Yet another Women’s Prize Short List reaction! Don’t all cheer at once!

So it’s Monday night and I am blogging after a day at work, ending with a full staff meeting. What could possibly go wrong? Currently typing this whilst cooking meatballs, feeding dogs and trying not to forget that tomorrow is bin day! So, disclaimer; don’t expect Chaucer! I am going for coherent!

Why am I risking ruining any credibility I might have build up in the 2 weeks or so I have been blogging?? Because the WOMEN’S PRIZE SHORTLIST has been announced and if I can’t drag my weary carcass to a computer on that occasion I might as well give up this book blogging lark.

Less rambling, more book chat. Lets start with…

What would my list have been…

Time to come clean now, I only got around to reading 7 from the 16 longlisted books. In my usual way I got distracted by other lovely shiny books. Also, in my defence, and this is genuinely an important point, literary prize lists are just the tip of the iceberg. So many backlisted, new, undiscovered authors out there, you have to mix up it a little.

Anyway, I digress. I did warn you blogging on a Monday night would be a bit of a risk.

So, having read only 7 books, my preferred short list that I posted on Twitter (@bookbound2019 blog) and Instagram (@bookbound2019) only had 5 books.

And they were…

  • The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker
  • My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • Circe – Madeline Miller
  • Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss
  • Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn

The actual Short List was…

Thoughts on what’s there…

  • American Marriage – Tayari Jones – Having not read this one I obviously can’t add too much, beyond saying it is on my TBR list. It has also gained a lot of praise from other book bloggers and vloggers, whose opinions I respect and often reflect my own. Excited to get to this one . (If I ever finish A Little Life!)
  • Ordinary People – Diana Evans – Again another ‘no read’, pretty hopeless so far. But again lots of love for this so watch this space!!!
  • Milkman – Anna Burns – One I have read. Finally I hear you cry! (If you have even got this far!!) This was of course the Man Booker Prize Winner last year. I mentioned in my early blog about the Prize that I found this a difficult read. I read it when I was really busy and I found it hard to connect with the style. So it wasn’t on my personal short list. But it is no surprise that a ManBooker Winner and such an innovative novel would make the short list. I actually think this one was a given.
  • Circe – Madeline Miller I am thrilled that this one is here. This bold and empowering retelling of the myth of Circe is as beautiful and tantalising as it’s gorgeous cover. If you haven’t read this one please do. It is so refreshing and gives new depth and perspective to a classic tale.
  • The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker In all honesty I didn’t think that two re-imaginings of Ancient Greek literature would make it to the short list but, on this occasion, I am absolutely delighted to be wrong. In a similar vein to Circe this book takes a well known story and gives it new and very real credence by using the female perspective. Gritty and honest in true Pat Barker fashion, this absolutely deserves it place on the short list.
  • My Sister the Serial killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite Of those on the list this is definitely my stand out. Having reviewed it just days ago, there seems little point in waxing lyrical about it again here. All I will say is that Braithwaite is a master wordsmith who uses her tools sparingly but with a precise and dark beauty. This is the one from the list that has stuck with me, and it is the one that I am recommending to any poor fool who will talk to me about all things books.

Thoughts about those that didn’t make it…

In terms of those that didn’t make the list I think I am most disappointed about Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss. I really love this author’s work and for a novella Ghost Wall was so multi layered. I am still thinking about it months later. Bonus points for being set in my go to happy place, wild and beautiful Nothumberland.

Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn was a recent read for me. Pretty sure this is my first taste of Flash Fiction and it really packed a punch. Another little book filled to the brim with life and so much to discuss. The setting of Romania behind the Iron Curtain and everything that entails was absolutely fascinating. I don’t think this is the last time this author will be around a list such as this.

Finally I must say something about Normal People – Sally Rooney. Just about everywhere I go people are raving about this book and there is so much admiration for her work in general. I am going to out myself here and say I breathed a small sign of relief when this wasn’t on the short list. Rightly or wrongly I always try and read at least the short list and…

…I didn’t like Conversations with Friends, her first novel. I am well aware that I am in a small and, probably, shrinking minority, however there it is. I can quite see what people admire about her skill as a writer but I found the characters so intensely irritating that I couldn’t move beyond that. I don’t mind an annoying character but this felt overloaded with self absorbed people living vacuous lives. More than that I didn’t like the way I felt when I was reading the book. For someone who likes to think that I am pretty easy going, I felt old and judgemental and staid.

Having said all of this I am quite a nosy article and hate to think I am missing out so who knows. Feel free to convince me…

So what’s next? My new Women’s Prize reading plans.

