Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris

nailOn my journey to becoming a professional writer I read many books on the subject of creative writing. Many of them focused on one aspect of writing such as characterisation, settings, dialogue, structure etc. So, although I am now writing full time I was drawn to this book to see how it compared with the others in my rather large library.

 

Well, to begin with, I have to say this book was completely different to any other I had previously read. Roz, who is a professional writer and ghost writer, warns the reader at the outset that Nail Your Novel is not a book about the details of plot, character, and other aspects of writing, But that it is a complete project plan for writing a novel. She has developed a method to tackle writing a novel from initial inspiration to final polish. In the process of doing this she draws on techniques from Hollywood script writing, improvisational drama, project management, and sports psychology.

She starts from the premise that before you start writing you need a detailed story plan, so I thought maybe there won’t be a lot in this book for me because I’m a pantster, that is I’m a writer who starts with an initial idea and runs with it to see where it will lead me. Roz is definitely not a pantster, and she spends a large part of the book giving tips and ideas on how to build a story plan leading to a first draft. She instructs the writer to turn off their inner critic and advocates ignoring editing, spelling and grammar while compiling this first draft, because this is the creative stage and to spend time on such things, which should be left to a later stage, is simply wasting precious time which could be better spent compiling your draft.

Some of the tips she gave to get the draft going included games, such as the cards game and the improv game. These were quite helpful, although I have used index cards in the past, although maybe not entirely the way that Roz suggests. She has a section on writer’s block and suggests various ways that she calls block busters, to move past the block.

One thing I found particularly useful was the Beat Sheet, and I think I will use this in my own writing. She refers to it as the Beat Sheet game “In Hollywood, scriptwriters break down a story into a summary they call a Beat Sheet” which lets you check all of the story mechanics. She goes on to give a list of questions that need to be answered to improve your story, and which she says the Beat Sheet will help you to answer.

It’s impossible to cover all the aspects Roz covers in this book, but I certainly found it useful and I would recommend it to any aspiring writer, but not only that, I think many seasoned writers would find something of value in this book.

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

Available in Kindle format 

Find out more about Roz Morris 

Advertisements

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory by Julia Jones

fictionfactoryThis is a second opinion review. For an earlier review on IEBR click HERE 

A Fascinating Study of the Literature of Popular Culture

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory is not a biography.  It is exactly what it says in the subtitle on the cover ‘The working life of Herbert Allingham’.  I read it because I’m a fan of his daughter, the crime writer Margery Allingham, and I was fascinated to learn about her family background.  I hadn’t known that her father (in fact her whole family) worked in the popular literature industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Herbert Allingham was born into it.

Julia Jones (no relation!) inherited the Allingham family archive when Herbert’s youngest daughter, Joyce, died, and Julia has also written a biography of Margery – soon to be released as an e-book. The archive has proved to be a wonderful resource – a unique collection of documents giving us a window onto the world of ephemeral popular literature – the soap operas of our great grandparents’ generations.

Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory  is a fascinating account of the growth, flowering and diminishing of mass-market literary culture – the penny and half-penny illustrated weekly papers that my grandmother used to refer to as ‘penny dreadfuls’, but read all the same. Most of the titles have now vanished, but Tit-Bits was still around when I was a child and my mother was still reading Women’s Weekly and My Weekly (in their modern transformations) when she died a few years ago.

This book tells a big part of the social history of Britain – how the weekly papers with their serials and stories both reflected and influenced a sector of society. They often had titles such as ‘A Woman Scorned’, or ‘A Mother Cast Out’, and plots that resemble silent movie classics like ‘The Perils of Pauline’. Like modern day soap operas, they were unashamedly formulaic with every episode ending on a cliff-hanger. Rags to Riches stories were very popular.  Uneducated boys from homes of unimaginable poverty, with dead-end jobs in factories, women who spent their lives in household drudgery, read them or had them read to them.  The periodicals were even sent to the front during the first world war to brighten the lives of the ‘Tommys’.

