Review of Charlotte Rogan’s ‘The Lifeboat’ by Lesley Atherton

Claustrophobic Situations

When writing of any claustrophobic situation, three factors are key.

  1. The characters must be multi-dimensional.
  2. The writing must be deep and psychologically detailed.
  3. The lack of various settings must be countered by an unputdownable plot.

The lifeboat drifts

Other reviewers of ‘The Lifeboat’ have indicated that it offers personal insights and rich characterisation, and that it is ‘unputdownable’. I desperately wanted to love this book as the setting is fascinating. The book is mainly set in a lifeboat following the disastrous failing of a ship on its way to New York.  The lifeboat drifts, at first one of many, then later, apparently alone.

A retrospective perspective

The vast majority of the book is written retrospectively by the main character, Grace. Following her rescue, Grace and another two lifeboat survivors (both women) are put into prison awaiting trial for their role in the murder of Mr Hardie, an experienced seaman. Initially he’d kept the 30-strong lifeboat going, but his instability predicated his eventual downfall. Not enough was made of his drifting into the realms of the unreliably insane – and the rebellion of his fellow lifeboaters came too quickly and as somewhat of a shock.

Worse, in terms of the story itself, Grace relates events in a journal and does so solely for the purposes of justifying her actions. Inevitably, the reader then experiences nothing beyond the ‘facts’.

The journal was as cold as a court transcript, and as dry as a ship’s log

I’d been excited to read ‘the Lifeboat’ but Grace’s journal seemed to just plod along relating largely pointless details of lifeboat life, never once getting properly inside the survivors’ heads. The journal was as cold as a court transcript, and as dry as a ship’s log. Was this done intentionally as a stylistic choice?

The book enlivened a little only after the scantily described rescue had taken place and when three women were incarcerated awaiting trial. Such trials did take please in the nineteenth century, yet this fictional account seems unbelievable. Contrived, even. As did manipulative Grace’s final resolution.

Had this book been less about the day to day and more about the mental grief, it would have succeeded. But, for me, it failed as the characters weren’t up to the challenge. Had ‘The Lifeboat’ done this, I would have been unable to put it down. Sadly, it sunk.

#lesleyfridayreads #charlotterogan #thelifeboat

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Review of ‘Letters to Paul’ by Keith Hachtel

I discovered this little book by accident, and that’s often the best way. Immediately I was drawn into the story with the first line:  ‘Its been three weeks since everything happened’ – I wanted to read more.

The story is a one-sided insight into the suffering of Lacie as she communicates with Paul – a young man who is introduced to us while lying comatose in his hospital bed. It was touching to read how the ‘relationship’ between Lacie and Paul developed in its intensity throughout the book, and I was frequently put in mind of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ in many ways while reading.  I particularly liked the graduation story, and found myself a little tearful at what youngsters will do for each other. 

But the story wasn’t just the tale of Lacie and Paul – it was also the tale of what went before and what went after Paul’s hospitalisation. And it really worked. Undoubtedly, the language was a little coarse at times, but it was nothing inappropriate for these young, intense characters. Anything less, and it wouldn’t have felt real.

This epistolary form isn’t popular nowadays, but those of us who enjoy it, REALLY do. And I do.  Also, ultra-short novels aren’t the most popular art form and don’t usually sell brilliantly, but this is a book that transcends its genre – I believe the reader could return again and again, and get something different out of the story each time. And that ending! I loved it.

Message to author: Have you produced this as an audio book or podcast – or even a radio play? I think it would work so well.

Review of ‘The Loves of a Liverpool Lad’ by Peter McGeehan

This book is the story of Liam Parry, and he is quite a guy! Throughout the course of the book, he enjoys psychiatric nurse training, nursing, management, following round gig tours and lots more, including plenty of steamy and graphic sex. He’s also an accomplished dude, a bit of an opportunist, a product of his generation and birthplace, and an all-round nice guy who certainly seems to attract the girls and the (older) women.

Though Liam was, at times, a rogue, he was also romantic, sweet and a very likeable character – and this is largely to do with the way he has been created by Peter McGeehan. Because the book has been written in the style of an autobiography, the reader gets good insights into the mindset, past and present, of this young and vibrant northern man. Peter M writes a tale of its time, though in many ways young Liam is a man ahead of his time.

