Tag Archives: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Paperbacks to Look Out for in January 2019: Part One

Cover imageI’ve read three of the paperbacks that have caught my eye for January, one of which is Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew, a slice of American small town life seen through the eyes of an unnamed bartender. I’d enjoyed Powell’s second novel, Trading Futures, a few years back, admiring its narrator’s waspishly funny inner monologue. This one’s infused with a gentler humour, the themes it tackles much weightier. Our narrator and his wife lie in bed mulling over events in the bar they run together. One day Arlene walks in, all glamour and sophistication, asking if they’ve heard of a man named Jack. Powell’s story unfolds through the bartender’s memories of the nine months Arlene occupied her bar stool, slipping in details of his apparently prosaic marriage, less transparent than he might have thought. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of storytelling.

Roland Schimmelpfennig’s One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century is set largely in Berlin, one of my favourite European cities, and translated by Jamie Bulloch whose name I’ve come to associate with interesting fiction. It begins with a wolf crossing the frozen river which marks the border between Poland and Germany. As the wolf’s journey progresses, so do the intersecting stories of the characters who glimpse it, and some who don’t, in this carefully constructed intricate piece of fiction which offers a picture of Berlin a decade or so after east and west became one. One of my books of 2018.Cover imge

Winding back another thirty years in German history, Lutz Seiler’s award-winning Kruso is set on Hiddensee – a Baltic island legendary as a destination for idealists and rebels against the East German state – where in 1989 a young student has fled a dreadful tragedy. Once there, he gets a job washing dishes at the island’s most popular restaurant and becomes friends with the eponymous Kruso to whom the seasonal workers seem to be in thrall. ‘As the wave of history washes over the German Democratic Republic, the friends’ grip on reality loosens and life on the island will never be the same’ say the publishers.

Rupert Thomson takes us over the border with Never Anyone But You based on the true story of Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore who meet and fall in love in early twentieth-century small town France. Moving to Paris, they immerse themselves in the world of Hemingway and Dali, producing a series of avant-garde photographs. On the eve of war, they flee to Jersey where their anti-Nazi propaganda puts their lives in danger. ‘Never Anyone but You explores the gripping true story of two extraordinary women who challenged gender boundaries, redefining what it means to be a woman, and ultimately risked their lives in the fight against oppression. Theirs is a story that has been hidden in the margins of history’ according to the publishers which sounds fascinating.

Cover imageI’m rounding off this first batch with Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which we shadow judges picked as our winner for the Young Writer of the Year Award. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail and a pleasing helping of sly wit.

That’s it for the first part of January’s paperback preview. A click on a title will take you to my review for the three I’ve read and to a more detailed synopsis for the other two. If you’d like to catch up with January’s new titles they’re here and here. More paperbacks soon…

Books of the Year 2018: Part Four

Cover imageOctober and early November were spent reading for my shadow judging stint for the Young Writer of the Year Award, a thoroughly enjoyable experience not least because it meant I met several bloggers who’ve I’ve exchanged views with over the years. The judges plumped for Adam Weymouth’s proper piece of travel writing, Kings of the Yukon but we shadow judges chose Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock which, ironically, I hadn’t expected to enjoy as much as I did, not being a fan of historical fiction. It begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail and a pleasing helping of sly wit.

Having proclaimed myself not a fan of historical fiction, I’m about to recommend another tale set round about the time of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. Based on the early life of Madame Tussaud, Little takes its readers from eighteenth-century Switzerland to Revolutionary France before arriving at its destination in Baker Street. When six-year-old Anne Marie Grosholtz is orphaned, she attaches herself to the otherworldly Dr Curtius who make his living from modelling wax busts. Fleeing the bailiffs, these two take themselves off to France where they become embroiled in the French Revolution. Grudges are borne, scores settled in the worst of ways and when it’s all over Marie is alone. Sharp and resourceful as ever, she finds her own pragmatic way. Marie is an engaging narrator whose story is made all the more enjoyable by Carey’s line drawings. Perfect for curling up with on a winter evening.

Hubert Mingarelli’s Four Soldiers, October’s last favourite, joins the many superb novellas I’ve read this year which comes as no surprise give the excellence of Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter which I read way back in 2013. A company of Red Army soldiers is ordered to make camp as winter closes in. Four of them form a tightly bonded group over the ensuing months, stumbling upon a pool near their new camp which becomes the calm centre of their days with the advent of spring. As the weather improves the return to marching looms large and with it the end of their peace. Cover imageWritten in plain, clean prose, Mingarelli’s book quietly captures the comradeship of soldiers with humanity and compassion.

