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Dan Richards – Outpost + Podcast

Monday’s podcast is/was with Dan Richards. Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Dan Richards (Holloway, The Beechwood Airship Interviews, Climbing Days, Outpost) discuss asking to join well-known people for lunch and producing fascinating interviews for your book, travelling the less beaten paths of your mountaineering great-great aunt, finding society in isolated places, and looking ahead to how we might continue to approach humanity’s harming of nature after the benefits to scaling back have been shown by this current crisis.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Isolation before it was cool.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 295
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-89155-6
First Published: 24th April 2019
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2020
Rating: 4/5

Richards looks into the value of various isolated buildings and places – sheds, Svalbard, a Martian research centre, a Japanese temple high in the hills – seeking to find out why we are drawn to them and how they inspire creativity. The book includes elements of Richards’ previous books on art, nature, and travel, pulling the subjects together.

I’ve always been drawn to simple structures (p. 57).

The places Richards visits sometimes gel with what you might expect – a small building in the wilds of Iceland; Desolation Peak in America which Jack Kerouac visited and wrote about – but others are very much the opposite; when looking at isolation, you might not think of those places that inspire community. Chapters focused on the research centre in Utah – which Richards spends mostly on an interview (some chapters are more about his own experience, others focus on other people) – and in Svalbard, where the author is never alone, call into question our inherent need for society.

The Svalbard chapter is particularly poignant – as it shows the requirements for others (away from the tourism people need to be careful given the danger) so too does it show how society, humanity, can have a detrimental effect. As much as we may enjoy the isolation, the impact of it – the continual movement of people through it – so too does the ecosystem become impacted. Perhaps the most notable part of the book is Richards’ contemplation and further discussion with the reader of the role humanity plays in the life of the polar bears, in which he recounts the story of bears drowned in the sea as they have to go further and further out to find slabs of ice; having memorised where the slabs were, there comes a problem when they are not found. The irony in being able to witness the movement of polar bears whilst being a part of the problem is not lost on the author.

I believe the more we know about our world, the more we see, the more deeply we engage with it, understand its nature, the more likely we are to be good custodians and reverse our most selfish destructive behaviour (p.10).

Shedboatshed – the chapter about the modern artwork of the same name – will likely divide opinion; it’s certainly one of the more prominent examples of the unexpected. The art work, by Simon Starling, is covered in an effective two step process – a museum visit and an interview with the artist – marking a change in the proceedings. It’s a different travel and a wholly new concept of isolation – the piece is, both in short and literally, made up of a shed that was then dismantled and recreated as a boat, taken to the water, and then rebuilt into a shed; if you like modern art or are even just interested in the idea from afar, it’s a fascinating chapter, but nevertheless may take some getting used to. If it’s not your sort of thing, it may feel like you’ve started a different book. Whichever side you fall on, however, you will probably appreciate Richards’ motive for discussing it, as well as the various extra ideas surrounding it. (One such is the idea that the display of the piece as well as its practical use adds to its history and conversation). The spin off mid-chapter to briefly cover Roald Dahl’s writing hut also helps provide more context, however much it may seem fairly far from Shedboatshed.

The book’s language and general structure make it an easy read. Richards very much takes the reader with him, always addressing them, and the focus on a few core concepts for each location means an in-depth look at what the author deems most important and interesting to relate; you don’t always get a ‘full’ feel for everything but the attention to the overall theme means a more coherent book.

Richards’ enthusiasm for the places and the travel ensures you come away from Outpost with a fair amount of knowledge, and serviceable knowledge, too. It is in many ways – inevitably? – escapist, but the various points of poignancy in it leaves you with much to think about.

I have interviewed the author.

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Fran Cooper – These Dividing Walls + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Weike Wang! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Weike Wang (Chemistry) discuss having both a scientific – in epidemiology no less! – and a writer background, making use of extracts and white space and preferring them beyond more long-form prose, the difficulties of studies and incorporating friends’ experiences in your stories, and fictional dogs who are inherently important to the text.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Between us.

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 256
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64156-3
First Published:
Date Reviewed: 9th April 2020
Rating: 5/5

Edward moves to Paris to get away from his life in Britain. In the apartment building he finds himself are many residents. Some know each other well enough, others are a mystery. And hopefully, to some people, no one new who is different will move in in future. Meanwhile, tensions in wider society echo this worry of difference.

These Dividing Walls is a terrific novel that offers a glimpse at the lives of a small fictional community in Paris, a group of people previously less close. Whilst it is a glimpse in the main sense of the word – the period of time is short – it inevitably shows a great deal more, with Parisian society in general included.