Well in reality they aren’t all that different to the ones I published last month. I have read three from the list in my earlier blog post

  • My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luisella (More of that in a later blog post)
  • Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn

I will definitely be reading Remembered – Yvonne Battle-Felton. Heard so much good stuff about this and it’s themes have been really prevalent in lots of my reading over the past couple of years. May have just ordered this online today…possibly…maybe.

And of course I will be reading the remaining two novels on the Short List – Ordinary People and An American Marriage. No doubt I will be blogging about them in due course.

So, from a sunny Cumbrian Monday evening, I hope you have made at least something of my barely coherent ramblings. Off to throw ‘beans-on-toast’ down my neck and start up Mum’s taxi!

Always want to hear your thoughts, so please comment below or get in touch via Twitter or Instagram.

Happy Short List Day!

My Sister the Serial Killer. What a way to end the week!

Weekly catch up…

So the inevitable happened. The new school term started, life got crazy and I didn’t manage to blog this week.

This whole blogging business is new to me and I am learning on the job. So first lesson learnt; either have a few blogs in hand or resign yourself to one post a week. Watch this space!

However despite my woeful blog presence I have been meeting some lovely booky people through the world of blogging. I have found there are more fantastic book blogs out there than I thought possible, and amazingly, the number of those lovely people interacting with and following BookBound has steadily grown. So thank you one and all.

What I have read this week…

Whilst keeping up the blog might have eluded me I have still manage to find time to read. I have managed to tuck away three books from my Women’s Prize TBR pile. The Bank Holiday weekend enabled me read My Sister the Serial Killer, (review below), Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luisella and Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn.

Through the working week I was sustained by the fantastic Signs for Lost Children -Sarah Moss. Moss is a relatively new find for me but I am growing in admiration for her with each book I read. She deserves, and will get, a blog post of her own very soon. In the meantime I am pinning my colours to her mast and hoping that she will be on the Women’s Prize Short List, to be announced on Monday , 29th April, for her excellent novella Ghost Wall.

What I am currently reading …

So to be honest I have gone slightly off piste and started A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara. These is one of the books that has been waiting patiently on my Kindle for an age. It is also a book which gets a lot of attention, and which seems to divide people quite dramatically. Always in the market for a controversial read! My Kindle informs me I am only 4% in; too early for judgement yet but I am certainly intrigued. Given it’s estimated reading length of over 18 hours, next week’s blog catch up might be Ground Hog day! I will keep you posted.

I also have half an eye on Jeanette Winerson’s The Daylight Gate. Inspired by my reading of The Familiars, this is her take on the story of the Pendle Witch trials. Never yet been let down by Winterson’s work, so this will be my balm if I end up in the ‘hate camp’ for A Little Life!

And to the main event! A review of ‘My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinka Braithwaite.’

I seem to have read a few debut novels this year, but nothing has yet been quite so darkly delightful as My Sister the Serial Killer. For a first novel is is extraordinary. Quite simply, breathtaking. If appreciate a black comedy, then I challenge you to find something quite so accomplished this year. And if you can, sling it my way because I definitely want to read it!

Set in present day Lagos, the novel begins with Korede in a bathroom, meticulously clearing away the evidence of her sister’s third kill, yet another boyfriend despatched in unclear circumstances.

Korede; the older sister. Steady, a reliable nurse, she is the ‘voodoo doll’ to her sister’s ‘bratz’. Ayoola, the younger, outwardly charming, creative and gregarious .

And a beautiful narcissist with an appetite for murder.

Braithwaite’s depiction of the two sisters, in indeed all her characters, is flawless. Here is a master class in the use of the written word. She is one of those rare authors who uses each word with precision and meaning. No room here for lengthy, evocative descriptions of thoughts and motivation. Tell us instead of a young woman who carries a knife ‘the way other women carry tampons’, who dances to Whitney Houston’ ‘the musical equivalent of M and M’s’, just days after she ‘ gave a man to the sea’.

Or show us Yinka, the hospital receptionist, Queen of the back handed compliment and sarcasm. Let her suggest, through a cutting one liner, how straight and upstanding Korede aspires to be.

And show us the daily jeopardy of the sister’s relationship by introducing Tade. Tade, the handsome young doctor who Korede worships from afar, who is destined to become entangled with Ayoola. It is through fear for his safety that Korede is seen in a struggle between loyalty and morality. A struggle that is enhanced and reflected throughout the book.

Add in a a coma patient as a Korede’s confidant and the tension is almost unbearable.

Braithwaite has the confidence of a writer who lets the characters actions speaks for themselves. Not one character is wasted, not one word is excessive. Everything links and builds to a seamless portrait of a damaged people heading towards disaster.

Even Ayoola method of killing is telling and unequivocal. Her victims are stabbed, always stabbed.