My first November book carries on the theme of war with Georgina Harding’s Land of the Living, which like her last novel, The Gun Room, explores its legacy. Returning from the Second World War, Lieutenant Charlie Ashe buries himself in farming his uncle’s land while his wife tries to interpret his silence. Harding’s narrative is fragmentary at its beginning, made up of memories and flashbacks as Charlie’s story unfolds, somewhat different from the sanitised version he shares with Claire. Written with Harding’s characteristic quiet perceptiveness, this is a deeply humane, beautiful novel which ends on a welcome note of redemption and hope.

Sulaiman Addonia explores the fallout of war from the perspective of those who flee it in Silence is My Mother Tongue. Set in a Sudanese refugee camp, it tells the story of a young Eritrean woman who sacrifices everything for love. Saba is a bright young girl who wanders the camp on her first day looking for the school she’s been promised. As she grows into a beautiful, sensuous young woman, she attracts unwanted male attention but never loses sight of her ambition and her devotion to her mute brother. When a businessman arrives with his son in tow, both the midwife who delivered Saba and her mother see an opportunity. This is such an intensely immersive, moving piece of fiction throughout which so much is left unsaid, so much forbidden. The knowledge of Addonia’s history as a child refugee in a Sudanese camp in flight from Eritrea in the ‘70s makes it all the more powerful.

My last 2018 favourite is a book which I was far from convinced that I would like let alone love. Cover imageRobbie Arnott’s Flames is quite some way out of my usual literary territory, steeped as it is in fantasy and folklore, but I’m delighted that I overcame my prejudice and jumped in. Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead. The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern but her son is determined that his sister will escape the same fate. Arnott’s novel drew me in with its gorgeous writing. It’s one of the most striking pieces of fiction I’ve read this year, a very satisfying book to end on.

And if I had to choose? Usually it’s a toss-up between two or three titles but I can’t seem to narrow it down to that which is indicative of a very good reading year. I hope yours has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three 2018 books of the year posts they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Time to look forward to what’s on offer in January next…

The Sunday Times Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with the University of Warwick Shadow Panel Winner

I’m delighted to tell you that we’ve chosen Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock as our shadow panel winner for this year’s Young Writer of the Year Award. You can visit the award’s site here to read their announcement.

Here’s a reminder of the shortlist with links to my reviews:

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Elmet

The Reading Cure

Kings of the Yukon

Not an easy list to judge – each book is very different from the others, and each book is exceptionally good. All deserve recognition and the widest of readerships.

Andrew Holgate, Kamila Shamsie and Susan Hill will deliver their verdict at the London Library next Thursday where the prize will be awarded.

It’s been a delight to be involved with this prize, from reading each of the excellent titles to meeting my fellow shadow judges and blogger friends at the Groucho Club. It was a pleasure to work with Amanda (Bookish Chat), Lizzi (These Little Words), Lucy (The Literary Edit) and Paul (HalfMan, HalfBook) who cast the decisive vote from the train he’d been stranded on for hours. If you’re a blogger reading this and you haven’t yet signed up to the prize’s mailing list, please do. It’s a lovely thing to be associated with.

You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward or following @youngwriteryear.

Two Days in London and Four books

Dam Weymouth, Fiona Mozley, Andrew HolgateWith two Young Writer Award dates in the diary, H and I decided to make a weekend of it, arriving on Saturday morning when London was looking its beautiful best in glowing autumn sunshine. I went off to the bloggers’ event at the Groucho Club after lunch where the four shortlisted authors were introduced by Andrew Holgate who gave us a little background to the prize and how important such recognition can be in promoting a writer’s career. Each author gave a short reading before a Q & A led by Andrew. It was a delightful afternoon made all the more so by meeting bloggers with whom I’ve shared so many exchanges over the years. Such a pleasure to chat to Annabel, Kath, Elle, Erica and Naomi, and with Clare and Eric all too briefly. There were trains to catch and some of us had to think about where we were going for supper.Imogen Hermes Gowar, Laura Freeman

Sunday was another glorious day, perfect city walking weather. We had tickets for the Anni Albers exhibition at Tate Modern but had time for a quick wander around the City where I worked for a while in what feels like a another life now. Albers was a weaver who lived a very long and productive life, beginning her career as a member of the Six PrayersBauhaus Group, founded in 1919, whose design ethos was based on simplicity and beauty in a form that could be mass produced for the people. She fled Germany for the US in 1933 when Hitler forced the Group to close. Her pieces are lovely, making use of texture and sheen for effect. One of her most beautiful designs is ‘Six Prayers’ commissioned by the Jewish Museum in New York as a memorial to the six million Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust. A superb exhibition, highly recommended.