Where to start? The writing is of course the first element to be apparent. Cooper has a precise skill at language; hers is a poetical style; the words flow and the text is both beautifully and deceptively simple, sentences that continue to roll along no matter the subject at hand at any one moment. The text itself is an entire reason for reading the book.

Set in the present day – only a few years ago at the time of this review – the story starts with Edward; as he gets used to the building so too do the other residents’ lives become apparent. The narrative is both character and situation driven, with chapters given over to the different individual residents in the third person. Stripping back the brickwork, Cooper’s cast run the gambit from worried, isolated people, to those in grief, and to those who seek to maintain the status quo by nasty or extreme means.

To that last clause the reference is racial diversity. In a show of what is to come in general, the residents of the apartment building are split between those happy to accept new people of whatever racial background and religion they are, and those who want only people with an ancestrally French background. The Brit was accepted.

And what is to come? These Dividing Walls is heavily invested in the sociopolitical. using factual events, protests, terrorism, as its basis, the fiction constructed looks at social unrest; religious and racial intolerance leading to mass gatherings, targeted attacks, and retaliation. Here the characters’ viewpoints and general personalities provided detailed reasonings for the wider society. It is damning and Cooper doesn’t hold back, showing thoughts and what they can lead to.

Away from this is the subject of motherhood, of the invisibility of mothers when there are cute children to catch people’s attention, and of post-partum depression. Cooper’s look includes a wonderfully described example of how a lack of understanding of the condition can have negative consequences, the opportunity to display both the feelings of the mother and the incomprehension of the father to excellent studious effect.

The subject of grief also marks a couple of characters’ lives, and, needless to say, it’s looked at with the utmost care.

The way These Dividing Walls has been structured means that the content is both a literary escape and an intricut look at contemporary life. If the surface concept, the idea of people in one building is simple, Cooper reminds us that every life is full and complex, and that we are all effected by the wider situation.

It starts in a visual vacuum, diversions afforded by brickwork. It ends with the walls torn down in various ways, with a metaphorical dynamite that is metaphorically as powerful as the real life cirumstances behind the fiction.

 
Tracy Chevalier (ed.) – Reader, I Married Him

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There was every possibility of reading a book that day.

Publisher: The Borough Press (HarperCollins)
Pages: 282
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-008-15057-0
First Published: 7th April 2016
Date Reviewed: 30th January 2020
Rating: 4/5

For this anthology, twenty-one women writers, some very well known, others less known but no less great, come together to tell various short stories inspired by Jane Eyre, in particular the famous line that comes towards the end.

This collection is pretty special. Not only are the stories on the same theme but on the same sub-theme, the same sentence. It’s true that many of them do not deal closely with the subject itself, but they do all revolve around it, just at different distances.

Reader, I Married Him explores the variety of ideas that accompany all our personal experiences of Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester’s union – some look at it in terms of love, just love; some look at it in terms of the thoughts that have been explored in our more modern times of Rochester’s personality and the difficulties with his ‘woman in the attic’, as well as in terms of Jane’s beliefs in herself, and her experiences in childhood. Others look at it in terms of how it might play out today, others in a modern day context in general. Some look overseas, in countries Charlotte Brontë had possibly never heard of, and some look at same sex romances that would have been completely off the table.

The variety is, both by its nature and simply by fact, the best aspect of this book. You get enough stories about Jane Eyre and other characters from the novel to be satisfied with the literary context and classical exploration, and then there are also enough stories that are close enough, too, in that way, which means that the others – far more loosely based – become an excellent palette cleanser and are highly interesting in themselves. (Because, suffice to say, if you’re picking up this book, you’re either picking it up for Charlotte Brontë or for the authors.)

Chevalier’s compiling of the stories has been done well; the contributing editor has arranged them in such a way that even if you tire of any one particular story, you’re still very interested to read the next. And this is no mean feat when there are twenty-one to get through.

