishing very seriously, and it was an absolute pleasure to meet her at the London Book Fair earlier this year.

The bookshop

I bought the ebook version from the Kobo store.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘A Women’s Press’; ‘A New To You Press’; ‘An Award-Winner’, or ‘Book from a micro press’.

My thoughts

This is a really good book. It takes as its starting point an imagined crush disaster in a London tube station, and follows the families of the victims as they variously seek the facts, campaign for justice, and come to terms with their loss. Sometimes diving deep into the day of the disaster, sometimes looking several years beyond it, the interweaving strands are easy to follow, and the characters are well delineated and all very human.

There were times when I forgot that I was reading fiction, and found myself wanting to go to Wikipedia to find out more about the disaster. Jane Davis says that she thinks of fiction as ‘made-up truth’. She’s certainly achieved that here.

#indiechallenge – Independence Day & Other Stories (Pramoedya Ananta Toer, translated by Willem Samuels)

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The blurb

In these three warm and nuanced tales, Indonesia’s supreme storyteller Pramoedya Ananta Toer gives us vivid, memorable characters caught between optimism and a darker place.

A disabled veteran of his country’s war of independence against the Dutch slowly succumbs to despair; a child bride’s lost innocence is cherished by her observant younger neighbour; and a young boy views his impending circumcision with anxiety and excitement on account of its significance – and the gifts that will accompany it.

The author

Pramoedya Ananta Toer (1925-2006), one of Indonesia’s most important writers, was the author of more than thirty books – all of which were banned in Indonesia at various times. A resolute political activist, he was incarcerated by the Dutch colonial authorities and again by the Sukarno and Suharto regimes.

The translator

Willem Samuels is the pen name of John H. McGlynn. He is a long-term resident of Indonesia, having lived in Jakarta almost continuously since 1976. He has translated several dozen books, subtitled scores of Indonesian feature films and produced more than thirty documentary films on Indonesian writers.

The publisher

Paper + Ink produce miniature collections of short stories, many in translation.

How I got this book

This was a freebie from the London Book Fair.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘Translated book’; or ‘Marginalised people’.

My thoughts

A little book, and quick to read – I got through the first two stories on the tube back from Kensington, which wasn’t even delayed. But it punches above its weight: all three stories are powerful and atmospheric, and they all have a sting in the tail. Hypocrisy and inequity are exposed – but that’s as far as it goes. There aren’t any easy answers here.

#indiechallenge – Go The Way Your Blood Beats (Michael Amherst)

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The blurb

Using bisexuality as a frame, Go the Way Your Blood Beats questions the division of sexuality into straight and gay, in a timely exploration of the complex histories and psychologies of human desire.

A challenge to the idea that sexuality can either ever be fully known or neatly categorised, it is a meditation on desire’s unknowability. Interwoven with anonymous addresses to past loves – the sex of whom remain obscure – the book demonstrates the universalism of human desire.

Part essay, part memoir, part love letter, Go the Way Your Blood Beats asks us to see desire and sexuality as analogous with art – a mysterious, creative force.

The author

Michael Amherst is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His work has been published internationally, including in the Guardian, New Statesman, the Spectator, The White Review and Contrappasso magazine. He is currently a PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London.

The publisher

Repeater Books – I quote from its website – is dedicated to the creation of a new reality. The landscape of twenty-first-century arts and letters is faded and inert, riven by fashionable cynicism, egotistical self-reference and a nostalgia for the recent past. Repeater intends to add its voice to those movements that wish to enter history and assert control over its currents, gathering together scattered and isolated voices with those who have already called for an escape from Capitalist Realism.

It’s an imprint of Watkins Media, which was set up in the 1890s to fill the mysticism and occultism niche.

The bookshop

This is another one from the wonderful Gay’s The Word.

The bingo card

This one comes in under ‘A new to you press’, ‘A book from your TBR’, ‘Marginalised people’, ‘Book that defies genre’, ‘Non-fiction’, ‘LGBTQIA’, and very possibly ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

At 122 pages, this is a short book, and I read it in a hurry, trying to get it in before I went away on holiday. I’m going to have to go back and reread it slowly, because there is an awful lot in there, and I think I missed quite a lot.