In the afternoon we set off for the Foundling Museum which I’d already visited but H hadn’t. It was founded by Thomas Coram who, on his return from America in 1704, was shocked by the number of infants abandoned on London’s streets. He raised funds for his project by staging concerts and exhibitions: both Handel and Hogarth were amongst the artists with a strong association with what was then known as the Foundling Hospital. The Coram Foundation is still active today numbering Jacqueline Wilson and Lemn Sissay amongst its prominent supporters. One of those lesser known museums, well worth seeking out.

Monday morning was taken up with the shadow judges’ meeting the result of which we’ll be keeping between ourselves until Wednesday 28th. Suffice to say it was a close run thing. Amanda, Lizzi, Lucy and I met at 11 am but poor Paul was still stranded on a train, finally arriving in London at 1 pm when the rest of us were long gone – me to the excellent Dishoom to meet up with a couple of friends for lunch. Paul’s input turned out to be pivotal: we’d all have much preferred it if he could have delivered it in person.

And the books? They’re the shortlisted ones of course: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, Elmet, The Reading Cure and Kings of the Yukon which I’ll be reviewing on Friday.

The Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick Shortlist: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Cover imageRegular visitors to this blog will know that I tend not to review historical novels. There are exceptions, of course – Jake Arnott’s The Fatal Tree and Andrew Miller’s Now We Shall be Entirely Free spring to mind – but generally my feet are planted firmly in the twenty-first century. You might be surprised then to hear that Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock was already sitting on my shelves waiting to be read before its shortlisting boosted it to the front of the queue. Gowar’s novel begins in 1785 with a Deptford merchant taking delivery of a wizened figure said to be a mermaid. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died.

Jonah Hancock is haunted by the stillbirth of his son and the death of his wife, burying himself in business, proud of his astute merchant’s eye and glowing reputation. When Captain Jones arrives, bearing the mermaid acquired by the sale of his ship, Hancock is at first horrified then persuaded that this shrivelled figure will make his fortune. He finds himself courted by Mrs Chappell, the sharp-eyed madam of a bordello who spots a business opportunity, persuading him to rent her the mermaid. Mrs Chappell enlists the help of Angelica Neal, much reduced following the death of her patron, instructing her to devote herself to Hancock at the lavish opening party for the creature’s display. Hancock isn’t as green as he may seem – he’s visited a prostitute or two – but he’s appalled by the lascivious goings-on, shrugging off the attentions of Angelica but not before falling heavily for her carefully cultivated charms. Out he walks, leaving Angelica to conceive her own passion which leads her into desperate trouble. When he next sees her, Angelica sets him a seemingly impossible task: she wants him to find her another mermaid.

Gowar’s novel has more than a touch of the morality tale about it along the lines of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair or Michel Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White, exploring the position of women in eighteenth-century society all wrapped up in a good old-fashioned bit of storytelling replete with period detail. Women are dependent on men to make their way in this world – Mrs Chappell earns her money from their debauchery, Bel finds her way to respectability and security through marriage – Mrs Flowerday is perhaps the most independent, shrewdly using her dowry as a counterweight when her husband oversteps the mark. As in the best morality tales, there’s a great deal of sly wit running through the narrative:

Mr Trevithick steps aside to draw her attention to the flagellation machine which sits in the corner awaiting its weekly polish.

Gowar engages our sympathy for her characters, deftly rounding them out: Hancock is a decent man, hoping to step up the social ladder but ill at ease with it, and Angelica’s flightiness is tempered with memories of an impoverished childhood. Just one criticism: I found the mermaid’s voice a little jarring but her passages are both short and few. Altogether a thoroughly enjoyable piece of fiction, both absorbing and entertaining with a hefty helping of redemption.

If you’d like to see what my fellow shadow judge Amanda at Bookish Chat thinks of Gowar’s novel, her review is here. You can find out more about the award by visiting www.youngwriteraward, following @youngwriteryear or keep up with us shadow judges at #youngwriterawardshadow,

The Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick 2018 Shortlist

The shortlist for the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer Of The Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick was announced yesterday and I’m relieved to tell you that I’m looking forward to reading all four books. I hope my fellow shadow judges are equally pleased.

