Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Microreview: Hillary Jordan’s ‘Mudbound’

Mudbound: Jordan, Hillary: 8601404815065: Books

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Think To Kill a Mockingbird, add a few more convincing African American voices, and a lot more mud. Spellbinding.



I wish I had time to write reviews of all the lovely books I’ve been managing to squeeze into my evenings at the moment (the stack next to my bed is slowly going from 3ft high to something under that), but I don’t. However, I still feel the itch to write. So, a quick window into my state of mind:

Wuthering Heights was fabulous, if horrendously confusing. I referred to the family tree in the front about 400 times. I should have stuck a post-it on that page so I could find it easier. Nobody smiles. Almost everyone dies. There’s nothing raunchy, only violence and terrible people with terrible motives making everyone else feel miserable and thus perpetuating the cycle of terribleness.

Frankenstein definitely felt like an early novel. Why say something in one page that you can say over several? Who says a paragraph can’t be three pages long? Do I have enough adjectives in this sentence? No, surely not! Add some more! More! MORE ADJECTIVES! And a monster who can quote Dante? Let’s not address that at all!

Hats off to Shelley, though. I mean no disrespect. She did something amazing in writing the first science fiction novel. Imagine a world without Star Wars.

Other than that, keywords of the month have been:


-entry restrictions



-travel ban




-work, work

Fingers crossed this post-Brexit Covid dystopia we’re living in doesn’t get in the way of starting my teaching course in Germany in September, but it may well. It. May. Well.

Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Elizabeth Chadwick’s ‘Templar Silks’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A punchy story of sin and redemption.

Templar Silks (William Marshal #6)

Elizabeth Chadwick is a prodigious historical fiction author. She has dozens of books to her name, yet this was the first one of her which I read. It definitely didn’t disappoint, and I would go back for more, but it’s nothing groundbreaking either. It’s a good story told well, and based on sound research. Chadwick hit her stride when it comes to novels possibly even decades ago, so I’m not surprised that the storyline and character arcs are tight if not a touch formulaic.

I’m not sure why I’d never read something by Chadwick before. Possibly it’s because my historical fiction consumption tends to focus on later centuries- Tudor, Victorian. I have nothing against the medieval age but it does tend to be told as epic stories of knights and damsels, which is sort of the case here, but Templar Silks is also not completely typical of the genre. I studied the medieval age a lot at university, so I guess moving on to devouring Tudor fiction has been my way of rebelling since graduation.

I bought the book online, so I first noticed the reviews on the cover when I was about to open it up and start reading. They were certainly disconcerting. I saw the Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail. I swallowed, my mouth went dry. Oh dear, I thought to myself, what kind of lens is this story going to be through? Then I read the blurb and realised it was about the Crusading era, and one knight’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. My hands were sweaty and my stomach twisted. I thought I knew why it had gotten such glowing reviews from such demagogic trash newspapers. Was this going to be another story of evil Saracens and turbaned foreigners with dark skin, glinting black eyes and scimitars razing villages of ‘innocent’ European settlers to the ground and eventually being cut down by the ‘worthy’ Crusader knights? Were beautiful blonde princesses going to be stolen away by the swarthy Moslems? Was it going to completely ignore the fact that people had been living in the Middle East for thousands of years before the Europeans rocked up and decided it was theirs?

Needless to say, I was rather anxious as I turned the first few pages. Fortunately, Chadwick does realise that it’s all much more nuanced than that. The book focuses much more on internal conflicts inside the court of Jerusalem, with different warring factions vying for supremacy in the face of a dying king. King Baldwin is slowly succumbing to leprosy in his early twenties. He is level-headed, wise and extremely intelligent, but he cannot help the fact that his body is failing and literally falling apart. The heir to the throne is six years old. Saladin, the bane of the crusader state, is lurking on the sidelines, really to take advantage of Jerusalem’s weakness. Guy de Lusignan, arsehole extraordinaire, is little six-year-old Baldwin’s stepfather and assumes he will be taking over the reins when King Baldwin dies. Leprosy Baldwin would do anything to stop that from happening. The Patriarch Heraclius is playing his own mysterious games, seemingly sitting on the fence and biding his time with his mistress, Paschia de Riveri. Most of the other princes and lords around Jerusalem would rather eat cold vomit than follow Guy de Lusignan. The city is on a knife-edge, it’s a tinder box waiting to explode.

