Lost in a good map …

Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell

Variety in reading is usually my watchword, I try not to read books of a similar vein too close together, yet between Christmas and New Year I managed to read two about women running away from their existing life after life-changing events to sort themselves out. The first was The Widow’s Tale by Mick Jackson in which a new widow escapes London for the wide expanses of the Norfolk salt marshes, (reviewed here). Then a few days after, I read Call of the Undertow in which a woman from Oxford escapes to the expanses of cliff and sea in at Dunnet, in Caithness at the NE tip of Scotland.


Maggie had rented ‘Flotsam Cottge’, a single-storey steading conversion on the outskirts of the village, without viewing it. On a peninsula, practically an island, at a latitude of 58º 37′ 21″N, as far north as places with ice-names like Anchorage and Stavanger, the cottage had seemed right when she found it online and she’d signed a six-month lease – a long enough horizon for her to aim for. …

‘You’re mad,’ her sister Carol said when Maggie showed her the final page of the road atlas, the expanses of black white paper, the few wiry roads and the tiny shaded areas indicating settlements. ‘Even I can read a map enough to see there’s nothing there. It’s not like you to be so remote.’ …

Maggie’s friend Helen was more polite. ‘I’ve never heard of it. Apart from that place of course.’ She poked a finger at John O’Groats, known as the most northerly point, even though the map clearly gave this role to Dunnet Head further to the west.
She bought a car, a second-hand Volvo.
‘You’re going to drive again?’ Carol’s tone now sweetened, sniffing her own agenda for Maggie of ‘getting back’ to something.
‘Easiest way to get there with my things,’ Maggie had said.
No-one tried to stop her, but she sensed the whispered conversations, the concern.

We immediately know that something had happened, serious enough that Maggie had stopped driving.  We also find out she’s now divorced from Frank. So her ties cut, Maggie sets off for the north and settles into the cottage.

Shortly after she gets there she visits the Bird Sanctuary at Dunnet Point where she meets Graham the Ranger who will become a good friend.  Whilst there, she also bumps into Year 5 from the local primary school on a trip – and their headmistress soon gets an agreement out of her to come and talk to them for their geography project about maps when she hears that Maggie is a cartographer.

It is at the school that she meets a strange young boy called Trothan, named after the ruined church nearby. Trothan is rather androgynous young boy, long-haired and quiet, yet with an intensity of gaze that causes her to falter momentarily. When she asks the class what you need to be a good cartographer, the others say Google Earth, a computer and so on – he says, ‘Your eyes‘.

The kids finish their projects, yet Trothan seems fascinated by map-making, and ere-long Maggie lets him come to the cottage to work on his own project, a multi-layered map of the whole area, annotated with mythological references and local legend, and more… They form a strong bond, the consequences of which will force Maggie to examine what she was running away from.

Despite seeming to be at the ends of the earth, there is a strong sense of community in this remote part of Scotland. Those from outside the area are generally welcomed once they prove they’re stopping – which was refreshing – they all need each other.

Trothan remains an enigma, an independent spirit at home with nature on cliff and shore – and always watching.  Maggie is encouraged by him to loosen up, and she is able to continue her freelance work beguiled by his interest.  Nora, Trothan’s mother is even harder for Maggie to get to grips with, until they find they have much in common.

Despite the outward similarities with The Widow’s Tale, this novel not being narrated by Maggie, had a very different feel to it.  Call of the Undertow is instead dominated by the beautiful but rugged landscape and a haunting sense of mystery. I enjoyed this novel a lot. (9/10)

I don’t know what I’d do if I went to Caithness, not being a golfer, bird-watcher, or even much of a rambler, but I was drawn by the feel of the place in this novel to check out that you can rent a cottage with sea views on the Castle of Mey estate where the late Queen Mother used to have picnics for £600 per week in high season, you can fly up to Wick, or train it to Thurso …

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Call of the Undertow by Linda Cracknell, pub Oct 2013 by Freight Books, paperback, 245 pages.


A dreamlike novel of longing

Glaciers by Alexis M Smith

Glaciers Alexis M Smith I couldn’t resist the cover of this short novel the moment I spotted it, and felt it – you can’t see the embossing of figure, her bicycle and the title. There’s a sunny hopeful quality to the cover, and it matches the story perfectly. This debut novel is short with just 174 pages and text surrounded by plenty of white space, but it is perfectly formed for reading in one sitting as I did.

