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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview 2,000 YEARS OF MANCHESTER by Kathryn Coase (@penswordbooks). Packed with facts and curio, a fun read and an excellent reference book

Hi all:

A book I thoroughly enjoyed for this Monday.

Cover of 2000 Years of Manchester
2,000 Years of Manchester by Kathryn Coase

2,000 Years of Manchester by Kathryn Coase.

This is not a chronological history of Manchester with lists of facts and figures. Rather, it is an eclectic mix of fact, fiction, legend and myth which presents the history of Manchester from its beginnings as a Roman settlement, then as an insignificant market town, to its place as a city at the heart of the Industrial Revolution and beyond. The author has attempted to capture not only the often tragic lives, times, struggles and beliefs of the city’s ever-expanding population, but also its resilience and humour. Including photographs, illustrations, poems and quotes, the book ranges from the humorous, including the stories of “Spanking Roger” and the “Manchester Mummy” to the tragic stories of “Cholera” and “Mary Bradley”, together with the bizarre “Pig Tales” and the criminal “Scuttlers” and “Purrers”.This is a well-researched, well-written and, most importantly, entertaining and informative read, presented in an unusual yet accessible and easy-to-read format, intended to appeal to the widest audience.

https://www.amazon.com/000-Years-Manchester-Kathryn-Coase/dp/1526715090/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/000-Years-Manchester-Kathryn-Coase/dp/1526715090/

https://www.amazon.es/000-Years-Manchester-Kathryn-Coase/dp/1526715090/

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/2000-Years-of-Manchester-Paperback/p/15099

About the author:

As a Mancunian, Kathryn Coase has been interested in the history of Manchester for many years and has possessed a longstanding ambition to research and write a book on the subject. After 30 years of teaching, she has finally decided to take some time out in order to fulfil this dream.

My review:

Thanks to Rosie Croft of Pen & Sword for providing me a paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I lived and worked in the outskirts of Manchester (in Worsley, Salford) for a couple of years and liked Manchester from my first visit, quite a few years earlier (before the 1996 IRA bombing) although I don’t remember a lot about the first occasion I visited. It is partly because it reminds me, somehow, of my hometown, Barcelona. Not architecturally, or even for its location, but because of its history, its industrial past, and the way it has always been a driving and innovative place, despite not being the capital of the country (and yes, being in the North, I guess). It’s also a city that has reinvented itself many times, and like most big cities has undergone transformations and changes (some more successful than others). Oh, and of course, both have a Roman origin. (And the football. Let’s not forget football). So, when I saw this book and the description, I was convinced I’d enjoy it. And I did.

This book, as the description explains, is not a chronological account of the history of Manchester, although most chapters (but not all) do tend to deal with the topic at hand in a chronological fashion, when relevant. There are tonnes of images, mostly archival, and the author thanks the Chetham Library, the Greater Manchester Police Museum, and the Manchester Local Images Collection for their help and resources. They make the book a joy to leaf through and stop at whatever attracts one’s fancy, be it a drawing of some odd contraption (the chapter on Crime and Punishment is particularly fascinating on that account), or a picture of a building that might still be recognisable today. There are also highlighted boxes of text containing titbits of curious or remarkable information —from ghost legends to who Tom and Jerry where— and there is the rest of the text, that is packed with information: historical, sociological, artistic… written in an engaging and entertaining manner. At no point did I find myself wondering what happened next (when talking about buildings or historical figures), and many of the topics and the stories opened my eyes to places and people I’d like to know more about.

Manchester is a place of many firsts (some disputed, of course): like the oldest surviving public library in the English-speaking word, the first department store, the first telephone line in Britain, the first passenger railway line (a rather sad story behind it), the first Marks & Spencer shop (Marks started trading in Leeds but opened the first store with his partner in Manchester), the Manchester Exhibition that helped open art to the general public, the first lonely hearts ad (the poor woman was committed to the lunatic asylum for four weeks by the mayor, in 1727)… It also has seen quite a few  historical figures come and go, both international and local: Marx and Engels, Oswald Mosley, John Dalton (now I understand why the Eye Hospital is so important there), Harold Brighouse (I love Hobson’s Choice), Dodie Smith (101 Dalmatians), Anthony Burgess, Elizabeth Raffald (an amazing entrepreneur who invented the ready meal, wrote a cookery book, created the first trade directory, run an employment agency…), Peter Mark Roget (the creator of the first thesaurus that’s become one of most writers’ best friend), Old Billy (the oldest horse who survived to be 62), Mark Addy (who rescued more than 50 people from the river), Alfred Pierrepoint (who held the record for the world’s fastest hanging, at only 8 seconds, at Strangeways Prison), Ernest Rutherford, Marie Stopes, Alan Turing…

