At a writers’ event I asked the panel if there was a bias in the publishing industry against Northern writers. One of the comments made was to mention a quote of someone or other that you can’t be considered a great writer until you have written a novel set in London. There clearly is a bias: the belief in the almost exclusively London-based publishing and literary agents’ world that literature is written about the middle classes and for the middle classes. (And of course that means London.) If you write about the North, no matter how good your writing, you are classed as a “Northern writer” and you automatically become niche. (Ever heard Ian McEwan called a Southern writer?) If it is about working class people it is a further sub-category. I was told that a historical novel set in the North was regarded as a “clogs and shawls” genre and had to have female lead to fit the publishing demographic. Publishing has become risk-averse: it is less about quality or diversity than about what Tesco will sell. This post is my attempt to show that you can base good writing in somewhere like Sheffield. For me, to qualify as a ‘Sheffield novel’ it is more than it being set in Sheffield - I want to feel the place coming through.
Here I propose to post reviews of Sheffield novels as I get round to them: there are more than I first thought: it may take some time. Any thoughts or recommendations most welcome: it would be no good if everyone agree with me. Comments can be posted below.
Coming next: ? Any suggestions anyone?
(Keep up to date by subscribing on right. Ta.)
Susan Day - Hollin Clough
Hollin Clough is Sue’s third novel (see also review of Who Your Friends Are, below). This is another family saga where Sue expertly tackles the relationships within families and their dynamics. In some ways it is reminiscent of The Northern Clemency (also: see review below) only less wordy, less pretentious and better observed.
It is based around a fictional location: a house and campsite – the Hollin Clough of the title – on the western outskirts of Sheffield, and events that take place there which influence the lives of three (or maybe four?) generations of the extended family of Dot and Sid Green.
The characters are very convincingly drawn and deftly written, the plot well constructed and economically written – in fact you have to concentrate or you might miss something – but that is not a problem: it is the sort of book you need to read quite quickly anyway, not one for a few pages at bedtime for a month or so.
At times I found myself wondering would people really behave that way and be so unforgiving? But then I reflected on how many if not most families are dysfunctional, have undercurrents of things unspoken and things left unsaid that would have been better said, or things that were said that should have been kept quiet – and how do you decide the one from the other? Any book that makes you think about the world and people has got to be worth a read.
Don’t be put off by this not being a mainstream commercial press, or by the rather plain cover – this novel would hold its own against most on the tables of Waterstones – it is well written, thoughtful and entertaining.
Tony Williams - Nutcase
As I pick up my pen to review Nutcase by Tony Williams, I’m still not sure what I’m going to write. Did I like it? Not sure. Was it well-crafted and compelling? Certainly. Did I enjoy reading it? Probably not. Was I glad to have finished it so that I could read something less disturbing? Oh yes!
The first thing that strikes you is the language. It is very simple – almost “Janet and John.” But once you get the hang of it, it moves fast. Add to this lots of characters, plot dead-ends and tangents, and you work hard to keep up. It is language stripped bare of centuries of development of the novel (it is loosely based on a 13th century Icelandic saga). It deliberately lacks writing sophistication – but that is not to say it's not intelligent fiction. There’s no scene-setting, no description, no free indirect style – no inner thoughts revealed. Just about all the characters’ motivation is left to the reader. I couldn’t get the intro to 1970s sitcom Soap out of my head“In last week’s episode of Soap, Danny once again tried to kill Burt, but couldn’t. Corrine tried to talk Father Timothy Flotsky into leaving the church and going with her but couldn’t. Unable to have the only man she wanted, Corrine decided to move in with Peter. Meanwhile… Confused? You won’t be after this week’s episode of Soap.” That’s what it reminded me of.
But it does feel like an authentic, if condensed, portrayal of the dark underbelly of Sheffield life – brimming with nastiness, violence and reprisal: a code of ethics outside the mainstream. I recognised some of the characters.
Did it at times drift from observation into condescension? How does a writer avoid that? When he writes: “they all ate packet rice with Dolmio on it for tea…” is that neutral observation or authorial commentary?
So, did I like it? Still not sure.
Steven Kay - All Measures Necessary
Another one I can't review myself. If anyone wants to review it for this blog, please get in touch.
Steph Henley - Boy in Blue
It is hard for me to review this objectively since I helped publish it. Needless to say I wouldn't have done so had I not rated it highly. If anyone wants to review it for this blog please get in touch.
Guy Balguy - The Bantams of Sheffield
The Bantams of Sheffield, published in 1891 is the second oldest novel set in Sheffield, so far as is known. It has some unique features which make it of interest to modern readers.
In his preface, Guy Balguy (real name George Henry Addy) talks of the compromises he had to weigh up when trying to write what is essentially a Victorian romantic novel about Sheffield, which he describes as a “busy, work-a-day town.”
He is also mindful of not wanting to make over-use of dialect – an acknowledgment that its use is not quite the done thing – but despite that it is the modest use of Sheffield dialect that makes The Bantams unique.
Some readers will find his overly romantic style, at times, a little trying, but some of his prose is hard to fault: the last scene in Attercliffe and the pulling down of the blinds, the opening scene in Llandudno, or the description of Froggatt Edge, for example.Balguy has retained place names – refusing the urge to make his novel more “accessible” by not siting it in an unfashionable place, the stigma of which would potentially put off readers as much as the use of dialect. It is nice to read of someone catching a bus to Broomhill a hundred and twenty five years ago to go for a walk in the Botanical Gardens!
Jacqueline Creek - The Girl with the Emerald Brooch
This is a memoir from childhood to marriage told in novel form - which is why I've included it here.. In some ways it is the story of an ordinary person, but anyone who has met Jackie would not describe her as “ordinary” – she is more a force of nature.
The Girl with the Emerald Brooch will probably be of most interest to the post-war generation who may read it as a walk down memory lane. It sets out to tell Jackie’s life story using dialogue and narrative as well as covering the detail of a memoir. And that life story is certainly interesting.
For me, though, it falls somewhat between the two stools of novel and biography. It does read as being strongly authentic – I didn’t get the impression that any of the details of the story were made up. My issue was more that it lacks the discipline of a novel – where the author becomes wholly subservient to the characterisation and the plot. Also, because it was told as a story, it is missing the reflections on a life well lived that a good autobiography may have. Perhaps more melding of the two styles would have worked better? With reflections from the perspective of the present day, cutting back to the historical stuff.
There is too much historical detail that is not necessary to the story: references to brand names and a recounting of how things used to be – things a historical novel would leave out. Though that might be of interest to those seeking a historical record of life in the 1950s and 60s, or a social historian, it does not sit well in a novel format. Someone – I wish I could remember who, to avoid having to paraphrase – said that a historical novelist should know how the glass window is made that their character looks through, but should not describe that glass-making process. (This “let me impart to you my knowledge” trap is all too easy for a historical novelist to fall into: you want to make use of all your fascinating hours of research. But you must resist if it doesn’t serve the plot or story – even Hilary Mantel is guilty of breaching this cardinal rule.)
As a result this book is perhaps more the relating of a record of events. It has little “plot” – but how many real lives have a plot? That is the beauty of the novel form – the weaving of plot, the build and release of tension, the creation of atmosphere and the inner dialogue of characters that give you insights into lives of humans, but you will not find a huge amount of that here.
John Harris - Covenant With Death
I love finding a great book I’ve never heard of: it’s like finding buried treasure. This was such a book: flagged up to me by someone on Sheffield Forum. It was first published in 1961 – in a way thirty years too early. Had it appeared in the 1990s, after the renewed interest in the First World War, it might have been more celebrated. It is different from the later ‘vogue’ books like Birdsong, Regeneration or the Michael Morpugo books – it doesn’t have that same filter of knowingness. Covenant with Death has a more natural, less forced, feel to it. It tells the story and doesn’t in anyway try to manipulate the reader. You don’t detect the cleverness of the author making an emotional judgement from the safety of the late 20th century self-assuredness or wittingly building tension in order to slap you later; there is no middle-class intellectual sentimentality.
Harris says in is brief forward that he used first-hand accounts from surviving survivors – that combined with his impeccable research means you get the feeling that all of it is based on real anecdote. That clearly can’t be the case. It is a fictional account after all – but you can’t tell which is anecdote and which is made up. That makes this book unique – no one else can tell the story of the City Battalion using such strong evidence. It feels very authentic.
Harris was born in Rotherham, had first hand experience of the Second World War, and worked for the Sheffield Telegraph until the 1950s when he made enough money from his novels to pursue it full time.
Covenant with Death is far from a perfect work, but it still must remain one of the best First World War novels. It is not as polished as the other novels referred to. For example, it is almost pure story – missing some of the other elements of the modern novel. For example, some people lament the lack of the depth of character; personally I would have preferred a little more to make the characters more rounded. I found that for much of the book they were just names – you start to care about them as individuals more towards the end but you have to work your imagination quite hard at the start to breathe life into them. My other slight criticism is that some of the punctuation is erratic: I noticed this more, early on, before the story really got going, but as I got dragged into the story it either improved or I got used to it. The book tells the story of the City Battalion (for a factual history see: Sheffield City Battalion: the 12th (Service) Battalion York & Lancaster Regiment, by Ralph Gibson and Paul Oldfield) from recruitment through to the Battle of the Somme (spoiler alert: it is not a happy ending). I was also irritated by all the place names being fictionalised: Cotterside Common/Attercliffe Common, Blackmires/Redmires etc. I don’t know why authors feel the need to do this. If you are writing about a real place, unless you are Thomas Hardy, don’t bother.
Kate Mitchell - The House Fell On Her Head
This story had a great genesis: coming from an idea the author had whilst cutting her privet hedge. Her neighbour said: “Mind where you put your feet, we buried all sorts there during the war.” This then led to her researching accounts of the war in Walkley library.
The story starts with the discovery of a body in a garden on the fictional Hurdle Hill Terrace (probably based on Bole Hill Road – there is also Liberty Road which is likely to be Freedom Road).
The story is told from two converging points of view: of Alice, whose mother owns the house where the majority of the narrative takes place, and of Frank: who was a young boy in the war when the plot starts to unfold.
Of the two, Frank’s narrative is my favourite and I would have liked more of him and less of Alice, who I found starting to irritate me as the story went on. For example, it seems obvious to the reader what was going on and yet Alice didn’t seem to respond in the way you would expect and couldn’t see the plain truth in front of her. There was perhaps a little too much ‘reveal’ early on, which meant the reader was way ahead of Alice and makes the reader lose her a bit as a real person.
By contrast, there is something more endearing about Frank’s character – it is always interesting to see a story filtered through the eyes of a character who doesn’t have an adult’s full grasp of events.
As well as the murder mystery at the heart of the story, it covers themes of family, how the war fractured those relationships and how personal histories have echoes down the generations.
It is a good, entertaining read. What stopped it being very good are what appear to be inconsistencies in Alice’s character, along with one or two things such as inaccuracies of dialect: occasional mixing up ‘thee’ and ‘tha,’ Alice’s recovery of buried memories seems less than convincing and the remarkable detail in computerised medical records causes a raised eyebrow. These are perhaps only problems for a pedant. I also felt there was at times a tendency to over write, or over dramatise rather than letting the narrative flow naturally and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks.
Susan Day - Who Your Friends Are
Who Your Friends Are is a story of growing up in the 1960s – a story about families and relationships, ups and downs. The portrayal feels very real; so much so, in fact, that you suspect it is semi-autobiographical.
It is set mostly somewhere in London, but parts of it also in Sheffield. It tells the story of two friends growing up and drifting apart and of the lives of their families. It is not told in a conventional way – there are two narratives running in parallel: the contemporary account of the narrator interwoven with reflections on the past, in the form of pieces of writing for a writers’ group.
The narrative is not linear – it is told rather as a sequence of recollections, not necessarily remembered in chronological order. It makes for an interesting read, but also a challenging one for the reader – additionally so because there are lots of people mentioned. If you are like me, and you struggle to remember more than half a dozen characters, you will have to work hard to remember who everyone is. I found the writers’ group particularly difficult to retain a sense of who anyone was, especially as all the names beginning with J. I am not quite sure why the author chose this device, as it just meant they all blurred into one and I gave up on them as individuals. For these reasons it is not a book to leave for long between reads.
This patchwork quilt of a narrative all comes together in the end, and threads are tied off: the story is not hugely strong on plot though. For these reasons it is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. What it does do is ask questions about friendship and what binds families together and breaks them apart. It reveals some fundamental truths.
It is very well edited and the text is virtually flawless.
Lauren Woodcock - Those Who Will Not See
Those Who Will Not See is an accomplished first novel, the author having taken on a huge challenge and largely succeeded. It follows the life of an autistic boy and his family from when he is five through to the age of twenty-two. It is told from several points of view: of the boy himself – Matthew, of his sister, and occasionally his mother and father.
The biggest challenge for the author is Matthew’s narrative: putting into words the thoughts and feelings of someone who is by nature less socially interactive or communicative than other people. How does an author translate that into a coherent, flowing narrative, make it convincing, and allow the reader to discover a new and different perspective when just writing from a child’s point of view alone is challenging enough? Clearly Lauren Woodcock has a good understanding of her subject through personal experience – that comes across and gives the reader the trust that they need to know this is realistic, that the story reflects the kind of thoughts and feelings of such a person. The way it is related creates a space to allow your perceptions to be challenged.
That said, I occasionally struggled a little to suspend disbelief: in particular that the teaching profession could have been quite so appalling in modern times, but that could be just my naivety, and perhaps some artistic licence.
I also didn’t get much of a sense of the character of Matthew developing as he grew older: some of the vocabulary attributed to the five-year-old Matthew seems too sophisticated: e.g. “confused,” “background,” and perhaps: “she has made her head drop forwards” – but that is the author’s dilemma – how do you convey the sense of such words as “confusion” without using the word itself?