From it’s first appearance knife is an important symbol, almost it’s own character. Loaded with symbolism, slowly revealed. In true serial killer style, Ayoola will not be parted from her weapon of choice, even though it holds the power to damn her. The blade she always carries is a relic of her past, wielded and worshipped by her abusive father. Dead ten years, his presence in the book is undeniable, threatening and also mysterious. Clues to the sister’s current state are found within his life and his death. Half truths and almost revelations build to make the reader, question their preconceptions, and reassess what they think they know.

Within these pages there is much to be said for the power of both women and men. How corrupting power is, to what lengths will we go to hold on to power and what happens when the power we craves begins to destroy us.

Power is not only in the hands of the living. There are legacies left behind which shape and guide, be they the poetry of the third victim Femi, or the charade of a memorial service for a long dead and much feared father. Braithwaite has clear messages surrounding the ability of the past and our daily interactions to mould our outlook on life. Who is the more powerful, men or women? Well Braithwaite is going to let you decide.

It is hard to hide my admiration for this book, so why even try. I devoured it in one day, scowling and maybe even growling at any teenager who dare to suggest that may they might want to eat!

I will stick my neck out, break my own self imposed rule and predict that this one will make the Women’s prize Short List on Monday. If it doesn’t I will be wanting to know why!

Grab yourselves a copy and enjoy.

Book mentioned in this blog…

  • My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinka Braithwaite
  • A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
  • Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luisella
  • Signs for Lost Children – Sarah Moss
  • Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn
  • The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson

Book review: Picking Up the Pieces – Jo Worgan.

I have interrupted my Women’s Prize pile to read and review Picking Up the Pieces by Jo Worgan. This book was a ‘Twitter find’, discovered by connecting with other bloggers and authors since beginning Boundbook. And a very welcome find too.

The novel tells the story of Kate, a young mother raising her autistic son Sam single handedly in a coastal Lancashire village. Kate is a woman running from her past, always looking behind her and trying to keep the life she has build safe for herself and, crucially, her son. When we first meet Kate life is settled and there is a new friend on the scene. Things are relatively calm. But is Kate’s past about to catch up with her?

So the scene is set for a domestic thriller, touching upon important issues such as abuse within relationships, how women and men move on and build new lives after trauma. There is a real warmth to the characters within the novel. The recurring theme is trust and how we allow people into our lives after past mistakes and difficult experiences. Aside from Kate, we are introduced to Matt, reeling from the breakdown of his longstanding marriage, trying to move on but tied to the past. Also Emily, the beautiful but desperate friend of Kate’s, struggling to accept her own son’s autistic diagnosis and looking for answers to appease an abusive and blaming husband.

However the real strength of this book, and what spoke to me on both a personal and professional level ,was the realistic and empathic portrayal of what it is like to parent an autistic child. There are no ‘genius Rainman characters’ here; this is not the world of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. Instead this gentle book offers a glimpse into the world of thousands of parents across the world. Those parents attempting to chartered a course for their ASD children through a confusing and sometimes hostile neurotypical world.

Through the character of Sam, Kate’s young autistic son, readers are offered a peek into the world of social stories, sensory dens and visual timetables; a world which for myself, as a both an SEN teacher and a parent of a child with additional needs, is very familiar. This book speaks of the reality of having to bend your will, your expectations to meet those of your child. It depicts the need for routine and stability but at the same time being honest about the fact this can be frustrating and sometimes overwhelming for parents and carers.

Jo Worgan is opening a window into realities that I guarantee are happening all around you. In every supermarket there is a least one parent who is on tenterhooks, trying to rush through this sensory overload and out the other side with their child unscathed. In every theme park there is a family who have been planning this for months, who have played out every possible outcome in their head and who will go home in triumph or despair.

We see Kate setting up and maintaining familiar routines, anticipating hurdles and picking her battles to navigate both her and Sam through the day. Parenting a neurodiverse child is parenting on steroids; more intense, with no let up, and Worgan portrays this well.

Within Kate we see a parent who has accepted her child’s diagnosis and is moving forwards and facing the challenges it brings. She has created her ‘bubble’, the inner sanctum where she and Sam can exist in harmony. Her ongoing challenge is expanding their bubble, facing the challenge that all parents face, preparing their child to cope in a world ahead of them. All parents live with the uncomfortable reality that we won’t always be there to protect and guide our children, for ASD parents this reality can be truly terrifying.

Kate is not the only parent we see on this journey. If Kate shows us acceptance then Emily is a parent in despair. Living with an unsupportive partner who blames her for their son’s diagnosis, she is a woman hell bent on finding answers, searching for the cure without seeing any of the joy before her.