Julia Jones clearly describes how changing social conditions – divorce, feminism, education etc, changed the content that Herbert Allingham scribbled every week for 50 years until he died.  He was as much a factory or industrial worker as any of those who bought the papers.  There are no holidays when you have three children to feed and educate and you’re paid by the yard.  There was no welfare state

Although Herbert’s work was published in almost all the periodicals throughout this time, his name rarely appeared – the authors of serial fiction were usually anonymous.  This seems rather cruel.  Cruel too that Allingham, unlike his daughter, never had the chance to see his fiction between the covers of a book.

His personal life seems to have been sometimes quite bleak – his wife Em is described as a ‘cough drop’ – a bit of an acquired taste.  She appears neurotic and wilful and her daughter Margery obviously had a difficult relationship with her.  But Em too, was often part of the Fiction Factory – helping Allingham write some of his serials, writing stories of her own. A strange, possibly unrequited, love affair with a doctor resulted in a complete breakdown.  Allingham wrote through it all, producing his 10,000 words a week whatever calamity was taking place at home.

So, at least I now know the context that framed Margery Allingham’s development as a writer.  She described herself once as her ‘father’s apprentice’.  He helped her all he could, though he didn’t always understand her different gifts.

This is a fascinating book, beautifully illustrated with frames from the ‘penny papers’ and it will please those with an academic interest in the history of popular culture as well as the casual reader interested in social history and biography. The paperback is expensive, though it’s a bargain when you think of the research that has gone into it and the amount of information it provides, but the E-book is affordable at 7.99.  Hurrah for E-books!!

 Reviewed by Kathleen Jones

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Julia Jones  

Hippie Boy – A Girls Story by Ingrid Ricks

HIPPIE-BOY-cover-e1315695912127This is the kind of true story that you sort of wish was fiction. But then, a lot of the power is in the fact that it is a ‘true’ story.  It’s not a misery memoir but a close observation of one woman’s childhood experiences in a seriously dysfunctional family.  For those who have read Ingrid Rick’s powerful tale of the loss of her sight, Focus, this work gives a lot of backstory and in many ways comes to explain, if not the condition she suffers from, then perhaps the significance of childhood trauma in adult health.

Yet in many ways it is an uplifting story of surviving against the odds.  The life is ‘ordinary’ in so many ways and yet it’s an extraordinary story that comes out of it. It’s not written with any sense of vitriol to the parents who, it has to be said, must bear most of the responsibility for the outcomes.  And Ricks portrays herself not as a victim or even a heroine, but as a witness to her life.

What is saddening is to see so clearly expressed the  love and need of the child and how that is subverted when the parents actually use (or need) the child to play the parental role. The responsibility heaped on the young ‘hippie boy’ from both parents is all too familiar and all too tragic.  And it’s something of a taboo in our society.  Something adults don’t like to think about.  But Ricks, while never letting her parents fully off the hook, does not dwell on their inadequacies and instead tries to understand them and their perspectives. It’s a very noble thing to do and I’m not sure I would be as forgiving.  Her mother ‘suffers’ from what I’d call religious fanaticism and her interactions with the Mormon church bring a lot of unnecessary grief to the young Ricks and her siblings.  Her father is clearly a drifter, a dreamer and a man for whom the ‘reality’ of the world of responsible parenthood is just too hard to deal with. But Ricks always sees the good side of her father, her love for him shines through and she does not cast her mother as the wicked witch, instead without sugaring the pill she tries to explore and explain the reasons behind her weaknesses. Thus we see a realistic picture of a family – and one I’m sure that is replicated (to some degree) much more than we would care to admit.  And it is to Ricks’ credit (and to her family for accepting her story) that she tells this story, allowing us into a very personal space.

It took a long time and immense bravery and commitment for Ricks to finally shape and tell her ‘story’ and in fact it was the impetus of her own children which helped her achieve her dream.  Which at least gives me some hope that cycles do not have to be repeated, that there can be progress even from the most dysfunctional of family situations. The work is titled a ‘memoir’ and there is plenty of misery, but it’s not a misery memoir, nor is it just writing as therapy.  It is by turns a road movie, an insight into the ‘reality’ of the smalltown American working class experience (think Wonder Years but REAL) and a painful reminder of the inadequacies of adults to parent their children – that love can mean many things and that sometimes love is not enough.