This book is endearing and sentimental, yet also practical and basic. There’s not a trace of pretentiousness or literary fumbling in sight, but what the reader does get is a huge big slice of a Liverpool lad’s life from the early 60s to the early 90s – with accompanying characters and mood-setting. I feel like I would have liked Liam, had I met him. And I liked this book too.

I’ve started and stopped reading quite a large number of books recently. I don’t know the reason, but I’ve been unable to get into them, and have quickly lost patience. But this book didn’t affect me like that. Though it has almost 300 pages, I didn’t skim. I didn’t rush. I didn’t grudgingly sit through my reading time with a pained expression on my face. Instead I smiled at the happy bits and found myself moved at the sad bits. This is the kind of historical fiction I can really get my teeth into.

I greatly enjoyed this romp into the past, and can’t wait to read any sequels that may be in the pipeline.

‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens. A Review

What is the point in writing yet another review of a classic? None. Other than for personal satisfaction and as a reminder of what I managed to finish. Just.

This isn’t one of my favourites, even though I feel as though it should be. Written in 1854, ‘Hard Times’ was originally serialised in 20 parts, and explores the world of fact and a simultaneous neglect of the world of the imagination – and does so in a way that is clearly a satire on the society of the day. ‘Hard Times’ (originally called ‘Hard Times – For These Times’) was Charles Dickens’ tenth novel and the world it explores is a fictional northern England town, Coketown. So far so good. But yet not good at all.

I have little time and even less inclination to read books I don’t find compelling, just for the heck of it. Unfortunately, I became impatient quite early on in my reading of this book, my inclination being very much reduced.

Because of this I went onto YouTube and decided to listen to an audio version first – just to get me in the mood, and to see if I could better connect with the story and the characters. But even this didn’t help.

‘Hard Times’ is a terrifying voyeuristic tromp through the realms of good old-fashioned Victorian misery. The fear and stifling practicality of Mr Gradgrind’s school destroys the joy of many of its children. The foul-smelling canal accompanies Josiah Bounderby’s rise from the gutter and his proposal of marriage to the much-much-younger and ground-down Louisa. I’ve read elsewhere that strong-yet-pathetic yet likeable Louisa is a fictionalisation of John Stuart Mill. But I just found her incredibly sad and depressing, and not in a way that I could extract inspiration from her.

Ok yes, this is an intricate and complex story. Sub-plots abound.  Personally, I wonder if it might be a better book if the sub-plots (such as Sissy’s story) were to remain in the foreground and not be side-lined.

My reading group were irritated by the dialect writing, and so was I. I was even more annoyed by the writing of Sleary’s lisp. Stephen Blackpool with his alcoholic wife and his sweetheart Rachael were a good and endearing story, but the way the dialogue was written removed any softness and identification by me. It is as if Dickens uses dialect as a substitute for deep characterisation. And it grates.  

To me, ‘Hard Times’ is a essentially the constant and predictable moaning of opinionated middle-aged, middle-class, annoying old men: shallow characters who go over the same ground over and over and over and over again.  The book could have been reduced by about a third and not have lost anything substance-wise.

There is enough morality and politics in this book to satisfy anyone who enjoys that kind of social commentary, but perhaps not enough story and humanity to satisfy those of us who enjoy psychological depth and complexity.

Review of ‘The Last Runaway’ by Tracy Chevalier

‘The Last Runaway’ was written in 2013 and was selected for me to read by my teenage daughter. She was hovering around the historical fiction shelf, which is usually the least likely location for my own hoverings, and she emerged with this book through an entirely random choice. Our guinea pig was also rather taken by it, as he ate a few inches of its cover when I put it down on the sofa to make a trip to the kitchen.

Anyway, the story’s a good and powerful one. In the year 1850, Honor agrees to accompany her sister on a one-way trip from England to America. Grace dies before she meets up with her betrothed – the marriage being their reason for travel. But she feels as if she can’t return to England, and instead continues her journey and moves in with her sister’s intended. Her own intended, back in England had broken off their relationship to marry outside their shared Quaker faith.

Though life in American isn’t easy for Honor, she meets new people, lives a good life and eventually meets the man she will marry, farmer Jack Haymaker. An article on the Publishers Weekly website summarises as follows: ‘They marry and Honor, drawn by her sympathies into helping the Underground Railroad, is forced to choose between living her beliefs and merely speaking them. The birth of her own child raises the stakes, and she takes a unique stand in her untenable situation. Honor’s aching loneliness, overwhelming kindness, and stubborn convictions are beautifully rendered, as are the complexities of all the supporting characters and the vastness of the harsh landscape. Honor’s quiet determination provides a stark contrast to the roiling emotions of the slave issue, the abolitionist fight, and the often personal consequences. Chevalier’s thought-provoking, lyrical novel doesn’t allow any of her characters an easy way out’. I’ve quoted that in its entirety as it basically covers the entire plot of the book without giving too much away.