And there is joy. For every Emily, there are hundred of Kate’s who accept and love their child for what they are. Who see beyond the diagnosis and can pinpoint and cherish the child within. These parents are breaking down barriers and entering their child’s world. Rather than just trying to prepare their child for the neurotypical world, these warrior parents are raising awareness and taking on the challenge of changing the world for their child. These parents, despite their daily challenges don’t want rescuing, they want understanding.

This is what Jo Worgan has achieved in creating a book with autism at it’s heart, another brick in the wall of acceptance and awareness. Keep building Jo!

Books mentioned in this blog…

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night – Mark Haddon
  • Picking up the Pieces – Jo Worgan

Ruminations on Literary Prizes…

and my reading plans for the Women’s Prize 2019

I confess to being a bit of a sucker for Literary Prizes. I know full well there are thousands of other books out there. Believe me when I say that a whole chunk of there books are piling up in all the corners of my life! Yet I am still drawn to the long and short lists of popular Literary Fiction.

To be honest my interest in Literary Prizes was no more than passing until a couple of years ago when I read, quite by chance, George Saunders masterpiece Lincoln in the Bardo. It was one of those books that sweeps you up, takes you in and refuses to let go. I became a ‘Bardo’ bore, recommending it everywhere, seeking out like minded souls to worship with and struggling to maintain any composure at all in the face of criticism.

When, a couple of months after my devoted reading, Lincoln was long listed for the ManBooker Prize 2017 I made it my mission to attempt to read the list. Simply because I didn’t believe there was anything out there that could hold a candle to Saunders.

So I cheated on my TBR pile, ignored all the backlisted books that had been patiently awaiting my attention and embarked on a summer of brand new literary reads.

And I almost fulfilled my self imposed mission. By the day of the winner’s announcement in early October I had only Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones left to read. (Confession time – still haven’t read it !!) Lincoln in the Bardo, of course won, I felt vindicated in my devotion and found I had also developed a new reading habit that was going to be very hard to break .

I know that some people love to guess at what the long lists for important prizes will be. I don’t even pretend to have that level of literary prowess. I am quite content to wait passively, if some what hungrily, to see what is served for my literary feast.

And to that end here is my take on 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction Long List.

Those I have read…

At the time of the Long List being announced I had read only 4 of the 16 books within it.

  • The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker. This retelling of the Trojan war and the myth of Achilles from the female perspective of Brises, was quite brilliant. By unpicking and subverting the motivations of war and it warriors, Barker was able to bring to life that dark, moving and human side of the Greek heroes and, most importantly, it’s forgotten women.
  • Circe – Madeline Miller Continuing with the theme of Ancient Greece this reimagining of the myth of Circe was as beautiful and captivating as it’s cover promised it would be. Following on from her hugely successful Song of Achilles, Miller takes Circe’s tale and makes it accessible. From a sidelined and often despised witch figure, Circe arises empowered and magnificent, a metaphor for all self educated women. In my humble opinion a perfect pick for the prize.
  • Ghost wall – Sarah Moss For a slim volume this novella certainly packs a punch. Having only discovered Moss in the last 12 months with the Night Waking and the magnificent Bodies of Light I have been rationing myself, not wanting to binge read an author who deserves savouring. So this was a little slice of dark deliciousness. It has so much to say about family dynamics, hidden secrets and asks difficult questions about the treatment of women both now and in the distant past. Set in one of my favourites English landscapes, this book is haunting and hard to shake off.
  • Milkman – Anna Burns Published in 2018 to international acclaim, this novel set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles was the Man Booker winner. Hands up, I did not find this an easy book to read. The unrelenting prose, almost but not quite a stream of consciousness, required a level of concentration which at that point in my busy life I just wasn’t able to give it. I found that if I could devote a significant period of time to the book – i.e. the 2 hours waiting for my son’s MRI(!) then I became immersed, on the edge of commitment. Any short period of time resulted in frustration. But these were, very likely, short comings of my own rather than the book’s. So while I can appreciate the skill on display here, I personally am yet to connect with it’s brilliance .

Those I intend to read …

This time around I am trying to manage my own reading expectations and admit that I am very unlikely to read all of those long listed. Below are those which have piqued my interest, this may change as the Short List and all it’s hype unfolds! I am, if nothing else a fickle creature where the choosing of reading matter is concerned.

Books from this list that are very much on my radar are listed below.

