NON-FICTION//Letters From the Suitcase- edited by Rosheen and Cal Finnigan*

Letters From The Suitcase (Jun) This is one of those books that I probably would never have picked up, but-oh!- I’m so grateful I was sent it. I always forget how much I enjoy collections of letters  and I enjoyed this collection very much.

Mary Moss and David Francis met in 1938 and fell in love almost instantly; the book is a collection of letters written by them to each other over the course of seven years. Two young people, from completely different backgrounds, desperate to be together but separated by war, poured their hearts out on paper. It’s a moving collection of letters that’s full of humour, frustration and utter, all-consuming love. I was also surprised at the modern tone of the letters- we tend to think of the 1930s/40s as being completely different to now, but here the couple write in a way that we would recognise: they call each other ‘honey’ and early on Mary hints at a pre-marriage pregnancy scare. Later, after their daughter Rosheen arrives, the parental pride is touching and the concerns that Mary has seem very similar to some of those I have for my own son now.

As war makes the separation deeper and longer, Mary’s descent into depression and David’s war work colours the letters. It’s a fascinating look at the way that war affected those working for the Allies (David works on high level projects and is posted to Africa and, later, India, where he would die of smallpox) and those left at home in a terrible limbo. The longing that permeates the pages is moving and heartbreaking. Little in-jokes, film reviews, the excitement over a Russian red winter coat, David asking Mary what he can send her as a treat- all these things help the reader see inside the marriage and feel sadness as it becomes apparent that the story does not have a happy ending.

After David’s death, Mary hid the correspondence in a suitcase in the attic, only to reveal to Rosheen that they were there. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to discover a cache of letters from a father you knew very little about- but I’m so glad that they have been published.

HISTORICAL//Crimson and Bone- Marina Fiorato*

Crimson and Bone (Jun) On New Year’s Eve, Annie Stride, a desperate and pregnant young woman stands on the edge of a bridge, contemplating the icy water below. As she’s about to step off the ledge, a gentleman appears in a hansom cab and saves her. What seems to be a blessing quickly turns into something strange…

This novel is being touted as one for fans of The Crimson Petal and the White (which I loved) and does have some similar themes: a Victorian prostitute is saved from poverty by a richer man with a good reputation- in this case, a talented Pre-Raphaelite painter, for whom Annie becomes a muse and his ‘wife’. But no matter what her new life brings her, she’s still haunted by her past- and the friend whose death led to Annie’s life spinning out of control. It’s a novel about one man’s obsession and the woman who is unwittingly trapped in a gilded prison- and I bloody loved it.

To be honest, this book had me at ‘Victorian’ and ‘Pre-Raphaelite’; I also noticed that the names of Annie and her protector Francis have a link to another famous Victorian person of interest (which I won’t give away here- you’ll have to read the book!) It’s a great book that really took me on a journey to Victorian London and Florence through wonderfully vivid descriptions, and there’s undercurrent of menace that lurked beneath the shiny, respectable exterior of Annie’s new world is ever present. It’s one of those stories where you know there’s something not quite right, but you can never quite put your finger on it- only for the ending to make you realise it all makes sense.

This is a satisfyingly brooding novel that never lets you trust yourself- or any of the characters- until the final page is finished.

 

INTERVIEW//Sarah Schmidt

328x328 It’s safe to say that I’m a huge fan of Sarah Schmidt’s amazing debut novel See What I Have Done. It’s one of my favourite novels of recent years and one that I think everyone should read. Of course, I’m delighted that Sarah agreed to be interviewed for the blog- so strap yourself in for pigeons, book talk and writing advice…

Can you describe the connection you felt with the Bordens as you were writing the novel?

More than anything it was luck. I was in a second-hand bookstore when I accidentally knocked a pamphlet about Lizzie Borden off the shelf. After reading about the case I was initially uninterested. But that night and for a whole week, I dreamt that Lizzie was sitting on the edge of my bed poking me in the legs. She said, ‘I have something to tell you about my father. He has a lot to answer for.’ I began writing down my these dreams hoping they’d go away and without realising it, I had started writing a novel. Before too long I was drawn into the case and it was too late too back out.

The connection I felt is hard to explain. I just couldn’t stop thinking about them.

Have you always been interested in true crime, or was it the unsolved nature of this crime that drew you to it? Are there any other cases that have caught your interest?

I wouldn’t say I’m a ‘fan’ of true crime at all however I am fascinated by particular cases and the people involved. I suspect this is what drew me to the Bordens: it wasn’t so much the crime or trial I was fascinated by but them as a family and my desire to find out more about them, the moments leading up to the crime.

