Two Short Story Collections – Tania Hershman

Jersey Festival of Words begins this Wednesday – hurrah! I’ll be flying out on Thursday and coverage of events will start on here on Friday, although I’m sure I’ll be doing some tweeting before then. As final preparations happen, I’m covering short story collections this week beginning with those of Tania Hershman.

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Hershman has published two collections, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) and My Mother Was an Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012). Part of what she does is combine science and creative writing, often in interesting and less obvious ways than you might expect.

Many of the stories in The White Road were inspired by pieces in the New Scientist. Hershman begins these with a quotation, showing where the idea came from. For the title story, it’s one about the completion of a road to the South Pole. Hershman imagines the ‘Last Stop Coffee’ place, run by the story’s narrator, Mags.

Today is one of them really and truly cold days. You’re probably thinking cold is cold is cold, either everything’s frosty or you’re sipping margaritas by the pool in Florida, but let me tell you, there are degrees of freezing.

Like many of the characters in both collections, Mags’ tale is one of loss and longing. It’s also notable, in The White Road in particular, that many of Hershman’s women break stereotypes: there’s the bride who lifts her husband over the threshold, the woman who had to give up studying physics and now makes scientific cakes:

The Sun: chocolate cake ball made in Christmas pudding mould, orange icing with brown smudges for sunspots, angel hair spaghetti mesh for the solar clouds, blue-dyed pasta as plasma shooting out from the solar storm.

The woman on a first date on a spaceship:

‘I’ve heard of men being hard to pin down,’ said Agnes, ‘but this is ridiculous. Didn’t you read the gravity section in the manual?’

Bill floated helplessly above her.

The woman who plays roulette and the one who knows how to keep a secret. If you’re wondering how some of those break stereotypes, you’ll have to read the stories!

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While The White Road is an enjoyable, varied and interesting collection, for me, My Mother Was an Upright Piano is where Hershman really finds her voice. The book is a collection of fifty-six flash fictions ranging from a paragraph to two or three pages. The scientific theme continues but is often less explicit than in The White Road. This leads to more experimental pieces and often an element of magical realism.

He meets a girl, it could almost be an accident, the way she slides into him, tips his cheek with her elbow, makes eyes at him, his whole body quivering, noticing her. It could almost be an accident, at a bus stop, or a train station, or the line for the launderette change machine, or an ice cream vendor, or someone making fresh crêpes, the egg swirling, hardening into solid substance. It could almost be an accident but it isn’t; this is what she does. She is a spy, The Devil pays her well for sliding into him, tipping his cheek with her elbow, making eyes, and she slips the cash into her bra, not trusting pockets, knowing how easy it is to finger ways inside, like electricity, and extract.

There are some fabulous single lines:

When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid.

“If you sell your soul, can you buy it back later, even if it costs more?”

 A wonderful piece about Art (and science?):

We just love Art in containers, any sort of glass jars, or Tupperware, even. We adore that sense of containment, the feeling that the Art isn’t going to, well, leak out.

 Which makes an interesting contrast with this woman’s story:

She keeps her dirt in jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms. She lives, of course, alone. Jars are labelled, jars are all the same. She does not touch the dirt, does not let it glister through her fingertips like stardust. The jars are sealed and left. If asked, she could not say why. But no-one does.

Hershman also writes perceptively about relationships. In ‘my uncle’s son’ the narrator realises:

I did not know then that sometimes you just need to give and keep giving until you pull the other person with you, until they are pulled over the edge and you are flying together.

And in the title story, music becomes a metaphor for passion:

My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro. My father was the piano tuner; technically expert, he never made her sing. It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.

The stories in this collection are a joy to read; when they really work – which many do – they soar. Hershman’s skilled at creating a whole tale in a very short space. She has a third collection coming early 2017 and I’m already eager to read it.

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Tania Hershman appears at Jersey Festival of Words with poet Jo Bell, Saturday 1st October 5pm in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

Black Water – Louise Doughty

It came to him then, what was going to happen. They were going to kill him. Take a break for a while, Amsterdam had said. Go up to the hills, we have a little place outside of town, it’s been used before. Have a rest, you’ve earned it. When we’ve talked to the West Coast, we’ll let you know. He had wondered, at the time, why they had to talk to the West Coast at all. If Amsterdam was certain he was finished they should have recalled him immediately. Why send him up to the hills – unless they wanted him out of the picture if the press ran with the story? Well, that was what he had thought at the time. Now, though, in the dark of night, the decision to send him here took on a different meaning.