Glaciers is the story of Isabel, a young woman who works as a book repairer and restorer at a library in Portland Oregon. She lives alone with her cat, and dreams of travel to explore the great cities of Europe, and remembers her childhood in Alaska. Her story begins thus:

Isabel often thinks of Amsterdam, though she has never been there, and probably never will go.

As a child in a small town on Cook Inlet in Alaska, she saw volcanoes erupting, whales migrating, and icebergs looming at sea before she ever saw a skyscraper or what could properly be called architecture. She was nine years old, on a trip to her aunt’s with her mother and sister, the first time she visited a real metropolis: Seattle. She took it all in – the towering buildings and industrial warehouses, the train tracks and bridges, the sidewalk cafés and neighborhood shops, and the skyline along Highway 99, the way the city seemed to rise right up out of Eliot Bay, mirroring the Olympic Mountains across the sound. The breadth and the details overwhelmed her, but soon she loved the city in the same way she loved the landscape of the north. Old churches were grand and solemn, just like glaciers, and dilapidated houses filled her with the same sense of sadness as a stand of leafless winter trees.

She began collecting postcards of other cities: Paris, London, Prague, Budapest, Cairo, Barcelona. She borrowed books from the library and watched old movies, just to get a glimpse of these other places. She imagined visiting them, walking the streets, sleeping in creaky beds in hostels, learning a few words of every language.

Finding out Isabel’s story through those memories that surface alongside new thoughts as she goes about her daily life, we build up a picture of her over the events of just one day.

She thinks about her family, her sister Agnes, the break-up of her mother and father, and her aunt who inspired her love of vintage clothes and retro ephemera, and she dreams of those far-off cities viewed through old postcards and found photographs of unknown vacationers.

She muses about her friends, including Leo, who writes his name alongside the ‘gayest of passages‘ in library books when by accident she finds one of them in a book sent for repair as a page falls out.

She wonders whether Spoke, the former soldier who now fixes their computers, will notice her. Can she pluck up the courage to ask him to the party she’s going to this evening?

She wants a new vintage dress for the party. Will it be possible to find the perfect one during her lunch hour?

Reading this dreamy yet clear and delicate prose, I couldn’t help but be reminded of another short novel whose events are fixed in the thoughts of a young woman as she walks through Rome to go to a concert. Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (my review here) perfectly captured the butterfly nature of the woman’s train of thoughts, flitting from memories to visual stimuli to questioning the world she’s in, and other thoughts, travelling back and forth between them.

This is the case too in Glaciers, and it also shares many of the qualities of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, with its elements of living in northern climes, getting through loneliness, and the strong local community. There is a purity to it that really allows us to get to know and like Isabel, whose life is filled with longing.  Underlying the gentle nature of Isabel’s life and work though, is a serious point about losing people – through break-ups, to working far away, to death, and especially to war.  Smith has written a great blog post, with suggested reading on this topic and books that influenced the writing of this novel here.

This bittersweet little novel is a gem that will stay with me for a long time. (10/10)

See also Jane/Fleur Fisher’s review here

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Glaciers by Alexis M Smith, pub July 2013, Oneworld paperback, 174 pages.
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius
The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.

A quiet novel with emotional depth

The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers

cleaner of chartresThe seventh novel by Salley Vickers, The Cleaner of Chartres is the story of orphan foundling Agnès Morel, and the people who come into her life.

Before introducing us to Agnès, the novel begins by telling us about the great cathedral, how it burned and was rebuilt by an army of unknown craftsmen …

Nor was anything known of Agnès Morel when she arrived in Chartres nearly eight hundred years after the building of the present cathedral commenced. Few, if asked, could have recalled when she first appeared. She must have seemed vaguely always to have been about. A tall, dark, slender woman – ‘a touch of the tar brush there’,  Madame Beck, who had more than a passing sympathy for the Front National, chose to comment – with eyes that the local artist, Robert Clément, likened to washed topaz, though, as the same Madame Beck remarked to her friend Madame Picot, being an artist he was give to these fanciful notions.