Every now and then I’ll come across a case where I think, ‘Now THAT would be an interesting novel to write,’ but it all comes down to the how and why. There’s one story I’m particularly interested in that has recently taken place in Australia: the Tromp family. The thrust of the story is this: over a weekend, the Tromps flee their farm with their grown children and set out on a ‘family car trip’ up the coast. One by one the children escape yet are unable (or unwilling) to tell police what happened on the car trip. All they will say is that their father was behaving erratically and the women of the family seem to be suffering from a type of memory loss. It’s a very strange case. I’m sure I’m not the only writer in Australia thinking of writing around this story.

There’s a strong underlying rhythm to the language in the novel (especially in Lizzie’s chapters)- was this a conscious choice, or one that just happened organically as you wrote?

I think it’s a little bit of both. This is probably going to sound like a ridiculously earnest non-answer but  in many ways, much of  the rhythm and language of the book is naturally the way I write. Having said that when you set out to write about a particular set of characters in a situation you need to choose the best way to tell that story. For me that was identifying the aspects of my writing that I could ‘play up’ for say, Lizzie, and take it to a place that would be unsettling and creepy – enough to feel like it was my style but definitely not me. When I began writing down those initial dreams, Lizzie had a very distinct way of looking at her world and was very evasive. She sounded so much like a petulant child at times. I went with that feeling and tried to make it work the best I could in my way of storytelling.

Lizzie_borden
Lizzie Borden (Wikipedia)

Can you describe your research process? What’s the most interesting thing you found out during your research?

My process is haphazard and ill conceived and usually led by the gut! It really depends on what I’m working on but generally speaking, I always start with an image or a feeling and try to work outward from there.

In the beginning with See What I Have Done, once I’d had the image of Lizzie at the end of my bed, I researched the case for a few months, just enough to feel confident with the main thrust of the case, and then I put it away and tried not to actively think about it. I know that sounds counter intuitive but because I wanted to write a reimagining of the events and concentrate on the family rather than a blow-by-blow account of the crime and trial, I knew I should only use the information I could retain. As the years went on I’d again look at other aspects of the case or read about Victoria-era America and I’d start that whole forgetting-relearning cycle all over.

Another thing I do for research is a lot of walking. It almost becomes a fact-finding mission. Moving through ideas is very helpful and often on these walks I’ll notice something that somehow connects with the novel I’m working on. That’s how the pigeons came to be in the book. One day walking around a suburb of Melbourne, I saw a very meaty looking pigeon watch me as I walked by and I thought ‘You filthy little rodent. I bet you’d make a nice pie.’ I don’t usually look at pigeons like this, so I knew it wasn’t ‘me’ per se thinking this but more a character. Then I really started to notice pigeons literally everywhere, that there was no escaping them. Later when I went to stay at the Borden house (which is now a B&B), there were pigeons galore and it was there that I first heard that two pigeon skeletons were found in the attic years before (this could be total rumour but I ran with it). It was around this time that I made the connection between all the pigeons I’d encountered and I got to thinking there is something creepy about those birds and what if there were birds hanging around the day of the murders? Who loves and hates these birds?

So I started weaving pigeons into the manuscript and before I knew it, pigeons had become Lizzie’s pets and Andrew despised them. And we all know how that turned out.

Which writers have influenced your own work?

Too many to list! It’s not always a particular book that is the influence but often the way the writer explores their themes, how they approach writing and so on. My influences can also change depending on the project I’m working on. But I can’t just stop at books: I’m hugely influenced by film and tv.

When I was writing See What I Have Done there were a couple of books which I had on the desk with me as totems. I didn’t always crack them open but having them near me was enough to remind me of a particular quality the book had that I wanted in mine. Sometimes the books would change but I’d always have Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides because I liked the way both the Lisbon sisters and the narrators seemed to move amongst each other like a giant wheel, the circular way of group thinking. It’s how I thought of Emma and Lizzie. There’s so much about Eugenides’  book I admire, I could go on and on.

Roughly four or so years into the writing of my novel, I gave my manuscript to my sister-in-law to get some feedback and she said, ‘Have you been reading Shirley Jackson? This reminds me so much of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.’ I hadn’t (and shamefully at the time I hadn’t really heard of her except I knew she’d written ‘The Lottery’) so I went along and got a copy of the book and it was like reading a long-lost friend, all that creepy gothic deliciousness. Initially I thought my manuscript might’ve been ‘too much’ in the weird department and that maybe I should pull back but when I read Jackson’s book it gave me the confidence to dial up the creepiness and to embrace the household I had creating. It also made me feel better about Lizzie being the way she is!