  • Lost Children’s Archive – Valeria Luiselli – A family from New York embark on a road trip, heading out on the trail of the Apaches. Meanwhile other families, some clinging together and some fragmented, are making the perilous journey to the North American border. This novel feels too relevant and bang up to date to ignore.
  • Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn – I am intrigued by the concept of flash fiction, so this novella set in communist Romania looks fresh and inviting. Alina is walking a fine line and when her husband’s brother defects to the West the line is in danger of disappearing.
  • An American Marriage – Tayari Jones – A story of wrongful conviction and it’s wider implications on an African- American couple. Reviewed and recommended extensively, not least by Barack Obama, whose many reviews have never lead me wrong yet!
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite – The title alone here was enough on it’s own to hook me in! Add to that one very funky cover and a nurse who has cleaned up after not one but three murders committed by her sister and quite frankly what’s not to like!!!
  • Remembered – Yvonne Battle- Felton – Set in 1910 in Philadelphia, Spring is at the bedside of her dying son. Edward is under suspicion and his mother is desperately trying to get to the truth and make peace while she can. Comparisons to, and echoes of the magnificent Toni Morrison, are more enough to draw me in.

So there it is, my humble thoughts on the Women’s Prize offerings of 2019. Reviews of my ‘want to reads’ will follow in due course and as always I would be interest to see what you make of the list in general.

Books mentioned in this post…

  • The Silence of the Girls – Pat Barker
  • Remembered – Yvonne Battle – Felton
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • Milkman – Anna Burns
  • An American Marriage – Tayari Jones
  • Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn
  • Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luisella
  • Solar Bones – Mike McCormack
  • Circe – Madeline Miller
  • The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller
  • Ghost Wall – Sarah Moss
  • Night Waking – Sarah Moss
  • Bodies of Light – Sarah Moss
  • Normal People – Sally Rooney
  • Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney
  • Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders.

This week’s reads…part 2

From Lancashire of the the 1600’s to Memphis in the 1950’s, I am swapping one kind of hysteria for another with my second review of the week. Enter Elvis!

Cards on the table, before we go any further,I may have to confess to having a minor Elvis obsession, cultivated in my childhood, nurtured through my teenage years and hopefully matured in adulthood. The early music I find incredible, mainly in contrast to that which went before. I defy anyone to listen to the earliest Elvis recordings and not to be moved by the sheer energy and raw power, a sound which white American teenagers had never heard before.

I do, therefore, have more than a passing interest in the subject matter contained within this novel. I discovered it whilst listening to the fabulous, and for me recently unearthed Backlisted Podcast.Discussing the impeccably researched and unbelievably detailed ‘Last Train to Memphis’ and ‘Careless Love’ by music journalist Peter Guranlick, was the author of ‘Graceland’ , Bethan Roberts. Describing her own fascination with a the man who shaped a generation Roberts explains the premise of the novel.

This is not just another Elvis rehash, not just another retelling of the myth. It doesn’t focus on the parody Elvis of the Vegas years, the excesses, the drugs, the women, instead it focuses on the relationship between Elvis and his much adored mother Gladys.

Of course this relationship is well documented. The closeness of mother and son has it roots with Elvis’ still born twin, cemented by years spent together dealing with crippling poverty and a father in jail. By her own admission Roberts is not telling a new story, but yet by making this the focus of a novel Roberts is giving herself licence to look beyond the facts. This format allows her to examine the emotions and motivation of both Gladys and Elvis. The result is devastating.

The Gladys we see her is not the one dimensional, suffocating matriarch portrayed through the years. Whilst Elvis is the very heart of her hopes, her reason for existing, Gladys continually fights her own maternal impulses to let him grow and develop. Like most mothers she is seen fighting the pangs of fear as he takes one more step away from her into the world. Even from the earliest of ages Gladys understands her son’s incredible talent. She, through a mother’s adoring eyes, can see that this is something special. And whilst it thrills her, it also terrifies her.

It is difficult to make herself sit there, listening, because she knows he has talent, and she also knows that when he sings he goes someplace else, someplace beyond her reach. And in that place she cannot rescue him from failure.

Page 89, Graceland by Bethan Roberts

Gladys wants success for her son, but she is also reluctant to share him with the world. She is worried that this closeness they share, almost a symbiotic relationship which sustains and guides them both will be destroyed. She is right to worry.

As Roberts guides us through the early years of Elvis’ success, the Sun Record sessions, tours, TV appearances, we get a sense of a family in free fall. Suddenly the dirt poor are hugely wealthy. Gladys describes jewellery boxes over flowing with diamonds, pink cadillacs she can’t even drive parked outside, a mansion to live in. And yet the essence of Gladys is gone. Her son won’t let her cook and clean for him anymore; they have maids. He doesn’t need shirts making; he has so many he is throwing them away. Her one final pleasure, the anchor to the life she knew before is removed, when Elvis tells her she is forbidden from feeding her own chickens. It’s bad for his image.

At this something in her snaps, and she slings a handful of corn at her son’s chest.

‘I am not part of your image!’ She is close to tears, but she won’t let them break. ‘I’m your mother! I’m a person!’