And in walks William Marshal, whom history calls ‘the greatest knight’. His master, the Young King Henry, has died of dysentery, and William promises to take his cloak to Jerusalem and lay it on the altar at the Holy Sepulchre to make amends for their sins- the greatest of which was stealing from a Holy Shrine to the Virgin Mary to pay their mercenaries. Marshal arrives at court and has to play the game, which he accomplishes rather well until he falls into the arms of the mysterious Paschia…

I think Marshal’s character is written brilliantly. As ‘the greatest knight’, it would be extremely easy to make this character one-dimensional, to make him a bland, wholly morally good chivalric hero who saves the city- a Jon Snow-esque trope. However, Chadwick gives him depth and vibrancy. He sins, he makes mistakes, and he proves himself to be an astute political player as well as an outstanding warrior. Knights had to know how to do both – they had to manoeuvre for patronage and favours to survive. It was a delight to read in most places, and, despite it being around 500 pages long, I finished it in a few days. It’s a light read but still maintains beautiful description throughout. Chadwick is a great writer, but her prose is not as dense, complex or loaded as other writers such as Mantel. But that’s absolutely fine. Chadwick is great at world-building, giving us enough detail without the prose becoming bloated. Her development of the brotherhood between William and Ancel is one of the most touching aspects of the book.

So why four stars instead of five? I’m not sure. It was a great book. But it’s not Mantel. The baddies were obvious from the get-go. The affair was also obvious. Nothing came at me like a ton of bricks.

Book Reviews

Book Review: May Sinclair’s ‘The Tree of Heaven’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A testament to its era, Sinclair’s 1917 modernist classic has recently been re-printed by the British Library.

The Tree of Heaven by M. Sinclair | Waterstones

I can understand why Sinclair has been called ‘the readable modernist’. Think Victoria Woolf but instead of taking three pages to describe one action, Sinclair only takes one. I appreciate Woolf for what she did for literature and women in general, but I can’t read Woolf. I can read Sinclair though.

I bought this book for its references to the Women’s Suffrage Movement, but it was also so much more than that. Since it was first published in 1917, it’s not surprising that all roads lead to war. The Suffrage Movement is one of the threads in the book, as represented through Dorothea Harrison, but it’s by no means the main thread. Sinclair also presents a fairly nuanced attitude towards the militant suffrage societies which is by no means entirely positive. She could definitely be classified as an early feminist, and was part of a writer’s suffrage society herself, but she did not condone either the violent actions taken in for the Cause or the fanatical and autocratic leadership of the Pankhursts, fictionalised in this novel as the Blathwaites.

Dorothy spends a spell in Holloway Prison, and the experience is an almost divine epiphany for her, but she also refuses to become a member of the fictionalised WSPU because it would mean giving up her individuality and having to obey the leadership. Dorothy secretly disapproves of the devout attitudes of the society’s more fanatical members, and this eventually drives a wedge between her and her best friend Rosalind. I wasn’t expecting to have my own opinions reflected so accurately in this novel. I really appreciate the militant suffragettes of the WSPU for the attention they brought to the great Cause, but the more you read about Christabel and Emmeline, the less you like them. Especially Christabel. This is why she hardly features at all in my novel, and why I’m bringing in other characters with a less fanatical attitude than Kitty Marion, to show the range of feeling and belief within the suffrage movement itself.

The book is a modernist family drama at heart. It follows one upper-middle class family, the Harrisons, over several decades. In true modernist style, it focuses intently on each character’s inner life and motivations, which is why it sometimes takes several pages to describe what must only be a few seconds of action or dialogue. It also skips and flows fluidly between narrative points of view, which is no longer en vogue in fiction. The majority of fiction these days is either written in close third or in anthology style, from the POVs of several characters but confined to individual and distinct chapters. But I actually like fluid POV in the modernist style. However, when I tried to have fluid, shifting POVs in my novel-in-progress, it was absolutely workshopped to shreds by my coursemates. So I scrapped that and I’m now writing Rebellion in close third, purely from Kitty Marion’s POV.