We meet John Harper in the hills on an Indonesian island, waiting for the boys he is convinced are coming to kill him. The only person he has contact with is Kadek, a servant who brings him food and performs some basic housekeeping.

Harper has been to Indonesia before; to Jakarta in 1965 when he witnessed some horrific moments in the anti-Communist riots. The story that were are told about him is punctured by these moments of violence.

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Near the beginning of the novel, Harper decides he’s going to go into the nearest town for a few things. There he meets a woman, Rita, who he drinks cocktails with and then spends the night in a local hotel. The following morning, she leaves without speaking to him. But Harper’s feelings about her are somewhat different:

Christ, he thought, I survived a rioting mob in Jakarta not long ago and then began to wonder if my life could be in danger from the people who have employed me for three decades – yet one encounter with a woman and I’ve turned into this. He realised he was enjoying this image of himself: the hard-bitten man on the veranda in the jungle with his whisky and his cigarettes.

But it’s not over for him and Rita – he bumps into her in the marketplace a few days later and a relationship begins. This is partly a device (albeit a very well-constructed one) to allow Harper to tell his story. Doughty avoids it seeming like a device as the reader is unaware initially that Harper is relating his story to Rita at the same time he tells us.

We’re told when he meets Rita that he’s an economist working in Jakarta. We’ve already had several hints that there’s much more to Harper’s job than analysing figures, however, and it soon becomes clear that he works for some sort of intelligence service although not a government based one.

The story we’re told in the second part of the novel goes right back to Harper’s childhood and to me, is the most compelling part of the book. Possibly because it’s the only section which feels as though it may be the whole truth (whatever the truth is in a work of fiction). Harper was born Nicolaas in a concentration camp. He’s Dutch, of mixed heritage. His father was beheaded by the Japanese and his mother spends her life trying to escape the horrors she’s endured. His childhood focuses on his mother’s marriage to an American black man called Michael, the time they spend living with Michael’s father, who Nicolaas calls Poppa, and the death of his younger brother, Bud. It’s the insights into Harper’s childhood that show us why he’s become the man he appears to be.

The power of transience: in motion, you could be whoever you wanted to be. When had he learned this? On that solo Atlantic journey, with the label around his neck? Or earlier, at the age of three, watching his mother cadge cigarettes from different passengers or sailors, varying the details of who she was according to whether she was talking to a man or a woman, a sailor or a fellow passenger? Whatever lessons were learned then, chief amongst them was this: if you don’t want people to know who you are, keep moving.

If you’re expecting something similar to Doughty’s previous novel, Apple Tree Yard, you might be disappointed with Black River. In many ways, it’s a different beast. Doughty considers identity, the West’s ignorance of the East, how the past can affect the future. This is very much a character study, albeit one driven by violent disruption in both a personal life and a country. However, the novels do share some similarities: what affect love can have on someone; what people are driven to do to save themselves, and a narrator who may or may not be reliable.

Black River is an interesting, fear-driven novel. Doughty poses many questions about Harper and the part he’s played in events. The question for the reader is, how much you do you trust him?

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Louise Doughty will appear at Jersey Festival of Words with fellow thriller writers JS Law and John Samuel for a discussion about the thriller genre. The event takes place on Saturday 1st October, 17.45 in Jersey Opera House. Tickets are available here.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.

Kill Me Again – Rachel Abbott

Today marks a first for the blog: this is the first time I’ve reviewed a self-published novel. I’m not against covering self-published books but I often find myself distracted and wishing the writer had at least had a copy-editor look at the manuscript, which means I rarely finish reading them. No such issues with Rachel Abbott’s latest psychological thriller Kill Me Again.

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At the beginning of the novel, we meet Maggie Taylor, defence solicitor. Recently moved to Manchester with her husband, Duncan, and two children, eight-year-old Josh and five-year-old Lily, so she could take a job with a top firm and the chance to become a partner. On the day the book begins, she’s met ‘the worst’ client she’s ever defended, Alf Horton. Midway through the interview he told her, ‘Watch yourself out there, Maggie. Nowhere’s safe.’ She’s scared as she crosses the firm’s car park in the dark but Frank Denman, the psychologist on the case, sees her to her car.

As Maggie drives home, it begins to snow. She rings home and no one picks up. On the second time of calling, Josh answers and reveals that his dad’s left the house partway through making the kids’ tea.

Her voice trembling, she whispered ‘Call Duncan’ into her phone, almost afraid of what he would say. She heard the dialling tone. She heard the staccato tune made by the numbers. And then a long continuous tone.

Duncan’s phone had been disconnected.