The titles are:

Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth

Weymoth’s book sounds like a proper piece of travel writing, charting the author’s voyage by canoe down the Yukon River, a distance of 2,000 miles from Canada to the Bering Sea.

Elmet by Fiona Mozley

Already longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and shortlisted for the Man Booker, Elmet is described by the publishers as ‘a lyrical commentary on contemporary society and one family’s precarious place in it, as well as an exploration of how deep the bond between father and child can go’.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

Described by the publishers as ‘a spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession’, Gowar’s novel sees a Deptford merchant take possession of a wizened little figure, said to be a mermaid, in 1785. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. These two meet at a society party and embark on a dangerous new course together.

The Reading Cure by Laura Freeman

Freeman’s memoir is essentially about the power of books to cure what ails you. Diagnosed with anorexia aged fourteen, Freeman slowly found her way back to good mental health through a passion for reading.

What a great list! We shadow judges will be posting our reviews over the next few weeks. My first should go up on Friday. We’ll be revealing our winner on November 28th while the real thing will be announced at a prize-giving ceremony on December 6th.

If you’d like to know more about the award you can find out here. My fellow panelists will be posting their reviews at Bookish Chat, These Little Words, The Literary Edit and Half Man, Half Book. If you want to keep tabs on what we’re up via Twitter you can use #YoungWriterAwardShadow or follow @youngwriteryear.

What do you think of the shortlist? Have you read any of the books on it, and if so what’s your verdict?

Books to Look Out for in January 2018: Part Two

Cover imageMy first batch of 2018 titles included a volume of short stories and this second selection is led by another. It seems I really am a reformed character. I’m sure even my if views on the short story hadn’t undergone a transformation I would have been jumping up and down about Jon McGregor’s The Reservoir Tapes, a collection of fifteen pieces which can be read as ‘prequels’ to the stunning Reservoir 13. Still completely bemused as to why that didn’t make it on to the Man Booker shortlist. The stories were commissioned by BBC Radio 4: some of you may have heard them already but if not they’re available on iPlayer.

It sounds as if landscape may be as important in Kerry Andrew’s Swansong as it is in McGregor’s writing. Polly Vaughan heads for the Scottish Highlands, fleeing the guilt of a ‘disturbing incident’ in London. She finds escapism in the form of drink, drugs and sex in the local pub but is haunted by visions then fascinated by a man she comes upon in the forest seemingly ripping apart a bird. Andrew ‘comes from a deep understanding of the folk songs, mythologies and oral traditions of these islands. Her powerful metaphoric language gives Swansong a charged, hallucinatory quality that is unique, uncanny and deeply disquieting’ say the publishers, promisingly.Cover image

Dominic da Silva is also dealing with a crisis, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer in David Hargreaves’ Under the Table. He turns to the diaries he’s kept from his boarding school years to his early thirties and finds a picture emerging of both himself and of Britain through the ‘60s and into the ‘80s, revealing a life which ricochets from grand house parties to arrest and disgrace in what the publishers describe as ‘a powerful homage to truth and friendship – and a recognition of the toughness upon which both depend’. I quite like the sound of that.

There’s a fair amount of unravelling in Jim Powell’s Things We Nearly Knew . Marcie and her husband have been together for thirty years, running a bar at the edge of town. One day Arlene appears expecting to find a man she’d once known. Then Franky returns hoping that his previous mistakes have been forgotten. As Arlene gets closer to the truth things begin to fall apart. ‘Powell invites us to consider how much we know about the ones we love and finally asks: would you want to know the truth?’ says the blurb. Powell’s darkly funny debut, Trading Futures, was a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Cover imageRegular readers of this blog may have noticed that I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction although the paradox is that some of my favourite novels are just that: Ingenious Pain, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Essex Serpent and The Observations spring to mind. All are delivered with more than a spark of flair and originality which is what I’m hoping for in Imogen Hermes Gowar’s The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. In 1785 a ship’s captain takes a wizened little figure, said to be a mermaid, to a merchant in Deptford. Across town, a courtesan sits pondering what to do now her patron has died. These two meet at a society party and embark on a dangerous new course together in a ‘spell-binding story of curiosity and obsession’ according to the publishers. There’s also mention of coffee shops, parlours and brothels which has me hoping for a romp along the lines of The Fatal Tree. We’ll see

That’s it for January’s new books. A click on a title will take you to detailed synopsis should you want to know more, and if you want to catch up with the first part it’s here. Paperbacks to follow shortly…