It’s all sorts of things: it’s a review of the scholarship around bisexuality; it’s a rant about bi erasure in popular media, and the damage caused by intrusive questioning; it’s a glimpse into someone else’s love life; it’s a reading list. (I haven’t ever read anything by James Baldwin.)

But mostly it felt like a long, rambling, night in a quietish pub, having drunk just enough not to be afraid of one’s own opinions, talking to somebody who really gets what it’s like. I was reading it on my morning commute, without so much as a cup of coffee in hand, but I felt as if I should have had a nearly-empty pint glass, and be waving my hands around, and exclaiming, ‘Yes! Exactly!‘ a lot.

#indiechallenge – Love/War (Ebba Witt-Brattström, translated by Kate Lambert)

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The blurb

He said:
I look at you
and I ask myself
if a woman’s vanity is increased
by living with a successful man.

She said:
That was the stupidest thing
I’ve ever heard.
Even from you.

A marriage in its final death throes; half a life lived together, now ending. Raging, bitter, sad and scathing, Ebba Witt-Brattström’s debut novel introduces a bold voice in contemporary European fiction.

The author

Ebba Witt-Brattström is currently Professor of Nordic Literature at Helsinki University. She has received numerous awards for her work and was one of the founding members of the Feminist Initiative party.

The translator

Kate Lambert is a freelance translator working from Swedish and Finnish into British English in the depths of Somerset in South-West England. She has been working as a translator since 1996 and specialises in the arts and humanities, especially history and tourism. (She’s also a friend of mine, which is how I came to hear about the book in the first place.)

The publisher

Nordisk Books is an independent publishing house in Whitstable, founded in 2016 and with a focus on modern and contemporary Scandinavian literature.

The bookshop

I ordered this directly from the publisher.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘An author from another country’; ‘A new to you press’; ‘A debut’; ‘Translated book’; ‘Out of your comfort zone’; or ‘Book that defies genre’.

My thoughts

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. Sitting somewhere between poetry and prose, this is a fly-on-the-wall film of the slow, painful, disintegration of a relationship between two people who should probably have split up a long time ago. The ‘Love/War’ of the title hints at the partners’ opposite and incompatible understandings of the nature of the relationship – both what it was, and what it’s become.

A war doesn’t actually end
until one side is
totally defeated
or dead

She said:
You’re talking power politics
my dear.
When lovers are at war
there are no winners
only losers.

The extract quoted in the blurb is a good sample of the style; the disjointed dialogue continues to the bitter end. And it’s peppered with literary allusions in several different languages (sources and translations are provided at the back) – these are clever, educated people, who are just as susceptible to making a pig’s ear of their personal lives as anybody else. He’s abusive; she’s embittered. Nobody’s having any fun here; and yet I laughed. Usually it was because of a particularly well-chosen quotation.

It’s very readable; the conversation carried me along with it, as much as I was hoping for everybody’s sake for it all to be over. As in poetry, every word counts, and they’ve been chosen well.

Another #IndieAthon done

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IndieAthon is done for another year. I got further through that rather spontaneous TBR pile than I expected, reading:

I also read, but have still to write up:

  • Love/War (Ebba Witt-Brattström, translated by Kate Lambert)
  • Go The Way Your Blood Beats: on truth, bisexuality and desire (Michael Amherst)
  • Smash All The Windows (Jane Davis)

That makes a book for each day of the readathon week, which isn’t bad going.

I will note that those boots let me down, and the water in, during a rainy but pleasant short break in Lille. I’ll have to save them for dry days in future.

And finally, the UK Amazon store has the paperback edition of A Spoke In The Wheel marked down by 40% at present. I’ve no idea why. The inner workings of Amazon are a mystery to me!