Which book do you wish you’d written- and why?

The books we wish we had written could only have been written by the author: they are the reason a book is great. However if I were Toni Morrison and delivered Beloved or Hanya Yanigihara and came up with A Little Life I’d be a happy writer.

Who would you invite to your dream literary dinner party?

That all depends what mood I’m in! For a fictional dinner  party, and if I wanted to feel highly stressed, then I would invite myself over to Merricat and Constance Blackwood’s house and wait for the mushrooms to be served.

Failing that, I’d like to have dinner with Hanya Yanigiahra.

8) Have you eaten mutton stew or pears since writing your book?

Have I ever!

Actually, the food that I struggle to eat (but which I strangely make often and I’ve grown to appreciate again) is pea and ham soup. Many years ago one of my grandmothers came to visit for a few weeks and made so much of it that we were eating it for months afterward. In the beginning it was great but soon it became thick and strong and I remember the way the ham was torn off the hock, all the sinew fibre mixed into the gut-coloured peas. When we’d reheat it from the freezer the smell overtook the house. By the time we ate the last container I hated everything about it.

Are you working on something now?

I’m working on a new novel that I’ve been thinking about on and off for a few years. The only thing I can tell you is that it’s about a woman on a road trip driving towards a place called Blue Mountain. She is joined by her small child. Nothing is what it seems.

I can also tell you it’s not a particularly happy book.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to write historical crime fiction?

Ask yourself: why this story now? What is it about this case that speaks to you? Don’t feel as if you have to write about a particular type of crime because that’s what’s  in vogue with publishing right now. These things change all the time.

Exploring our past to examine the way we are now, where we might be heading, is important and worthwhile. But it can also be complicated, so be mindful of that.

 

FICTION//Gather the Daughters- Jennie Melamed*

Gather the Daughters (May):  Sometimes, a book seems to just capture the mood and Gather the Daughters feels like one of those books. It’s a book that’s unnerving and hard to pin down, but one that feels relevant right now- a gripping cross between The Handmaid’s Tale and Lord of the Flies, but with elements of the paranoia of The Hunger Games too.

A religious society lives on an isolated island, controlled by a group of men known as wanderers; these men are the only ones allowed to leave the island, to visit a place known as the wastelands- a place destroyed by war, disease and environmental disaster. Cut off from the world, the women on the island suffer a hard life as secondary subjects, brought up to be obedient from birth, pliant and available as wives, as taught by the ‘ancestors’, using biblical rhetoric to control the small population.

People are only allowed to have two children and are  Children are allowed to run feral in the summer and young women marry at the end of their ‘summer of fruition’, after their period. This way of life remains largely unchallenged until one of the girls witnesses a catastrophic event as her summer comes to a close, which leads ultimately to large scale rebellion.

The novel is told through the eyes of various women on the island: Amanda, a young woman pregnant with her first child; Vanessa, the intelligent daughter of one of the wanderers; Caitlin, an abused daughter of one of the few families to migrate to the island in recent times; and Janey, a rebel against the restrictive life prescribed to her. Through these narrations, we become aware of the disturbing lives these young women lead (at one point, it dawned on me that the girls are expected to do something pretty horrifying from a young age- it kind of creeps up on you.) It’s a claustrophobic atmosphere that not only shows horrendous oppression but also the enormous strength women can have in such situations- and the amazing defiance of young girls.

I found the novel quite similar to Station Eleven, even down to its ambiguous ending (how I would love to read a sequel!) but it’s also one that has stayed with me. Although not clear when the novel is set, it has the feeling of a dystopia that’s all the more scary for feeling quite possible.

BIOGRAPHY//The Rival Queens- Nancy Goldstone

The Rival Queens: Catherine De' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite De Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom (May):

It’s a rare thing for me to read historical biographies these days, but once upon a time these were my bread and butter. So much, in fact, that I once wrote about how difficult I found reading novels. Thankfully, my reading diet is a bit more balanced these days- but I do still love a biography of scandalous and/or outrageous women from history.  And I’ve always enjoyed reading about the French court, an obsession that’s been fuelled by my unashamed obsession with Versailles. However,  the events in Rival Queens happen the century before the glory of the Sun King (I recommend Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography of him, by the way) and focuses on another colossal figure from French royal history- Catherine de’ Medici.

