Tag Archives: Sandstone Press

Crocodile by Daniel Shand: Doing the best you can

Cover imageBoth the Betty Trask Prize and Awards once had the word romance in there somewhere which put me off a little: not my genre. That’s been long since dropped and given that winners include Strange Heart Beating, Elizabeth is Missing and We Need New Names, I’ve learned to take notice of it. Daniel Shand won the Award in 2016 for his first novel Fallow. His second, Crocodile, is about eleven-year-old Chloe, left with her grandparents for the summer holidays by her chaotic mother who is trying to get herself better.

Chloe’s heard nothing but criticism of her grandparents from Angie. They’ve not seen Chloe since she was an infant but welcome her into their home as best they can. She misses her mother, the evenings wrapped up together in a duvet in front of the TV watching something unsuitable for children, but not the string of boyfriends, the drunken sprees or foraging for food in near-empty cupboards. She’s careful with people, preparing a face for them. She finds her way into a self-proclaimed gang although Ally, Darryl and Chris get up to very little in the way of mischief. As the summer wears on, Chloe settles into her grandparents’ comfortable humdrum life loosening her grip on her determination to go back to her mother. The gang does what kids do until a game of Truth or Dare goes horribly wrong. When her mother turns up, furious to find that Chloe has met her Uncle Bob, she takes her daughter away with an old flame, a trip which ends badly laying bare the cause of Angie’s self-destructive lifestyle.

Shand tells Chloe’s story from her own perspective, wisely avoiding the tricky child narrator technique. She’s ‘the girl’, rarely Chloe, as if she’s distant even from herself. Her character is in stark contrast with the boys who become her friends, her mental state indicated by her catastrophic thinking – a small boy is envisaged flattened on the road, her mother’s boyfriend’s car overturned in a ditch. She’s always on guard, primed for disaster. All of this is deftly handled with a pleasing helping of striking descriptive language:

Men in aprons look up from ledgers and smile when they enter, door chiming, and the girl wonders what kind of storybook planet she’s washed up on

He wants them to like him. The girl shivers, seeing all her own inner workings projected up on the screen of this child

A great heavy summer storm, with the fuming clouds rolling in from the ocean and the air tasting like salt and something tangy

Carefully and intelligently, Shand uncovers the damage suffered by Angie and the effects that damage has had on Chloe despite her mother’s fierce but misguided efforts to protect her. It’s a quietly powerful novel, perceptive and compassionate, and about as far from romance as you can get.

The Tyranny of Lost Things by Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett: Communes and how to survive them

Cover imageI was looking for a novel to get stuck into having just given up one I’d been eagerly anticipating but which proved to be disappointing. Set during the 2011 London heatwave, Rhiannnon Lucy Cosslett’s debut, The Tyranny of Lost Things, neatly filled the gap.

No one’s warned Harmony about the unearthly shrieks of the elderly alcoholic tenant downstairs which wake her on her first morning in her new flatshare at 26 Longhope Crescent but they’re strangely familiar. Unbeknownst to her flatmates, Harmony has lived in the house before when her parents were part of a commune. Torn between convention and wanting to flout it, Stella fell for thirty-four-year-old Bryn when she was just a teenager, struggling with his throwback hippie ideals, top of the list being free love. Harmony spent her childhood after her parents spilt following her mother from boyfriend to boyfriend and rarely seeing her father who took himself off to Wales. She’s dropped out of university, waitressing in a pub when one panic attack too many decides her to return to the house where she knows something traumatic happened twenty years ago. Harmony moves in with Josh and Lucia telling neither about her past but determined to find out what triggers the nightmares in which a red-haired young woman occasionally appears.

Cosslett structures her novel around a series of objects – many of which trigger memories in the jigsaw of events that Harmony is trying to fit together – interspersing them with snapshots from her character’s commune childhood, giving the narrative a taut thread of suspense. London is vividly evoked in all its grimy, resplendent glory in what feels like a love letter to the city. Cosslett’s characters could easily have been stereotypical cardboard cutouts but she manages to avoid that, fleshing them out into complex fully realised human beings and giving her novel a pleasing edge with her sharp social observation. The skewering of male middle class protestations of political solidarity with the miners’ strike was particularly satisfying. A thoroughly enjoyable novel which made me remember Lukas Moodysson’s hilarious, heart-wrenching film Together. Not sorry to have missed all that in my own old-fashioned, conventional childhood.

Wait for Me, Jack by Addison Jones: Marriage and how to survive it

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog will know that I have a thing about books and their jackets. Without the right jacket, readers can be disappointed – promised something that wasn’t delivered through no fault of the author – and writers can be let down, not reaching as many readers as they should. This particular jacket, I’m pleased to say, fits its book like a glove. Addison Jones’ novel is the story of a marriage contracted in 1952: Jack is about to playfully pull the laughing Milly into what they hope will be the nice warm swimming pool of married life. Sixty years later, things may not look quite so sunny but they’re still together until one of them goes.

Jacko meets Billie when he’s twenty-four and she’s on the cusp of twenty-two. He’s the new copywriter at Perkins Petroleum Products, his eye already on more literary pursuits when he’s not running it over every attractive woman who comes within sight. She’s a typist, thinking about the kind of man she might marry and dismissing the newbie across the desk as too cocky by half. By the end of the Friday on which they meet, these two will have agreed to a drink together almost by chance rather than design. It’s the first step on the road to a long marriage – sometimes happy, often challenging. Jacko will become Jack, too nervous to put his new colleagues right when he finds himself offered a job at a San Francisco publishing house, and Billie will revert to Milly to save her youngest son Willy a life of constant embarrassment. They’ll weather infidelity, separation, the death of a child and the acceptance of a sibling’s children into their family until they reach the sheer hard graft of old age when one of them will be left behind.

Beginning with their first meeting in 1950, contrasted sharply with the day the couple are finally parted in 2014, Jones tells the story of Jack and Milly’s marriage backwards. From snapshots to longer episodes, each chapter reverses time by several years, neatly shifting perspective between husband and wife in an intricate reconstruction of their marriage. The narrative is a little fragmented in the way that memories are but it’s all beautifully done, anchored by recurring motifs: Milly’s grey honeymoon dress, Jack’s musings about his first love. This is no soft focus, romantic view of marriage. In many ways Billie and Jack are an ill-matched couple, neither of them quite what the other expected or thought they were, but they stick it out, always finding some love left no matter how close they are to the bottom of the barrel. Jones’ writing is perceptive and often very witty: ‘It had been such a long, bloody battle’, thinks Jack at the fiftieth anniversary party their children throw for them; he’s ‘a good man, with a bit of mid-life nonsense on his CV’ is Milly’s charitable summing up of Jack’s philandering. They’re a couple very much of their time: he forges ahead into the world, setting up as a successful small publisher funded by her inheritance, while she stays at home to look after the kids, always feeling a bit left behind in the competition that their marriage sometimes becomes. It’s an engrossing, utterly gripping novel, beautifully bookended by the repetition of Jack and Milly’s first meeting. It’s whetted my appetite for something similar set at a later date. Any suggestions?