At times some truly grim things happen and some incredibly disturbing ones. But at all times Ricks telling of the story through descriptive prose is clear and compelling without being overwritten. There is a truth which can only be achieved by one who has carried the stories as life experiences  And the inspiration Ricks offers others to ‘tell their stories’ is palpable.  For her,  the memoir style of writing is not about moaning about how bad your childhood was to mitigate one’s adult failings. It’s about taking back the power which has been stripped from you by having to conceal the truth of one’s life.  It is giving an identity to a person. By being brave enough to tell their own life from their own perspective. Ingrid Ricks achieves this admirably in Hippie Boy – and she now works with others to help them do the same thing. This is a very moving story and at the same time both an easy and an uncomfortable read. But read it you should. You’ll learn about more than just the life of Ingrid Ricks, trust me, it’ll make you think about family dysfunction in a whole new, and more mature, way.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Ingrid Ricks

The Opium Eater by Grevel Lindrop

opiumThomas de Quincey is best known for having written one of the first memoirs of drug abuse – Confessions of an English Opium Eater – a handbook for heroin users that has never been out of print since it was first published.  But he was also the author of scandalous biographical anecdotes of Wordsworth, Coleridge and other Lakeland literary figures, a sought-after journalist, and crime-writer.

Thomas de Quincey was a Manchester merchant’s son, but his father died of TB while he was still a child and his mother was a difficult personality, not equipped to deal with sensitive boys. De Quincey was precociously brilliant, but constantly taken away from schools where he was happy and sent to inferior institutions where he was not.  His mother seemed to have a dread of her son being ‘noticed’.  De Quincey ran away from school and home at the age of 16 and lived rough in London until he became penniless and was forced to go back.

He loved books and read voraciously.  Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads impressed him so much that he summoned up the courage to write to Wordsworth, who replied kindly, with an invitation to visit, if de Quincey was ever in Cumbria.  De Quincey was desperately short of money – the allowance granted by his trustees out of his father’s estate (which was being negligently managed) was only £100 a year.  Neither the trustees, nor his mother (who sounds dreadful) seemed to care about getting him an education.  In the end he went up to Oxford and enrolled himself in the cheapest college and spent four or five years reading and studying – largely by himself.  He was reprimanded for having threadbare clothes but spent most of his money on books, without caring what he looked like.

While at Oxford de Quincey’s younger brother also ran away from school to escape repeated floggings – the whole family story of the de Quincey’s is one of mismanagement and a lack of care for the well-being of the fatherless children. The boys in particular felt unloved and unappreciated.   Grevel Lindop makes a good case for this being one of the major factors in making de Quincey permanently lacking in self-confidence, and susceptible to substance abuse. Opium was the only effective pain-killer in the 19th century and it was freely available, both as raw heroin and distilled with alcohol into Laudanum.

It was during his period at Oxford that de Quincey first noticed the effect of Laudanum after he took it for a particularly bad abscess on one of his teeth.  He observed the feeling of calm and well-being and the enhancement of observation.  As a troubled, lonely and extremely shy young man, he began to take it regularly to lift his spirits.  De Quincey was so shy he went to the Lake District 3 times and, despite his invitation from the poet, couldn’t pluck up the courage to knock on the door.  He was similarly timid about his degree.  Fearing, on the first day of his examinations, that he hadn’t done very well (he had been outstanding) he failed to appear for the rest of the exams and left without a degree.

Meeting Coleridge in the west country while staying with a mutual friend, de Quincey overcame his shyness, moved to the Lake District and began to make himself useful to Wordsworth and Coleridge.  But his willingness to be a literary dogsbody led both men to distrust him instinctively – there were numerous misunderstandings and clashes of ego.  The women of the Wordsworth and Coleridge families liked him – he may possibly have been in love with Dorothy, despite the age difference – and he adored the children and they him.