When Maggie gets home, she discovers Duncan’s taken a weekend bag and some of his clothes and toiletries are missing. More importantly though…

She ran downstairs and out through the connecting door into the garage. Standing to one side against a breezeblock wall was a dark green metal cupboard, a cupboard that had been padlocked since the day she had met Duncan. Now both doors stood open, the padlock hanging loose. The cupboard was empty.

Duncan had gone.

Running alongside Maggie’s story is that of Detective Chief Inspector Tom Douglas. Tom’s ex, Leo, has failed to turn up for a family christening. Leo’s independent but it seems out of character. When Tom goes to her flat, his instinct tells him she’s missing. The following morning, a body of a woman is found under a bridge by Manchester canal.

Linked with this is a case Tom Douglas worked on as a young inspector twelve years earlier, when two women were murdered and a third murder was attempted. The victims had three lines scored into their thigh. The first was left by the canal.

If that isn’t enough to contend with, Josh tells Maggie about a picture that was sent to Duncan’s phone before he left.

‘When Daddy opened it, I was standing right next to him. There was a picture. I only looked because I thought it was you […] A photo of a lady with red lipstick and long dark hair – spread out like yours sometimes is on the pillow.’

The following day, the police issue a photo of the murder victim…

Kill Me Again is a fast-paced, tightly-plotted, utterly terrifying psychological thriller. It’s completely gripping and I was compelled to keep reading. There were so many twists and turns and interwoven threads, it’s an impressive piece of work, even if there were moments that stretched credibility – like a defence lawyer having a husband with a locked cupboard and no idea what was in it. However, I wouldn’t say I enjoyed the book; my issue with it was the murder and torture of women – mostly young with a hint of elderly due to the Alf Horton case. I can’t read any more stories about misogynists and their expressions of their hatred of women, whether it’s how they speak about them or how they murder them. Apparently, dead women sell books but this woman is no longer buying.

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In August 2015, Amazon confirmed that Rachel is the UK’s bestselling independent author over the last five years. She is also listed at number 14 in the list of bestselling authors – both traditionally and independently published – over the same five-year period.

She will appear at Jersey Literature Festival on Saturday 1st October, 10am, in the Arts Centre, along with Antonia Hodgson. They will discuss crime fiction and routes into being published. Tickets are available here.

The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

‘D’you know, there’s some say the devil lives in the Marshalsea. And – forgive me, sir. I’m not sure you’re ready to meet him.’

The sir in question is Tom Hawkins, eldest son of a Suffolk gentleman, Oxford graduate, set to join the clergy and inherit his father’s position in due course.

Three years ago – following an unfortunate incident in an Oxford brothel – I had abandoned that path. Now here I was, five and twenty, with no family, no prospects and no money. True, I had Greek and Latin and could dance a passable gavotte, but a man cannot survive on such things, even in London.

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It’s 1727 when we meet Tom with his oldest friend, Charles Buckley, celebrating in Tom King’s coffeehouse where, apparently, there are ‘only two reasons to celebrate […] a win at the tables or a full recovery from the clap’. Tom’s reason is the former. That morning an action’s been placed on him by his landlord and three others for twenty pounds in unpaid rent and other debts. He has one day to pay. He calls in favours, pawns everything of value he owns, borrows from Charles and then gambles the lot. The win will keep him out of debtor’s prison.

Leaving the coffeehouse, Moll, who runs the place, calls Tom a link boy to guide him home. But the boy takes him deep into St Giles, ‘the most infamous slum in London’, where Tom’s robbed and beaten.

The following morning, he’s arrested in the coffeehouse. His landlord is adamant he’s done with Tom following a letter sent to him that morning suggesting Tom’s been having an affair with his wife.

‘Mr Fletcher, sir. We are men of reason, are we not?’ I waved the note limply. ‘You must see that this is no more than malicious gossip? I mean no dishonour to your good wife, but…’

Behind me, Moll gave a little cough. ‘But he’d rather fuck his own sister.’

A man named Jakes takes Tom to Marshalsea. On the way, he tells Tom he reminds him of his old army captain, Captain Roberts, both in looks and behaviour. Roberts died in the Marshalsea. It looked like suicide but Jakes is convinced it was murder as is Robert’s widow who has determined to remain in the jail until her husband’s killer is caught.

Top of the suspects list and former roommate of Roberts is Samuel Fleet. Middle-aged, eccentric, fearfully intelligent, Tom ends up sharing Fleet’s cell, much to the disgust of the rest of the jail. Soon he has to decide who he can trust.