I loved the psychological insights Sinclair gives us into her host of characters, each searching for fulfilment within the strict confines of Victorian and Edwardian society. Frances appears the model wife and mother, but you still get a sense that she is aware of her own wasted intelligence. The children all break with tradition in their own ways. Dorothy, the only girl, does not marry because she would have to give up her identity and individual beliefs. Her would-be fiancee doesn’t believe in the Suffrage Cause, and shows himself to be a narcissist when he assumes that Dorothy’s interest in Suffrage is a ruse to rile him.

Michael becomes a poet and doesn’t marry either, despite his father’s attempts to bring him into the family wood-importing business. Nicky marries too young. He marries a fickle artist who is pregnant with another man’s child. The child dies soon after birth and Nicky manages to get a divorce from Desmond, but it is still a blot on the family name. Obviously, not as much of a blot for Nicky as it is for Desmond, because ‘reasons’ (sexism).

I’m giving this book four stars because I started to switch off towards the end. Too much is explained via letters from the Front during the First World War, and as someone who is only interested in social and political history, military history sends me to sleep. And due to its lack of extreme and competing ideologies, the First World War is much less interesting to me than the Second. WWI was a tragedy for everyone involved, and nobody was really to blame. Millions died in the grinding methods of attrition in the first war of mechanised slaughter. However, I picked this book up for Suffrage and ended up skipping the last twenty pages.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Christy Lefteri’s The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A careful, considered, tragic page-turner which captures the refugee crisis by going beyond the headlines.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo: The must-read million copy bestseller: Lefteri, Christy: 9781785768927: Books

In 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron once referred to a ‘swarm’ of migrants in Calais, desperate to cross the channel by any means necessary. This caused a media shit-storm in the UK for its dehumanising of desperate human beings. I wonder if this had any impact on Lefteri’s decision to make bees one of the main threads of this beautiful book. An ironic nod, maybe?

My possibly completely wide-of-the-mark musings aside, I would recommend anyone reading this book. Absolutely anyone. It’s not perfect, which is why it doesn’t get five stars from me, but it goes a long way towards crafting a nuanced and human story out of something which we mainly only recognise from news clips beamed into our comfortable, centrally-heated homes with hot running water and no immediate threat of a shell coming through the roof. Lefteri may not be Syrian or Afghan herself, but she has had experience in working with refugees in Greece, and acknowledges the influence that listening to their stories has had on her crafting of this novel.

This novel was necessary. It’s so easy to feel detached from human suffering, to see refugees as ‘other’, to feel fear, to see them as a threat to ‘Western’ culture (whatever that is). When it’s reduced to soundbites and sovereignty, numbers and political wrangling over how many to let in, how much to give them, how much of a ‘danger’ they are to the fabric of society, it’s much more comfortable to think of refugees as some kind of amorphous, threatening mass pushing at the edges of good ole’ Blighty.

But these are people. People who have suffered enough for ten lifetimes. People who have seen their children die in front of them, their homes destroyed, their livelihoods ruined. People who have fled West hoping to build a better life for themselves and to protect the people they love most, in the hope of living in peace. Do you think that anyone would risk crossing from Turkey to Lesbos in an overloaded dinghy across the open ocean with no lifejackets if this were not life or death?

And let’s leave off the ‘economic migrants’ theory, said with a sneer over a pint of John Smith’s. Anyone who moves to another country is an economic migrant. Nobody willingly moves country without thinking they might be better off over there, they might be happier or have a higher standard of living or better quality of life. Why does it only become a negative when the person moving (or fleeing) their country is not white or Christian? Oh yeah, I think we all know why.

Anyway, this was a necessary book. I wish all those who see refugees as a vague, dark threat to Britishness would read this book. I wish they would try to make that mental leap of understanding. The protagonists of this novel, Nuri and Afra, are deep and nuanced. They have hidden strengths and surprising weaknesses. They love each other but their love is imperfect. After months and months of hardship, they have reached England and are in temporary accommodation, a B&B on the coast. They are stuck in limbo, anxiously waiting for their application for asylum to be approved. Both are indelibly scarred from their experience of the war in Syria.

This book is beautifully written, but almost too simple in places. It was a page-turner. I read it in under three days. It didn’t make me cry, although almost everyone I know who has read it had cried whilst reading it. The last book or film I cried at was Marley and Me. Animals dying still hits me ten times harder than humans.

Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Rebecca Stott’s ‘Ghostwalk’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A creepy, lyrical slow-burner that blends several genres: historical fiction and supernatural thriller.