Grevel Lindop makes a good case for Wordsworth’s daughter Catharine having had Down’s Syndrome; their little ‘Chinese Maiden’ who was different from the others and died before she was 5 from convulsions.  De Quincey had been very fond of her and went into such paroxysms of grief that local people believed him to be her natural father.  But her death seemed to re-awaken in de Quincey his suppressed grief at the death of a beloved sister when he was a child.

Wordsworth comes over as dour, egotistical, quick to take offence, a man of decided opinions and an incurable worrier.  De Quincey went to London to oversee the publication of a pamphlet for him, but between Wordsworth’s constant afterthoughts and anxieties about libel, and de Quincey’s perfectionism in punctuation and prose, the printer was driven half mad, publication was late and the pamphlet satisfied none of the parties involved.  The public didn’t like it either.  The relationship continued to sour and broke down completely when de Quincey began to publish his frank revelations of the friendship – ‘Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets’ – in various periodicals.

De Quincey married a Cumbrian farmer’s daughter to the disgust of his friends and family.  ‘De Quincey is married,’ Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, ‘and I may say he is ruined.’  Class divisions meant a great deal in those days.  But his wife struggled to provide him with a comfortable, settled home life, loving and caring for him through all the phases of his opium addiction.  When you read what she went through, you feel like giving her an award for ‘wife of the century’.

De Quincey – who quickly spent his way through the small inheritance which was all that was left of his father’s fortune – was always in debt.  And his addiction was not conducive to regular working habits.  He earned money from journalism, but was usually late for his deadlines, often failing to produce any copy at all.  But his work was sought after because of its originality and the breadth of his learning.  De Quincey had no business sense at all, and sold the most popular of his works ‘The Confessions of an English Opium Eater’ outright for less than £50.  It made a great deal of money for the publisher, while the writer was in penury.

De Quincey found himself unable to write in the Lake District – left to himself he fell into an abyss of depression and laudanum consumption.  When he went to London he was surrounded by friends and colleagues who cajoled him into producing copy and there were no family distractions.  So de Quincey see-sawed between home life in Cumbria – until the money ran out – and working life in London – until either his wife became too depressed to remain alone or he became too homesick to stay away.

Eventually, as the debt spiral began to catch up with him, he moved to Edinburgh, where he was published by Blackwood’s Magazine.  His wife and children joined him there, but de Quincey was more often a refugee from the bailiffs in a debt sanctuary at Holyrood Park where he was only allowed out on a Sunday.  Life was tragic – his eldest son died of a rare form of cancer and his wife died shortly afterwards, leaving de Quincey – still in Holyrood to avoid debtor’s prison – in charge of 6 children he wasn’t able to live with.  But, with the help of his eldest daughter he managed to stabilise his finances and his opium intake, rejoin his family and enjoy several relatively prosperous years before he died at the age of 74.

Grevel Lindop’s biography highlights the new accessibility of de Quincey’s work to readers of fantasy fiction and magic realism.  He is a ‘classic of Underground literature’; an explorer of ‘visionary states’.  His essays on the criminal mind, particularly ‘On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts’, were a big influence on Edgar Allan Poe, R.L. Stevenson, Dickens, Baudelaire, Proust, Dostoevsky, Borges, William Burroughs and many others.  And his ‘Confessions’ were the inspiration for Berlioz’ ‘Symphonie Fantastique’.  Opium addiction was the tragedy of his life.  Wordsworth described de Quincey as ‘a pest of society and one of the most worthless of mankind’, but after reading this biography I have to agree with Grevel Lindop that Thomas de Quincey was ‘a man both lovable and oddly heroic’ as well as one of the great literary minds of the 19th century.  This is a beautifully written and researched biography and a joy to read.

 Reviewed by Kathleen Jones

Available in Kindle format

Find out more about Grevel Lindrop 

 

 

Focus by Ingrid Ricks

newfocusI would imagine that even more than for most people, those who write and those who love to read would find the prospect of going blind absolutely terrifying. And what do we do with things we fear? Ignore them as long as possible. Pretend they aren’t happening. Avoid facing up to the truth. But some stories are too important to ignore.  This is one of them.