Hodgson does a superb job of conveying the sights, sounds and smells of the time, whether in the coffeehouses or the streets or the jail. The Marshalsea is fascinating in that those of a certain class, with access to money, were able to live on one side of the jail in relative privilege and luxury. Some were even allowed to leave for short periods. On the other side, however, the Common Side, disease, violence and death are rife. Part of Tom’s time in the Marshalsea is spent discovering how these people are treated and how William Acton, former butcher and deputy warden, runs the jail through fear and brute force. It’s difficult not to make comparisons to the current class divide.

Hawkins is an interesting character. Privileged but sensitive, ultimately he’s a good guy. Hodgson also does a great line in female characters, particularly Kitty, Fleet’s ward, who he’s educating. ‘He’s promised me that when we’re done there won’t be a single man in England who’ll marry me.’ And Fleet is one of the best characters I’ve come across; captivating, educated, conniving, he also gets one of the best lines:

‘I can count the number of men I like on one hand. Without letting go of my cock.’

The Devil in the Marshalsea is intelligent, packed with period detail and plot, bawdy, has a social conscience and some hilarious lines. I enjoyed it so much, the minute I finished the final page I ordered the sequel.

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Antonia Hodgson appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 10am, in the Arts Centre, along with Rachel Abbott. They will discuss crime fiction and routes into being published. Tickets are available here.

Les Parisiennes – Anne Sebba

The life that most of us engage in is a muddle, and that is what is so compelling for any writer or historian looking at France between 1939 and 1949, especially through the eyes of women. Turn the kaleidoscope one way and see women destroyed by the war; turn it the other and find women whose lives were enhanced with new meaning and fulfilment.

Anne Sebba’s account of Parisian women in the Second World War is a fascinating look at a city and its people. The mention of Paris conjures images of chic women and Sebba does consider the role that fashion and couture played in Paris’ fortunes in the war, but she also looks at those women who became part of the war effort both informally and as part of the secret service.

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The book begins before the outbreak of war with a look at high society. There is a jaw dropping account of Elsie de Wolfe’s grand party, given on the 1st July 1939. Sebba comments on the ‘sense of recklessness’ amongst the wealthy who believed that France was impenetrable by the Germans. Coco Chanel was reckless in the sense that when war broke out, she closed her boutique and moved into the Ritz, putting hundreds of women out of work, and former athlete Violette Morris who ‘felt an outcast from French society’ was reckless in driving to the front line and possibly helping the Nazis.

One of the things that’s particularly interesting about the book is the picture of French society that’s created with regards to women. We’re used to thinking of France, and particularly Paris, as liberal, but in 1936 ‘women in France still did not have the vote, nor the right to have a bank account in their own name’. The later became a particular problem when men were away at the front and in the instance of their death. Women were only allowed to take a job outside of the home without their husband’s or father’s permission after 1938 in case they got ‘inflated ideas’ from it.

It’s clear from Sebba’s narrative that women had a difficult time during the war: abortions were illegal and only an option if you had the money to pay for them while any sort of fraternising with German soldiers led to consequences after the liberation in which women were deemed to be collaborators and charged with an act given the delightful title of ‘collaboration horizontale’.

While it’s interesting to hear about high-society and a way of life which continued for some throughout the war – sales of designer clothing increased; cultural pursuits continued as the Germans took in the delights of Parisian society – for me, the most compelling stories were those of women who took part in the résistance and worked for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) working undercover. The work of the latter was so secretive that some of the operatives and their work have only come to light in recent years. One such example is Catherine Dior, sister of designer Christian, who was an agent in the Massif Central unit, ‘gathering information about German troop and rail movements, production and weaponry’. Her story was shared in light of anti-Semitic remarks made by Dior’s now former creative director, John Galliano.

Sebba packs a lot of information into Les Parisiennes, covering a period of ten years and a significant number of women. She handles her material with aplomb spinning a narrative in which key characters reoccur as we move from the outbreak of war to the concentration camps to the aftermath and reconstruction. In both focusing on the stories of women and partially looking at high-society, Sebba provides us with stories about the war which have been hidden and neglected. Les Parisiennes is both a fascinating insight into the lives of women in Paris and a very welcome addition to the coverage of World War 2.

Anne Sebba appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Thursday 29th September, 4pm, in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

Thanks to W&N for the review copy.

The Unmumsy Mum – Sarah Turner

In 2013, Sarah Turner started a blog called The Unmumsy Mum. On it she wrote (and continues to write) about her experiences as a mum. The crucial difference between Turner’s blog and the hundreds of other websites you can turn to for parenting advice and experiences is that she’s not afraid to write about the shit bits: the days when you lament the loss of your pre-baby life; the days when you can’t even manage to get a shower; the days when it’s just a bit boring. By the end of 2015, Turner had 325,000 followers on Facebook and a book baby on the way.