This is a well-rounded story, a life-affirming read, one that makes you believe you’ve learnt something about what it is to be human, that you have not only been entertained but are better for having read it.There is not much reference to Sheffield in the story, and most of the place names are fictional.
Barry Hines - The Gamekeeper
This is the story of a year in the life of George Purse, a former steelworker who became a gamekeeper on a ducal estate. I am not in any danger of giving anything away in the plot in this review because, quite simply, there isn’t one. It is probably completely plot-less in fact. Neither is it very much in the way of a character study: all the characters are pretty flat. The one who comes closest to revealing any real insights into character is George Purse himself, but he is drawn as a taciturn, phlegmatic northerner whose natural tendency to not display emotion almost pushes the reader away. If a reader were to come at this wanting to learn what makes George Purse tick they won’t get it – in fact he is referred to by the characterless “the gamekeeper” throughout much of the book. It is easy to contrast it with Lawrence – there is none of the introspection and angst that Lawrence’s characters display – none of the emotional journey you’d get if Lawrence had written this. George Purse is what he is, gets on with it, and if you don’t like what you see that’s none of his concern.
So what is left of this plot-less, characterless novel to satisfy the reader? What you get is a chronicle of the work of a gamekeeper – a close observation of the art and craft of rearing game. And don’t assume that is boring and technical: the reader is placed very closely in the scene by the detailed observation of everything around, some lovely imagery and metaphors to make you feel the reality of the process, and way of life. It could almost be described as “reportage,” but is done in a way that only fiction could achieve: if the same story were attempted as a non-fictional narrative account of a real gamekeeper it would not have had the same general appeal, and would have been boring.
It is clear is that Hines immersed himself in this lifestyle in order to write the book. You can almost imagine him poised with his pen at every move as he stalked his subject.
The lack of a plot is slightly problematic, particularly to modern readers who are trained to expect plot twists and turns – for protagonists to be challenged, to have the writer, as is often said: “put the character up a tree, throw rocks at them and get them down again.” But perhaps the fault there lies more with us as readers. What you do get with this novel is an honesty – an authenticity, a portrayal of class in the 20th century (the main theme of the book) that is fair to underclass without being preachy. There is an affection for people, their lives, and their humour.
But a Sheffield novel? I am here officially claiming The Gamekeeper as a Sheffield novel. My evidence: George Purse is an ex-steelworker who worked at Brightside Steels, which is clearly one of the large Don Valley works. The city that has to be crossed to get to the grouse moors is clearly Sheffield. Hines was at Sheffield University when he wrote this. The fictional village where the majority of the novel is set is fifteen miles from the grouse moors on the other side of the city – it has something in common with Wentworth – for example the “eye of the needle” folly, but it is not Wentworth – it is part of the “ducal estate” but is also joined onto a new council estate and “most of the land as far as the City boundary belong to the Duke.” Anyone want to argue the point?
CF Connolly - Felix Noonan - Sheffield Poet
What do you mean you’d never heard of Felix Noonan? Shame on you! One of Shefffield’s greatest sons: friend of Albert Camus and Brendan Behan, associate of the likes of Joan Baez and Jack Kerouc, and who famously duetted with Muddy Waters in Chicago and Louis Armstrong in New Orleans. Still ring no bells? Well, that is probably all because of a plot by MI5 and the CIA to bury his legacy following his death, accidental or from suicide, in 1981. He died following Sheffield United’s relegation to the Fourth Division. Or was his death part of a plot too? Was Don Givens, who fluffed the penalty, in the pay of MI5? This long-overdue biography of Sheffield’s most neglected poet and author looks to restore his reputation, to bring back such immortal lines as these on the Great Sheffield flood of 1864:
Twere in t’year eighteen sixty fooer
That people in Sheffield erd a gret rooer
Which cozzed citeh to drahn frum Bradfield to DooerAn left hundreds a fooak wi no ouse anymooer
P.S. This nonsense posing as literature is penned by the owner of a lovely little bookshop on Abbeydale Road called The Besotted Wretch. So do pop along and berate him for conning poor readers into thinking this was all true, and, while you’re there, be a good citizen and withdraw a copy from the market to reduce the chances of some other poor innocent fool being duped. It would make a good darts board.
P.P.S It is a quirky, niche, parody of a little book at 95 pages long, in the vein of Gladys Protheroe – Football Genius. It had me chuckling aloud.
Berlie Doherty - Granny was a Buffer Girl
I re-read this in advance of an event on the subject of “a sense of place” in literature – with a specific focus on Sheffield – at which Berlie Doherty will be reading from Granny was a Buffer Girl.
Books can be set in Sheffield but fail to capture anything of the spirit or character of the city. Many of the books reviewed in this post are like that, and have sometimes been disappointing as a result. For many you could do a “find and replace” search on a word-processor and substitute ‘Sheffield’ for ‘Derby,’ ‘Darlington’ or even ‘Leeds,’ and nothing would be lost (Sunjeev Sahota’s, or Ben Cheetham’s books for example). Granny was a Buffer Girl, on the other hand, could only be set in Sheffield and the book could not be based anywhere else without a complete re-writing – there is a sense that the place shapes the characters and if you took the characters out of the place you would end up having to re-write the characters.
The title is a good one, iconic almost, but it doesn’t really tell you much about what to expect from the book. It is a coming-of age novel, in similar ways to Dear Nobody, aimed principally at teenagers. It is not a story about someone’s granny. Grandparents back-stories do feature in it, in so far as it is a story about family and how that shapes us, the meaning of love, and growing up. (As an aside on titles: the foreign language titles show an interesting dilemma: in Austria they went for something like “A Dove in Summer Light, ” in Sweden: “An Image of Danny” and in Finland: “Not a Prince, Not a Princess.”)
It is a proper read for any teenager who wants a rest from vampires, fantasy and dystopian books.
Bryony Doran - China Bird
This novel was published via a slightly unusual route. It is published by Hookline Books and was the winner of their 2008 novel competition which is judged by book groups. It is easy to see its appeal to book groups — there’s a lot of content in the novel — themes to discuss and explore: like body image, self-fulfilment, the power of art and artistic expression, parent-child relationships etc.
It is well written with some strong imagery, but, that said, I was in a way relieved to get to the end so that I could move on to something different. This is probably a very personal matter — one which is hard to explain. There will no doubt be many readers who love this book and who will take a polar view. The best I can do to describe my response to it is to say it felt I like watching life through a thin veil — all a bit strange and other-worldly. None of the characters were people I knew or really understood — a bit like life in another country with a slightly alien culture. I wasn’t immersed in the novel, I was observing it through this veil, slightly distorting my perception. It unsettled me a bit. I couldn’t second guess anything, didn’t really empathise with any characters or relate to their actions. It is not that I am narrow in my taste, I like books from different cultural perspectives. It was perhaps a bit like one of those dreams you have sometimes when you’re slightly feverish — it makes sense, but somehow not. Timelines are distorted as well and it is also written in quite a dream-like way.
The Sheffield part of the book does not have a strong sense of place — in fact that comes out strongest when the story moves to Cornwall. The story takes place mostly in Sheffield, and parts of it are recognisable and named, though one or two bits of artistic licence are employed.
The Kindle version I read as one or two typos in it.
Overall, an unusual book that you probably need to judge for yourself.
Kevin Paterson - Touretti Spaghetti
There is something very likeable about this novel despite its shortfalls. If it was written from a female perspective you’d have little hesitation in calling it chick-lit – there’s something very safe and charming about it. The main character, Adam, is a nice chap without the kinds of psychological flaws and complexities you often see in leading characters. He is one of the most normal people you’ll ever see in a story – kind, conscientious, polite, considerate and thoughtful. But for one thing you could even call him a bit boring: that thing is his Tourette’s. This means he has various tics and jerky body movements that he has to come to terms with throughout that part of his life that the book covers. This lends a complexity to the character that sustains the story. If you had to assign it to a particular genre – and I hate the whole concept of genre in literature – then it would probably be “teen fiction” – in that I think it would appeal mostly to that age group: readers who will identify most strongly with the story and characters.
There is not much by way of plot – it is not particularly complex in that respect, but it is not the plot that keeps you reading on in this book. It is a novel where you get to know the character and come to see him as a friend, so that you are interested in how he gets on and want to see him do well.
He has some stuff to deal with but he’s not exactly thrown into peril very much – you wonder at times where it is going and whether the author is going to tease you by dangling him off a cliff – but the cliffs he hangs off are more like 10 ft high walls and never threaten to do more than give him a bit of a jolt. This is what I mean by “safe” – an easy read that doesn’t set your heart racing or disturb your psyche too much. It is “nice,” like the protagonist. I rather favour this kind of book for bed-time reading. It doesn’t disturb my dreams.
Kate Hanney - Someone Different
My sixteen-year-old daughter read this. She said it had a good plot and found the characters easy to relate to: she knows people just like this at school. It is a book that shows real life, not some over-glamorised make-believe. She got into the story quickly and it kept her interest to the end.
(I'll add more writerly/literary criticism when I get round to reading this myself... but probabaly won't better that)
Michael Wood - For Reasons Unknown
This was a frustrating novel. From all the rave reviews I was looking forward to it, but from the outset it had me huffing. The second line of chapter 1 describes someone as having gone through “a painful miasma of emotions.” Now, since a miasma is a noxious emanation, from a swamp, for example, what is a miasma of emotions? I presume the author must have intended a word that meant “range.” Miasma is misused later in the book as well: where we get a “miasma of thoughts.”
Then you get odd shifts in point of view. Here we’re following Matilda’s thoughts when we get: ‘You’re looking very well,’ Valerie lied. (We are now in Valerie’s head.) Then the next line is: ‘Thank you. I feel well,’ Matilda lied back. There are such bizarre shifts in point of view throughout the book — here for example we’re following someone reading a book: When he came to the end of the chapter he looked up at the mass of books that surrounded him. He was content here. He was safe in this room. In reality his mind was diseased, and forever tortured him with paranoia and depressive thoughts, but in this room he was safe. Is that the author diagnosing him? Would someone really be reading and think “I feel safe, but in reality my mind is diseased and torturing me with paranoia and depressive thoughts.”
There are things like: ‘No of course not. You’re right. Start as you mean to go on and all that,’ she half laughed. How can you say all that whilst half laughing? Punctuation is not great: semicolons are used throughout where colons are required. (I don’t think there is a single use of a colon.) Commas are missed: my favourite is the “stiff cream envelope” which for a millisecond I read as an envelope made for stiff cream or made of stiff cream. We have a “you’re” instead of a “your,” “God forbid anyone on the receiving end of it” when what is meant is “God help anyone,” “for argument’s say” instead of “for argument’s sake.”
If these were my only gripes it would be just so much pedantry but it doesn’t stop there — characters aren’t quite consistent — incredibly amateurish interviewing by the Assistant Chief Constable, a pathologist who also seems to double up as a police surgeon in the police station, dodgy police procedures, bizarre actions on the part of an acting DCI justified by cod psychology, and strange plot constructs. A house is demolished: All that remained were the foundations and, for some reason, the staircase at the side of the house and a small section of landing. But the reader knows the reason: it is because it suited the author’s plot — no other explanation is credible. And, critically to the whole plot: a vicious knife attack that doesn’t cover the perpetrator in blood, when it would have been obvious to anyone, in reality, who did such a crime. Also lots of clichés: blood running cold, beads and sheens of sweat appearing when anyone is under pressure etc.
All this is easily understandable from any author — these are things which can happen in early drafts, but this is not even self-published. It is a Harper Collins publication and one presumes has been professionally edited. They did not do a good job and have badly let down a potentially good author. It is such a shame that all I have talked about is the stuff which distracted me from the story, which had a lot of potential and was absorbing in many places. However, having read the Kindle sample, I would not have bought this but for adding to my reviews of Sheffield novels. (Oh and the cover: it bears no relation to the story whatsoever. Perhaps the title refers to Harper Collins’ decisions)
John Foster - Scholar's Mate
Scholar’s Mate is extremely well written. It is told from the point of view of David York a 70-year-old former teacher at the Harry Brearley school in Sheffield and explores his relationship with an ex pupil — a most singular individual who doesn’t speak or interact with others. This individual, George Campbell, is met on his release from Wakefield prison at the beginning of a book and over the course of the novel we learn what happened.
That this novel is indie-published says a lot about modern publishing — and my presumption is that it failed to penetrate the bastion of commercial publishers. On the face of it books like this are all the vogue : psychological thrillers based around an unusual condition: take Before I Go To Sleep, for example. The problem is that Scholar’s Mate is probably too well written—it is not sufficiently trashy to have popular appeal, not sufficiently sensationalist or raunchy—in fact (spoiler alert) there’s next to no sex in it. Unlike Before I Go To Sleep, it seems believable, and the psychology credible, rather than fanciful: but it lacks that pace and sensationalism of a modern commercial novel. Instead there is intelligent reflection on what makes a good life, rather than gratuitous peril around every corner. And the protagonist is a 70-year-old ex-headteacher, whose wife has dementia, not a grizzled ex-copper with serial relationship issues.
The characters all felt very real and there are some great little cameos from minor characters such as the cleaner Suzi and the cat Tuppence, who steals every scene he enters. The plotting is good; though my one criticism is that the series of chess games at the end don’t work for me. I’m not sure what they contributed to the main plot and I was unable to suspend disbelief to allow them to happen in my own mind.
Brian Sellars - Mother Goose Murders
Mother Goose Murders is, according to the author Brian Sellars, the final story in the Billy Perks trilogy. (But surely, Brian, there’s a come-back tour in there somewhere? What happens to Billy when he reaches his teens or adulthood? Does he get to snog Yvonne? Surely Walkley doesn’t stop being a hotbed of murder and intrigue?)