Catherine was ruthless, especially when it came to protecting her power and her favourite son. The mother of three kings of France, she was a complex woman and one who would stop at nothing to ensure she maintained her grip on the throne. Unfortunately, this involved regularly throwing her children, particularly Marguerite and Francois, under whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of a bus would have been. She was not a nice woman, but then maybe it’s wrong to expect that she would be. You have to make hard decisions when you’re in charge of a nation state, I guess. Goldstone examines Catherine’s life as it entwines with that of her children, especially her youngest daughter, the feisty and rather wonderful Marguerite de Navarre (who is now my new favourite person.)

After being forced into a marriage with a man she didn’t particularly like, who was of the wrong religion, who apparently smelled permanently of garlic and who made no secret of his mistresses, Marguerite not only saved his life THREE TIMES, she also became a force to be reckoned with in her own right. As queen of Navarre, she took on her formidable mother and spoilt elder brothers with aplomb. Despite tragedy, imprisonment, a loveless marriage and a quite frankly horrendous family background, Marguerite’s humour shines through in the memoirs she left behind and that are quoted from here.

This is a biography with humour and wit within in. It’s not a dusty, dry book at all (some of the footnotes are knowing and wry) and Goldstone allows Marguerite’s voice to shine through; her historical personality is one of a silly woman led mainly by love (a similar fate to that of her long-suffering, one-time sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots) and there is a clear attempt here to rescue her from this representation. I’m not sure how Catherine can be rehabilitated; indeed, her reputation seems to be going backwards as her daughter’s moves forward. She comes across here as an indecisive, untrustworthy and manipulative woman in thrall only to power and her favourite sons.

The only gripe I have about this book is that the illustration plates were shockingly pixellated, which is not cool. I like to actually see the faces of the people I’m reading about. However, this is a minor issue and should not put you off reading one of the most readable and accessible biographies I’ve read in years.

NON-FICTION//Animal- Sara Pascoe

Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body (May):  I like Sara Pascoe, but I’ve been a bit wary of this kind of book- there seems to have been a trend started by Caitlin Moran and it’s one that can be a bit hit and miss. However, a few people had recommended this to me, so I duly reserved it from the library.

This is a book that’s part memoir, part feminist manifesto and part scientific exploration of what it’s like to live in a female body. The book is split into three parts: love, body and consent, and Pascoe deals with each in a funny, frank way. One friend told me that she found the audiobook difficult and I can see this- there are lots of asides and footnotes that probably don’t translate well off the page. On the page, however, these mostly work well, although sometimes it did feel a little like overkill.

I found the science fascinating; Pascoe describes how our modern behaviour has evolved from essentially needing a mate and protection in the early evolution of humans and how this has been manipulated to essentially suit the needs of men. She also skillfully weaves in stories from her life- the breakup of her parents, an abortion on her 17th birthday, how she reacts in relationships. Rather than feeling heavy handed or easily dismissed, they make sense within the structure of the book. Throughout Pascoe is likeable and chatty- as if you’re having a conversation with a mate down a pub (albeit a mate who likes to burst into impromptu sketches every now and then.)

 

FICTION//Riders-Jilly Cooper*

Riders (May):  Riders came out the year after I was born and I remember seeing it in the library and bookshops quite frequently (and probably being scandalised by THAT hand placement, which seems to have become smaller on the cover of the copy I was sent.) I never knew anyone who read it, though, and it never featured in my teenage book list. To be honest, I’m not sure how I would have responded to it- I don’t know an awful lot about either posh people OR horses. Fun fact: I am actually terrified of horses.

Anyway, I’m a huge believer of reading the right book at the right time, which I’m sure must drive some of the publishers who send me books mad, but I tend to enjoy a book more if I’m in the right frame of mind. I read this book during a really stressful time at work- I didn’t want philosophy or deep thinking. Riders was perfect. It’s cheerfully bonkers (and there’s lots of bonking as well, although there was  one dubious ‘episode’ early on in which straw from a stable is used for… clean up. I winced. Surely that’s not comfortable OR hygienic.)

Characters are straightforward. The animals are noble. The people less so.  Rupert Campbell-Black is a git; albeit a handsome one. His wife is irritating and hysterical. I found myself cheering on Fen and furious with Billy when he broke her heart. Adultery is committed and then forgotten very quickly. The world in this book is so far removed from one I know that I was able to fully immerse myself, like in a good hot bath, and just let it wash over me. It’s a cheerful book- Cooper never lets us get bogged down in heartbreak for long (although there’s at least one scene where I thought ‘that’d never get in now without a lot of outrage’) and boring characters and plot are either resolved baffling quickly or they just… disappear. It’s a big book, but it’s not complicated. You’ll not be drawing up Game of Thrones style family trees here, I promise you.