In Focus, Ingrid Ricks writes her experience of having to come to terms with a rare eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa and it is enough to give every reader pause for thought.  The title Focus has an immense power beyond the obvious in this work.  It reaches out as advice and a caution to us all.  Focussing is important. For us all.

Focus is told in such a straightforward, honest and simple way that you cannot help but feel empathy with and anger on behalf of Ricks. I was both astonished and humbled and the helplessness of her situation mirrored the helplessness I felt with her situation.  I do not suggest she portrays herself as a ‘victim’ in any way, I simply mean that – yes – the book made me Focus. On life and how it’s not always a happy place to be. Bad things happen.

America and UK are different in many ways and this book got me thinking of some of the differences. One of the observations I made while reading this book (which I LITERALLY couldn’t put down and I warn you, once you start it you will not be able to stop till the end it is that powerful!) was that in UK I’m sure as soon as she had the diagnosis ‘legally blind’ she would have had her licence withdrawn. But in US it doesn’t seem to be the case. I found that quite shocking but equally I didn’t want her to have to stop driving. It would have such a devastating impact on her life. That little fact helped me to focus once again on the consequences one is forced to deal with as a byproduct of a medical condition. The other thought I had was that I hated to think what it must have cost to have this diagnosis (I mean in financial terms) in America. I know that the NHS has much not to be proud of and that ALL treatment for eyes is not free anymore, but I’m convinced that if I was diagnosed with this condition in the UK among my many worries would not be how I was going to pay for the diagnosis and ongoing treatment costs. Although in the case of this condition it doesn’t seem there’s much than can be done and so that may not be a huge issue of itself. Of course, again, in this country it might be a condition which falls between two stools and she might have been ineligible for all kinds of ‘benefits’ to which she ought to be entitled.  It reminds you – life’s a lottery. Focus.

But one does have to deal with consequences even if one is in denial. Ingrid Ricks had to take that personal journey. And she bravely and honestly shares it with the reader. She did and does the best she could do.  She re-focussed. Faith wasn’t enough, and she refocused towards pragmatism. Generally speaking we all place such faith in the medical profession and it’s only when (if) we get diagnosed with a condition for which there is no ‘cure’ that we realise that conventional medicine does not have all the answers. For those of us (like me) sceptical about alternative therapies that can prove a hard time. However, for Ricks (as for me) over time one comes to terms with the fact that it’s YOUR life and you have to find what will help you live with your condition because when it’s your life the knowledge that you can’t be ‘cured’ isn’t the end of the story. You just have to re-focus. Time and again.

And often in such a journey the silver linings appear. For Ingrid Ricks therapy opened some doors.  I know we Brits are often dismissive of therapy but the therapeutic path does have value and especially in conditions which the standard medical model cannot handle.  For Ricks therapy opened doors to how and why she may have been ‘blighted’ with RP but more importantly helped her find ways to ‘deal’ with it and to adjust her life to her new reality.  In the process of this is the nub of another story – Hippie Boy – which I rushed straight away to read after Focus. I wanted to know so much more about Ingrid Ricks life and ‘backstory’ and I was not disappointed. I will review Hippie Boy early next year. Over the years, Ricks found out things about herself and was able to change her life and her priorities. This takes some strength of character and a great deal of personal insight. Her achievement is one which should be recognised and her story is one which we should all read – and use the message it gives us to apply some focus to our own lives.  Real life is less about happy endings and more about dealing with the cards you are given, even when the deck is horribly stacked against you for no good reason.  I salute Ingrid Ricks for showing the courage to do this and for having the skill and desire to write about it so that others may learn not just about the eye condition but something vital about life itself.