Ghostwalk: Stott, Rebecca: 9780753823576: Books


A woman, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found dead by her son Cameron Brown. She’s floating face-down in the river next to her Cambridge home, The Studio, clutching a glass prism. It’s ruled an accident, but the truth is far more complicated than it first appears.

Lydia Brooke, an author, is Elizabeth’s friend and Cameron Brown’s ex-lover. Cameron hires her to finish Elizabeth’s manuscript on Newton’s alchemical research. Lydia moves into The Studio and things start to get decidedly creepy once she starts poking around in the history of Isaac Newton’s obsessions.

There’s also a parallel storyline. A radical animal rights organisation (NABED) is busy threatening both Cameron and Lydia by association. Cameron is a neuroscientist whose laboratory regularly test on animals. Lydia and Cameron have been involved in an on/off adulterous relationship for years. Dead animals start turning up, and workers at the laboratory are attacked.


Stott’s writing is beautiful. This is a brilliantly researched book with more layers than a matriushka doll. The book contains several extracts from Elizabeth’s manuscript, and I certainly found the exploration of Isaac Newton’s true-to-life involvement with alchemy fascinating.

The supernatural side of the book was extremely well-written. I love horror, I love creepy, so books with supernatural elements really appeal to me. Lydia begins to feel uncomfortable living in Elizabeth’s home, and the light start to play tricks on her. Manuscript sections start to appear and disappear. A dead can turns up on the doorstep.

The thriller side of the book is compelling, until the last few chapters. This is not a new book, it was released in 2007, and you can definitely feel the influence of Dan Brown’s the Da Vinci code. It contains historical mysteries and secrets, with clever people investigating them. It contains shadowy organisations with ulterior motives. Some of the main characters turn out to be the exact opposite of what they seem. Some doors are slammed in their face, other doors open. Despite the controversy, I absolutely loved reading the Da Vinci code, so this connection really didn’t bother me.

Stott’s writing is also very cerebral and philosophical in places. She goes to great lengths to paint a picture with words, and draws on a huge variety of sources and influences. There are references to a vast array of historical figures and authors, and Brooke and Brown’s snappy conversations are extremely interesting if you’re a nerd like me.


The plot twist was very predictable and also a bit too much of a stretch for me. I won’t ruin it for you, but it did ruin the last few chapters or so. Once I knew the twist, I didn’t really want to read past it, because the book already felt finished.

Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Ljuba Arnautović’s “Junischnee” (June Snow)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A charming and somewhat saddening family history which promised more than it gave.

Junischnee: Roman by Ljuba Arnautovic

Arnautovic tells the story of her own family in this brand new ‘novel’, a documentary tale which details a war-scattered family spread across several countries, from Vienna to Kursk and Moscow to Manchester.


Ljuba’s father, Viktor/Karli (he has an Austrian and, later, a Russian name), is transported to Moscow along with his brother as a child. Why? Their parents are socialist revolutionaries, supporters of the ‘Red Vienna’, a failed socialist project for the city which ended in a short yet bloody civil war in the 1930s. In 1934, Karli and Slavko are sent to Russia to grow up under the Bolshevist state. At first, things are great. They live amongst fellow socialists and other Austrian children in a state-of-the-art children’s home and remain shielded from the worst of the Great Purges.

But the peace doesn’t last. After the invasion of Russia by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941, the children’s home is disbanded and the children are treated with immediate suspicion. They are German-speaking. Hitler has broken the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. They could be moles or spies for the enemy. They could be sabotaging the Soviet regime from within. Karli is separated from his brother, and, after fleeing from several horrific ‘vocational schools’, he is sentenced to ten years in a Siberian gulag. Karli survives, but he will never see his brother again. He eventually returns to Kursk and marries a woman he met in the gulag called Nina. They have two daughters together, one of whom is Ljuba Arnautovic.

Karli/Viktor eventually manages to get back in touch with his mother after twenty years. She lives in Vienna. After years of wrangling with Russian and Austrian bureaucracy, Karli and his family eventually get the necessary documentation to move to Vienna in the 1950s, just as the Cold War is hotting up. Karli loves his new/old life in Vienna, and finds it easy to re-learn his German, but Nina feels trapped and isolated. Eva, Karli’s mother, is less than understanding, despite them all having to live under one roof. Unsurprisingly the marriage breaks down.