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The Unmumsy Mum was published in February and became a Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller. Cynically, I assumed that the book would be a rehash of Turner’s blogposts. I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to discover that this is an actual book. Although some of the ideas have been drawn from posts Turner’s written, this is partly a book about becoming a successful blogger as well as the first few years of motherhood with two young boys.

When I typed ‘I want my old life back’ into Google during a fraught 3 a.m. feed, I immediately deleted the search history on my phone. I was ashamed of myself because, mostly, I didn’t want my old life back at all. I was head over heels in love with my bald bundle of baby-boy goodness and so very grateful that we had made a family. But there were occasions (like when I had already been up four times and the baby projectile-vomited in the Moses basket) when I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, What have we done? Occasions when I couldn’t stop myself from shouting, ‘I don’t want to do this any more. ‘It’s fucking shit!’ at my husband, whose face told me the baby adventure wasn’t panning out exactly as he had imagined either.

Turner covers everything from pregnancy to finding ‘Mum friends’ to competing over whose day was worse to leaving the house to feeling guilty to whether it’s okay to moan about your kids.

Two things struck me about the book and Turner’s writing: the first is just how honest she is. She lays bare the thoughts and feelings she’s had, regardless of how taboo or unpalatable some might find them; she discusses the physicality of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding, including a milking incident that will sear itself on your brain forever; she talks honestly about the difference having children has made to her life and her marriage. The second is that she’s fucking funny.

When morning comes around, I sometimes look at the day stretching out in front of me and think, Oh God. James’s alarm goes off, he gets up, has a shower and gets ready for work. My alarm these days is Henry, who loudly shouts, ‘Are you awake, Mummy? My pyjama bottoms are wet. I can’t find my fire engine. Can I have some Weetos?’ If I’m particularly lucky, a series of recorded Minion farts will be the first thing I hear when I wake up, as the fart blaster from Despicable Me 2 is activated next to my head, waking Jude, who promptly performs his first dump of the day. FML. And so the morning circus begins…

‘Have a good day,’ I sneer at my husband as he leaves the house. On time. Without juggling a car-seat-and-pram-base combo into the car. Without worrying if he’s got enough baby wipes and a clean muslin that doesn’t smell of cheese. Occasionally, listening to actual music on an iPod. Bastard.

There’s an emotional core at the heart of the book too though: Turner dedicates the book to her mum who died in 2002 when Turner was fifteen and there’s a chapter about how difficult it is to be a mum without a mum. The book also opens with a letter to her two boys, explaining why she wrote the book and what she hopes they discover in it – as well as her own concerns about this time in her life being preserved on the internet for all to read.

It’s clear that Turner’s writing has made a difference to others. She talks about the comments and tweets and emails she’s had from people who are grateful to find the person who gets it, the one Turner couldn’t find when she needed to. I knew she was a big deal when I mentioned to a couple of people that I’d be interviewing her at Jersey Festival of Words and they knew who she was. Usually when I mention a writer I’ve been reading, I’m met with blank looks.

The Unmumsy Mum is a brutally honest, sympathetic and funny look at becoming a parent. I’d recommend it to people who think they might want kids at some point, as well as those who already have them, for an insight into what it’s really like.

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Sarah Turner, The Unmumsy Mum, will be appearing at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 8.30pm in the Opera House, where she’ll be interviewed by me. Tickets are available here.

Pimp State – Kat Banyard

The second week of my coverage of books by women appearing at Jersey Festival of Words focuses on non-fiction. It’s not often I choose to read non-fiction books but I always enjoy them when I do. Note to self: read non-fiction more often.

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The first book I’m reviewing is Pimp State by Kat Banyard, founder of the campaign group UK Feminista and, according to The Guardian in 2010, ‘the most influential young feminist in the country’. She appears at Jersey Festival of Words on Saturday 1st October, 3pm in the Opera House, where she will be joined by former sex worker, Diane Martins, for a discussion about Pimp State. Tickets are available here.

‘While we have the demand for prostitution not being addressed we cannot achieve gender equality,’ insists Madlala-Routledge. ‘Men who buy sex don’t regard the woman as a whole human being. Basically they regard her as an object – something that’s available to them for their satisfaction for the money…So basically that says to us this can’t be somebody you treat as an equal, this can’t be somebody you treat as having dignity, as being a whole human being, for you to actually treat them like that or think of them like that.’