The book is divided into 21 chapters, which can be read individually, and works perfectly well as a reference book for anybody looking for information about Manchester, its people and influences. It is fairly comprehensive as it includes: early history, from town to city, conditions of the working class, politics, to battle!, religion, crime & punishment, health, education, science & technology, transport, the press, entertainment, creative Manchester, ‘incomers’ (the great explosion in population following the industrial revolution makes one think about current international concerns and the sheer difference in scale), disaster!, Manchester characters,  what’s in a name, shopping, iconic buildings (past and present), and sports. There is a certain overlap of content in the chapters: what’s in a name, shopping, and iconic buildings, because some of the relevant information is shared in other chapters as well depending on the subject, although that is an advantage for those thinking of the book as a reference or for research, rather than reading it from beginning to end. And I thought that “what’s in a name”, which looks at where the names of many streets come from and how they have changed, could be followed as a guide to explore the city for anybody interested in a historical tour.

The book also includes a bibliography and an index that should further aid those keen on locating specific information or looking for precise research topics.

In sum, this is a highly entertaining and informative book that I recommend to anybody who’s ever wondered about Manchester’s history (or the history of the UK). It can be read whole or by topics and it also makes for a great reference book. It is full of inspiration for writers and historians trying to get a sense of how things have changed over time and to get a perspective on the evolution of a city and its people. Fabulous.

Thanks to Rosie and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview THE NIGHT BROTHER by Rosie Garland (@rosieauthor) For lovers of #historicalfiction (late XIX-early XX c), particularly British (Manchester) and those looking for novel explorations of issues of gender identity.

Hi all:

I know I told you I had caught up with my reviews, and it is true, but I keep reading, so today and tomorrow I share my most recent reviews. They are very different although both historical…

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland
The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

From the author of The Palace of Curiosities and Vixen comes a bold new novel exploring questions of identity, sexual equality and how well we really know ourselves. Perfect for fans of Angela Carter, Sarah Waters and Erin Morgenstern.

Rich are the delights of late nineteenth-century Manchester for young siblings Edie and Gnome. They bicker, banter, shout and scream their way through the city’s streets, embracing its charms and dangers. But as the pair grow up, it is Gnome who revels in the night-time, while Edie wakes exhausted each morning, unable to quell a sickening sense of unease, with only a dim memory of the dark hours.

Confused and frustrated at living a half-life, she decides to take control, distancing herself from Gnome once and for all. But can she ever be free from someone who knows her better than she knows herself?

A dazzling and provocative novel of adventure and belonging, The Night Brother lures us to the furthermost boundaries of sexual and gender identity. With echoes of Orlando and Jekyll & Hyde, this is a story about the vital importance of being honest with yourself. Every part of yourself. After all, no-one likes to be kept in the dark.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Night-Brother-Rosie-Garland-ebook/dp/B01N01U5ZS/

At the moment it isn’t available in the US but it will be published next month (I think!).

Editorial Reviews

Praise for The Night Brother:

‘Rosie Garland writes in a tumble of poetry, desire and passion, as intriguing and delicious as the story she tells’ Stella Duffy

Praise for The Palace of Curiosities:

‘Garland’s lush prose is always a pleasure’ GUARDIAN

‘A jewel-box of a novel … Garland is a real literary talent: definitely an author to watch’ Sarah Waters

‘An alternately brutal and beautiful story about love and belonging in a vividly conveyed underworld, rich in carny phantasmagoria and lyrical romance’ METRO

‘Bewitching’ GOOD HOUSEKEEPING

‘Reminds me of Angela Carter’ Jenni Murray

Author Rosie Garland
Author Rosie Garland

About the Author

Rosie Garland is a novelist, poet, performer and singer with post-punk band The March Violets. An eclectic writer, she started out in spoken word, going on to garner praise as a performance poet. Her award-winning short stories, poems and essays have been widely anthologised, and her sixth poetry collection, As In Judy, is out now with Flapjack Press. She is the author of Vixen, a Green Carnation Prize nominee. Her debut novel, The Palace of Curiosities, won Book of the Year in the Co-op Respect Awards 2013 and was nominated for both The Desmond Elliott and the Polari First Book Prize. She lives in Manchester and is currently developing a new musical project, Time-Travelling Suffragettes.

http://www.rosiegarland.com/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and Harper Collins UK for providing me with an ARC of this book that I voluntarily chose to review.