Karli turns out to be the villain of the story, as he has an affair (he will go on to marry three more times), yet somehow manages to win sole custody of their children. But he has no intention of being a single dad, and parcels them off intermittently to children’s homes when his current wife or put-upon mother is unable to care for them. Nina is now homeless in Vienna after being pushed out of the family home following their divorce, and has no choice but to become a quasi-housekeeper-cum-domestic slave to a local violent, illiterate Ukranian widower. My heart bled for Nina for the entire second half of the book.


The story is told in short chapters (yay) with impressive flashes of quiet lyricism. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Arnautovic’s prose. The story itself is one I have never heard of- I had no idea there was a civil war in Vienna in the 1930s, and I had no idea that there were so many young Austrian children sent to Russia to escape rising fascism in Germany.

Then there’s the maternal side of the story: Anastasia, Nina’s mother and Ljuba’s maternal grandmother, is a very interesting character indeed. In fact, I would have very much liked to hear more of her and less of Karli. She’s the first-born daughter of a first-born daughter’s daughter, and is the local wise woman. The people of her neighbourhood in the southern outskirts of Kursk think she is blessed with the second sight, and simultaneously revere and fear her. Towards the end, I was fed up with Karli’s selfish exploits and really wanted to hear more about Ljuba’s maternal line. This would definitely have improved the book.


I had a few problems with this book, and really couldn’t understand why it got such glowing reviews (4.4 stars on Amazon).

Firstly, the term ‘novel’ is misleading. It should be called ‘a family biography’ or something along those lines. I was expecting a historical novel and didn’t get one in the slightest. It’s not very literary, as dialogue is sparse and Ljuba’s storytelling is rather swallowed up by the documentary material included in this short volume. There are a lot of translated official documents included in italics, which are written in an incredibly bureaucratic German I found difficult to digest. There are interviews included, which I really feel that Arnautovic could have turned into convincing dialogue surrounded by prose. I felt this book could have been longer, as there was so much to tell. I also really felt that Arnautovic could definitely have been more imaginative and creative in filling in the gaps between the evidence. It could have been a well-researched historical novel, but it felt like a fragmentary anthology of documentary evidence.

I also had a problem with the sheer volume of letters included in the book. We hear from Karli, but replies from Eva, Nina or Erika (his second wife) aren’t included. Maybe they had been lost, but we’re only getting half of the story regardless. This made it frustrating for me, as the long-suffering women in his life became silent. Also, Karli is fairly uneducated and clearly not a born letter-writer. His writing was awkward and incredibly cringey in places. Arnautovic could have put these letters to good use, but they don’t quite work in their raw form.

Book Reviews Historical Fiction

Book Review: Rebecca Stott’s ‘The Coral Thief’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rebecca is my tutor for the historical fiction module, so I’m glad I can be largely positive about this.

The Coral Thief: Stott, Rebecca: 9780753827109: Books

I got this book months ago but I’ve finally just had the chance to read something purely for pleasure: that means in English, a novel, and nothing to do with my modules. Who knew that studying literature and translation would mean that I barely get the chance to read for myself? Oh yeah, I did know that.


Daniel Connor is an anatomy and medicine student at Edinburgh University. He is sent by his tutor to post-revolutionary France, where Napoleon has fallen and the King has been returned to the throne. He starts a job under Professor Cuvier at the world-famous Jardin des Plantes, categorising species.

Upon arriving on the mail coach, Daniel realises the beautiful woman he met the night before has stolen his corals, manuscript and bones which were the references and gifts needed to start his job at the Jardin. He drifts around Paris with his newfound Scottish friend and fellow student Fin, unable to start work, and a bit lost.

But the mysterious woman hasn’t disappeared completely. This becomes a thriller as well as a historical novel, with spies, jewel heists and rings of thieves in hiding.


Time and place were beautifully executed. early 19th-century Paris felt alive in my mind. I really enjoyed the first part of the book – the month in which Daniel gets drunk and behaves like most other twenty-year-old students in Paris with nothing much to do. Absinthe, gambling, phantasmagoria. Stott did such a good job of setting it’s making me want to go back and edit my own fiction, which is how it should be.