What I will say is that ‘The Last Runaway’ won the Ohioana Book Award and was in the Richard and Judy Book Club, autumn 2013. Though it isn’t Chevalier’s most well-known novel (that honour goes to ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’ which was made into a film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson) it is certainly popular and well-respected, even amongst other writers. For instance, on Amazon, Rose Tremain says ‘I have always admired Tracy Chevalier’s un-showy brilliance, and this moving story of a young English Quaker girl trapped between duty and conscience in 1850s Ohio is the best thing she’s written since Girl with a Pearl Earring’.

I don’t want to give any spoilers, which can be quite difficult in a book review. So, I had a look on Tracy Chevalier’s website instead and found some really interesting points of reference for reading groups – about the constant sense of movement (from the Underground Slave Railroad), and the feeling that home is not a permanent place, about survival and the importance of silence,  about relationships outside the Quaker community, about the horrors of Honor’s journey and her history, about the differences between the UK and the US and how they are reflected within their patchwork styles, and about dealing with  both loss and hope.

Chevalier’s website also shows us how deeply she was emerged in the world she’d extracted for Honor. She learned to make a quilt in the traditional Quaker style that Honor would have used, and she also undertook masses of research about the town, Oberlin, which was an important stop on the runaway slave escape network – the Underground Railroad, which enabled slaves to move from the south to the safer north.

The story is sensitively written and descriptive, but not boring and self-congratulatory as is often the case with historical novels.  Honor is an interesting and complex character who is living in an equally interesting and complex time of US history. I don’t like historical fiction, but I did like this book very much.

I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, but also to those who don’t. The story is of social expectations, rebellion, love and frustration, and these are universal themes, no matter what your religion or your time of living.

Review of Books from ‘Never Such Innocence’ and ‘Forgotten Heroes Foundation’

@NeverSuch

I came across the organisation ‘Never Such Innocence’ when my 13 year old daughter, Morrigan, decided to enter their 2018 art competition with her large drawing, ‘Behind Each Man’. The competition’s remit was to get children involved in the First World War centenary commemorations.

Amazingly, Morrigan’s art won first prize in her age group category, and this earned her and her school a substantial cash prize. In addition, we were invited to attend a prizegiving event at the Guards Chapel next to Buckingham Palace, then later in 2018, attended Buckingham Palace, where Morrigan spoke about her art in front of a large and distinguished audience. We were also honoured to be invited to attend Westminster Abbey for the Armistice Centenary Service in November 2018. Wow, what a year!

As part of the attendance to these three events, my daughter was presented with three books: two published by ‘Never Such Innocence’ and one from the Forgotten Heroes Foundation: ‘The Unknown Fallen’.

This book, the full title ‘Volume 1: The Unknown Fallen: The Global Allied Muslim Contribution in the First World War’ is gorgeous and lush with thick paper, stunning artwork, touching photographs and absolutely superb production values.  ‘The Unknown Fallen’ makes a beautiful display book, and is crammed full of inspiration, the best of human nature and integrity.

The second book I’d like to mention is ‘Stories of the First World War: The Men, Women, Children and Animals that Played their Part’ published by Never Such Innocence. This is a charming book which is aimed at children aged 9 and above. It gives an ‘objective and insightful account’ of the events of the war, and is presented in an easily accessible style that children will not find intimidating. At the same time, adults can learn a lot from this book. I know I certainly did.

The third book is ‘Never Such Innocence: The Centenary of the First World War: Children’s Responses through Poetry, Art and Song’. This is a glorious book, not only because I’m a proud parent of one of the contributors (Morrigan’s drawing appears on page 142) but because the other artworks are also stunning and poignant, as is the poetry.

For anyone who believes this generation of children are interested only in selfies and social media, please take a look at these volumes, especially the ‘Children’s Responses’ volume. Your faith in humanity will be restored, and your pride in so many of the younger generation will be likewise.

More details of the latter two books can be found at https://www.neversuchinnocence.com/centenary-legacy-books

The Forgotten Heroes Foundation can be found at https://unknownfallen.com

Beautiful creations from two fantastic organisations. Totally recommended.