Right from the start, we are entranced by the mystery of Agnès with her topaz eyes.  She was found in a basket by a farmer, who left her with the nuns at Rouen to bring up. When she was a teenager, things happened, and she ended up in psychiatric care under the kind Dr Deman.  It will take most of the book for Agnès’ backstory to be teased out gently, only then reaching a climax when the past threatens to eclipse the present.

It is in the present, twenty years later, that we learn about Agnès’ nurturing nature as she cleans and babysits for the residents of Chartres, taking on the job of cleaning the cathedral itself when the old cleaner became too infirm.  It was Abbé Paul that had found her when she arrived in the city homeless those years ago, helping her to find lodgings and work.

She is a quiet woman, having a few good friends and she is trusted by those who use her services, yet her exotic appearance does attract the attention of the town busybody Madame Beck.  Meanwhile Agnès attracts some rather more welcome attention in Alain, a craftsman working on a restoration project – there is a mutual attraction there, which doesn’t get past Madame Beck’s eagle eyes.  Beck decides to employ Agnès, always looking for a way to disparage her, and when one of her antique dolls goes missing – she starts her campaign against Agnès in earnest.

As the author said herself when I saw her speak the other evening Agnès is very much a catalyst for action in those she meets, bringing out their latent qualities. From being painter Robert’s muse, or a shoulder to lean on for the increasingly bewildered Father Bernard, to becoming the focus of the bigoted Madame Beck’s attentions.  She inspires love though too: in Dr Deman, in a kind of reverse transference when a patient falls for their doctor; unrequited love in Professor Jones whom she works for; and fatherly love in Jean, the farmer who found her whom she looks after in his declining years.

There are moments of humour too, one notable segment concerns two of the nuns who brought her up, (one nice, one nasty) when they come on a visit to Chartres.

Sister Laurence had taken the opportunity to escape to the north aisle of the nave. When Mother Véronique tracked her down, Sister Laurence declared that she had decided that her favourite window was Noah and the flood. She particularly liked, she said, the pink elephants and striped pigs.
‘Boars,’ corrected Mother Véronique.
‘Oh yes, of course, “boars”,’ repeated Sister Laurence with seeming meekness but with enough of a treasonous glint in her voice for Mother Véronique to embark on a lengthy account of the life of St Lubin.

This is sensitive storytelling at its best with a cracking character-driven plot that gradually increases in tension as Agnès’ story is revealed.  We are all smitten by her, but also by the cathedral itself. Who wouldn’t want to visit it after reading this wonderful novel and maybe find themselves as Agnès does in its labyrinth. (10/10)

To find out more and see other views about this book, why not take a look at Salley’s own website, or Jane’s review at Fleur Fisher in her World.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Cleaner of Chartresby Salley Vickers, Penguin paperback.

Which path should one take? A novel choice…

Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge

I had just come home from a festival in Nevada, the theme of which was Contact with Other Worlds, when my mother, or, I should say, one of my mothers, called to tell me that my grandfather had died.

Thus begins Luminous Airplanes, a quirky novel right from the outset, particularly so for the book is backed up by a website which continues its branching narrative – billed as a ‘Hyperromance’ – giving you an additional experience a bit like a those ‘Choose your own adventure’ books. However, the novel works on its own perfectly well without the website, so we’ll concentrate there.

It’s the 1990s, and the unnamed  narrator works in computers in San Francisco after dropping out of a History course at Stanford. He has a happy life in California, currently single but still friends with his ex-girlfriend Alice. When he hears that his grandfather has died and that he’s missed the funeral, he considers not going back to his hometown, but he knows that his mothers won’t do the home clearing – they’ll just arrange for it all to be chucked, so he gets in his car, (which used to belong for Norman Mailer), and sets off across the country to Thebes…

It was for my sake that my mothers ran away from Thebes. They didn’t want to have their child in a little town in the Catskills where things happened so slowly that people were still speaking French six generations after the first settlers arrived. By Thebes standards, my mothers were more like weather than like people: they changed fast, and they moved on. They took me to New York, where they were going to be famous artists, only they had no idea about money and knew how to do nothing, nothing.

Yes, it does say ‘mothers’ above.  He was brought up by twin sisters Marie Celeste and Celeste Marie: Marie being his birth mother. Still a teenager, Marie fell for her father’s lawyer: Richard Ente was a handsome fifty year old who ran from town when the romance was uncovered. Understandably, our narrator is obsessed with finding out about his absent and deceased father.