Pg 378, Graceland – Bethan Roberts

The heart of her relationship with her son is being slowly eroded. Elvis, in his misplaced desire to protect and preserve his mother, is slowly killing her, in doing so he destroying the bedrock, the very thing his own success and moral compass is built upon.

Success for Elvis, and therefore by default his family, was on a scale never seen before. Driven forward to new and dizzying heights by his ruthless manager Colonel Tom Parker, no one, less of all Elvis had any idea how to ride this Roller Coaster or how to make it stop. And the fear for a family who had come from nothing was always, if it stops, how do we start it again? Vernon, Elvis’s father embodies the very essence of this fear within the novel. Inflated and emboldened by the success of his son, we see him blindly buying into all Parker’s schemes, closing down yet another escape route for Elvis and opening up the culture of unquestioning loyalty that was ultimately his son’s death knell.

Presley’s own reliance of prescription drugs is certainly not news, but what this novel shows, in heartbreaking clarity, is that his fame’s first casualty was Gladys. As fame took her son further and further away from her own humble dreams for him, those of a good steady job, respect and a family, she began to fill the Elvis sized hole in her life with something else. Alcohol.

At the time of Gladys death from acute liver failure Elvis has just entered his US army basic training. Her death shatters him. Unable to cope in any sense, he allows himself to be railroaded into a public funeral by Tom Parker, a pattern that will continue now for the rest of his life. After the funeral paralysed by grief, Elvis is sedated.

…his father and Colonel Parker are coming for him with Dr Evans, who is carrying a pouchy brown medicine bag.

Elvis’s legs go liquid, but Vernon catches him by the elbow. ‘The doc’s gonna give you a shot, son,’ he says.

Pg 417, Graceland – Bethan Roberts.

Roberts is clear, without Gladys other support is needed and the drugs, already hinted at within the novel, become the ultimate crutch. Nothing else can fill the void. Drugs offer a simple obliteration in the face or unshakeable loss.

Often Elvis’s career is defined in two halves; ‘Before the Army’ verses ‘After the Army.’ Roberts takes that view and turns it on its head, shaking it by the ankles for good measure. Elvis’s career and, more importantly, his life wasn’t defined by the Army, it was defined by the loss of Gladys.

In losing her he lost unconditional love and support. He lost the one person who remembered him for what he truly was, the one person who even in his wildest moments could look him in the eye and make him take stock. Without Gladys all the brakes were off. There was no one to worry about getting home to, no one to right his moral compass. Add to the mix the unbearable guilt he felt and his sudden lack of purpose and we are left wondering just how he survived for so long.

Bethan Roberts has taken a well told tale and looked beyond the surface. I repeat, making this a novel is a master stroke. By doing so she has granted herself permission to look beyond the myths and preconceptions and bring to life one of the great, overlooked tragedies of Rock and Roll.

Books mentioned in this blog:

  • Last Train to Memphis – Peter Guralnick
  • Careless Love – Peter Guralnick
  • Graceland – Bethan Roberts
Elvis and Vernon on the steps of Graceland the morning after Gladys’s death.

This week’s reads…part 1

First week of blogging about about books and it’s been eventful. I never expected to meet so many other great bloggers and book enthusiasts. It has opened up my reading world even more. Which is great… but OH MY GOODNESS the TBR pile is starting to totter!

Too many books not enough time, as usual!

So…moving on, this week’s book reviews are below. Quite a mix in terms of genre and certainly time period. Make of them what you will!!

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

A historical drama dealing with The Pendle witch trials, this was a read for one of my ‘real life’ book groups. It was chosen as it is set very, very locally to us. I am not sure if I am just a perpetual child, easily pleased or both, but I still get that strange thrill when I see the name of a place I know really well in print. So from that respect at least The Familiars was a winner!

The story centres on Fleetwood Shutteworth, the 17 year old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. Her dilemma is that age old problem of being required to provide an heir for her husband. When the novel begins Fleetwood is pregnant for the fourth time and has just discovered she is unlikely to survive another pregnancy. Cue the arrival of Alice, a local wise woman and midwife. Fleetwood and Alice develop a bond, and when Alice becomes embroiled within the Pendle witch trials, Fleetwood is desperate to save her in order to preserve her own life and that of her unborn child.

By far the most interesting element of this book lies in how it presents the theme of power,predominantly, but not exclusively women’s power. The whole book is a power play. Different characters hold and exploit different types of power at different times.

As has been so familiar with the lot of women throughout history, Fleetwood’s power lies in her potential ability to bring a pregnancy to term and ultimately produce an heir. Alice’s power is in her knowledge and skill passed down from generation to generation. Other women, including the child Jennet, implicate their neighbours through the power of gossip.