@NeverSuch

Review of ‘Moving Times’ by Phoenix Writers

‘Moving Times’ is a book put together to celebrate the decade-long existence of the Phoenix Writers group, from Horwich Lancashire, and the contributors should be highly proud of what they’ve achieved.  

The first thing you notice is that it is a very attractive book with a simple but well-designed and effective cover. This really does the contents justice, which is something not achieved by all small press and writing group books.

As a member of three/four writing groups, I really do identify with the sentiments expressed in the book’s foreword – ‘What moves you, gets you out of bed in the morning, drives you to action? For us on a Thursday, it’s Phoenix Writers. We meet as friends, share ideas and get support and inspiration’. Yes, that’s what a strong and healthy writing group does for the usually lone creative. Such a group provides a stable and caring home for people who, by the nature of their pastime, can feel rootless and isolated. Phoenix is clearly a great base for many thoughtful and interesting writers.

This book contains just over 100 pages of stories, poetry and thoughts, and style/content-wise, there really is something for everyone. When reading a book of this type, I always begin with the poetry.

Ann Lawson’s ‘Iambic Tetrameter Rules, Okay?’ is a clever and amusing poem about the frustrations of forcing your creativity into a restrictive art form, and am sure the sentiments expressed will resonate with most poets.  With a completely different feel, ‘S is for Sharing’ is a short and life-affirming verse by Tony Nolan about all the positives in the world. This joy in living can be in short supply at times, so it’s pleasant to read regular reminders. In a similar vein, Joy Pope’s poem titled ‘Horwich Times’ made me proud to have connections with the town, and even more keen to produce my own book about Horwich – ‘a town of bustling resilience’. Kathleen Proctor’s poem, ‘Alexander, My Grandson’ is the most beautiful recollection of love for a grandchild who is ‘snuggling, nuzzling’ and ‘Chubby, chunky, comfortable’. Jeanne Waddington’s poem ‘The Contrariness of Young Love’ is about insurmountable contrasts between a young couple. It’s a regular enough subject, but the style lends it originality – ‘She’s a summer’s evening, he’s a cloudy day.’

The stories are also lovely to read and insightful. Bernie Jordan’s story ‘Time Moves’ begins this collection with a vivid recollection of a moment in the life of a crane and a railway bridge at Lostock station. 

‘Turning Left,’ Janet Lewison’s unpretentiously written tale, immediately drew me in with its endearing dialogue about a woman who ends up in a hired home that comes with its own snazzy car. She is changing her life, and the Cobra she now drives provides its own form of liberation.

‘Newfoundland’ by Elaine Hamilton is a short but lovely tale of boats, and it really conjured up a misty and weird atmosphere.

‘Going to Waste’ (by Dotty Snelson) is one of the longer pieces in the book, about recycling, hoarding, skip-diving and the make-do-and-mend ideology of a man, Gordon, his wife Sheila, and their personal tragedy. I really enjoyed this touching story.  

Barbara Oldham’s story ‘Stolen Bikes’ was about that very subject – or was it? Reading it, you really get a feel for the woman behind this very witty monologue.

Terence Park’s story ‘Wild Mouse’ tells the story of Mags and Rebecca on a day out at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. They take in all the pleasures and try to defer their ride on the ‘Wild Mouse’. The characters leapt from the page, especially their dialogue.

‘What the Spider Said’ by Phil Chrimes is an insightful tale of a conversation between Boris, a spider, and Humphrey. Their conversation is simple and so endearing. Pam Hunter provides another spider-related piece of writing as she relates the tale of ‘Little Miss Muffet’ and gives the reader the story behind it. There’s a lot to learn from how fairy tales and nursery rhymes come about.

Alan Gibbs’ piece ‘It Started Well and Just Got Better’ is about a campervan trip to Mull to view white-tailed eagles. This gorgeous personal recollection was good to read and really encourages the reader to visit this area of the world.

Lastly. Margaret Halliday’s piece, ‘My Home is in India’ did bring a tear to my eye. Margaret passed away in March 2019, and also attending ‘Write You Are’ – another Horwich-based writing group of which I am a member. I knew Margaret’s writings well, and this appreciation of her life in India was Margaret to the core, and a lovely, though unintentional tribute to her.

Thanks, Phoenix, for this book. Greatly enjoyed!