Gender and gender identity are complex subjects and have always been, even at times when this was not openly acknowledged. Characters who change gender are not new (although not very common either): Virginia Wolf’s Orlando is perhaps one of the best known, and his/her fictional biography offers the reader a chance to observe historical events from the point of view of a character that is an outsider in more ways than one. Maria Aurèlia Capmany’s Quim/Quima uses another character that goes from male to female as a way to revisit the story of Catalonia, in an open homage to Woolf whom she addresses in a letter that serves as a prologue to her novel. Much more recently, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel that deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize (and that I recommend wholeheartedly as I do the other two, although I don’t think Quim/Quima is easy to find other than in the original in Catalan), uses a similar plot device, although this time clearly addressing intersex and focusing more on the difficulties and struggles of living outside the gender norm (a subject the other two novels I mention don’t focus on).

What marks the difference between those books and The Night Brother is that rather than the main character living a part of his/her life as pertaining to a gender and, at some point, switching (similar to what happens in Kafka’s Metamorphosis although not quite as surreal), in this novel, the main character is both, male and female, and daily morphs from the one gender into the other, at least for a time. Edie is a woman (a girl when we meet her) who lives with her mother and grandmother in a pub in Manchester at the end of the XIX century, during the day, and at night she transforms into Herbert (or Gnome, as he prefers to be called), as if she were a shapeshifter creature of sorts, or a being from some paranormal genre (but that is not at all the feel of the novel). At the beginning of the novel Edie thinks of Gnome as her brother, always by her side, a wild creature who shares adventures with her (although we soon realise there is something peculiar about their relationship, as they seem to know what each other thinks without talking). Edie’s mother insists she is making Gnome up and is imagining things and although the girl tries hard to ignore it, unexplained things keep happening. At some point, she realises what the truth is (at least in part, as secrets are a big subject in this story) and discovers a way to keep her ‘brother’ at bay, although this comes at a heavy prize and it is difficult to maintain. Edie tries to live a discreet life and not get too close to people to avoid the risk of revealing her secret and that results in a sad and sombre life. When she becomes friendly with a gay co-worker and later becomes a suffragette, things get complicated and Gnome won’t stay put. I won’t discuss the plot in more detail to avoid giving any spoilers away.

The story is told in the first person from the points of view of Edie and Gnome (although Edie’s narration has more weight for reasons that soon become evident to readers) and a final chapter from the point of view of Abigail, one of the suffragettes. This style of narrative gives the reader a good sense of how different the perceptions of the two characters are, their behaviour, expressions, and what reactions they elicit from others. The novel excels at depicting the Manchester of the turn of the century, its buildings, its neighbourhoods, its businesses, the savoury and unsavoury areas, the social mores of the era, the secret places where those whose tastes did not fit in with society at large met, and the atmosphere of the city and the times. We have ladies from good families, blue collar characters, prostitutes, ruffians, street urchins, policemen, publicans and everything in between, all beautifully observed. For me, this is one of the strongest points of the novel, and although I only know the Manchester of modern times, I felt as if I was wandering its streets with the characters at the turn of the century. The Suffragist rallies and their repression are also shared in great detail, to the point where we are one of the fallen bodies about to be trampled over, in a scene difficult to forget.

As the novel is told in the first person from those two character’s perspectives, it is important that they come across as fully realised individuals. For me, Edie is the more convincing of the two. This is perhaps in part due to her having more space (and also probably because I am a woman and find it easier to get into her shoes) and that allows us to understand better what goes through her head. I don’t mean she is a particularly likeable character (she refuses to listen to reason, she is hard and tries to close her heart to others and she does bad things too), but she is easier to understand and she grows and evolves through the novel, becoming… Well, I’ll keep my peace. However, Gnome remains impulsive, childish at times, and seems not to have a thought beyond getting his revenge and satisfying his needs. He is not a well-rounded character, and as a depiction of masculinity I found it very limited —although it makes sense if we view the novel as an allegory that turns on its head the old view of the genders, with women being close to nature, earth, the moon, natural beings, slaves to their hormones and anatomy, and men who were the intellectual beings, rational, controlled, dominant, the sun, head over feelings— but he is a force of nature, although not very likeable either. Edie’s mother and grandmother are intriguing characters, with her mother being a great example of bad motherhood (not only for what she does and the way she treats Edie but for what she tries to do to sort her problems, an extreme but not false ‘treatment’ on offer at the time), while her grandmother is the voice of reason, and we eventually get to understand her circumstances well. Although the ending is perhaps a bit rushed, it is satisfying and its message of tolerance and acceptance of difference is a very welcome one.

