The Mercies

I’d seen this book here, there and everywhere over the last year or so. At first, I lumped it in with that slew of novels, all with a similar style of colourful, swirling patterns on the cover and a one-word title, that were so much in vogue in the last year or so. You know the ones I mean – The Familiars, The Foundling, The Binding, The Corset. I tried all of those, having a love of the gothic, but didn’t finish any of them. I found them pale imitations of the real thing, compared to, say, one of the early Sarah Waters books. The other thing that put me off trying this one, for quite a long time, was Millwood Hargrave's children’s novel, The Girl of Ink and Stars. Despite it’s wonderful title (a title that, incidentally, put paid to my own novel, The Girl with Stars in her Hair) I found…

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More Sorrow than Bliss

A review of "Sorrow and Bliss" by Meg Mason Sorrow and Bliss is one of those much-touted novels that seem to gain traction in the Spring so that many people select them as one of their Summer holiday reads. Then you get tweets and Instagram posts from influencers saying how wonderful it was, to which in their turn, in the time -honoured, strange, traditions of twitter, followers gush back, agreeing how amazing it was and the churn of interest continues. Good marketing, I suppose. And, of course, I wouldn’t be complaining if one of my books was at the centre of such a fabricated whirlwind of interest. But there’s more than sour grapes to this less than enthusiastic review. Many of these books represent a triumph of marketing over substance and I’m afraid Sorrow and Bliss is another that disappoints. It's targeted at women readers so single-mindedly that it might as well have…

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Wolves in Winter – Joan Aiken’s enduring legacy, part 1.

Right at the beginning of my first job as an English teacher, in South London in 1983, I was shown where the Department book cupboard was and told to have a rummage. This was cutting edge preparation back in the Eighties, when it was assumed that new teachers might have some ideas of their own about what to teach and how to teach it. I can still remember using that oh so familiar standard issue ILEA master key to gain entrance to this Aladdin’s cave of treasures. A gloomy, cavernous store hung with the smell of dust, chalk and cleaning fluids, it revealed its secrets fitfully as the neon strip light coughed into life, taking several pings before flooding the area with dazzling white light. I shut the door behind me. In the glare, the rows and piles of books covered all four walls and most of the floor. Later in my career,…

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Saltwater – Jessica Andrews

This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values. Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is…

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Where the Crawdads Sing – Warning! Lukewarm review on the way.

Last summer's literary sensation is just a Netfix mini-series in waiting. Twitter has been agog all year, or so it seems, about this book from first time novelist, Delia Owens. It firmly established itself as the book to read this year, and in normal summers, it would have furnished many a beach bag as the go-to holiday read. I was intrigued. Could it really be that good? Or was it just the latest example of marketing triumphing over substance? There was only one way to settle it and, firmly behind the curve, I bought it and settled down with a raised eyebrow, waiting to be convinced. Unfortunately, dear reader, I was not. Convinced that is. There is a lot to admire and enjoy about it. I finished it in three days, for a start. So, yes, it’s a page turner, and in my book, that is a powerful attraction. It’s an often under-appreciated…

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