#indiechallenge – Family Roundabout (Richmal Crompton)

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The blurb

There isn’t one. One extract is quoted on the inside of the dust jacket, and a different one on the bookmark. I’m going to reproduce neither, and choose one that I prefer:

Stupidity is not an easy quality to assume, and there had been times when her real self had broken through the barricade, and she had startled and hurt him by what he called her ‘oddness’, but on the whole they had been happy. She had known the price she must pay for his love and she had been willing to pay it.

Her name was Millicent, but Henry, who liked diminutives, had called her Milly. She always thought of the quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who still existed somewhere within her as Millicent and Henry’s wife as Milly. ‘Now, Millicent…’ she would say to herself warningly, as she bit back some trenchant comment, some shrewd rejoinder.

The author

Richmal Crompton Lamburn, 1890-1969, the daughter of a schoolteacher-curate, went to a Derbyshire boarding school, to which she returned as a teacher in 1914 after having read classics at Royal Holloway College. She then moved to Kent to live near her married sister and was a much-loved classics mistress at Bromley High School. She published her first short story in 1918 (using her mother’s maiden name); after polio left her lame she became a writer full time. The first of the popular William books appeared in 1922. For the next 45 years she was always at work on two books simultaneously, one for children (generally a William book) and one for adults. In Richmal Crompton’s lifetime thirty collections of William stories sold over eight million copies; but she once hinted that her ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ had ambushed recognition for her forty serious novels, of which Family Roundabout (1948) is perhaps the best.

The publisher

Persephone Books reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers. Their reprints are made distinctive by the elegant grey covers and the endpapers chosen from contemporary designs to go with the book.

The bookshop

I got this from Persephone’s own bookshop on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London.

The bingo card

Persephone Books definitely counts as ‘A Women’s Press’, and it might just qualify as ‘A press over 20 years old’. And this is another book that I’d count as a ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

This is not the edition in which I first read Family Roundabout. That one was a red cloth-covered hardback, shelved alongside the William books that we were read as children. When I’d run out of William I moved on to Felicity (much like William, but female and sixteen), and by that point I was just about old enough to appreciate Family Roundabout.

It’s a gently-paced novel following two families headed by two very different matriarchs through the years before the Second World War. Mrs Fowler (Milly/Millicent in the extract above) is a hands-off kind of a parent; Mrs Willoughby is quite the opposite. The plot follows their children, who are all grown up or almost grown up at the beginning of the book, through more or less ill-advised marriages, love affairs, careers, and attempts to leave the home town.

Crompton is very good on the nuances of family dynamics, on the equally strong desire to escape and to be supported, of small feelings that become big problems. And the sense of comic timing that makes the William books hilarious serves her well here, although of course it’s more subtle, somehow meshing wonderfully well with the wistfully optimistic tone.

There’s always a danger, re-reading old favourites, of a visit from the Suck Fairy – who has in fact left most of this untouched. The one exception would be Mrs Fowler’s daughter-in-law Belle, whose awfulness now feels very heavy-handed and rather misogynistic. The other characters, however, are neither too bad nor too good; one rather wishes that some of them would get their respective acts together, but sympathises with them nevertheless and understands why they just can’t.

#indiechallenge – The 12.30 from Croydon (Freeman Wills Crofts)

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The blurb

We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ensuing flashback in which we live with the killer at every stage, from the first thoughts of murder to the strains and stresses of living with its execution. Seen from the criminal’s perspective, a mild-mannered Inspector by the name of French is simply another character who needs to be dealt with.

This is an unconventional yet gripping story of intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification and self-delusion. And will the killer get away with it?

The author

Freeman Wills Crofts (1879-1957) was one of the pre-eminent writers in the golden age of British crime fiction. He was the author of more than thirty detective novels, and was greatly acclaimed by peers such as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler.

The publisher

The British Library publishes a range of books – some to tie in with their exhibitions, some just to stock their shop. This is one of their Crime Classics series – reprints of Golden Age detective fiction.

The bookshop

This came, very properly, from the shop at the British Library itself. You get one book free with British Library membership, and this was my choice.