I’ve seen this book described as magical realism and as an allegory and both concepts are fitting to a certain extent, although I suspect this is a book that will mean different things to different readers and its interpretations will probably tell us as much about the reader as about the writer (as should be the case). I recommend it to readers interested in historical fiction (particularly within a British setting) of the late XIX c /beginning of the XX c, those interested in novels that explore gender and gender identity issues in new ways and who don’t mind a touch of the unexpected, and to anybody intrigued to try a fairly original take on the subject. A word of warning: there is some sexual content (only one scene and not the most graphic I’ve read, but it is there) and there is violence, particularly in the scene of the repression of the Suffragist event.

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, CLICK and REVIEW!

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Book reviews

#Bookreview THE LAST ROAD HOME by Danny Johnson (@dittybopper) Fate, love, race, violence, war and how some themes remain always relevant. And a #BookFair

Hi all:

Usually on Fridays I bring you new books and authors, and today is no different. But, before I talk about that book, I’ve realised that with all my changes in schedule I haven’t mentioned a very big book event that’s coming up (in just over a week!) that if you love books and are anywhere near Manchester, UK, on the 13th of August should join in. I’ll be there (OK, don’t let that put you off. There will be plenty of other writers too :)).

I'll be there! Why not come and join me?
I’ll be there! Why not come and join me?

Here there’s a video with some information about it:

50 or so fellow authors, hosted by Scarlett Enterprises, will be there on Saturday 13th August at the Red Rose Steam Society Ltd. Mining Museum in Astley Green, Manchester, M29 7JB

There will be models (from many of your favourite romance novels) in attendance (ladies, ladies, please…), music, great food, cakes, an ice-cream van, a BBQ and an evening event that will start around 7pm.

If you want to see the event’s page and  find out even more information, here it is.

Fellow author Christoph Fischer (who’s been my guest in a few occasions) will be there too, and he’s written a few posts about it (he’s been much more on the ball with it than me).

Here I leave you links to a couple of them:

Birthday post: Meet me in Manchester August 13th #‎MAEG2016‬

Manchester Calling #‎MAEG2016‬ – A chance to meet the authors August 13th

And now, as promised, the review. Today I bring you a new book that was published just this month. I mentioned a few weeks back that I was reading a book by an Southern US author and this is it.

The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson
The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson

The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson

“This novel is sure to join the rich canon of Southern literature.” –Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August

From Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson comes a powerful, lyrical debut novel that explores race relations, first love, and coming-of-age in North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s.

At eight years old, Raeford “Junebug” Hurley has known more than his share of hard lessons. After the sudden death of his parents, he goes to live with his grandparents on a farm surrounded by tobacco fields and lonesome woods. There he meets Fancy Stroud and her twin brother, Lightning, the children of black sharecroppers on a neighboring farm. As years pass, the friendship between Junebug and bright, compassionate Fancy takes on a deeper intensity. Junebug, aware of all the ways in which he and Fancy are more alike than different, habitually bucks against the casual bigotry that surrounds them–dangerous in a community ruled by the Klan.

On the brink of adulthood, Junebug is drawn into a moneymaking scheme that goes awry–and leaves him with a dark secret he must keep from those he loves. And as Fancy, tired of saying yes’um and living scared, tries to find her place in the world, Junebug embarks on a journey that will take him through loss and war toward a hard-won understanding.

At once tender and unflinching, The Last Road Home delves deep into the gritty, violent realities of the South’s turbulent past, yet evokes the universal hunger for belonging.

Advance praise for The Last Road Home

“In this intense and well?written debut novel, Danny Johnson probes deep into the cauldron of racial relations in the 1960’s South. The Last Road Home  introduces an exciting new voice in Southern Literature.” –Ron Rash, author of Above the Waterfall

“In The Last Road Home, Danny Johnson evokes a South that in many ways may be gone, thank the Lord. Yet Johnson’s compelling and heartfelt rendering of Junebug and Fancy couldn’t be more charged and alive. The long dramatic arc of their deep and ever evolving relationship traces a time and a place giving way to change in violent fits and starts. Yet this is no sociological treatise. It’s a flesh and blood story about two people, who risk just about everything time and time again, for nothing more and nothing less than to love each other.” –Tommy Hays, author of In The Family Way

The Last Road Home took me straight into the heart of a wounded boy who becomes a complicated man. By the end of this stunning novel, I felt I’d come to understand humans better than I had before, how we come to be the way we are: tender and full of fury. I don’t recall having such a reaction to a novel.  Author Danny Johnson shrinks from nothing. I say: read it!” –Peggy Payne, author of Cobalt Blue