Mother Goose Murders is everything you’ve come to expect after Tuppenny Hat Detective and Dance Floor Drowning: nicely paced, quirky, funny and charming. The humour is at times reminiscent of Wallace and Gromit in, say, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit — classically British in the style of a not-so-posh Just William. It is an antidote to the Vogue of modern fiction to shock or challenge you psychologically — it is “safe” — the sort of book you want to read to unwind after a stressful day so full of reality that you can’t face nay more — immersing you in a world of dripping on toast, pikelets, home-baking, police boxes (used for the intended function not time travel), trams and proper shops (not convenience stores) — oh, and dastardly murders and MOM boards of course.
There are some typos in the book — it is all Brian’s own work, no publishing company to polish it — so we can go easy on him for that. It is his ability to bring to life a world 60 years ago, spin a yarn and depict characters like Billy, Yvonne and Kick that we love him for. Who else but Billy Perks would give his shoes “a quick polish on Ruff the family’s wire-haired terrier.” Where else would you get an appreciation of the S&E Co-op’s superior Father Christmas experience: “the Co-op’s Santa never smelled of Jubilee stout, pickled onions or cheese.” Or phrases like “a cheerful looking soul with more anecdotes than a parish pump.” And it is the first time I’ve read in a book something my dad used to accuse me of : “more rattle than a can o’ mabs” — so I’d best stop there.
Paul Adam - Enemy Within
I wasn’t very impressed by the start of this novel — the writing is not particularly good, the main character not particularly interesting and there is a lot of mundane detail: for example, about getting a family out of a house in the morning. Even when the first bit of bad news arrives for the protagonist, it is bogged down by the reader being told too much detail rather than being allowed to build up their own picture by the author’s skills — showing what is going on. All a bit laboured. For example, the following passage:
Tom pushed his chair away from the desk, feeling suddenly claustrophobic. The office was too cramped, there was no room to breathe. He needed to some air. He stood up and moved towards the door.
‘You going somewhere, sir?’ Paramore asked.
‘To the toilet. Is that a problem?’ Tom replied. He was starting to get annoyed with these intruders. His initial shock had waned a little. His anxiety was giving way to indignation. What the hell was going on here? He’d done nothing wrong, yet has been treated like a criminal.
Then we get switches from one character’s point of view to another’s, which is off-putting. I haven’t mentioned the rather unnecessary prologue yet either. My advice to any reader would be to skip that. It adds nothing. If it was put there to try to get you interested before the rather slow first five chapters then it doesn’t succeed.
All that said, once you get to chapter 6 and introduction of Moran, the book does take off and you are into a page turning novel with cliff-hangers and plot twists that keep you wanting to read on. The main character, Tom, remains somewhat flat throughout, however, and is overshadowed by the strength of Moran, Zac, Annie and even Moran’s mother. Towards the end, after the Wales scenes, the novel again loses its way a bit. Tom’s actions start to appear inexplicable, after everything he has learnt. Even Moran himself seems to let his professionalism and grasp of the situation slip. And then, the so-called “faceless ones” who up to that point have been ruthless and efficient suddenly started to appear disorganised and incompetent. Why was there no bug on Mrs Shields’ phone? Why were the ones sent to chase Tom down so overweight and un-athletic? Why weren’t they carrying guns? And why didn’t they get him when he returned to his car, or have the main route out of Whitby covered?
I had hoped the book would finish strongly once it had got going, but the basic premise for the whole book, the reason for the State intervening, became unconvincing — the motivations of the two 14-year-olds bizarre in the extreme. The middle part of the book was good though.
Berlie Doherty - Dear Nobody
Although a Puffin book because it is marketed as teenage fiction, Dear Nobody is a lot more grown up than much of the juvenile nonsense that passes for adult fiction these days. The only reason I can see that it is pigeon-holed as a teenage fiction is that the two main characters are 18-year-olds — nothing else. The story is beautifully told, the characters well-rounded, and their emotional life made real. It tells of family, inheritance, and growing up. There is an attention to detail in the story-telling that places you there as a reader: like the description of the grandfather’s bonfire and the toad, followed by the imagery of the bits of privet that her grandfather tidies up, looking like a bridal bouquet.
I loved the way the novel has aged — taking you back to a time when teenagers had to conduct romances in whispered voices from telephones in the hall or from public phone boxes. None of your Skyping and instant-messaging back then.
I thought there was a bit of a missed opportunity to really tie the book to Sheffield — particularly in the character of the grandfather who only lets slip and occasional “ay” and “reckon” and a single “nowt”. It is a shame, but perhaps it is not regarded as doing a book many favours in its marketability to tie it too closely to a region.
One small annoyance was the creeping in of errors in the Kindle version: probably errors of setting up the e-book file and not checking it properly. Not what you expect from Penguin.
Ben Cheetham - Blood Guilt
Novelists are entertainers, the main competition is other forms of entertainment. What they are trying to achieve is to get someone to spend a few pounds and then dedicate six to ten hours of their valuable time to reading their words rather than switching on the television, playing games on their tablet, going out to the pub, or one of the other multitude of things in modern life. Blood Guilt is certainly strong on entertainment value — you could well describe it as action-packed. The main character, Harlan Miller, a rogue ex-copper on a one-man crusade, is very strongly drawn and believable: very consistent and well thought out. I can’t imagine many people not finishing this book once they are a few pages in. It is “popular fiction” rather than a great work of art, but doesn’t pretend to be other than what it is. At times you do feel phrases or actions to be a little clichéd, but it is probably just what you expect from this genre. It is rather grim at times but not gratuitously so like The Executioners Art. The action takes place almost entirely in Sheffield, but there is no strong sense of place — bar certain place names it could be anywhere. The character of the city and it’s people do not come through in any real way, but again that could be by design, similar to calling the main character “Harlan,” an American name, which take him outside of nay sense of place.
Susan Elliot Wright - The Things We Never Said
This is probably something that would be pigeon-holed by most as “women’s fiction.” I have discussed in the review of Zuzu’s Petals exactly what that might mean. The Things We Never Said could almost be described as having universal appeal — after all much of the story is told from a male perspective: that of Jonathan. However, for me, and this is perhaps something personal, there is something about it which said that I was not really supposed to be reading this book: a bit like I felt as a bloke when attending parent and toddler groups.
There is no doubting it was written from a female perspective. Not that that is necessarily a bad thing: goodness knows, enough books are just too blokey to have a universal appeal. It is things like the two couples going back to one of their houses and the men knocking up a pretty reasonable Spanish omelette which they had with ciabatta and red wine while they debriefed — the two women were presumably bonding in some other way while the men were being fabulous in the kitchen. Later they are at the pub and go outside for a smoke:
‘Speaking of which did you see the game on Tuesday?’
They spend the inevitable ten minutes talking about football before Malcolm says, ‘Anyway you sounded fed up on the phone.’
For me, that does not seem like a narrative from a male perspective: “blah, blah — football, football — now let’s get to the really important subject of your emotions.”
There are further recipe suggestions later on:
He’d poached the chicken breasts in white wine and stock so they stayed moist and tender, and served them with a creamy peppercorn and brandy sauce, new potatoes and green beans.
If I want recipes I’ll read a recipe book. In a novel, unless it is to say something about character, or contributes to the plot (someone chokes on the peppercorns?) — it just seems a bit pretentious.
It is not that I see anything wrong with subverting traditional gender roles, it just didn’t have an authentic feel to me.
In many ways Jonathan is well drawn, but he doesn’t on the whole feel solid enough. He doesn’t react as I expect him to. I’ll not put in a spoiler, but he does seem to overreact to some news he receives at one point of the book and emotes rather too much over such a thing to be like any bloke I’ve ever met.
Having said all that, I did enjoy the story. The two narratives that run in parallel drive the story forward in a compelling way and come together nicely at the end. It is a novel about the importance of family and belonging that any reader will enjoy. You do find yourself constantly thinking: ‘I know I said I’d stop there, but I’ll just read on a bit more.’
A large part is set in Sheffield and the sense of place is largely successful. The use of ‘thi’ and ‘tha’ is rather mashed up though, and mixed up with ‘you’:
‘…so’t lass says, so tha’s to stop at home unless you hear owt different’ or: ‘Aye, gave tha head a right crack, lass. How’s tha feeling now?’ Or: ‘There’s rompers and night dresses and leggings and the like. Mostly blue, I’m afraid, but they might save thi a bob or two just until thi gets on tha feet.’
(You wouldn’t say ‘until him gets on he feet.’) Tha (thou) is the subject pronoun like ‘he’ or ‘I.’ The object pronoun and the possessive form ‘thi’ are practically the same (Sheffield dialect for ‘thee’ and ‘thy.’)
Admitted, these things are not easy to get right, especially if you’re not used to hearing them or speaking them — and a writer also has the dilemma of conveying dialect in a readable way to contend with
Kate Jones - Pocket Full of Stones
I really enjoyed this book. It tells the story of Janey, the daughter of a miner during the 1984 strike. It starts and closes with Janey as an adult reflecting back in a very touching way.
It is only a novella length and is billed as a young adult book. Although it is suitable for perhaps 15+, there is nothing in this that would put off older readers. It is really nicely written and the depictions of the characters in the unnamed mining community near Sheffield are vivid and warm – they feel really authentic. (Contrast this with the vindictive portrayal of working people and women in the mining communities in The Northern Clemency.) Pocket Full of Stones is also a wonderful social commentary – as we look back to those events of thirty years ago, this is as valuable as any accounts in newspapers or political commentaries. This story captures brilliantly the emotional side of those events; it would work in this way as a book to read in schools.
The book is indie-published and needs work on the formatting and on eliminating one or two typos but these are easily corrected and can be forgiven because of the strength of the writing.
Sunjeev Sahota - Year of the Runaways
This is a frustrating novel. It has so much going for it and yet for half the book I was not picking it up looking forward to a snatched few minutes of escapism, but with a certain reluctance, with a sense of it being a chore.
The premise is ostensibly simple one: three young Indians and a young woman of Indian heritage all running away from something, ending up in Sheffield trying to work out their place in life. It opens strongly, but then just as you start to get into it you are whisked away to follow the back story in India of someone who appears to be a minor character from what has been told so far. It is a huge side-track of novella length before you pick back up with the main story again. This happens twice more with another novella dedicated to two more characters and another chunk to the last of the four. It doesn’t really work too well — the plot is badly disrupted and I think many readers will be lost.
The novel picks up in the second half and becomes a genuinely good read. The back-story is needed of course but it is over-long and I am left wondering whether the attempt to have four equal protagonists really was a good idea. Had Tochi’s story, for example, been taken out, and perhaps saved for another book, would it have been better? It is quite a long novel as it is.
The first half of the novel is problematic in other ways too — as if it took Sahota a while to get going. (It really would have benefited from a damn good edit — it presumably had several, and very professional ones too, but they have fallen well short in my view.) The use of words from Indian languages started to really irritate. Someone use of such words is a good thing — it fixes you in time and place and creates atmosphere. It is also not always possible to use an English word and it often doesn’t matter when the context is enough to make it out. Also reading on a Kindle makes it easier as some such words are in the software dictionary, but you soon start to feel bombarded and get things like: “A woman, bent at the waist, was cleaning the courtyard with a charoo. She was too glitteringly dressed to be the lagi.” It creates no image in my mind because I don’t know what a charoo looks like nor how a lagi should be dressed. Try Googling either word: you’ll get nowhere. There is no need to make it so difficult in an English language novel. Or, what about this metaphor that will be totally lost on nearly every reader : “last night it poured over her brain, like a ramallah lain over the granth.”
There are there are annoying neologisms such as “the garden chippered with insects,” “his eyes were jittery green,” or “shucked off his rucksack” (you can also apparently “shuck” something on as well as off). Why make up words when there are words for these things already. And how can eyes be jittery green exactly?
Some other uses of language grates also: “leaves were shading to pink,” “he waited a minute for the furniture to outline itself,” — how does furniture go about that task? “grasses we’re starting to bud” — buds on grass? “fingering absent-minded circles into the flaky window dirt” — how is a circle absent-minded? “the starry rustle of her clothes,” “he felt his stomach dip and his left side sink warmly down” —warmly down? “the steps triangulating away from her” a step doing trigonometry? “a suddenly eloquent sky.” And, should a Booker short-listed novel have punctuation like this: “A board so white it sparkled read, Coming soon! The Green: a Luxury Environmentally Friendly Living Space…”
I’ve ranted too long. But, the point is it all spoils a good novel: reminding the reader that there is a puppeteer at work. The characters are depicted very well and you are taken into a world you would hope not to have to go into normally, and you get a little closer to understanding other cultures.
The large part is centred around Sheffield though in some ways it could be anywhere. I was amused, and slightly irritated by his portrayal of Ecclesall Road though: “He zipped up his jacket and sneaked out of the house and down onto Ecclesall Road, heading away from the city. The shabby restaurants were all closed, the pound shops shuttered.” I have no objection to gritty fiction being told in Sheffield, but aren’t we even allowed one posh street… !
Marjorie P Dunn - Abe's Legacy
Published in 1998 by the now sadly defunct The Hallamshire Press, this is the sort of book that would be unlikely to find space in today’s publishing climate unless it was done independently.