The witch hunts of the 17th Century did more than just pursue individual women. Crucially they stripped whole groups of women, particularly poor women, of what little power they held. The extension of the remit of the witch hunters to include the use of herbs and charms, local ‘wise women’, who had served their communities for generations as nurses, counsellors and midwives, were suddenly in danger.

The whole novel can be interpreted as a struggle for power; Fleetwood fighting to gain power over her husband, the authorities and even her own body; local officials are fighting for the power that comes with the King’s favour; Protestants fighting to maintain and deepen their power over the forbidden Catholic religion.

This book has a lot to say. It is readable, moves quickly and is a promising debut.

However, there are issues. None of them undermine the message and integrity of the novel but they do, at times come pretty close.

There is a lack of subtly within the writing. For example the narrator talks of past and unwanted companions, and, as if by magic, another companion appears. Symbols of powers such as Richard’s falcon used to show that he can control such a independent creature, serves as a warning to Fleetwood. And yet this symbolism is sometimes not subtle. Throughout there is the feeling that motifs are heavily signposted rather than left for the reader to discover.

Something else that didn’t sit comfortably was the characterisation of Fleetwood. Whilst I am always willing to embrace an independent woman, I remain unconvinced that her portrayal was historically accurate. Would a young wife, with a difficult childbearing history, now pregnant with a longed for heir, be allowed to ride around the countryside, unchaperoned at this point in history? Particularly when she was in danger of jeopardising the reputation of her husband?

Over all this was a good book, a solid debut which I think will be appreciated by those who enjoyed ‘The Silent Companions’ by Laura Purcell and ‘The Wicked Cometh’ by Laura Carlin. Worth a look would also be ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent.

It’s has certainly inspired me to find out more about The Pendle Witches. I have already ordered Jeanette Winterson’s ‘ The Daylight Gate’ and may well be heading back to ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller, the staple of my Sixth Form years.

Books mentioned in this blog…

The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

The Good People – Hannah Kent

The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell

The Crucible – Arthur Miller

The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson

Next up …

’Graceland’ by Bethan Roberts

Beyond Testament of Youth.

My latest reads have very much been of the meandering kind I described in my first blog. One book had led me to another, taking me back into the past and throwing up different perspectives to a story I though I knew well.

I first read Testament of Youth almost 20 years ago. It is the account of Vera Brittain, an Undergraduate who gave up her hard won place at Oxford to become a VAD Nurse for the duration of the World War One. What makes this story truly remarkable and inescapably tragic is the level of personal loss that Brittain suffered during the war. Both her brother Edward, her fiance, Roland Leighton and two close personal friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow were killed.

Testament recounts not only her personal experiences but shows how the War coloured and marked the rest of Brittain’s life, namely by putting her on the road to pacifism. The story is haunting and has been hailed as ‘the woman’s story’ of the War.

It is also a well known story , so when I discovered Chronicle of Youth : Vera Brittian’s War Diary, 1913 – 17 I was interested but really wasn’t expecting to learn anything new.

I was wrong. The diaries, published, despite Brittain’s endeavours, after her death, are able to achieve something Testament can’t. That is a feeling of the War unfolding before your eyes, a steady and sinking realisation that this isn’t the big patriotic adventure, but rather a terrible and bloody conflict that will change lives and society for ever. Couple this book with the brilliantly edited Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends, and the War comes to life in your hands, whether you want it to or not. Rather than the accomplished, heartfelt account of Testament, written some years after the events, within these texts raw, real time events are unfolding before your eyes.

At the forefront of both books is the relationship between Vera and Roland Leighton. Roland was a close friend of Edward Brittain. Roland and Edward had attended Uppingham Public school, training with the OTC – Officers Training Corp. So, when war broke out in August 1914, both sought Commissions, as did their close companion Victor Richardson. Roland found himself in France by March 1915. Aged just 19.

In her relationship with Roland, Vera finds a man who will treat her intellectually as an equal. Vera writes

But to me you, in this respect most of all, have been an oasis in the desert. A man who could see from a woman’s point of view was something to me quite undreamed of

Vera Brittain writing to Roland Leighton. Buxton, 1st September 1915.

A rare man for the time, he never shys away from telling her the truth of his situation. While his letters are accomplished and poetic, matched by Vera’s equally impressive replies, he is often starkly truthful in his descriptions of life in the Trenches.

Let him who thinks that War is a glorious thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation…let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone … and let his realise how grand & glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of putrescence.

Roland Leighton writing to Vera Brittain. France, 11th September 1915.

Both these books serve to show us how letters are the sustaining force of the War. The only method of communication, they provide information, hope and comfort. Vera and Roland admit that open up in letters in a way they never can in public.

Yes, it is absurd that we should be so intimate in letters, & then when we are together that you should touch my hand almost as if you weren’t doing right, & I even hesitate to meet your eyes with mine.