“Johnson’s moving novel beautifully portrays the ways in which his young characters struggle to overcome the history that has so fully shaped their lives.” –John Gregory Brown, author of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery

My review:

Thanks to Net Galley and to Kensington for offering me a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

When I read the description of the novel I was interested in discovering a new Southern writer and seeing how Danny Johnson fitted in with a literary tradition filled with pathos and a heavy historical burden. Unfortunately, the news filled up with incidents of racial violence in the USA as I was reading it and it made the content of the book topical and urgent, even if the story goes back to the times of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

The story is told in the first person by Junebug, a young white boy that at the opening of the novel is only eight years old and has just lost his parents in a car accident (his father made moonshine liquor and they were driving with the car full of alcohol at the time of the incident). The boy goes to live at his grandparents’ tobacco farm and becomes friendly with twin African-American siblings, Fancy and Lightning. This is South Carolina and although the friendship flourishes whilst they are kids, it is clear that whites and African-Americans know their places and there might be heartache to come. From very early on fate seems to be against Junebug that after losing his parents, and in short succession loses his grandfather and later his grandmother, being left looking after the tobacco farm alone aged only fifteen. By that point Lightning has left seeking adventure, his relationship with Fancy has moved on and things get more and more complicated.

The novel deals with many of the typical themes to be expected from a Southern novel: race relations (and interracial relationships), the weight of family and small town morals, historical memory (there’s only a passing mention of the Civil War, but the Ku-Klux-Klan plays an important part in the plot and later we hear also about the Civil Rights Movement). The novel is also a coming of age story, as we follow the main characters from a very early age, and see them change, in body and character, and discover new urges and feelings as they grow. (A word of warning: there is some sexual content, although not the most explicit I’ve read or even close.) As they live in a farm, there is a fair amount of detail of traditional farming tasks, from growing up tobacco, to churning butter or killing a chicken or a pig, which I enjoyed and I didn’t find overly long or distracting from the main plot.

Junebug’s life is marked by violence, and it reflects the violence that is part of the history and the atmosphere of the land. He gets fixated on his dog’s death (his father shots the injured dog at the beginning of the story) and his fate, apart from losing loved ones, seems to put him on the way of circumstances that lead to his use of violence (but I don’t want to give too much of the story away). After a serious warning from the KKK, he ends up in Vietnam, as a way of finding refuge (for strange that it might seem) from his loneliness. There he discovers he has a natural talent as a sniper but finally things come to a head when he realises he’s not as hard and as strong as he had always thought and one can’t hide from the consequences of one’s own actions and violence forever.

I did enjoy the style of the novel, its many memorable lines, the many themes that give one pause (that also include PTSD after Junebug’s war experience, although possibly even before that) and the details of everyday life offered by the narration. I spent over half the novel trying to accurately place it in time (we are given clues, like the price of things and the fact that Junebug’s mother’s grandfather fought in the Civil War) but Junebug mentions it is 1963 quite late in the story (although admittedly it would have seemed irrelevant to a child in his position). His style of language changes suddenly when he gets to Vietnam, as once more he has to adapt to new extreme conditions, and he seems to get into the role of the marine easily and with gusto.

I found the plot and the experiences of the main characters interesting, although perhaps too much is fitted into a single book and it does not allow for a deep exploration of the many different strands. Junebug is not very articulate when it comes to his feelings, although some of his reflections can be quite sharp. He not only tries to hide his feelings from others but also from himself (it’s not easy to trust somebody when all your loved ones die and you wonder if there’ something wrong with you), and even an experienced therapist has difficulties getting to the root of things, but that fits in with his experiences and his personality. Junebug has flashes of insight, like when he wonders how Fancy must feel, knowing that she’s considered a second-hand citizen only because of the colour of her skin. He does not notice a big social difference between him and Fancy and her folks, but he is young, naïve, inexperienced, and it takes him a while to realise that due to the fact that he is white and has a farm he belongs in a completely different universe in the eyes of his neighbours and a big part of the society. Personally, I would have liked to follow Fancy’s story in more detail, but that is not the focus of the book. Thankfully, the ending is not typical, although it might leave some wondering (considering the character’s age one can’t help but wonder if that’s the end).

In summary, a well-written novel that fits in within the Southern writing tradition, although not ground-breaking. I’ll follow the author’s career with interest.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Last-Road-Home-Danny-Johnson-ebook/dp/B017G7HE44/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Road-Home-Danny-Johnson-ebook/dp/B017G7HE44/

Thanks to Net Galley, to the author and to Kensington for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and feel free to share, like, comment and CLICK! Oh, and if you’re near Manchester on the 13th, come and join us!

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