The story is a very strong one – set in Sheffield and the Loxley Valley in the mid 1800s, it follows Edward Morton, a farmer, through life’s ordeals including the Great Sheffield Flood, his relationships, and how to resolve the problem left him by the legacy of his friend, Abraham Bagshaw. It has been very well researched and as far as I can tell the history is very accurate. I suspect the author was a fan of Georgette Heyer as there are similarities.There is, of course, a “but” coming. Sadly, Marjorie Dunn’s skills as a novelist, on the evidence of this book, are lacking in some respects. I have several issues with the way the story is told. Some of the plotting is hard to believe – particularly the motivations of the main character, Morton. There is far too much interference by the author: too much telling, not enough showing – explaining to us each character’s thoughts rather than just letting the characters live and speak for themselves. You want to shout: “Back off, Marjorie, we get it! Stop interfering!” She also jumps about from character to character leaving you wondering whose point of view you are following at times. Another flaw is that some of the dialogue doesn’t flow very well and feels unnatural. Again you feel it is the author interfering rather than breathing life into the characters and letting them get on with it. She clearly knows a lot about the history of the period. But would the characters really explain things like the precise numbers of casualties in the Ashanti War. And would a character really insist on “entering the 15th Century building.” Because the author knows lots of historical stuff she wants to tell us, but she should let the characters speak for themselves. Someone said a historical novelist needs to know what kind of glass is in the window their characters look through but doesn’t need to describe that glass to us, its manufacturing process, or whatever. To the character they are simply looking through glass. (But even Hilary Mantel makes this mistake in Bring Up the Bodies.)
Martin Bedford - Exit, Orange and Red
Published in 1997, this story follows Connie, a reporter on a local paper based at their office in the shopping complex out of the city centre. Bedford uses “Hallam” instead of Sheffield and “Urbopark” instead of Meadowhall, but the disguise is very thin; it is also slightly irritating and it made me wonder why use fictional names at all. Does fiction require names to be changed, or is it just to exempt the author from any real need for accuracy: for facts and full research. For example, the reference here to “trolley buses” in 1857, or the mashing of Sheffield’s motto “Deo adjuvante, labor proficit” as “Deo adamante, labor proficit” (Stand and Deliver?), calling passages “snickets” etc.
Irritations such as these can easily spoil a book as can writers getting carried away with their enjoyment of writing rather than thinking about whether their words add to story, plot atmosphere, character etc.
There are unnecessary, long descriptions of shops and shoppers in the book: the reader doesn’t need to know all six pastel colours of part of the wall in the shopping centre, what types of plants are there or what they are potted in. Minor characters are described in detail down to listing every Disney character on their tie, their tie pin and cuff links, hair etc.
There are other inconsistencies too – a suicide where it says there is no suicide note – followed by a description of a suicide note a few pages later. One of the characters, an expert on Sheffield industrial history talking of knives says “cutlery encompasses forks and spoons as well.” The character, if not the author, would have been careful to distinguish flatware from cutlery.
These things may seem like pedantry, but they keep reminding the reader that they are reading fiction – something written by a fallible person – rather than letting the story just run. It is like watching a puppet show where the puppeteers hands or head keep being shown.
That is a long list of grumbles but it is still quite an entertaining read. There are several threads to the story including a historical one set during the Sheffield Stirrings. You wonder how on earth the threads are all going to be drawn neatly together at the end. Bedford almost succeeds, but it does leave you questioning the authenticity of characters and the sudden rush of concepts all thrown together in the last few pages. Because of the different threads it does feel a bit disjointed and you tend to lose where a previous thread left off as you jump about. It doesn’t quite work in my opinion.
The principal character is quite strongly drawn (she really ought to go and see her GP about her out of control asthma though and get a steroid inhaler so as not to rely so much on her Ventolin).
Evelyn Orange - Secrets and Shadows
This book is surprisingly good – I say surprisingly because, judging it by its cover, I expected it to be romantic fluff (going by the picture, and what I assumed to be a pen name). You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – though we all do. The cover of Secrets and Shadows cover would lead to many people rejecting it, I suspect – though it may appeal to its core readership.
Although this book may be pigeon-holed as romantic fiction, it is more than that – it is well written with only one or two relatively minor flaws. The story is intriguing and well-researched, containing, on the whole, the right amount of historical detail – enough to transport you to another time and place without you feeling you are receiving a history lecture. You feel you are in the hands of someone who knows her facts: with historical fiction you need to be able to relax, feeling you are being led by a reliable tour guide.
It will probably appeal more to female readers. Female friends often moan about some books (for example, step forward Mr Conrad) having no strong female characters. This is the opposite – the anti-Conrad – she rites her female characters very well but the men remain flat and often just objects. The boot is on the other foot. I feel I have no right to complain at such a redressing of the balance; though it would be more rounded if the male characters breathed a little, had something in them that made them want to live a bit, other than just their reflection in the women. To illustrate: one of the male characters is a footballer, but that fact is totally skipped over except to justify well-honed muscles in someone who would otherwise be what is known in today’s language as ‘a geek.’ He also drives a red Triumph – in the early sixties – and the only description of it, coming from one of the women, is ‘gorgeous’ – we get no feel for why he bought it, nothing comparable to the attention paid to the sensual descriptions bestowed on frocks and suchlike.
The novel is only partly set in Sheffield – the author was a student here. The bulk of it takes place in Sunderland, where she grew up, but also in Scotland and London. It ought to be a very commercial novel – surprising then that it is indie-published. Does Sunderland suffer like Sheffield in being a place the London commuter doesn’t want to read about (or acknowledge exists?)She says she finds families and their secrets fascinating – anyone who shares that interest will enjoy, or possible love, this book.
Kate Hanney - Safe
Safe is advertised as a book for teenagers who don’t read. It is only a novella – a couple of hours in length at the most. Hanney is a teacher and clearly draws on her experiences to write a very real story about a disaffected fifteen-year-old boy. Danny Watson is probably the sort of kid you’d try to avoid making eye contact with at a bus stop. Probably not a very nice person at all. But the way the book is written from his point of view, you get to see how has become the person he is, how limited his choices in life are. Like any good character portrayal, you see things from his point of view, sympathise with him, and will him on to come good in the end. I won’t spoil it by telling you how it turns out.
Not a novel for anyone seeking escapism, but teenagers or adults seeking an accurate portrayal or a sociological study of life on the margins of society will like this – and it is well written. There’s not much that grounds it firmly in Sheffield; the accents are not strong, but the voices are convincing. A pleasure to read the correct past tense for the verb to treat: “We didn’t treat ourselves that night. I mean even for us, we really tret ourselves.”
David Fine - The Executioner's Art
I read this so that you don’t have to. I can’t review The Executioner’s Art without a bit of a spoiler – but it is justified if it stops you buying something you’d rather not have bought. The quotes on the back call it “rich, gothic prose” or “edgy and dark.” I’d prefer words like “nasty” and “sordid.” I like fiction to tell me something about what it is to be human, sometimes to be uplifting, but at least to make me think I have spent my time well – that I have gained from the experience, or at least been entertained. This novel won’t do any of that, unless you find snuff movies/ horror porn entertaining. Instead it will leave you feeling diminished. It is repulsive in places: it describes in detail a horrific torture and murder, and child sexual abuse leading to psychosis that might end in someone carrying out such a vile murder.
David Fine can certainly write. Some of the prose is well crafted, for example: “A tired grey hearse pulled itself through the cemetery gates. It seemed to change colour is it twisted through the graveyard, from the darkness of the headstones to the lesser grey of the scattered clouds above.” But at other times he is tempted into explaining things from too many points of view, not even flagging the change to the reader. For example, here we have been following a newly introduced character DCI Naylor – then it shifts without warning to DI Tilt:
“His flu had left him feeling hungover for nearly a week. DCI Naylor rubbed the jowl line below his chin before realizing he hadn’t shaved.
Tilt handed over the papers without a word. Through the frosted glass of the office divider he watched a female shape pass their DCI in the corridor. DC Wilet wasn’t due in this morning.”
Fine also gets carried away with his own writing, as some novice writers do: a whole paragraph on someone using a photocopier, for example, with all the details and the troubles the character has with the copier!
There are problems with the plot and the story isn’t rounded off terribly well.
It is set in Sheffield but could really be anywhere – there is not really much of Sheffield in this fictional version of the city. It is painted as a very bleak place – “a city where rivers disappear.” Anyone who has lived in the city won’t recognise the portrait: At certain moments Sheffield becomes a creature its inhabitants rush to hide from. People only see it inside their heads when they come close to evil – whatever that means.
The attempt to ground the novel in Sheffield by use of dialect fails miserably. These are some examples of ‘local speech:’
“Home, with Beryl. Ask her, ’cos you don’t believe me. Charlie and I’d have been here except for weather. He were probably at Anna’s.”
“Visiting hours are between two and eight.”
“That’s all right, luv. We’ll be done while then.”
(The author clearly has some knowledge form somehwere that people in Sheffield say “while,” in a non-standard way – as a substitute for “until” actually.)
“Don’t work in pit,” he said. “Join army or police. Don’t work too hard to kill yoursel’ ”
Chris Rose - Wood, Talc and Mr J
I really wanted to like this book. It is set in the late seventies early eighties in my home-town, with cultural references I understood. I was not into Northern Soul, but I knew people who were. I at least “got it.” It even has references to football and Sheffield United. So what’s not to like?
It is indie-published because Rose says “I wouldn’t change anything about Wood, Talc. That’s why I went independent. I wanted to keep my soul in the book. I’ll always be that way. Let them write their own books, not mine.” That statement may be true, and worthy – indie-publishing does allow originality to be preserved. Sometimes trying to force something into a commercial book will kill an original work or unusual, innovative style. However, indie-publishing has also opened the floodgates to an awful lot of dross from self-obsessed people desperate to have their self-belief of brilliance acknowledged. Would Ulysses even find a publisher today if its author were an unknown? Would it’s impenetrability rule it out from commercial publishing? I confess to never having read more than snippets of Ulysses. If I were to take it on, I would need a parallel text of almost equal length to explain exactly what all the underlying meanings were. Does that make me a thicko? Or does it really mean that Ulysses is too opaque to really be classed as something other than a niche novel? Is the job of the writer to convey meaning in such a way that every word and every line is understood? – assuming your reader to be at least reasonably intelligent. Or is it sufficient to string words together that just sound nice as some poets do, knowing full well that no one but the writer understands the full meaning? I write all this because, despite wanting to like Wood Talc and Mr J, I struggled with it, and I am left wondering why?
I am sure Chris Rose won’t begrudge a fellow Yorkshireman a little plain speaking.
As I picked it up I thought this is going to be a tough read, but I’m not one to quit a book? I appreciated some of the imagery and the protagonist’s relationships: his mother and father come through as very real, and his relationship with his “grom” – his grandmother is warm and funny. There is something of Peter Tinniswood’s Brandons about them.
Sometimes a book takes a while to get into the style of writing: like Shakespeare, for example: you just need to get an ear for it. But with Wood, Talc it seemed to get harder and harder as there was less story-telling and more stream of consciousness pouring off the page. I had to re-read sections and still couldn’t really work out what was going on. I was left feeling that a little more concession to the reader, a little more focus on the story – on things like the effect of his grom’s and his father’s illnesses on him – and a little less authorial integrity, would have been a very good thing. Was there just too much cleverness or was it in need of a good dose of reality, and a good edit? A little bit of both perhaps.
Sentences such as the following are just clunky, in my opinion:
On my asking whether they thought it – the frilly item my mum couldn’t have worn outdoors, I’d never seen it before – went with the trousers, my dad left, leaving the door ajar.
Are paragraphs such as the following replete with meaning and allusion or just too dense:
April’s eager beaver, his eyes looked fashioned for lunging down those same bowling lanes, like he’d misread the prescription, sliced into the second ration, necked a double-dosage. He’d never accept the accusation. Putting princes to shame, he felt wiser than any king; route beckoning to the Temple of Soul, he basked in the knowledge and peak of it, and rose from the artful bow in recognition of the polluted standing ovation.
About halfway in I just started to lose it completely. Whilst with his mates in Skegness on a night out, this happens:
Screams of a different nature rippled like a breeze of bitter change, and yet I couldn’t put my finger on its source. Groups silhouetted, an approach, a retreat; a car shunned dug-in feet, the to-ing and fro-ing. And then, in squadron-like re-formation, on a general’s growl all, all became as plain as size ten boot: ‘Skinhead! Skinhead!’
They run and:
I took the knee-high wall Red Rum-style, only to recognise that one of us had committed an error of judgement: a step, a day out-stepped, my grand-national winner falling to dust at this last hurdle; a frantic thought on which to cling, this short-straw-of-a-moment million. And so again I placed a glossy sole upon a Jolly Fisherman’s sun-bathed stairway, in past imitation or practice for the future – I had the world at my feet after all…
Teeth penetrated the footwear in Morph-ish splatter. Courage cared for the spine.
Do you really need so many words to describe, what I think is, someone trying to jump over a wall and falling over? Others may like this kind of thing, but with so many books to read and so little time it just frustrates me.
Nick Holland - The Girl on the Bus
The Girl on the Bus is set in the Hoyland/ Elsecar area of Barnsley, in Sheffield, and a little bit in Huddersfield.
It weighs in at something in the order of quarter of a million words: well over twice as long as the modern commercial model and putting it up there with Middlemarch and Dostoevsky in length. You shouldn’t judge a book by its length – a story is as long as it needs to be, but the main trouble with The Girl on the Bus is that it is much longer than it needed to be. The first chapter is the weakest of the lot and when you finish it and your Kindle is telling you that you have another 15 hours to go, your impulse is to give up. The author is asking you to give up a substantial chunk of your life and all he has told you to tempt you is that the protagonist has a really boring life and when something potentially interesting happens to him he reflects: “this wasn’t the way I wanted to start my year. I wanted everything to continue in the same and challenging and lonely rut.” Not promising. There is the prospect of something interesting to come dangled before us and the chapter finishes with a hit-and-run, but still it doesn’t escape from the sometimes tedious mundaneness.