Reviewed by Cally Phillips

Available in Kindle format   and epub  and in paperback

Find out more about Ingrid Ricks

Margaret Forster, A life in Books by Kathleen Jones

Do not adjust your sets – this is the second review of this book this month. It was a hotly contested title amongst the reviewers (at least 3 wanted to review it) so we gave our two newest reviewers the privilege of reviewing it. Carol McKay also reviewed it this month but here is Robert Dodd’s take (ed) 

I downloaded this biography of Margaret Forster in an insouciant way, much as you might pick a book off the shelves in a bookshop because there was something about the colour of the spine that appealed to you.  Although I had read a few heavyweight biographies of well-known literary figures (most recently Peter Ackroyd’s ‘T.S.Eliot’), I had never actually heard of Margaret Forster in spite of her prolific and successful output.  The only bell that was rung by her list of titles was that ‘Georgy Girl’ had been a successful film in my youth, albeit one that I was too young to go and see!

However, Kathleen Jones’s book tweaked my curiosity mainly because it was an account of the life of a writer, and as a writer myself I am always interested in the ups and downs of the careers of more illustrious practitioners.  If nothing else, one often finds that they had a miserable time of it (T.S.Eliot a good case in point), and that cheers one up over one’s own lack of fame and fortune.

So, given my casual interest at the outset, it wouldn’t have taken much to stop me reading on after the first few pages.  However, Kathleen Jones’s account of Margaret Forster caught my interest immediately, and her excellent, brisk introduction to this fascinating person and writer kept me thoroughly engaged right to the end, and resolved to seek out some of her writing for myself.

With a subject who wrote extensively about her own life, including two published books of memoirs, supplemented by her husband’s published memoirs, Kathleen Jones does not lack for primary sources for her biography.  She presents us primarily with Margaret Forster’s own self-judgements, which, to be fair, seem blunt to the point of self-disparagement.  How many writers would refer to the book that brought them fame that ‘it was ike an albatross around my neck’?  Or remark that their first published novel ‘wasn’t a good novel but at least it got me started’ and that it was now ‘mercifully out of print’?  Kathleen Jones uses quotations from her subject judiciously throughout, and we get a real sense of Margaret Forster’s slightly prickly personality.  This is in line with the recurring themes identified in her fiction: ‘dysfunctional families and difficult non-conforming heroines.’  If there is no sense of a hidden personality being revealed, then perhaps that to be expected of a writer who has spent so much time mining her own past, and is entirely consistent with Margaret Forster’s own remark about writing biographies: ‘a biography does not have to be controversial to be good’.  Certainly this biography does not strike me as likely to be controversial, and a degree of cosiness is engendered by referring to the subject by her first name.  Having said that, Kathleen Jones does not shy away from making her own value judgements about the different books.  For example, of ‘Thackeray’ she remarks ‘This, for me, was not a successful foray into the twilight world of faction’.

Kathleen Jones’s synopses of the novels and biographies are highly skilled.  Sometimes important plot points are revealed (such as the denouement of ‘Georgy Girl’), but presumably most readers, unlike me, will already be familiar with Margaret Forster’s work.  The account of ‘The Rash Adventurer’ (a biography of Bonnie Prince Charlie) was perhaps the only time I felt the synopsis was a little over-extended.  On the other hand, Kathleen Jones uses this account to demonstrate an important point: ‘Her biographies are as readable as her novels, with a strong narrative line – not scholarly compendiums bulging with irrelevant detail’.

The use of the books as a structuring device for the biography is very apt, and the reproductions of the books’ covers offer a fascinating glimpse of the evolution of book cover design over the extended period of Margaret Forster’s writing career.  One very small niggle is that I would have liked to have the date of each book’s publication in brackets in the text, rather than just in a list at the end.  This would have been handy for keeping tabs on the chronology, and in an e-book you can’t so easily keep flipping to the end for reference as you can in a paper book.

I especially enjoyed the chapter ‘A Very Private Life’, in which Kathleen Jones writes admiringly of Margaret Forster’s refusal to be a ‘performing animal’ to serve her publishers’ publicity efforts.  Again, she is not afraid of highlighting her own preferences among the books, praising ‘Have the Men Had Enough’ as ‘by far the most interesting novel from this period’.