The bingo card

Not so many options as usual here. ‘Genre fiction’, of course. ‘Book from a series’ – Inspector French appears in other books by Crofts. And I think there’s an argument that it defies its own genre.

My thoughts

I must begin by saying that it is sheer good luck that I happen to have a postcard of the sister aircraft of the one that appears in this book, at Croydon aerodrome. I may be something of a nerd about transport in books, but planes aren’t so much my thing, and this is probably the only postcard of one that I possess.

I can’t resist quoting the description, which really is very accurate:

How huge it looked! Unwieldy too, thought Rose, gazing at the criss-cross struts connecting its wings and its long, slightly curved body. Not in the least like a bird, but still like something she had seen. What was it? She remembered: it was a dragonfly. It was just a huge dragonfly with a specially long head, which projected far forward before the wings like an enormous snout. And those four lumps were its motors, two on each wing, set into the front edge of the wing and with its great propeller twirling in front of it. And there was its name, painted on its head: H, E, N, G, I, S, T; HENGIST…

[she boards the plane with her father, grandfather, and her grandfather’s manservant]

The principal object in the landscape was the lower wing. It seemed simply huge from so close. From it the great criss-crosses went up to the upper wing, which she could see only by bending down and gazing up. Others of these criss-crosses went down to the landing-wheel which had a pneumatic tyre a good deal bigger than her whole body.

The postcard came from my godfather, and I think I’d better send the book on to him.

Wikipedia has another picture of Heracles, and one of Helena.

(So yes, the image on the book cover is wrong. It isn’t even a biplane. I’ve seen worse, though: those planes on the audiobook cover of Susan Lanigan’s White Feathers definitely aren’t Sopwith Camels… I’ve heard that it’s very rare for cover designers to be expected to read the book they’re designing for, and that authors have little control over what their books look like.)

Anyway, that’s more plane-spotting than the book calls for, because it’s only the first chapter that really deals with it. This really is a most unusual crime novel: from the child’s breathless perspective on the aeroplane journey (Rose is ten) we abandon her altogether and jump back to the point where the idea of murder enters the murderer’s head. That isn’t really a spoiler: we know about his motive, his means, and his opportunity as soon as he does, and we follow him all the way. Then the detective gets two chapters at the end to expound upon how he worked things out.

Crofts pulls off the rather remarkable feat of telling us everything but never letting it become dull. There are always enough questions left unanswered to keep the pages turning.

The detail is meticulous but again, it’s absorbing. I particularly enjoyed the travel sections within the narrative: apart from the flight to Paris, there’s a Mediterranean cruise that also has some lush descriptions despite the point of view character’s preoccupation:

In the harbour the view was obscured by piers and buildings and shipping. But just before they entered they got a magnificent panorama of the whole coast. To the left was the hill and cape of Posilipo, with its palms and olives and cypresses, screening the fine villas of the wealthy Neapolitans. In front was the city, stretching up to the heights behind, from this distance white and fair. Then to the right the great double-coned mass of Vesuvius rose, with its almost solid column of smoke thrusting fiercely up into the blue sky. It somehow suggested power, that column, white in the mass, but flecked at intervals with the yellow of sulphur and the red of flame. It poured up in seething eddies, gradually bending over as it rose and shifting slowly inland. Beyond Vesuvius the long line of the Sorrento peninsula stretched into the sea, with, farther out, dead astern as they circled into the harbour, the high, jagged outlines of the island of Capri.

Not your average mystery novel, and all the better for it.

 

#indiechallenge – An Honourable Estate (L. A. Hall)

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The blurb

Clorinda has brought about a happier state of affairs in the Earl of N-‘s family, but fears that this may have earned her the Earl’s enmity. The bad poet Mr W- Y-‘s behaviour is becoming increasingly and worryingly erratic. Bets are being laid on the likelihood of Clorinda’s remarriage, and the identity of the groom. There are still a deal of contrivances upon hand.

The author

L. A. Hall is a historian and retired archivist. Short stories by her have appeared in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women and The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women. She regrets to say that she does not own a pet wombatt.