Back in Thebes, he is reunited with his neighbours, the Regenzeits, a Turkish family. Siblings Kerem and  Yesim run the Snowbird Ski Resort on the edge of town, which had been developed by their father Joe, and was the subject of the lawsuit for which his grandfather had employed Ente. Yesim was his childhood sweetheart, could he re-kindle something?

So our narrator jumps from a path of an easy life back into one of uncertainty and  with many questions needing to be answered – branches to be explored if you will. Some of them are paths that have been gone down before, but time has changed them. What happened the first time will affect what happens now, and like the labyrinth in the early computer game he was addicted to as a teenager, how will he know exactly where he is?

This quirky tale of dysfunctional families is told with a wry voice, that is always taking us off in different directions, flashing back in time non-linearly – sometimes to childhood, at other times to teenage or college years or the recent past, before returning to the now of the novel.  Along the way we hear about his history thesis on a Christian cult that believed the world was going to end, his favourite book about the history of flight, amongst other digressions, but gradually as he gets to grips with his grandfather’s things, the answers to some of his questions begin to reveal themselves, and he is able to realise his place in the world.

It’s a strange sort of coming of age story when the narrator is almost a thirty-something – but there is a definite sense of this, perhaps better expressed as reaching an emotional maturity.  It’s all done with a light touch, even when things get really serious, it’s witty but not hilarious.

As quirky novels about dysfunctional families go, the best I’ve read in a long time was The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson (reviewed here).  Luminous Airplanes adds a small town mentality to the mix and was a great read but lacked the Fang’s madness.  The narrator, who let’s face it, is a bit of a slacker, was too content to let things happen to him – although I did warm to him when he couldn’t get into Murakami’s Norwegian Wood; a book I’ve failed with too. I also loved being reminded of that old computer game Adventure aka Colossal Cave, which I used to play at lunchtimes back in the mid 1980s – “You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike”.

I enjoyed this book a lot and had fun pootling around the website for a while too. One for fans of quirky family novels. (7.5/10)

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I was sent this book by the publisher. Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click through below:
Luminous Airplanes by Paul La Farge. Pub Aug 2012 by 4th Estate, Trade Paperback 256 pages.
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

Raining in my heart?

The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw

When Ali Shaw’s first magical novel, The Girl with Glass Feet was published in 2009, I was drawn to this adult fairy-tale like a Greek sailor to the sirens, nothing could have stopped me reading it.  Luckily for me, it was good – very good. Without doubt, it was the best debut I read in 2009, and you can read my review here.  After Ali did an event in Abingdon and turned out to be one of the most fascinating authors I’d heard speak, I championed this book everywhere.  This meant, for me, that his second novel had an awful lot to live up to…

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Elsa Beletti needs to escape – from the claustrophobia of her city life and her boyfriend.  She grew up in the open spaces of Ohio, where her father was a fearless stormchaser; always happier outside, he was ultimately killed in a tornado.

She’d seen it as a kid, when an afternoon storm had lifted the gutter of the ranch’s barn, twirled it in the air like a baton, then flicked it at him. It broke his leg. Being holed up in the house while it healed made him catatonic. ‘I’m weather-powered, see,’ he mumbled once, and it was the best way to describe him.

Elsa is drawn to a small settlement nestled amongst the mountains that she’d spied from an aeroplane window once.  Thunderstown is isolated, it’s a trek to get there, but she’s not alone in having found this backwater which is surrounded by weather.

The residents of the town are a real mixture – good and bad, traditional and modernising, jobsworth and helpful. Almost all of them however, are superstitious about the town’s legendary Old Man Thunder – except Daniel Fossiter, the town’s ‘culler’ (whose job is to keep the local wild goat population in check), he has reason to think differently.

One day Elsa goes hiking in the mountains, and meets a young man with rain in his veins and a thunderstorm inside him.  Finn Munro is an outcast who lives alone on  the mountain, and it’s love at first sight.  However there are many obstacles and a world of weather in the way to make this relationship one that can run smoothly…

From the first page, I was taken once again, into Shaw’s world-vision.  In his hands magic is entirely natural, for those that embrace it, that is.  For those who don’t believe, it is unexplainable and to be feared, which sets up the central conflict which powers the plot. This organic and robust approach to magic is essential in this kind of adult fairy-tale, showing both cause and effect which adds authenticity, and Shaw gets that just right with his descriptive imagery.