When I came to Kathleen Jones’s account of Margaret Forster’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, it struck me that I was entering the territory of the Russian doll  – you are reading my review of a biographer’s account of a biographer’s account of a literary figure!  Once more though, Kathleen Jones does a good job of being analytical rather than merely presenting a synopsis.  She comments that ‘the emphasis in this biography…’ (Margeret Forster’s biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning) ‘… is on the person rather than the poetry’.  It seems to me that Kathleen Jones, as indicated by her apposite sub-title ‘A Life in Books’, has chosen a different emphasis, equally valid, and has presented Margaret Forster primarily through the prism of her own writings.  Of course in any good biography of a writer, this will be a two-way process, the books illuminating the person, while knowledge of the person’s life can illuminate the books.

The chapter which deals with her biography of Daphne du Maurier contains some amusing anecdotes which bring Margaret Forster vividly to life, especially her remark when a guest on Desert Island Discs: ‘I don’t like any music; it is just noise.  I prefer total silence.’  One can only imagine Sue Lawley’s face!  The account of Ringo Starr coming to supper and eating only puddings was also amusing, and a surprising glimpse of Margaret Forster moving in the circles of the ‘rich and famous’.  In general, she is presented as avoiding such connections and events.

When I came to the chapter ‘The Memory Box’ I got another surprise.  The introduction of Margaret Forster’s daughter Caitlin Davies, also a published novelist, gave me the first glimpse of actual detail about her family.  Although Kathleen Jones is specifically using the medium of the books to reveal the person, the introduction of Margaret Forster’s daughter at this point revealed a bit of a blank about her adult family life.  For example, we don’t – unless I missed it –find out how many children she has.  Consequently, although her subject matter lies primarily in the sphere of family relationships, I got a sense that this was mostly backward-looking towards her childhood and youth.

Another interesting point for me is that – again, I may have missed something – all the quoted sources and reviews are written by women.   The impression is given – deliberately or accidentally – that Margaret Forster is a woman writing for women, and it would have been interesting to hear her own views on her appeal to a male readership – or, failing that, Kathleen Jones’s views.  Certainly, for this male reader, Kathleen Jones’s excellent biography has kindled a spark of interest, and I will be seeking out some of Margaret Forster’s work.  I think I will start with ‘An Ordinary Woman’ from 2002, a fictional biography that sounds intriguing, and was reviewed in the Guardian as ‘the incredibly detailed forgery of an unlived life.’

In conclusion, Kathleen Jones has vividly encapsulated the work, and in some measure, the life, of an inspirational woman who has produced an impressive number of popular books, but still has the extraordinary modesty to reply, when asked to sum up her work, ‘she nearly gets there, but doesn’t quite.

 Reviewed by Robert Dodds

Available in Kindle format and in epub format 

 

Water and Ice by Arthur S. Mattson

I’m an ocean-going, Tall Ship addict.  Ever since my mother recited the sea-faring poems of John Masefield to me, I’ve been hooked – as Masefield was himself.  The mere sight of a billowing sail, the sound of wind in the rigging is sheer poetry as far as I’m concerned.

‘I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.’

The way I found Water and Ice was through another mode of transport altogether, in the middle of France, as far from the sea as you can imagine, when a man stopped us from driving over a suitcase (mine actually) in a hotel parking lot.  We bumped into him later in a bar and offered to buy him and his wife a drink and discovered that he wasn’t French at all, but an American motor-cyclist on holiday and, not only an author, but an e-author at that.

Art Mattson is a local historian specialising in the maritime history of Long Island and when he mentioned that he’d written a book about two historic shipwrecks, the Bristol and the Mexico, bound from Liverpool to New York in 1836, packed with mainly Irish immigrants, I couldn’t wait to get hold of a copy.

It was obvious talking to Art Mattson that he took pride in presenting books as professionally as possible.  Water and Ice is beautifully designed and illustrated – there’s the occasional glitch where illustrations and captions have been put out of position by the e-pub process, but I know from experience that this happens when you try to produce a non-standard book for different e-platforms. When the e-reader alters the size of the text, the illustrations remain the same size and it throws the lay-out haywire.  The technology simply isn’t good enough yet.