Holland feels compelled to describe John Halle’s boring morning routine in detail, and his boring job, and his boring journey to his boring job. I’m sure what the author set out to do was to show us what an ordinary bloke Halle was before all the action that unfolds but it could have been done so much better. Even the opening line: “Death and excitement are two sides of the same coin…” makes you stop, and think: “No they’re not. That’s ridiculous.” He goes on to qualify that with: “they can both arrive when you least expect it.” Fair enough, but the same coin?
Holland’s tendency to overwrite things is a shame – it spoils what otherwise could have been a good book. At times it is pacy and gripping; and, of course, that needs to be interspersed with slower passages, but he slows it down so much at times with his desire to describe every character in detail and every location down to the colour of curtains, that it doesn’t just slow down but grinds to a stop. For example, he takes a whole page in describing making a cup of tea, including a whole paragraph to describe the character putting the kettle on. We have all boiled kettles and are perfectly capable of imagining the process without being told what the switch was like or what type of kettle it was. An author may well enjoy writing this detail, but it is something that should fall at the edit. It adds nothing to plot or character so it should go. Readers are quite capable of imagining scenes and people for themselves with just a little hint from the writer.
I persevered past the first chapter and was glad I did – the story picked up nicely after that and follows the typical up and down roller coaster ride to the end station that you expect in a modern thriller. People will like it for that despite the problems with the writing. There are plenty of page turning cliff-hangers, a fair bit of gruesome violence (if you like that sort of thing), and some clever plot twists.
There are plenty of other errors of spelling (e.g: they’re/there, hear/here, alright, meter/mete, repost/riposte) throughout, an apparent version to possessive apostrophes and hyphens that more effort in editing should have sorted out. Pedantry? I don’t think so. It is the writer’s duty to make their work as clear as possible to the reader. You are asking them to pay in time and money and you should seek to convey meaning to the best of your ability. It is hard and difficult, it is sometimes tedious trying to get it right but even indie-authors have no excuse.
Brian Sellars - Dance Floor Drowning
Dance floor drowning is a fantastic follow-up novel to Tuppenny Hat Detective. It does not disappoint. It is another warm, funny story, proving it is possible for stories of murder to be warm and funny: “Did tha ’ear worra just said? Thiv found a bloke’s eeyad. He’s deeyad!”
There is something very comforting about the nostalgia – it is the literary equivalent of a big fluffy dressing gown and a mug of cocoa on a cold evening. The characters are just superb: so well observed – Yvonne, the girl who keeps the boys feet on the ground, Billy himself with his insatiable curiosity, Doctor Hadfield and Kick. Even the very minor characters are good: such as the baby who eats porridge with its fingers from my saucer on the floor, then smears it on Billy, or women from the pubs.
The plot is both farcical, in a good sense, and clever with just enough to keep the reader thinking they’re working it out, combined with surprises thrown in. It is indie-published so, like Tuppenny Hat, it is not without the odd typo, but that is easily forgiven: the writing flows so nicely and it is an effortless read. As with Tuppenny Hat I can see this working well on TV: I would love to see it. If there are any production companies out there looking for an idea?
Lynne Whiteley - Pocket Full of Hope
You have to take this book for what it is: it is not some fancy novel by a renowned author, full of clever prose and elaborate turns of phrase. It is the author’s honest and heartfelt effort to tell her family story going back to the beginning of the 20th century – a story shared by many people. It is a great achievement and the author has put in a tremendous amount of work to produce it and has poured a good deal of emotional energy into the project. She is donating from each book sale to The Royal British Legion as well, so good luck to her.
The way the two parallel story threads are brought together is satisfying, even though they get somewhat out of step at times.
I struggled with several aspects of the novel, however, and feel slightly guilty for the critique that follows because the narrative feels so personal; but then, I have to approach these reviews honestly. This is my opinion – everyone will have their own.
The main problem was the writing style: it is all “telling” and no “showing.” I struggled with the slightly unnatural prose and inexpert punctuation to start with and only managed once I had learnt to read it by not dwelling too much over the words, skimming certain bits, and applying a certain discipline in reading between the lines in spite of the prose. I was just willing the author to slip into free indirect style and let the characters speak for themselves: their own feelings and motivations, but it never happened. The hand of the author is ever present telling us what everyone felt and thought – from what often feels like a modern perspective. She also uses what seem like modern day speech and concepts. For example, a mother says to her son in the 1920s “I am here for you,” or, a death has “no emotional impact,” or, references to someone’s “home environment,” “enough said,” “no worries,” or, the very modern colloquialism: “End of.”
That modern perspective also seems to be only able to imagine misery. We are forever being told how relentlessly awful everyone’s lives were – there seems little room for even children to escape and to have happy times despite poverty.
On a similar note, voices of the characters are tainted by the author’s presence – they don’t feel like authentic Sheffield voices from between the wars. Part of the problem is, I suspect, the author’s passion and enthusiasm to tell the story getting the better of her: a rush to tell us what everyone was thinking. She has a tendency to over-explain: telling us things we already know or have worked out. In so doing she doesn’t give the reader much room to imagine; something a lighter touch would have achieved. Her desire to tell us what everyone is thinking leads us to flip ‘point of view’ erratically, sometimes even in the same sentence. For example: “He opened the train door and stepped onto the platform, as he alighted she had turned to look towards the front of the train where she could see the doors opening.”
Sometimes she uses dialogue when short description would move the narrative along better and sometimes uses description when it is crying out for dialogue to reveal something of character. The author also comes through in nearly every character. They all seem overly-romantic: everyone weeps excessively, even the male characters. There is no room for stiff-upper-lip in her writing.
In a novel every line should really advance the plot or build character. Had A Pocket Full of Hope had a ruthless edit it would have been so much better. Lynne Whiteley clearly has an instinct for a good story: that will be enough for many readers, but a novel needs more than just a story.
Roger Dataller (Arthur Eaglestone) - Steel Saraband
Published in 1938, this novel was used as the basis for the first film set in Sheffield: Hard Steel, released in 1942, starring Wilfred Lawson. The novel is actually set in a fictional town called Netherside, which is not Sheffield in the book, but is somewhere near. Netherside is three quarters of an hour by steam train from Doncaster and behind the town “ran the moors, purple now with heather, and threaded by the glistening limestone roads that ran into Derbyshire.”
Eaglestone was born in Parkgate, worked in a steelworks and in a colliery in Rawmarsh before getting a Miners’ Welfare Scholarship to Oxford at the age of 36. He then worked in Sheffield University’s Extra Mural Department.
The novel takes a little while to get going but improves as it goes on and the plot starts to develop. It follows Walter Haddon and his wife Freda as they move up in the world as Walter gets promoted in the Netherside steelworks. It is not really until Freda reflects that: “he had become very suddenly a person – a faintly comprehended and rather unlovable acquaintance. I’ve been living with a stranger” that you realise that there might be something resembling a plot thread. Nevertheless it is worth persisting with as the novel continues to improve right up to the end.
It must have been quite a radical book in its day: a book that could be put on lists for Feminist Studies. It charts Freda’s disillusionment with traditional marriage, an affair, and ultimately realising that she was not really important to either man. It ends with her acting for self-fulfilment –“marriage would have to become a good deal more than an unblinking backing of a man” – a rejection of “He for God, and she for the God in him.” Freda was a teacher but on marriage was made to give up her job by the Education Authority who wouldn’t employ married women. And children didn’t come to her marriage – but Walter Haddon scoffs at the concept of anything lacking in her life. Her husband’s view, hardened by his reading of Life of Napoleon is that she has been “too well-cared-for – house, home, husband, everything to your fingers – until you can’t imagine what it is you’d like to have next. Then you begin crying for the moon, and sulk because you can’t get it.” Freda comes back at him: “ ‘that’s just the trouble,’ she said quietly, ‘you are making things and you’re expecting me to just look on and, if I’m a very good girl, to hold your coat. Well I’m not interested in things you’re doing and I certainly don’t want to hold your coat.’ ”
She has a fling with one of her husband’s subordinates in the mill, Ralph Saunders. How far it goes is not explicit but the episode with the fiery tree has to metaphorical; “her action spontaneous as it was, took him fully by surprise. All that he cried warningly was ‘You’ll get your eyebrows singed’ … ‘Ah – if you are afraid!’ … a burst of acrid wood-smoke enveloped them, blotting out of the night. ‘Enough!’ he gasped. Later she has the smell of smoke on her clothes: “the odour she knew would cling tenaciously, subtly interpenetrating the fabric. She didn’t mind in the least. As she thrust her key into the door she was humming softly…”
The characters are well drawn – both Freda and Walter, but also some of the minor characters like the wonderful Mrs Haddon.
There are flaws in the novel – the point of view shifts alarmingly at times so that it is sometimes confusing as to who you are actually following – if it had stuck more tightly to the points of view of Walter and Freda it would have been much improved. Also some of the language is pretentious: for example, the use of ‘masticating’ instead of ‘chewing’ or ‘the wall ran contiguous with the street’ – why not just ‘bounded the street?’ and the over use of words like ‘pendant’ instead of ‘hanging.’ It makes you wonder whether this is the same pretentiousness that made Arthur Eaglestone (a fine name) assume the nom de plume of Roger Dataller – as if he had gone to all that trouble to get to Oxford and to learn words and literary references and was damn well going to impress everyone with them.
A J Oates - Bolt-hole
There can’t be many better value ways to spend an evening on your own than a couple of beers and Bolt-hole on your Kindle for 77p. It is an independently published novel: another great book that the publishing industry has missed (also see Tuppenny Hat Detective). Granted there are a lot of terrible indie-novels out there, but also some belters that don’t seem to have fitted the commercial publishers’ formulae.
More novels were published in 2013 than in the whole of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century combined so it is a mammoth challenge for the publishing industry to find the best. Often there seems a lot of luck involved in getting published: being a celebrity helps, or having contacts. However, getting a publisher seems no guarantee of quality – there are a lot of bad, commercially published novels too. Readers are faced with a surfeit of choice: not always a good thing perhaps. Another outcome of the supply and demand equation is that it is hard to see how a writer can make any money when earning only 24p per download. For the thousands of hours of work that a novel may take a cleaning job would pay better.
That Bolt-hole wasn’t snapped up by a publisher is surprising because it is the sort of psychological/crime thriller that is very in vogue. It is also well crafted.
It is a hard book to review without giving too much away and risking spoiling it, so I’ll be careful. Suspense builds very quickly and is maintained so that once you are a few pages in there is never any question of not making it to the end. And, of all the things, you find yourself rooting for a brutal murderer! There are clearly recognised bits of Sheffield in the story which adds to the sense of adventure for anyone that knows the city as you follow the main character on his route. (Oates describes himself as a having gone to Gleadless Valley Comprehensive School for Talented Children.)
There are minor flaws in the book: one or two transitions to flashbacks are a bit forced, it slows and would benefit from a bit of an edit at one point, and there are one or two spelling errors and a couple of oddly chosen words. These are all forgivable (after all, a self-published writer doesn’t have the professional editors and proof readers at their disposal). And you have no right to complain at 77p! My most serious criticism is the unnecessary epilogue – it diminishes the story and leads to one surreal reference to what happens on that last page earlier in the book. Treat the epilogue as an aberration or a crisis of conscience on the part of the author – easy enough to forgive him. Well worth a read. Great cover too.
My interview with A J Oates is at: http://stevek1889.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/interview-with-j-oates-author-of-bolt.html
My interview with A J Oates is at: http://stevek1889.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/interview-with-j-oates-author-of-bolt.html
Stan Barstow - Give us this Day
This probably shouldn’t qualify as a Sheffield novel at all since only 30 pages or so of the 250 are set in Sheffield. The rest of it takes place in a West Yorkshire village called “Daker” which is 3 miles from “Calderford” on a trans-Pennine railway line. I reckon Calderford is perhaps Wakefield and Daker possibly Horbury, if it is based on anywhere at all ( – just googled Barstow – he was born in Horbury, so it looks like I guessed right).
It is an entertaining enough read but sadly keeps holding out more promise then it delivers. It starts really well with Ella on her way to meet her husband coming home on a weekend pass from the RAF in 1940. She meets a girl crying because she has dropped her dad’s piece of tripe down a drain. You think this is perhaps going to develop somehow and that tripe girl will come back in to it, but she doesn’t, except in passing. There are lots of these little side plots that keep making you think they will develop into part of a strong main plot but never do. The main plot is rather weakly drawn. In fact, the nearest to a plot: the dilemma Ella faces between her husband and another man, ends up feeling rather predictable. You see the end coming, and then, just in case you didn’t, in steps the author waving a big flag, imposing himself with a little tutorial on Pearl Harbour etc. – very clumsy. As the pages run out you find yourself not really caring – in fact it is a little wearisome because you have no affinity with either of the two men and especially not with Howard who remains a ‘nothing’ throughout.
The Sheffield scene is the biggest of the sub-plot let-downs. Ella and her mother go to Sheffield to visit a relative before Christmas in 1940. Her father advises them to go on Thursday to avoid Friday the 13th. The tension builds, especially if you know your Sheffield history, and then, like a balloon going down slowly after a party, it disappears. When the air-raid starts they see almost nothing of it – they are sat on a train in a cutting somewhere outside the city. A peculiar artistic choice: as if Barstow bottled it. The relatives get killed but any dramatic opportunity is lost and, again, you are beyond caring that much.
There are some lovely bits – such the scene in the station café with Ella eating her own sandwiches. There are also some awful clichés such as: hats being worn ‘rakishly’ by men and ‘jauntily’ by women, eyes are ‘windows onto a troubled soul.’
This is the middle book in a trilogy: perhaps it stands up better as part of the three, but as a novel in its own right it is lacking. Despite that, Ella, the main character, is well drawn and very believable and the historical setting and background feels accurate.