Banyard makes the focus of her book clear from the outset:

A pimp state – a society where commercial sexual exploitation is promoted, not prevented – is not one where women and men can live as equals.

It is a state that we can – and must – change.

She draws links within the first few pages between the sex trade and ‘society’s notions of sexual consent, violence and equality’ which she explores further in the six chapters of the book, chapters which she titles ‘Myth 1’ to ‘Myth 6’.

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The six myths Banyard unpicks are: demand for the sex trade is inevitable; being paid for sex is regular service work; porn is fantasy; objecting to the sex trade makes you a pearl-clutching, sexually conservative prude; decriminalise the entire prostitution trade and you make women safe, and resistance is futile.

In Myth 1, Banyard looks at the different areas of the sex trade – prostitution, lap-dancing clubs, pornography – and speaks to women who have worked in these areas as well as the men who’ve used them. Interspersed throughout the chapter are reviews culled from a website called ‘Punternet’ where men leave comments about the sex workers they’ve visited. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that they’re grim at best.

Throughout the book, Banyard talks to people who’ve worked in the sex trade, who’ve run elements of the sex trade, who’ve policed the sex trade, who’ve studied the sex trade in an academic context. Parts of it are horrifying. Some of it is very interesting, particularly when she writes about countries where ‘The Sex Buyer Law’ has been introduced.

For me, the section that had me asking the most questions was Myth 2, where Banyard considers the term ‘sex work’, which has become the preferred lexis in recent years. She questions the adoption of the term by a number of international organisations and then gives us the following paragraph:

So if ‘sex work is work’, then presumably if an airline company requires all its female flight attendants to offer male passengers blow-jobs, as well as drinks and snacks, that’s all right? What about City firms stipulating that female employees must have sex with male clients as part of their corporate entertaining duties? OK? How about when a male boss asks his female secretary to give him a blow-job? It’s the kind of scenario feminists have spent decades working to get recognised as sexual harassment. But, I guess, if this is ordinary work then at worst the requested task is merely outside her job description?

It’s an interesting – and a provocative – link supporting the line of argument Banyard takes throughout: How we respond to the core message of the sex trade speaks volumes about how seriously society takes violence against all women. She then invokes legal experts to explain the connotations of sex work becoming a recognised, legal profession. Here she focuses on the rights of the buyer to a ‘good service’ and how, as a worker required to pay tax, a sex worker’s body would be owned by both the buyer and the state.

Banyard’s foci gave me an insight into elements of the sex trade of which I was previously unaware. Her links between domestic/sexual violence and the sex trade are compelling and supported by detailed research, as is her support of The Sex Buyer Law. In general terms, I agree with the points she puts forward but one thing has bothered me since finishing the book: there are no dissenting views considered from a single woman at the front of the sex trade (I’m not including those in ‘management’ roles in this definition i.e. brothel owners). If every sex worker agrees with Banyard’s arguments – even if they would rather not declare it publicly – then fine, but it would have been interesting to hear the views of those sex workers who have embraced the term sex work and want their job to be legalised.

Pimp State is a well-argued, detailed look at the sex trade and its consequences. The fact that some of those consequences are far more wide-reaching than it might seem at first glance make this book a must read and discuss. I’m very much looking forward to Kat Banyard’s event and hearing more about her work.

 

Thanks to Faber and Faber for the review copy.

When the Sky Fell Apart – Caroline Lea

When he was on fire, the man smelt bitter. Like the stink when Claudine had once tried to burn Maman’s old wool blankets because they had itched.

Even after they had tipped buckets of sea water over him, he still smelt. But sweeter. It reminded her of Maman’s Sunday lunch: roast pork with blackened skin and the cooked fat seeping out through the cracks.

When the Sky Fell Apart begins as the Second World War reaches Jersey. First come the bombers and then comes the occupation. It’s told through the eyes of four characters: ten-year-old, Claudine; Edith, a herbalist; Dr. Carter, an English doctor who remains on the island, and Maurice, a fisherman.

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Claudine is clever in a family suspicious of intelligence. Her father goes to fight in the war while her mother struggles to survive, never mind look after her children. Claudine, according to Edith is ‘thin-faced, sallow and ill-kempt. Wild, knotted hair and a torn boys’ trousers and a boys’ shirt – grubby around the collar’. Claudine befriends a German soldier, a move that leads her into a terrible situation.

When Clement Hacquoil, the butcher, burns on the beach, Edith arrives to help. She sends for the doctor but it’s one of her ‘legendary’ potions which revives him. The locals seem to be torn between those who are thankful for her concoctions and those who call her a witch and believe she has ‘the devil’s magic in her fingers’. Edith was widowed in the First World War and has lived alone since. She’s the straight-talking main character and provides an insight into other characters as an astute reader of people.