It’s an incredibly interesting point in time to set a novel. Twenty years after the Revolution, just after Napoleon has been defeated after escaping from prison once more. Napoleon is on his way to the tiny rock which will be his ‘prison’ (a rather beautiful tropical island prison) for the rest of his life: Saint Helena. The ethos of the Revolution is crumbling all around them. No more liberté, egalité, fraternité, but no more Terror either. The lions are being pulled from the top of the Arc de Triomphe and given back to Rome. Everywhere, the European powers are descending on Paris and taking back what had been stolen from them: including the beautiful collection of fossils, corals and bones at the Jardin des Plantes.

Time was evoked beautifully, naturally and not too often. Paris- a seething metropolis where nobody is as they seems – seemed almost a third main character in the novel.


So why four starts instead of five? The plot felt a little weak at times. Case in point: the climax of the novel, a great jewel heist. The characters repeat time and time again how impossible it is to break into the Jardin’s Museum, how well-locked, how well-protected everything is. I was curious how they were going to figure out a way in. And in the end, I never found out. The other characters just kind of abseil from somewhere in the roof just like any first, tacky mental image you get when I say the words ‘Jewel Heist’. We also never really found out how Lucienne, the mysterious woman, manages to fake her own death to get away from Paris.

Jagot, the Parisian police-chief-cum-spymaster, really wants the diamond. This felt kind of cheap for a baddie, I thought there would be some deeper motivations at play than just wanting a diamond. Blackmail, extortion? Deep-seated lusts? No, dude wants to get rich. Also, he lets Daniel and Lucienne run around the city for months, although Lucienne is supposedly in hiding. Hmmm.

And now we come to character. Daniel doesn’t warrant being the ‘I’-narrator. He’s passive, dull, and I honestly couldn’t give you many adjectives to describe his character after a whole book. Which is a bit sad, because ‘I’-narrators give you the most insight into their personality. Naive? Biddable? Maybe these two. At times, he’s infuriatingly passive, and for someone who apparently adores botany and biology, he forgets about it all pretty quick. His mental monologues on corals, fossils and bones in the first half of the book don’t fit with his treatment of his job in the second half of the book- as just going through the motions until he can swan around Paris with his older girlfriend and drink absinthe after dark.

Whereas Daniel is flat and underdeveloped, Lucienne seems to have more character facets than seems plausible. She is a fallen aristocrat during the Revolution, whose life was saved in prison because another woman stepped up and was executed in her name (why? No idea). She dresses as a man half of the time, she is a thief, a coral enthusiast, a philosopher. Nobody seems to care that she is a woman alone, with no husband, no real home, no honest income. It felt too modern. Nobody struggles with that. She didn’t seem to have struggled being a fallen aristocratic female cross-dresser who began a sparkling career in thievery.

Book Reviews poetry

Book Review: John Burnside’s ‘Black Cat Bone’

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I didn’t think I liked poetry, but I was wrong.

Black Cat Bone: Burnside, John: 9780224093859: Books

If you’d have asked me one year ago whether I would like to sit down an read a single poem, let alone an entire poetry collection in one sitting, I would have laughed in your face. I’ve always loved novels, and the odd non-fiction history book, but I’d never read poems. Not for pleasure. Granted, this was under seventy pages so I tackled it in less than an hour, but I’ve gone from actively avoiding poetry to actively reading it and writing my own in the space of eight months. Reading Black Cat Bone proved to myself how far I’ve come, and what I can get from poetry. I always thought that poetry was something people never really read, but too many people wrote themselves, even if they profess to be a literature fan. But I’m already thinking about which collection to buy next.

Burnside’s poems don’t rhyme, and they don’t often follow a particular metre, but they don’t have to. There were a few moments when I felt the rhythm was stilted or too erratic and I would rather he had cut down some lines than leaving me breathless, but I enjoyed every poem all the same. Burnside’s poetry possesses a rare lyricism, smattered with neologisms, which somehow never comes off as too conceited. He certainly isn’t afraid of using odd images, words or collocations. He often draws vocabulary from other languages – Dutch, German, Latin and ones I don’t recognise. As a linguist, this opened up some tantalising possibilities for me.