Sue Hepworth - Zuzu's Petals
Is there such a thing as women’s fiction? Surely if a book is well-written, says something about the human condition, and the plot and themes are good, then it can be enjoyed by anyone. I struggle at times with the narrow worldly view of Jane Austen’s characters and their small obsession and motivations, but there is no denying the quality of the writing: all the right words in all the right places (as Eric Morecambe nearly said). But you can’t really pigeonhole Austen as ‘women’s fiction.’ So is what qualifies a novel as women’s fiction? Merely that it is not well enough written to have a wider appeal: something that only a narrow section of society can be sufficiently forgiving of?
I struggled greatly with Zuzu’s Petals – it also portrays a narrow worldly view, but on the whole the writing doesn’t carry it along. I would not have persisted with it but for this review; although if had abandoned it I would have missed the strongest writing in the book: the treatment of the main character’s father’s death. This is well done and convincingly told – it is something people experiencing bereavement will probably relate to and be moved by.
For me, not getting along with this book, was partly a matter of taste. But then, I complain enough about the lack of diversity in modern published novels, so thank goodness there are books that don’t chime with everyone, that don’t appeal to me. Some of what I struggled with in the book is its world view. It concerns a late forty-something, solidly middle-class woman’s, fantasy perspective of life; where the men are all available and do things like run antiques shops in Buxton or work freelance, the women are into knitting and colour matching, men discuss their preferred exotic varieties of bottled water, everyone drinks wine (never beer) and at Hunter’s Bar the eligible man, as a chat-up, invites the woman, not for a drink in the Porter Croft, or even a coffee, but to a frozen yoghurt bar (the book was published in 2008 – I didn’t even know such things existed until 2012 on a trip to Brighton!) Emotional trauma is caused to these women by things like grown-up children sending them too many texts or wanting them to accompany them to Gap in Newcastle (…the only Gap north of Birmingham they’ve not been to), or dilemmas over whether to give up life as a university lecturer to fulfil a dream of opening a wool-shop in Broomhill, or the stress of running low on Earl-Grey. A world where the main character is distressed by the wrong shade of pink or yellow and has sexual fantasies about Canadian Mounties (but thankfully Hepworth spares the reader the modern vogue for graphically describing those fantasies).
However, that Zuzu’s Petals is not to my taste is not the real issue, it is the quality of the writing in places that lets it down: the writing is a bit clichéd (things like the use of ‘Omigod’ in the internal dialogue, ‘the mercury rising to 21 degrees’ etc, some strained dialogue and rather unbelievable characters. The story line is fairly mundane so the plot doesn’t carry it along either – but perhaps it is just the thing for someone wanting to see their own life/fantasy life reflected in literature.
The setting is authentic (Nether Green, Fulwood and Broomhill) even down to things like references to Guat boots (if that means nothing to you this probably is not the book for you – it’s a shop on School Road making hand-made shoes, by the way).
Peter Tinniswoode - A Touch of Daniel (and I Didn't Know You Cared)
The edition I read has an introduction full of praise by David Nobbs (see Second From Last in the Sack Race) so I was looking forward to this. It starts promisingly: “When Auntie Edna fell off the bus, she landed on her pate and remained unconscious for sixty-three days. At the end of this period she died and they had a funeral.” As you read on you are reminded of The Royle Family – you are assailed with humorous lines and gentle but largely affectionate mocking of the characters; however, you also soon realise that there is not much in the way of plot – just a sequence of curious scenes stitched together. Perhaps this is why the books, including the sequel I Didn’t Know You Cared, transferred successfully to a seventies sitcom – a sitcom only needing to hold together for an episode and only roughly join to the next. (I only remembered from it the: ‘I ’eard that. Pardon?’ that became a bit of a seventies catchphrase).
The books follow the extended Brandon family through the space of a year or so in a big Northern city close to the Peak District with chimneys, allotments, piccalilli (presumably Cunninghams?), factories, and aunts that come from Glossop. The name of the city is never mentioned as being Sheffield, though Tinniswood worked at the Sheffield Star and Telegraph in the period in which the novels are set (late fifties/early sixties). There are plenty of funny lines: ‘Ah you can’t beat a bloody mongrel,’ said Uncle Mort. ‘We had one when we was first married. A right Heinz 57 he were. Trouble with him were he chased bloody motorbikes. Well, we had to have him put down, you see.’ ‘I don’t think that’s fair to the dog meself,’ said Mrs Brandon. ‘It was up to you to train it proper. I mean, it’s only human nature for dogs to chase motorbikes.’
The characters are well drawn and easy to imagine. The curmudgeonly Mort with his shoe and boot cleaning hobby, the taciturn, put-upon, mild-mannered Carter, ferrying everyone around in his car: apparently shallow to everyone except when he conducts his conversations with the newborn baby Daniel. There is Auntie Lil, Stavely, Mrs Brandon, the Cartwrights and so on, who draw on tradition of comic characters from Shakespeare to Dickens and the music hall.
However, the novels are ultimately unsatisfying. The best description I can give is that they are like butterscotch Angel Delight. On the first mouthful you think you quite like it, then after a few spoonfuls, you realise you actually don’t like it that much at all and find it rather unsubstantial. Ultimately it leaves you feeling sick as the book closes with the fate of the two characters I found myself rooting for: baby Daniel and the grounded, quite heroic Jessie. Like Angel Delight I couldn’t face the sequel, another helping: I Didn’t Know You Cared. I tried and got part way in but then decided to take it back to the library, craving something of substance, something more wholesome. Perhaps, also like Angel Delight, when I’ve forgotten what it’s actually like, I’ll start to think I like it again some day.
Anthony Ward - Our Human Constitution
So far, this has been the hardest of all the Sheffield novels to review. At times I admired the writing: for its powerful imagery and lyricism, at other times I cringed, was annoyed by it or was disgusted. When I finished reading it I tracked down an obituary of Ward. Like his writing I don’t doubt if I had known him he would have been equally likeable and detestable in parts. He was born in Sheffield, the son of a miner, and was brought up in Lincolnshire when his father got a second career as a butcher (there is a lot of autobiographical inspiration for the novel). He was remembered for what the obituary writer termed his “unrestrained conviviality” – he died at the age of 57 of liver disease, no doubt as a result of too much conviviality. As well as being a bon-viveur he was an inspirational lecturer at York University, went fox-hunting and shot bears in Canada. Not surprising then when reading the novel that I reacted as I did at times as its author’s complexities came through.
The novel gets its title from the words of A. J. Cook, the General Secretary of the Miner’s Federation during the General Strike of 1926. In response to a speech by Stanley Baldwin in which he said that the miners “were fighting the British Constitution,” Cook said that the government “were fighting our human constitution.”
It is the story of three generations, starting with George, a miner, scrabbling to make a living for his family in Attercliffe in the 20s against a backdrop of pit closures and strikes. It then follows his son Will’s post-war attempt to become a self-made man, and ends with the somewhat feckless grandson George – a product of the post war welfare state. Each is saddled/blessed with similar psychological flaws/strengths (like in Larkin “they fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you”) – but each of them is placed in a different environment, though held by an invisible rope to Attercliffe and their forefathers.
It is not a terribly easy book to read – the narrative uses stream of consciousness – employing internal dialogue and a free indirect style (though don’t worry, nowhere near as dense as Joyce). For example: “The cloth of his trousers under my cheek, holding him round the knee and looking into the fire. Beams playing, crossing, dividing in my eyes. Only warmth. The thick serge, the face of the lad I’d laced in the fire. Tony Brakes who I’d blinded in one eye for laughing at one of my mother’s hats. She was rattling pots in the kitchen. There’s be no more warmth when she came in.” As sometimes happens with use of this style there are at times passages heavy with description of minor detail, sometimes overly so. It is also unremittingly bleak in places; so not for the light-hearted. Nor is it one for the prudish.The locations are authentic from Attercliffe to Nether Green, the Porter Valley and Padley Gorge. You can follow the routes in your mind. It’s definitely worth a read. One to make your own mind up on. It is a book to divide opinion.
Len Doherty - The Good Lion
Len Doherty - The Good Lion
This is the story of three years in the life of Walter Morris, starting as a seventeen-year-old arriving in Sheffield for the first time to carve out a new life for himself. His plan is to become a miner which has the added advantage of avoiding National Service. The ‘good lion’ represents Walt’s initial outlook on life: basically self-centred, looking out for himself only – the lion that kills a deer not being a ‘bad lion.’ The story sees him struggling for a meaning in his life and moving away from this initial framework.
It is a largely forgotten book, the third of three, and regarded as the best, by a former reporter on The Star newspaper. Published in 1958 and set ten years earlier it can be compared to other, more popularly acclaimed, 50s novels by working class authors: Waterhouse, Storey, Barstow and Sillitoe. (Stan Barstow acknowledged the influence of Doherty in his writing of A Kind of Loving.) Its relative obscurity is strange because The Good Lion is if anything better written and a more satisfying read than Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, for example. Sillitoe’s book is more sensational perhaps, but the plot is less tightly written: things happen for no apparent reason, and there are strange shifts of point of view. As Sillitoe admits in the preface to the 1979 edition, it was a first novel, “with all its liberties and limitations.” The fact it was made into a film perhaps explains its enduring popularity. By contrast, in The Good Lion everything is part of the whole, building the voyage of self-discovery that Walt is on and it explores the psychology of the lead character, where there is a gap in Sillitoe’s exploration of Seaton. One can only speculate as to The Good Lion’s obscurity: was it Doherty’s politics that alienated him from the establishment? That is a more challenging read? Or the very fact it was set in unglamorous Sheffield?
Like Arthur Seaton, Walt is an angry young man, whose growing up includes much drinking, womanising and fighting. Perhaps as a book about contemporary society its appeal was limited, but now, when Walt would be in his eighties, if still alive, it has matured like a good wine: the reader reflecting on the lives of their parents or grandparents and finding plenty of interest other than just a well-crafted plot and the problems, opportunities and mentality of a post-war teenager.
The city is never actually named and the locations are all fictional, though very believable. It is a time of bomb damage: “chopped timbers hanging awry and the pale grey of solitary walls against which staircases leaned leading nowhere,” a time of rationing, smoky dance halls where bands play waltzes, jazz or “bop,” of suede shoes, fights between gangs, fear over the cold war and atom bombs. It is a time when someone could commute to London from a new house built onto a village consisting of a pub, a post office and a cluster of farm labourers’ cottages with no running water and lit by oil lamps; cottages, no doubt now demolished or yuppified and surrounded by modern estates and Waitroses.
The writing is good. Take this, for the effect after nearly four pints: “a whirling fluffiness was spreading through his head, like cotton-wool wisps in a fairground candy-floss machine which spin round and round as they slowly gather into a light pink mass; and many normal thoughts and feelings were being smothered like encumbrant weaklings leaving him aware of himself in a fine new way. He felt reckless, confident and invincible.” Or this description of post-war Sheffield: “The city was ugly and knew it, and tried to cover its knowledge with a touchy self-sufficiency, but it was this ugliness, brusque gruffness and lack of sophistication which made him like both the place and the people…” Doherty writes well about fighting and brings to life the old-style gang culture; his descriptions of boxing are some of the best I have read. As an ex-miner himself, he also conveys the sense of honour, loyalty and community amongst miners.It is out of print but worth getting hold of a copy if you can. I will consider publishing an e-book version if I can locate the copyright holder and get permission.
Terry Deary - Put out the Light
This is a story aimed at children (perhaps aged 10+) by Terry Deary of Horrible Histories fame. I read it to my daughter when she was learning about the Second World War and the Sheffield blitz in Year 6. It is a wonderful book and shows the power of fiction. This one book will teach children so much about WW2. And, better than any text book , school lesson or film, it places you right there: empathising with the characters, feeling the peril, imagining what it was like.
It follows Sally and Billy in Sheffield’s East End in the lead up to the Blitz and the 12th December 1940. Some of the chapters are given dates so you feel the tension build towards the night of the twelfth.
The book also follows Manfred, a German boy and Irena, a Polish Jew from Dachau.
For such a short novel it is packed with themes and plot threads – a detective story, Irena’s escape, what it was like to be a bomber pilot or a fighter pilot and so on.
The writing is excellent: economical with no wasted words, and is gripping. You don’t predictably take sides: you empathise equally with both sets of children and as a result some of the futility of war comes through. Everyone should read it to their children, particularly everyone in Sheffield – there is no better way to teach them something about what their grandparents or great-grandparents lived through. The plot threads are tied up superbly at the end and will have you sniffing away the odd tear if you’re a sentimental, old so-and-so.I have only two small gripes: firstly Deary gives back alleys to the street of Attercliffe, like his native North East; whereas Sheffield streets were not constructed like that (more courtyards and back passages). Secondly, he has Attercliffe Common as an open piece of grassy ground – a piece of common land – an easy mistake to make perhaps: he would have been better having that scene happen in Carbrook Park or the Pheasant Ground.
Steven Kay: The Evergreen in red and white
I can’t review my own book obviously so you could take a look at: http://thetwounfortunates.com/book-review-the-evergreen-in-red-and-white/ , http://www.wsc.co.uk/reviews/62-Fiction/11478-the-evergreen-in-red-and-white , http://footballbookreviews.com/reviews/book-review-the-evergreen-in-red-and-white-a-novel-by-steven-kay , http://historicalnovelsociety.org/reviews/the-evergreen-in-red-and-white/ , or http://proletics.wordpress.com/. If anyone fancies doing a review of it for this blog, that would be great.