Dr. Carter is one of the people who comes to rely on Edith, seeing her as a support to his work, not a hindrance. Carter’s the character with a dark secret from the outset. When the bombs begin to fall and a large number of women and children arrive at the hospital looking for sanctuary, he faces them

He held up his hands and quelled the first quiver of fear in his gut by reminding himself of the sensation of the ruler slapping down on his palms if his hands had ever trembled as a boy.

The sacrifices Carter makes throughout the war take an incredible toil on him. His story is a particularly fascinating element of the novel.

Finally, Maurice. He’s stayed to care for his wife, Marthe. She has the degenerative disease Huntingdon’s Chorea and Maurice feels he can’t leave her with anyone else after he discovers her carer has been going out and leaving her alone for hours and because he fears the Germans finding her and sending her to a concentration camp.

But he knew he must stop the fishing when he came home and she’d spilled a pan of boiling water down her legs. She was rubbing at them – perhaps she had thought that might take the pain. But her skin was peeling off in her hands where the hot water had blistered it. Translucent pairings of flesh, like white petals, which she threw to the floor, while underneath, her blood – so much blood.

As the novel progresses, all four characters’ lives will become entwined and they’ll need each other if they have any hope of survival.

When the Sky Fell Apart is an engaging look at the occupation of Jersey. Lea considers the way the locals are treated and what they do to survive – from stealing and hiding to becoming ‘Jerry Bags’ to working for the Germans. All of the characters’ stories have dark elements to them although Lea’s style and tone prevents the novel from being the bleak piece it could easily have been. My only criticism is that Edith is often referred to as ‘old’ when she must be all of fifty. However, without giving anything away, there’s a glimpse of a much more youthful version of her as the story progresses. Over all, When the Sky Fell Apart is a good read and if, like me, you know little about the German occupation of Jersey, an interesting introduction to it.

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Caroline Lea appears with Simon Scarrow at Jersey Arts Centre at 11.45am, Sunday 2nd October, 2016. Tickets are available here.

Six Tudor Wives #1, Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen – Alison Weir

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is the first in a series of novels about the wives of Henry VIII. We meet Katherine in 1501 when she is still Catalina. She’s on a ship just off the coast of England, on her way to marry Henry’s older brother, Prince Arthur, and unite England and Spain.

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She made herself dwell on Prince Arthur. All her life she had thought of him as her husband, yet they had not been married by proxy until two years ago, and then again last year, just to make sure the alliance was watertight. Now King Henry was planning a state reception and wedding of such magnificence as had never been seen in England, even though her parents had urged that he outlay only moderate expense, for they did not want their daughter to be the cause of any loss to her adoptive realm. But the King had insisted, and Katherine guessed why. He had pursued this marriage to seal his sovereignty, for he was king by right of conquest only, and needed the reflected glory of mighty Spain to legitimise his title.

When Katherine lands there are issues over cultural differences regarding when and where Katherine should be seen by male members of the English court. King Henry insults her to her maid, Doña Elvira, but Katherine sides with the King and puts a stop to Doña Elvira’s resistance. It’s the beginning of a story which will highlight the power of the king and the male courtiers and the futility of being a woman.

Prince Henry enters the tale the morning after Katherine arrives in England and sees Prince Arthur for the first time. He comes, with the Duke of Buckingham, to escort her to Lambeth Palace.

Where Arthur was pale and thin, his brother was stocky and blooming with health; even kneeling he exuded vitality and self-assurance. There was no doubting that this was a prince.

She asked them to rise, noticing that Prince Henry’s gown was a splendid scarlet furred with ermine, and that he was grinning broadly at her, the bold imp!

[…]

He was a handsome boy with undeniable charm, and even in those brief moments he had dominated the courtesies. Arthur had been reserved and diffident, and she could not stop herself from wondering how different things would have been had she been betrothed to his brother. Would she have felt more excited? More in awe? She felt disloyal even thinking about it. How could she be entertaining such thoughts of a child of ten? Yet it was so easy to see the future man in the boy. And it was worrying to realise how effortlessly Arthur could be overshadowed by his younger brother. Pray God Prince Henry was not overambitious!

As we know, Katherine and Arthur’s marriage is short-lived and apparently unconsummated. Soon, Katherine is embroiled in a waiting game while political manoeuvres that decide whether or not she marries Henry are played out.