The story is a gripping narrative of two ships who set sail from Liverpool in 1836 only days apart, and were both wrecked on the shoals of Long Island in separate incidents, creating one of America’s worst maritime disasters. It was so famous that several artists painted the scenes and Walt Whitman, who may have stood on the shore among the watchers, wrote a description of the wreck of the Mexico in his poem ‘Sleepers’ which appeared in Leaves of Grass.

The beach is cut by the razory ice-wind – the wreck-guns sound,

The tempest lulls – the moon comes floundering through the drifts.

I look where the ship helplessly heads end on – I hear the burst as

she strikes – I hear the howls of dismay – they grow fainter and fainter.

I cannot aid with my wringing fingers,

I can but rush to the surf, and let it drench me and freeze upon me.

I search with the crowd – not one of the company is wash’d to us alive;

In the morning I help pick up the dead and lay them in rows in a barn.

Of the two stories, the Mexico is the most compelling  – having all the components of a classic disaster movie.  It’s a story of incompetence, corruption, greed, hubris, and callous disregard for what the ship-brokers referred to as ‘white cargo’ – human beings who could sink or swim as far as they were concerned so long as they could collect the insurance.  It’s a tale of a nightmare voyage in an overloaded, leaking ship with an exhausted, inexperienced Caribbean crew, through Atlantic winter storms; the owner’s 15 year old brother on his first voyage, unable to challenge a ruthless captain whose only thought was for his share of the profits and who was willing to abandon his passengers to freeze or drown in order to save his own life.  Several of the crew were black and, although they risked their lives on board alongside their white workmates, they were buried in a segregated grave on Long Island.

Most of the passengers were Irish immigrants who had scraped together enough money for the passage to what they hoped would be a better life in America.  They were willing to suffer the privations of several weeks in appalling conditions and risk death at sea, rather than stay in Ireland.  There were restrictions on how many passengers could be carried by a cargo ship, but the owners got round it by counting small children in twos and threes as equal to an adult and very young children not at all. An adult was allotted one square yard of space.  On the Mexico, conditions were as cramped as any slave ship and, when the immigrants’ own food ran out because the voyage was prolonged because of bad weather, they almost starved and had to beg for food from the crew.

The real horror was that they all died so close to the shore, watched by a crowd of onlookers without the means to rescue them before they froze to death on deck, crying for help.  Whole families perished – husbands, wives and small children.  The temperature was only 5 degrees fahrenheit – a long way below freezing.  Those who took refuge below deck drowned in ice-cold seas as the ship settled deeper into the shoal.

One good thing to come out of the disaster was the stricter regulation of Pilot vessels in and out of New York.  If a Pilot had been available to come out to guide the Mexico and the Bristol into harbour, the disasters would not have happened, but none of them were willing to leave their cosy bars in bad weather.  As a result of this double tragedy, new lighthouses were built, coast guards were given responsibility for rescuing the victims of shipwreck and, eventually, the Plimsoll line restricted how much cargo a ship could safely carry.

The stories are told in vivid prose.  But this is not just a story – the book is also a valuable piece of historical research – there are cargo manifests, crew lists and passenger lists for both vessels, paintings and drawings of the ships, as well as newspaper cuttings and contemporary reports of the tragedy.  Some people will want to skip these and carry on with the story, but I found them fascinating. But then, when it comes to Tall Ships, I’m a nerd!

For Art Mattson, there was a more personal motivation behind the desire to tell this story. Water and Ice is dedicated to his sister, a marine archaeologist, who drowned, age 23, with 7 others when her tall ship Lefteria was rammed in the night by a French weather ship going to the aid of Sir Francis Chichester in the Bay of Biscay.  Going to sea in sailing ships was, and still is, a dangerous business.

Reviewed by Kathleen Jones

Available in Kindle format and in Hardback.

Find out more about Arthur S. Mattson