He handles the non-magical folk well too, they’re all believable, from kindly Kenneth, Elsa’s landlord – a cricket-loving West Indian, and Dot, a nun who looks after those touched by lightning to the rather scary council leader Abe Cosser, who always gives Daniel a hard time.

If I hadn’t read The Girl with Glass Feet first, I would have been totally wowed by The Man Who Rained. Don’t get me wrong, I did love this book too, but felt it was not quite different enough from his debut. Both featured magical people, small town locations, and both had heroines who were lured there to find themselves – I was just expecting something else.

Difficult second novel?  Definitely not!

The Man Who Rained is engaging,  beautiful and a fabulous read. I can’t wait for what he comes up with next. (9/10).

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I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Man Who Rained– Pub Jan 2012, Atlantic books hardback, 258 pages.
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. Paperback.

Class wars in the suburbs – just ‘champion’ …

The Champion by Tim Binding

Tim Binding is one of those authors of whom I’ve been aware for a while, and I’ve even got a couple of his books in my TBR piles, but never read any of them.  The publicity blurb for his latest published earlier this year, said ‘The Champion pulsates with black humour and wit, and will find appeal amongst fans of Jonathan Coe.‘ Well, I am one of those, so I hoped for a great read – and I wasn’t disappointed.

The Champion is a tale of class war, greed and ambition, and what happens when small town life gets disturbed.

The main characters are two men, and a girl.  Charles Pemberton is the product of a posh middle class family. His father is a local bigwig, they have a big house, and Charles went to the top school. His parents always hoped he’d marry someone like Sophie Marchand, but Charles is rather quiet and a bit introverted, and Sophie is a bit of a live wire.  Still they can hope. One day a new pupil arrives.

We knew he’d make it, and when he did, we drank to our own success as much as his. He’d done it all in our names, and though we understood he would be leaving, as leave he must, we bathed in the certain knowledge that he’d be carrying something of ourselves with him, just as there would be a trace of himself left behind. Like the scene of any crime.

Clark Rossiter is known as ‘Large’, his family aren’t old money, he’s a working class boy with big ambition and a huge personality.  He builds a crew around him, and Charlie is roped in on the outside. Naturally Sophie gravitates to Large, and Charles is left watching. School ends. Large goes off to work in the City. Charles starts to study law, but realises it’s not for him, and he becomes a chartered accountant, much to his father’s disgust, and settles down for a quiet single life.

Some time later, Large returns.  He’s made his money in the City. He has plans to revolutionise the Care Home industry, and he’s going to start it in the town of his alma mater, and Charles is to be his accountant.  Large, or Clark as he now wishes to be known, has everyone eating from the palm of his hand, his magnetic personality charms them all, but underneath he’s ruthless, and greedy, and wants to get one-up on the middle classes, including all his former friends.  Charles, initially gets sucked in by all his bravado, but he realises that sooner or later, Large will fall – and he is not going to be treated like a faithful dog any more.

I know I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help liking the larger than life Clark either. He was such an elemental force of life in this novel and breathed life into the town. I couldn’t help but picture him as Philip Seymour Hoffman in full charm mode by the way.  However, as Sophie was to find, a little of such a personality goes a long way, and he was rather overpowering on full-time exposure. Charles, meanwhile is so repressed, that even while I could feel a lot of sympathy for his mother, who had many trials to overcome in this story, that didn’t transfer to her son.  He was set up as the boring, introverted accountant, whose veneer finally cracks and he gets his own back.  The roles of hero and villain got flipped between Clark and Charles and you wondered who would come out on top in the end.

Large rather reminded me of Dougal Douglas in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, in which a young man arrives in a slightly posh bit of South London, stirs things up rather devilishly bringing this staid bit of town to life, and then disappears.  A similar black comedy, but Binding’s style is more expansive than Spark’s sparseness.  The Champion is not without sad moments and tragedy which widen the dramatic depth. The entire story is recounted by Charles, who looks back wistfully on this period of his life – one senses that he wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but is rather relieved that it’s over.

If you like contemporary English black comedies, this could be a novel for you. I really enjoyed it and want to read more Tim Binding. (9/10)

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I got my copy through the Amazon Vine programme.  To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Champion by Tim Binding
The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics) by Muriel Spark