Kevin Sampson - Freshers
The settings and detail in this book are all very authentic: pubs, the student areas of Sheffield in 2002/3 – right down to the kind of food you can get in Vittles in Broomhill. It is competently written; though there is not much a story to it. However, there is some interest revealed part way through the book, if you make it that far, as the underlying psychological flaw of the main character is revealed. In a hundred years time, if we are still here, Freshers might be of some interest to historians of the late part of the second Elizabethan era. As for now, if you are interested in the lifestyle of first year students, their angst, their desperation to lose their virginity, their self-pity, drinking habits, their getting off their heads on magic mushrooms, and their propensity for self-pleasuring themselves, then you will probably like this – otherwise don’t bother. Seriously don’t.
Lesley Glaister - Trick or Treat
This is an excellent read with rich complex characters who bring plenty of baggage with them into a story set over 12 autumnal days, a best guess being 1989. Olive, Arthur, Nell and Wolfe are particularly well drawn. It is Last of the Summer Wine meets 2013 BBC drama Mayday. Somehow Glaister makes “warm and cosy” (tea and toast, tins of toffee and chocolate limes, allotment gardening, parkin and candlewick bedspreads) feel slightly sinister. Little bits of imagery slipped in to homely scenes: “tips a fierce stream of tea into his cup,” a flower pressed in a book becomes “ a dead, flat thing, a brownish thing” that flutters out of the pages.
Glaister’s imagery is simple but excellent: describing the allotment: “Everything is still. Leaves hang damply or flop crumpled on the ground, onion flowers glow like little planets. Nothing moves. Even the one figure on the allotment, an old man bent over his spade, is motionless, like a man in a painting. The smell is green and brown and cool and rich.” Or: “the lights of the city spread out below her, glittering and fizzing under a stony moon. It is a mild night and the air is faintly orange, stained with street lamps and the tang of autumn smoke.”
The setting is clearly Sheffield (Glaister lived in Sheffield while teaching writing at Sheffield Hallam) though it is never actually mentioned. The clues include the people, the hills, the allotments with streams at the bottom, the bombing of the city in the war, an old water wheel ‘The Cutlers Wheel,’ and the layout of the houses (the front cover is odd: it represents nothing of the story – not the houses, not the mood – it is a strange choice to sell the novel.
Trick or Treat is melancholy, certainly, but strangely life-affirming.
Sunjeev Sahota - Ours are the Streets
Reading this at a time when British Asian boys are again in the news for their radicalisation and disturbing views of Britain I was looking forward to reading this story about a young Sheffield man called Imtiaz and his own journey towards violent jihad.
The book is written as a journal and covers both life in Sheffield and in Pakistan/Afghanistan: when Imtiaz returns “home” following the death of his father. The scenes in Pakistan are perhaps the best in the book and seem (to someone who has never been) to capture the atmosphere of the place. Sahota captures Sheffield less well, though some of the city comes through (Sahota grew up in Chesterfield so knows Sheffield at least in part). I would have liked to have been shown more of what the experience of a British Asian Sheffielder was like.
One of the main failings of the book is that you anticipate some insights into what could possibly motivate someone like Imtiaz to contemplate such actions but it never really comes – his radicalisation isn’t really explained and in the end you’re just left wondering whether it was no more than a form of schizophrenia. Perhaps that is all there really is to it, a descent into madness; but if so even that isn’t described or explained particularly well.
The journal style telling only half works – Sahota could have been more disciplined if he wanted to continue with this device: he is addressing the journal to those he proposes to leave behind, in particular his parents, wife and baby daughter. And yet he describes quite vividly his sexual exploits – in a memoir for his daughter??? Sahota also flips from Imtiaz addressing his wife in the second person to writing about her in the third person – is that a deliberate shift, part of Imtiaz’s confusion, or just a lack of discipline on the part of the author – I couldn’t tell: if the rest of the writing had been tight I might have gone with it.
Sheffield is sometimes described inaccurately which is a bugbear of mine (see other reviews). For example, Imtiaz and Charag are at the Leadmill and see a tram go past heading to Meadowhall. Also he has floodlights poking up from Bramall Lane (they haven’t ‘poked up’ since the mid 90s – absolutely unforgivable error!).
The only use of dialect is that Imtiaz says “sempt” a lot – “no one sempt to bat an eyelid,” and says “were” instead of “was” – “she were fumbling in her pocket….” At first I was OK with this but it soon got wearing as it seemed (sempt?) less about capturing Imtiaz’s speech than a being writerly device. It is a hard thing to get right, I acknowledge: you want them to sound authentic without becoming unreadable.
One final criticism is Noor, his daughter: she is perhaps 18 months old at the close and yet has no character whatsoever – Imtiaz has apparently no relationship with her, no interaction with her, except for kissing her on the head towards the end – this feels really false and should have been explored better.
The e-book is totally riddled with formatting errors: missing spaces, stray carriage returns and missing carriage returns, “Asad- sounding song” (is that a song that sounds like the President of Syria?). Throughout the book “alright” is used – there is no such word; it is never all right to write “alright” – it is just ignorance. I wonder who has edited it: there is some weird stuff that an editor should have spotted: “I spent the whole of the tram ride looking at the passengers from under my eyes” – how is that done exactly to look at something from under your eyes? I can forgive some of these things in a self-published writer but from mainstream Picador who rip you off for £3.59 it is very poor.
Despite all these imperfections it is still a compelling read and does require some reflection from the reader.
Brian Sellars - Tuppenny Hat Detective
Tuppenny Hat Detective is a really good read. If you’ve not read it you are missing a gem – and if you’re from Yorkshire it will appeal for many reasons, not least because Brian Sellars has made it available on Kindle for nowt, so tha dun’t even need to shell out thi brass! (The author tells me it shifts about 4000 downloads a month!)
It is reminiscent of Kästner’s classic Emil and the Detectives and the Just William stories, though it is not a children’s book – Sellars says he has aimed it at teenage upwards. It should have a broad appeal as a result – it is gently written and would translate nicely to a Sunday evening serial that all the family could watch –if any BBC producers out there are looking for ideas.
It is superbly grounded in time and place. Sellars makes good use of dialect and real locations to solidly root the novel. Of all the books reviewed so far it is the one that oozes Sheffield. It should be compulsory reading for anyone wanting to pass the Sheffield citizenship exam.
It follows Billy Perks through the spring of 1951 and the events that unfold after he discovers a dead body. Billy is a smart kid, at times so smart that you perhaps have to suspend disbelief but you are happy to do so: a sort of Billy Casper meets Jonathan Creek. The characters are cleverly drawn – Yvonne, Billy’s friend, is one of several strong female characters and often shows the boys up with her sharp thinking: “For a second or so the boys gazed around trying to pretend this was not a brilliant idea, but found her logic flawless. ‘Well, I suppose we could try that,’ Billy admitted grudgingly. ‘I mean if it will stop you moaning on about it.” In response Yvonne storms out with a: “You’re pathetic you two.” And Kick, the other one in the gang of three, observes ruefully: “Tha never knows where tha stands wi’ lasses.”
It is very funny in parts: for example, Billy’s granny and her wonderful little sayings: “The draught from that cellar would blow the bill off a penguin.” Then there is the little historical novelists’ in-joke when Billy is contemplating newspaper archives: “ ‘It’s a pity you can’t copy the stuff with a camera or something,’ he said. ‘It’d be great for people who like to go to see the archives and stuff and be able to make copies of it.’”
The novel is self-published which gives the lie to those who say if you can’t get a publisher for your novel that probably means it is not good enough. It shows how wrong publishers can be sometimes and how their fixation with defined genre (chick-lit, romance, fantasy, action adventure etc. etc.) narrows the choices available to readers. Sellars was told by a leading publisher that it wasn’t marketable because it was set in “the wrong period of history.” This is astonishing: all those baby-boomers who are retiring and finding time on their hands to read presumably don’t want to read a novel set in their childhood days?? With publishers and literary agents being almost exclusively London based, I suspect they apply a “London commuter test” – will it appeal to the woman on the Northern Line: to people like themselves? Despite that I reckon Tuppenny Hat Detective would still pass that test if publishers opened their eyes a bit.
My one small gripe with the novel is the denouement – even after it was all unravelled I was still left a little puzzled, but then I am the sort of person who is left scratching their head watching Death in Paradise even after the Ben Miller character has gathered everyone round and explained it. So it’s probably just me.
I will close by saying look out for the chapter six homage to pikelets. Marvellous! By far the best piece of writing on pikelets to be found in the whole of English Literature.
Charles Reade: Put Yourself in His Place
Sheffield features briefly in Ivanhoe (1820) but Put Yourself in His Place by Charles Reade (1870) is probably the earliest novel to be set in Sheffield, for which he uses the not very imaginative fictional name of “Hillsborough.” The novel switches between there and a location called Cairnhope which is to the east (sic.) “where hills rise into mountains and amongst them towers Cairnhope striped with silver rills, and violet in the setting sun.” Cairnhope is clearly fictional and, if based on anywhere at all, it is only loosely.
He does not paint a flattering picture of Sheffield: but I suppose Sheffield back then didn’t try very hard to flatter. There is some good stuff: “Hillsborough, though built on one of the loveliest sites in England, is perhaps the most hideous town in creation. All the ups and downs and back slums. Not one of its wriggling, broken-backed streets has handsome shops in an unbroken row. Houses seem to have battled in the air, and stuck wherever they tumbled down dead out of the melee. But worst of all, the city is pock-marked with public-houses, and bristles with high round chimneys… More than one crystal stream runs sparkling down the valleys and enters the town; but they soon get defiled, and creep through it heavily charged with dyes, clogged with putridity, and bubbling with poisonous gases, till at last they turn to mere ink, stink, and malaria, and people the churchyards as they crawl.” There are parallels there with something I wrote in The Evergreen in red and white – if I had come across Reade beforehand I might have been tempted to slip in a bit of intertextuality (posh plagiarism).
Reade did apparently visit Sheffield in 1850 which I think you can tell from his light-touch, but convincing, use of dialect and patterns of speech. Also some of the details suggest either careful research or first-hand knowledge: awareness of the frequency of eye injuries, the remarkable insights (for 1870) into lead poisoning in file cutters, the descriptions of the outrages, the section the Great Sheffield Flood and of some of the industrial processes (lesson for Philip Hensher here: see below). The accounts of the outrages and the flood could have been put together from newspaper reports but there would seem to be more to it than that. The novel does have an authentic Sheffield feel to it in parts.
The story itself will perhaps jar in places for the modern reader: Henry Little is the archetypal Victorian hero: tall, dashing, brave etc, Grace Carden, the heroine, with fair hair and marble-like skin is at times too prone to swooning and blushing, the villain, Mr Coventry, is treacherous and scheming. But the women are not all weak and subservient. Edith Little is strong and determined, Grace Carden carves wood, and rolls up her sleeves and shifts rubble at one point. And Jael Dence, a country girl, is wonderful: at one point she beats up a villain, for example, and learns to grind saws.
If you like Victorian novels you will like this and there are enough cliff hangers and plot twists to get you through a novel that is twice the size of most modern novels at 48 chapters.
Philip Hensher: The Northern Clemency
A fundamental question with The Northern Clemency is the extent to which it is a Sheffield novel at all. Large parts of it are set in Sheffield in the 1970s and early 1980s, but Hensher could have chosen anywhere to set his story: anywhere with up-north grimness would have served his narrative equally well. He doesn’t really get under the skin of the city – it just represents somewhere non-metropolitan to him.
This is surprising since Hensher lived for nearly 10 years in the city from 1971. You can only conclude that he never really got to know it. Perhaps that says something about him. He must have been in the year below me at school and lived not far from me and yet his Sheffield is not the Sheffield I remember. My Sheffield meant seems to have passed him by: a vibrant music scene: The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17, Artery, The Leadmill, The Limit, The Lyceum as a pop venue. Sheffield’s parks, 9 hole golf and tennis at pocket money prices, the ability to roam the whole city for a 2p bus fare, Millhouses lido, Heeley’s indoor skateboarding venue in the old cinema, the artistry and romance of Tony Currie and Alex Sabella (he probably never even knew who they were I guess). The proud defiance of the city despite everything that Thatcher tried to destroy, and the way it re-invented itself, never felt sorry for itself, never rose up in riot. Sheffield was then, and still is, the biggest village in England – it has a unique atmosphere and openness; nothing flashy. Perhaps Hensher never got out much. Perhaps his childhood was lacking, but there is little excuse not getting to know Sheffield better, or at the very least he should have done his research better.
His treatment of Sheffield is lazy: some places he refers to by their authentic names, and yet there are others such as “Peace Square,” which is clearly the real life “Paradise Square,” where he has inexplicably chosen not use the real name or couldn’t be bothered to get it right. (You may be screaming ‘pedant’ at me at this stage, ‘it’s only fiction so it doesn’t matter.’ Please stick with it and let me develop the argument.) Another example: Daniel and Sandra go out to the crags near Lodge Moor which are “made of limestone” – no they are not – there is no limestone this side of Castleton – the rocks are Sheffield are gritstone. Then later on Tim goes to Orgreave from Crosspool and meets others at services on the M18 – and yet the M18 is several miles beyond Orgreave and the only services on the M18, at Thorne, opened in about 2000. Picky surely? Well try looking at it another way. If I write a scene where characters kicked the piles of beech leaves that fell from the trees lining The Mall you’d accuse me of being an ignorant northerner, no? Or if they set off from Hampstead for Hackney on the tube and met some friends who joined them on the tube at Earls Court you would sneer at my inability to check facts. I can only conclude that Hensher believed getting basic facts right didn’t matter because it is only fiction and it is only a northern town anyway.
Another basic error he makes is in a little authorial lecture on Sheffield’s East End “This side of the city had been destroyed by German bombs, decades ago. Where money could be made again, those foundries had been built or rebuilt.” Those are presumably the same German bombs that destroyed St Pauls’ cathedral? – one of the facts we all learn about the war is that the bombs missed the steelworks and hit the city centre (I don’t even think that Hensher has a grasp of what the steel industry is, or was: generically calling them ‘foundries’ – just trivial details surely: it’s all industry – why bother? who cares about accuracy?)