No surprise – there are plenty of standouts. Standouts for you, yourself, are necessarily going to depend on what aspect of the exploration intrigues you most, so this paragraph may be more subjective. Standouts in terms of this review include Kirsty Gunn’s Dangerous Dog, a very loosely-based story that centres on a woman who comes across a group of teenagers hurting a pit bull and tries to show them it’s not a horrible creature; Joanna Briscoe’s To Hold, where a woman marries three men for different reasons but loves Mary; the titular Reader, I Married Him by Susan Hill, a fictional narrative concerning the marriage of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII (though they are not named as such); Francine Prose’s The Mirror, which looks at Jane’s story as a repeating pattern in Rochester’s house; Elif Shafak’s A Migrating Bird, loosely-based and concerning a young Muslim student who falls for an effective exchange student who, friends say, will return home; Patricia Park’s The China From Buenos Aires, incredibly loosely based but fantastic, a tale of a young Korean Argentinian woman who moves to America and misses home; Salley Vickers’ Reader, She Married Me which is exactly what you would think it is; and Tracy Chevalier’s Dorset Gap, where a guy joins a literature student on a walk post-pub (public house) visit and tries to emulate her idea, of signing a book for passing ramblers, to poor effect.

Certainly a few of the above stories are better than the others in the paragraph but there isn’t a ‘bad’ one in the whole bunch; it’s simply the case that when you find the one or two that speak most strongly to you, be that in the literary context or otherwise, the others just can’t quite match up to them.

But that is to be expected; with the variety of debates on the various themes and topics in the original, some will speak more strongly to you than others. This is where the more average, more ‘plodding along’ periods of your reading will take place, when you want to be done with your current story so you can see what the next one is like. The book can also seem longer than it is because of the need to reset your expectations so often and so much, what with differences in closeness to Brontë’s work. Inevitably the work you have to do to understand them in context changes, too.

Reader, I Married Him does really need a reading of the source work behind it to get the most out of it; it doesn’t matter whether you read it once years ago or whether you’ve studied it over and over – you just need to have read it. And every reader will take away something different from it; interestingly, if we were to say that everyone’s opinions of the classic are branches of the same tree, then these stories and our opinions of them are further branches, from each of the first. It is effectively a secondary or tertiary source. And it’s a good one.

 
E C Fremantle – The Poison Bed + Podcast

On today’s podcast I’m joined by E C Fremantle (Elizabeth Fremantle) author of The Poison Bed; also Queen’s Gambit, Sisters of Treason, Watch the Lady, and The Girl in the Glass Tower. We discuss changing pen names, a horrific murder case in the Stuart nobility, coping as a new mother in a one-of-a-kind situation, and the historical line between witchcraft and ‘simple’ superstition.

Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

The main episode page, which includes the full episode details, the transcript, and a question index, is here. The podcast is also available on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, and via RSS.


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In all senses of the phrase, do not take it lying down.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 403
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-405-92007-0
First Published: 14th June 2018
Date Reviewed: 26th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

Frances Howard is in the Tower of London, accused on murder. She has confessed. Now, as she awaits trial, she tells her story to Nelly, the girl assigned to look after the baby. Also in the Tower is Frances’ husband, Robert Carr, charged for the same reason. He too tells his story, of a man who was once the King’s favourite. Who is telling the truth? Who is lying? Or are they both doing the same thing?

The Poison Bed is a fictionalisation of a true event in history; Frances – a member of the family in a rivalry to be top dog at court – and her husband were brought to trial for the murder of a lower member of the nobility. Using facts wherever possible, bringing in likelihoods and possibilities where information is debated, and creating elements where there is less or no information, the novel pulls the history towards us in a way that makes the thoughts and reasonings of the time very understandable. The book has been described as a historical Gone Girl and it’s a very apt description – the atmosphere of thriller and the manipulative quality is similar, as is the structure.

The book begins with a sense of vagueness – if you don’t know what it’s about (and the blurb on the back is suitably vague) it can take a couple of chapters to get to grips with what’s going on. Some readers may find this difficult – certainly you might feel like a fish out of water – but it’s something to stick with; the confusion is very fitting and in keeping with the genre, and it primes you for the work you will want to do to get to the bottom of what’s happened and is happening – whilst Fremantle gives you all the information by the end, not leaving you wondering at all, you’ll want to do your own detective work on the fly.

The narrative voices may also take some getting used to. The book is formed of two narratives – Frances tells her story for a chapter, then we turn to Robert, and back again. Frances’ narrative is mostly in the third person but sometimes switches to first – the change is intentional, the extra thinking you do keeps the novel in that psychological zone – and Robert’s is in the first person. The characters also deal with their stories differently; both look to the past but Frances’ is more your usual flashback retelling whereas Robert’s sounds more present. Interestingly, for all that Robert appears to speak directly to the reader, he is more distanced than Frances. However, Fremantle’s use of the third person for Frances permits a highly informative look at her thoughts.