Katherine’s story is one of politics in which, as a woman who suffers multiple miscarriages, still births and infant deaths, she is practically powerless. Weir portrays her as an intelligent woman, deeply in love with Henry and understanding of the role she is expected to play. In some ways she’s very modern, wanting an education for her daughter, Mary, and challenging primogeniture. (It’s interesting to note that this law wasn’t overturned in the UK until 2011.) In others, she’s very much the dutiful wife, servant of the King and strictly ruled by the Catholic church. It is only when Henry begins to part ways with the church that Katherine challenges him, showing that she is his wife and ‘true queen’ in the eyes of God.

Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen is a box-set of a novel. There’s a huge cast of characters, drama aplenty, and a span of thirty-five years. Weir wears her research lightly, using it to paint detail in settings and characters while knowing which events to focus on in a given year. If you’re a fan of the BBC’s Sunday night dramas this is your bookish equivalent.

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Alison Weir appears at Jersey Opera House at 4pm, Saturday 1st of October, 2016. Tickets are available here.

The Island – Victoria Hislop

As I mentioned on Friday, throughout September I’m going to be reviewing books by writers appearing at Jersey Festival of Words at the end of the month. I’ve divided my reading by theme and this week I’m focusing on Historical Fiction. I confess that I started here as it’s probably my least favourite genre (I make an exception for Hilary Mantel) but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by books I probably wouldn’t have picked up otherwise.

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The Island was Victoria Hislop’s debut novel, published in 2005.The story is framed by events in 2001 in which a young woman, Alexis, travels to Plaka on the island of Crete searching for clues about her mother’s past and a childhood that is never discussed. There she meets Fotini Davaras, an old friend of her mother’s, who tells her the family’s story.

The story, which takes place between 1939 and 1958, centres around life on the island opposite Plaka, the island of Spinalonga. Alexis guidebook tells her:

SPINALONGA: Dominated by a massive Venetian fortress, this island was seized by the Turks in the eighteenth century. The majority of Turks left Crete when it was declared autonomous in 1898 but the inhabitants refused to give up their homes and their lucrative smuggling trade on Spinalonga. They only left in 1903 when the island was turned into a leper colony. In 1941, Crete was invaded by the Germans and occupied until 1945, but the presence of lepers meant Spinalonga was left alone. Abandoned in 1957.

What the guidebook doesn’t tell her is that in 1939, Eleni, her great-grandmother, ‘left the mainland for Spinalonga’. One of her pupils, nine-year-old Dimitri, also went. His parents having covered the blemishes on his skin for over a year, until Eleni ‘noticed the strange patches on the back of her leg’.

As Georgiou takes Eleni and Dimitri to Spinalonga on the boat in which he makes regular trips to the island with supplies, Eleni contemplates her situation:

As the boat neared the island, Eleni held Dimitri’s hand ever more tightly. She was glad that this poor boy would have someone to care for him and at this moment did not give a second thought to the irony of this position. She would teach him and nurture him as though he were her own son, and do her best to ensure that his schooling was not cut short by this terrible turn of events.


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They (and no doubt the reader) are pleasantly surprised when they disembark at Spinalonga to discover ‘It looked just like market day in Plaka’. Eleni also quickly establishes: What had always been rumoured was true. Most of the lepers looked as she did: ostensibly unblemished.

Spinalonga has its own democracy with an elected leader, shops, a church, a town hall, a school, a market and a clinic. As Eleni and Dimitri begin to organise their new life, Georgiou is dealing with the loss of his wife and raising two daughters, twelve-year-old Anna and ten-year-old Maria, alone.

As the girls grow up, the story develops into a tale of a difficult sibling relationship. Maria is kind and tries to help her father, while Anna is tempestuous and selfish, her behaviour ultimately becoming destructive.

Hislop explores a place and a condition that it is rarely talked about. She does an excellent job of exploding myths about leprosy while covering the advances in treatment that took place during the time the novel is set. Her descriptions of life on Spinalonga are fascinating and when she spent a period of time back in Plaka, I was always keen to return to events on the island.

There are a couple of weak point in the novel. The framing device set in the recent past is just that: we barely get to know Alexis and her boyfriend troubles are irritating but mercifully short-lived. While the point in the story where a mob comes to Plaka intent on razing the island to the ground lacks the tension to make you believe the inhabitants of Spinalonga were ever really in danger. Having said that, on the whole I found The Island an engaging, interesting, knowledgeable read. I loved that while it was clearly plot-driven, it took a challenging subject and gave the reader a viewpoint different to that of the mainstream.

Victoria Hislop appears at Jersey Arts Centre at 8.30pm, Thursday 29th September. Tickets are available here.