The publisher

Sleepy Wombatt Press is the imprint under which the author releases the stories of Clorinda Cathcart and her circle.

The bookshop

Amazon, which as a general principle I try to avoid. But I did want a prettily bound volume.

The bingo card

This could count as: ‘Book from a series’ or ‘A Women’s Press’. The cast is as diverse as ever, so one could make a case for ‘LGBTQIA’ or ‘Marginalised People’. But I think it’s probably going to end up as ‘Favourite’.

My thoughts

The Comfortable Courtesan series has been my bedtime reading over the last several months, and it only took a little bit of cheating to make the end of one of them fall within the week of the IndieAthon.

As the cover suggests, the wombatt plays second fiddle to the mongoose in this tenth volume of Clorinda’s memoirs. We pick up the action at the point where she has exerted some subtle leverage upon the Earl of Nuttenford to induce him to provide appropriately for his family; the unforeseen consequence of some of her earlier contrivances is that he’s no longer in favour of a marriage between his daughter Lady Anna and the Marquess of Offgrange. Which is unfortunate, because everybody else is very much in favour of it…

And, as the title suggests, marriages, or lack of same, of one sort or another are the main preoccupation of this volume even after Lady Anna’s problems have been sorted out. There’s a shotgun wedding, an attempted abduction, and the aftermath of a too early marriage, as well as the usual glimpses of established relationships: Lady Jane’s unorthodox marriage to Admiral Knighton; the other Lady Bexbury and Captain Penkarding’s household; and of course both sides of Raxdell House, which Clorinda spends most of this volume visiting.

I wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to the series, but for longstanding fans it’s another delightful installment of Clorinda’s adventures, with the usual mix of the sensational and the gentle.

 

#indiechallenge – Common Murder (Val McDermid)

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The blurb

Common Murder finds journalist Lindsay Gordon at the peace camp on Brownlow Common, reporting a case of alleged assault by Deborah, a peacewoman, on Rupert Crabtree, Chairman of the local opposition to the camp.

Then the body of Crabtree is found on common ground, victim of a vicious attack, and Deborah is accused of murder. Lindsay is plunged into an investigation with far-reaching political implications, in which no one – be they ratepayer or reporter, policeman or peacewoman – is wholly above suspicion.

The author

Val McDermid is of course a very big name in crime fiction these days; this was only her second novel, and the biography in the front talks more about her career as a journalist and her NUJ activity.

The publisher

The Women’s Press now seems to be defunct, but it used to put out a lot of feminist fiction and non-fiction. Its steam iron logo and stripy black-and-white spines are still worth keeping an eye out for when browsing charity shop shelves.

The bookshop

This was another one from the Book Bus.

The bingo card

This could count towards: ‘Genre fiction’; ‘Book from a series’; ‘A Women’s Press’; ‘A book from my TBR’; ‘A press over 20 years old’ (The Women’s Press made it to at least 30 before disappearing); or ‘LGBTQIA’.

My thoughts

This seemed like an appropriate choice for International Women’s Day and the first day of this year’s IndieAthon.

Set in a thinly disguised Greenham Common, this was a diverting murder mystery which veered off into sensationalist spy thriller territory towards the end (I wasn’t complaining; I like spy thrillers!) but it was just as absorbing as a reflection of the world of journalism and the politics and preoccupations of the 1980s.

McDermid’s observation of the crossover between different groups, and the fault lines within groups, is very sharp, and the way she portrays the uncomfortable sense that one isn’t doing enough for the cause of the moment feels just as relevant today. Lindsay, on the edge of two worlds as a self-described hack in a relationship with the highbrow writer Cordelia as much as in her compromised dealings with press, police, and protesters, makes a convincing character. I loved the depiction of lesbian subculture (one character runs a restaurant called ‘Rubyfruits’) and the casual assumption that the reader will find their way around it (recognising the jargon puts them ahead of at least one plot development). I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest of the Lindsay Gordon series.