He is also clumsy in his use of language: he throws in all the dialect words he knows in to one overheard conversation of some truants (of course none of us ever attended school in the 70s – ‘scoile’ was only for southern softies). Can you imagine an overheard conversation were you heard two truants get in all the words: ‘waggin’ it,’ ‘scoile,’ ‘gennell,’ ‘mardy,’ and ‘gi’ o’er?’ Some sort of Sheffield parlour game or just lazy stereotyping? Someone also breaks their leg and gets a ‘cast’ on it – it was called a ‘pot’ round here. Katherine, a Sheffielder thinks about people putting their doors on the ‘snib’ – the what? Call it a latch if you like rather than making a weak attempt to sound authentically parochial, or use a proper Sheffield word like ‘sneck.’
His writing on the sense of place is often weak. As the Sellers family approach Sheffield by car Hensher attempts a description of Sheffield in 1974. He is describing the journey from the point of view of the 9-year-old Francis. He (Francis) sees a “stinking black city of vast boxes and artificial black hills and unattended vast machinery” – quite a perceptive 9-year-old. But then Hensher wants to give a little more description and, perhaps realising that he can’t get Francis to lift this load, says: “poor Francis’s selfish focus and fear stopped him seeing the city he was entering…” Move aside little Francis, me Hensher coming through to give a little history lecture: “Francis saw the artificial black hills, the slag heaps piled up by the side of the motorway. But there were seven hill in Sheffield too. The city was founded on them. The six rivers too…” And he goes on to provide an inaccurate description of Sheffield’s industrial heritage and grime. None of which Francis saw. It is disembodied – a school lesson from a badly prepared teacher, told without context or emotion of the characters.
At no point so any of the characters convey anything about what Sheffield was really like. Throughout the novel it is all looking in on Sheffield (from Metropolitan eyes?) tinged with superiority, always disparaging. The main Sheffield family, the Glovers, with their degrees of autistic and psychopathic behaviour, are treated mockingly – the only relatively normal one, Jane, being an aspiring novelist (but of course, what else?) who conforms her normalness by going off to Oxford (where else?) and thence to London (naturally for a normal person). The Sellers family provide a mostly sane reference point, but of course they’re from London themselves. Helen is one of the few grounded people and had a calming influence over Daniel who comes out of it reasonably well in the end. The other character who is written as if he is not some provincial freak is Nick (from London) who despite being a drugs money launderer is a very boring, conventional person with little emotion.
Hensher does not write sympathetically of Sheffield people, in fact he often reverts to the grossest of sloppy clichés: “they were a Sheffield pair, fat-faced and middle-aged, though both – Malcolm looked down at their forms – barely forty. They had the local build, neither with much in the way of a neck; their square heads sat firmly on their shoulders, and their complexions were pale and moist.” Miners’ wives are treated with disdain, never a mention of their courage, bravery or principle, or their compassion for others. Instead they are “boot-faced,” “ratty, raw-faced women, in the bright Crimplene fashions of ten years before, their floral skirts at or above their knees” – women who probably sold food collections off at knock-down prices or just kept donations for themselves rather than sharing them out.
No, The Northern Clemency is not a Sheffield novel. It is a mere parody of the worst kind. If you want to read a novel set in Sheffield that reflects the city, I wouldn’t recommend wading through these 700+ pages.
David Nobbs: Second from Last in the Sack Race
Second from last in the sack race (1989) is set principally in the fictional town of Thurmarsh which is somewhere to the north east of Sheffield: a tram ride away, west of pit country and south of textiles country. It has a large steelworks. It is not Rotherham: Rotherham being a place some distance away perhaps only a few miles because the noise of a 13,000 Thurmarsh United crowd can be heard “as far away as Rotherham.” (I imagine Tinsley not existing and Thurmarsh being there instead.) There are sections set in Sheffield proper, a section set in Somerset boarding schools, and also a chapter set in the Yorkshire Dales.
It starts with the Henry Pratt’s birth in 1935 and ends in 1953 as he starts his national service and becomes a man. Does it fit my definition of a Sheffield novel? It certainly has a very local feel. Even when some of the people could be described as grotesque they are only gently mocked and have redeeming features. Nobbs does not look down on these people with contempt like Hensher – there is no sense of superiority in his writing – these characters are warm and affectionately portrayed. There is no Crosspool snobbery in Nobbs’ writing. Anyone from round here with memories of that generation will recognise people they knew in his carefully observed portraits. The characters jump to life – you can hear them and see them from the words on the page; his sparing use of dialect helps bring them to life; he also doesn’t just describe event she feels them.
The first few chapters are probably the best: Henry’s dad and the birth, the parrot, the ‘bedroom scene,’ “the greatest moment in English cricket history ruined,” and Henry’s adventures as a small boy. As you’d expect from the writer of Reggie Perrin it is very funny at times – the sort of book where you have to apologise to people around you for chortling: like the name him and his friends would have called their variant on poohsticks “if those scruffy youths had ever heard of Christopher Robin,” – having no trees in their environment there were no sticks to drop off the canal bridge, so they improvise with something else to hand…The chapters on public school life I found dragged a little but maybe if that’s within your experience it does more for you. Nobbs describes well Henry Pratt’s childhood and adolescence. The book ends with Pratt finally becoming a man. There are other Pratt books chronicling his later life also. I hope Nobbs can maintain his momentum in those.
Danuta Reah: Not Safe
Not Safe by Danuta Reah (2011) is described by the publishers as ‘a novella’ so I was a little disappointed to find that at less than 18,000 words, it is more of a short story, perhaps only needing 90 minutes tops to read it. It is a crime thriller in many ways like an early episode of The Bill with a whodunit type climax and resolution of peril at the end. Also like an early Bill there is very little characterisation – the only character you get any insight into is Tina Barraclough. She sets off on a bad footing with the reader anyway: the story doesn’t open with her so by the time you get to her she is an irritation as you’ve been starting to get to know another character who is then more or less dropped. There is a bit about Tina’s lifestyle but nothing about her inner life, nothing to explain her sometimes rather bizarre actions. She is so flat that you don’t really develop any affinity for her; no real understanding.
The story is set in Sheffield but it doesn’t really bring Sheffield to life – it could be anywhere really. The street names and landmarks are clearly recognised (but why does Tina go through Fargate and the Winter Gardens onto Arundel Gate in order to get to Snig Hill?).
It’s not a bad story for all that and if you aren’t tired of the crime fiction genre you’ll probably like this; it is competently written. I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve read another: Silent Playgrounds perhaps.
Danuta Reah: Silent Playgrounds
I said I’d read another Danuta Reah, having not been able to judge sufficiently by Not Safe; thinking perhaps that what was only a short story hadn’t allowed Reah to show how she could develop character. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Silent Playgrounds, another “crime thriller,” is a good length for a novel but still none of the characters make much sense, nor are they fully rounded. There are so many points of view in the novel, and they sometimes switch so rapidly that you feel punch drunk as you are flipped from one person’s thoughts and perspective to another.
The main characters are perhaps Suzanne Milner and D.I. Steve McCarthy but there are at least another half a dozen points of view – some of them very minor characters – it is as if Reah feels she has created all these people and wants to be fair to all of them, give them all a turn. She even finishes the novel rather flatly on the perspective of a minor character whose point of view had not been introduced before, and for whom the reader cares little and so is left bemused.
Even the main characters never quite make it as believable humans beings. Suzanne’s background and psychology are explored in some depth but you never really feel it makes sense: she still behaves bizarrely in a way contrary to what the reader expects. She behaves recklessly in going on her own looking for someone she knows the police are looking for (there is a serial killer on the loose): a young offender she hardly knows, of whose background she has no knowledge other than that he shows ‘persistent, destructive criminal behaviour.’
Later in the book she lets him in her house and offers to put him up for the night (… like you do!) She leaves a six year old with tendencies to wander off unsupervised. She then loses her. Just a few days before that same child went missing for several hours in the park at the same time as her childminder was murdered (the body of whom Suzanne herself discovered).
Later Suzanne ends up in bed with the senior investigating officer on the murder case, D.I. McCarthy, without any groundwork having been done that might explain why on earth she would do so. It strikes you as equally bizarre that McCarthy would behave so unprofessionally as to sleep with a witness – the whole episode just comes out of the blue.
There are sloppy discrepancies in the plot: for example, the water wheel turns even though a few pages earlier the damn that would be needed to drive it was described as being empty. Police officers interview a child but exclude the mother from the interview for no apparent reason, other than perhaps it suited the author (to interview a child without an appropriate adult, who should be a parent in the first instance, would be unheard of). The police don’t do basic things like checking birth records. All this leaves you exasperated with the author, who keeps pulling you back out of the story and drawing attention to herself, rather than you being able to settle back feeling you are in the hands of an accomplished writer in expert command of their subject. I could go on: there are issues with the use of tenses, overly boring detail of mundane thing like doing the washing up. There are laboured transitions to internal dialogue. For example at one point the author wants to tell the reader about Suzanne’s childhood. How to do this? What we get is Suzanne looking out of her window: “(she) saw Jane in her small yard… Lucy was crouched over some game involving building blocks and the animals from her wooden farm. Mother and daughter.
She remembered her own mother, that close intense relationship….” etc.
On the plus side Reah does build tension quite nicely and the locations are all reasonably well drawn. She is largely faithful to Sheffield; although the following made me want to throw the book at the wall. It is the young offender referred to: “ Then he’d looked at her folder: ‘What are you doing?’ he’d asked. His voice was quiet, his accent broad Sheffield.” Since when was ‘What are you doing?’ broad Sheffield? Why patronise your characters this way? Not even a hint towards dialect. Why not let them speak in their own voices? I react in the same way a Scot would if Taggart was dubbed into Southern English. Does a novel really have to be dressed up in received pronunciation for a mainstream publisher like Harper Collins to take it on?
The blurb on the back cover has a quote from Philip Oakes of the Literary Review. Apparently he thinks “Reah tells her tale with real authority” and says it is “seriously good.” Make your own mind up.
Barry Hines: Looks and Smiles
Looks and Smiles (1981) by Barry Hines is the story of Mick Walsh; starting as he leaves school and follows him over the space of a year or so as he struggles, and largely fails, to find a purpose in life in recession torn 70s Sheffield. (The phrase ‘due to public expenditure cuts’ without any further political analysis gets to be wearing.)
It is a missed opportunity of a novel in many ways and falls short of being a satisfying read. Most people only think of Hines’ second novel – the one made into a famous film. It is generally the film that they remember – proved by the fact that everyone calls it Kes and not A Kestrel for a Knave, and the bits everyone remembers are the scenes from the film not the scenes from the book. This is understandable given how good and how visual the film is. It is one of those films whose quality far outstrips the original book. It is impossible to read the book and not have film images in your head.
Looks and Smiles is not as good as A Kestrel for a Knave and is not supported by a strong story like The Price of Coal (1979). The main character Mick is inconsistent – at times he is intelligent and sensitive, at others a loathsome thug. The two are not necessarily immiscible but Hines never quite reconciles it: you don’t get to understand Mick. This is perhaps always a risk when someone intelligent writes about someone less so – the author running the risk of leaking through when he/she should hold back and let the character live for themselves. The book’s portrait of late 70s Sheffield is not bad, though why he doesn’t use real locations to lend it more authenticity is a puzzle. Other than the shop Sexy Rexy, names are made up: Chatsworth Street instead of what is Fargate or The Moor, Adam N’ Eves nightclub instead of, possibly Romeo & Juliet’s – why? Novelists writing about London don’t feel the need to disguise Trafalgar Square as ‘St George’s Square’ or whatever. Is it just because writers can’t be bothered with accuracy of research or don’t want to feel shackled by real geography? (At one point Mick pinches a bike from the front garden of a house in the city centre to go to the bus station for example.)
Hines also doesn’t capture the people through their speech – there is hardly a hint of dialect or local speech patterns. (For example, there is a bizarre turn of phrase “Have we to…?” meaning “Shall we…?” e.g. “Have we to go for a walk?” Where has this come from?) Mick and his mate Alan largely speak to the reader in RP. This is also a puzzle since Hines shows no such , what’s the word? self-consciousness? betrayal? In other work. Was he badly advised by agents or publishers: “if you want to make this appreciated by the literati you’re going to have to drop the working class taint Barry” – to make it intelligible to Southern readers who, of course, would never want to read oikish language. All it does is make the characters jar.
Some of the writing is good – the description of a 1970s football match, for example: “The crowd kept falling forward, and the waves of movement down the Kop were like shadows racing across a hill.” At other time sit is truly awful: at a motorway service station: “Mick played pinball in the entrance hall while Karen went to the lavatory. On the doors of the Ladies, a symbol of a person in a wheelchair indicated that disabled people could use it too.” We switch from a point-of view of Mick in the entrance playing pinball to suddenly observing details of the Ladies toilets which presumably Mick can’t see from the entrance hall even if he weren’t concentrating on his pinball and was the sort of person who would even notice something like a toilet sign. And why does the reader even need to know it anyway? Hines does this flipping of point-of-view in a disconcerting fashion – one of the things aspiring writers are told to avoid at all costs. We suddenly go inside the heads of strangers at the children’s playground after Mick leaves, or into the head of a man that Mick tries to persuade to give up his tie so that he can get into a nightclub. It comes across as amateurish.
There is definitely something in this book, something of the Saturday Night and Sunday Morning about it, though Hines falls short of Sillitoe in several respects. It is quite bleak but does try to capture a moment in time and a hopelessness, but it lacks any political analysis to put it into context: why are the characters so politically passive? No one was back then. Looks and Smiles could have been so much better with a bit more work on it.