The strictness, as it were, of the narratives – this back and forth between only two characters – is one of the biggest strengths of the book. Constrained (or should that be condemned?) to spend your time with only two of the fair-sized cast of characters hones your focus and increases the darkness. Of the darkness it is almost absolute, with the novel situated in the Tower; despite the numerous time spent in sunnier locations during flashbacks and Robert’s storytelling, the despair of the Tower is ever-present. For her second book, Sisters Of Treason, Fremantle spent most of the novel’s pages in the Tower with the sisters of Lady Jane Grey, weaving a tale that was very dark and foreboding; with The Poison Bed the author has managed to take that further with the addition of the psychological thriller aspect and in this regard the book is absolutely stunning. Owing to the nature of it, the story isn’t always pacey, if you want to take breaks (you may well – these are not particularly pleasant characters) you can; rested assured the narrative will hold your attention even when it’s not speeding along. There is manipulation in the book and the list of those at the receiving end has your name on it.

Moving on to the historical concepts, Frances’ value to women at court as a palm reader begins the look at the balance between witchcraft and what was not considered witchcraft. You will most likely learn something new from this book on the subject, and various ideas under the umbrella subject are done so with aplomb. In regards to Robert Carr being a favourite of James I, Fremantle has looked at the potential of the intimacies in terms of sexual connotations. The novel also looks at the position of women in society not ‘just’ in terms of Frances’ place in it but in terms of business, and reputation both general and more specific to the time.

In terms of the historical event, it is a relief, after you’ve turned the last page, to leave the world The Poison Bed steeps you in. In every way beyond that – as a work of fiction, in the planning and storytelling, the attention to historical detail, its literary merit and overall value – the novel is fantastic. And it is most definitely worth the read.

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Susmita Bhattacharya – Table Manners

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It’s ready.

Publisher: Dahlia Publishing
Pages: 168
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-995-63446-6
First Published: 28th September 2018
Date Reviewed: 16th January 2020
Rating: 5/5

A woman is irritated by the lady who keeps taking her brother’s wife’s time up with her tales of her abusive husband; a man becomes disturbed by the change in the public’s thoughts as to those of his religion; a couple goes on a trip to Venice before one of them is moved to a hospice.

Table Manners is a collection of short stories connected by the theme of food and meals. But as you might expect it’s not quite as simple as that; the food, a theme of varying degrees in each story, relates directly to human relationships and connections.

Bhattacharya’s collection is super. The writer’s basic concept is to take a person’s interest in food, or the fruit tree that is in a person’s life, or a single dinner, and relate it to an event of long-term happening in the character or characters’ lives where the presence, or lack, of other people has made or is making a mark. The collection is deceptive; after the first few stories you’d be forgiven for thinking that the work is brilliant, but on a small, quiet scale. Make no mistake – you’re simply consuming the appertiser. Once you’re a few stories in, the concepts do effectively leap out of the frying pan and into the fire, becoming shockingly excellent, and this continues for a good while enough that you realise the necessity of the quieter beginning. There are pauses to get your breath back, but the mainstay of the collection is the hard-hitting stuff, with some superb characterisation leading the way. There are a number of errors in the book but whilst they are noticeable, they do not detract from the whole.

The collection is international, with stories spanning a number of continents, showing the feelings and aspects of life as worldwide, as well as those more specific to a few places and the present day.

As to the standouts, three of them are noted above; a special mention must be made for the very first story, The Right Thing To Do, which is told by the sister-in-law of the person whose house the story takes place in, and begins with this:

I push the cup towards Mrs Dalal. As usual, she is crying, caressing her bruised arm. She barely looks up at me but takes a deep sip of the tea. My Bhabhi tilts her head slightly, indicating me to leave. I go back to the kitchen, already worrying about the rice that needs to be cooked before Dolly and Rana come home from school. Then there’s the fish to be cleaned and fried. And the clothes to be brought back freshly ironed from the istriwallah. The chapattis to be cooked. Why does Mrs Dalal turn up with her bruises at the most inconvenient of times?

Others include Comfort Food, in which a wife in Singapore is happily making her favourite meal as she does every Friday whilst her husband is out entertaining business associates, only this evening he rings her to ask that she join him. It is an uncomfortable meeting for her. Letters Home shows the emotional journey of a man who emigrates from Bangladesh to Cardiff in our current political climate. And then there is Buon Anniversario Amore Mio, the story of a couple taking an end-of-life holiday during which they discuss difficult moments in their relationship.

Table Manners is beautifully written; careful language, a lot of heart. You’re likely old enough to decide for yourself when you get down from the table, and in this case, you’re going to want to wait until long after the conversation is over.

 

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