Vera writing to Roland. Buxton, 11-12th September 1915

And an absence of letters provokes despair. In Chronicle of Youth Vera writes desperately of her need to hear from Roland, particularly at those times when a big push is expected. When letters arrive her relief and joy are palpable, only to be replaced almost immediately by the horror of waiting again. Within Letter from a Lost Generation the power held by the letters lies in the way they are organised; chronologically by date written, crucially not by date received. There are few things more heartbreaking as a reader than the crushing realisation that a beautiful letter was never received.

The letters are telling in more than just words.Autumn and Winter 1915 sees an exchange of short and sometimes angry letters between the Vera and Roland, the war is becoming more relentless and real. Letters from Roland which have been so composed and eloquent arrive without shape or punctuation, a spontaneous stream of consciousness, ahead of his time. Already these young people. who sometimes address letters as ‘Dear Child’ are talking in terms of lost youth.

Some letters will touch even the hardest of hearts . Writing to Roland on what she believes will be the eve of a great battle Vera says:

And if this word should be a ‘Te moriturum salute’, perhaps it will brighten the dark moments a little to think how you have meant to Someone more than anything ever has or ever will. That which you have done & been will not be wasted; what you have striven for will not end in nothing ], fo as long as I live it will be a part of me & I shall remember, always.

Vera writing to Roland. Buxton , 26th September 1915.

Most of us would settle for just one letter like that in a lifetime.

More heartbreaking though than any letters are the diary entries of late December 1915 when Vera is excitedly awaiting Roland home on leave. Her guard is down, she is sure he is safe for the first time in months, she is in a hotel awaiting his arrival.

Monday 27th December 1915

Had just finished dressing when a message came to say that there was a telephone message for me. I sprang up joyfully, thinking to hear in a moment the dear dreamed- of tones of the beloved voice.

But the telephone message was not from Roland but from Clare; it was not to say that Roland had arrived but instead had come this telegram …

T223. Regret to inform you that LIEUT. R.A.Leighton 7th Worchesters died of wounds December 23rd.

pg 376 Chronicle of Youth – Vera Brittain.

Roland’s death defines Vera’s whole war. She will go on to suffer other shattering losses including her brother’s death and that of Victor and Geoffrey, but it is Roland’s loss that pushes her forward. As in their relationship, she searches for truth in his death. She is frustrated by differing accounts of his death, told by well meaning officers. She needs the truth, no matter how hard it maybe. It is important to her that Roland understood he was to die, she feels that this would be the ultimate betrayal of his trust.

In January 1916 Vera writes to Edward describing coming across the Leighton family, having just taken delivery of Roland’s tattered and bloodied uniform. Despite it reeking of death and filthy with putrid mud Vera inspects it in a forensic matter, continually searching for answers. Their relationship was based on truth and complete honesty. Vera is determined his death shall be the same.

Whether Vera and Roland’s relationship would have survived the war who can say. One estimate is that they spent only 17 days in each other company. However in the aftermath of his death he is turned into a hero, a Godlike figure who Vera describes with as He, always using a capital letter. It is a habit that is taken up by Edward and Victor, the school champion immortalised, never growing old and never tarnished.

Roland was extremely close to his mother, Marie Connor Leighton book, a successful, popular and sentimental pre-war novelist. In 1916 she published a book in praise of Roland called Boy of my Heart. An extended eulogy for her lost son, by today’s standards it is mediocre and saccharine sweet, but it summed up the mood of nation of Mothers. These women were mourning the very thing that they loved best, their boys given over to serve their countries. After the book’s release Mrs Leighton received scores of letters identifying with Roland. Edward writes with scorn to Vera, he is horrified that mother’s of a mere Tommy should compare their son to the deity that is Roland. But of course they would, Roland was just one precious boy lost.

There is so much more I could write about these books. Despite my better judgement I have become tied up with Vera and Roland ‘s tale. I haven’t even touched upon the delightfully bumbling, public school letters of Geoffrey, always jovial, always terrified and often, inexplicably with a cat in his dug out! Or the earnest and religious Victor who was kept of the war for so long by substandard eyesight, only, with cruel irony to be blinded, dying before Vera could make her offer on life long nursing and companionship. And there is Edward, struggling to understand his place in the world, still worshipping Roland, even after he receives the Military Cross for his part in the Somme.

If you haven’t read Testament of Youth please do. If you have, consider looking beyond. There is so much more to discover.

Books mentioned in this post:

  • Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain
  • Chronicle of Youth – Vera Brittain’s War Diary 1913- 1917
  • Letters from a Lost Generation : First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends. Edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge
  • Boy of My Heart – Marie Connor Leighton