I love how Burnside documents his sources here. He’s open about the inspiration for his poems, often putting a quote or a bible reference at the top of each. He uses words from the quotes and weaves them into his own writing. He doesn’t pretend to be an ‘original’ author, struck by pure, divine inspiration. No writing is original anyway. We should all be more open about our sources, about where our inspiration comes from. Most of this happens subconsciously, but if we actively think about them, we can draw them out and give other writers the credit they deserve- at the same time as giving our writing a greater depth through acknowledging that we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. As Rob Pope once wrote, the view of the artist which has solidified over the last few centuries – one of the single poet slaving away in beautiful or despairing isolation – is completely outdated, and reflects Romantic notions of art rather than the actual process of making it.

Making art is never truly an original process. No poem, painting or prose is created in a vacuum. A highly intelligent person kept in isolation from childhood would never write a poem any kind of form we recognise, nor any prose either. Why do we persist in the belief that the ‘best’ art is original? A case in point: in a recent historical fiction workshop I was in, where it was my turn for my prose to be critiqued, I was warned several times about basing my fiction on a Suffragette’s autobiography. Apparently, I risked ‘plagiarism’, it would make my writing too ‘derivative’. Nobody asked me how I’d used it, that sometimes I blew up a single sentence into an entire chapter. And why should I refrain from using snippets of their language, of working in unusual words which Kitty herself wrote down almost a hundred years ago? Why shouldn’t I breathe life back into her story? But this time, in close third, with description, action and pace?

I wondered what their sources were. I wondered what made their writing less ‘derivative’ than mine. As Rosemarie Waldrop wrote: “The blank page is never blank. No text has one single author.”

There was a cognitive dissonance between their critique of my work as ‘derivative’ and a lack of recognition of their own sources, despite being historical fiction writers (with arguably the heaviest weight of research of any creative writer). Writing is determined by constraints at every turn. We write in pre-determined forms: journalistic, free verse, sonnet, haiku, historical fiction, thriller, close-third, prose poem etc. etc.

As long as we acknowledge our sources, no source should be off-limits to the writer. Nobody owns words. I appreciate Burnside for acknowledging his own sources. As a high-profile poet, he has a platform.

Book Reviews

Book Review: Elina Hirvonen’s ‘When I Forgot’

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

This book explores the lingering legacy of childhood trauma with sensitivity and flair.

When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen

Translated from the Finnish by Douglas Robinson. The book includes a short bio of the translator on the inside cover, which is directly under the author’s bio and is even a few words longer! I am so happy. Well done Portobello books for recognising the translator.

What is it about Nordic literature that is so beautiful and haunting? Careful, considered, and insightful, this book is for everyone who finds it impossible to escape the ghosts of their past.


Anna, the I-narrator, is a semi-functioning adult. She works as a freelance journalist in Helsinki. Her boyfriend, Ian, was once her lecturer in English literature at university (read into that what you will). Anna and Ian both adore Virginia Woolf, and there is a certain stamp of her psychological analysis on the author’s style.

Anna and Ian are both plagued by childhood trauma. Anna’s abusive father is a Lutheran priest, and Ian’s deceased father was a Vietnam veteran who suffered from PTSD after the war. Both of their mothers were loving but ineffectual, and failed to save or shield them from the trauma and abuse they experienced. Anna’s brother Joona is mentally ill and has been institutionalised for most his adult life. His breakdowns were most probably a direct result of his father’s physical abuse. Anna has spent most of her life trying to keep the fractured pieces of her family together, being the ‘normal’ one. The novel is a nod to Proust’s Rememberance of Things Past, where the premise is essentially the author eating a madeleine and being confronted with a wave of childhood memories. Anna sits in a cafe procrastinating visiting her brother in intensive care after another suicide attempt. She orders a mocha square and it goes from there.


The story is told in short, fractured chapters which skip and jump between then and now, between Ian and Anna’s childhoods, the fictive present and the in-between, the awkward coming-of-age years. Some readers may find this annoying, but I don’t. I have the attention span of a squirrel, and long chapters tend to send me to sleep. I like the page-turning feeling of achievement and multiple opportunities for pee and coffee breaks. I don’t mind a fractured narrative. I like putting the pieces of the puzzle together like a shattered mirror.

This book is mostly cold and sad, haunting and melancholy, like a Finnish winter. Don’t read it if you want to have some pep in your step for the rest of the day. It’s short, at just 180 pages and fairly spaced-out font, so most readers will be able to finish it in a couple of days. I like sad books. They make me feel more human. Having said that, there’s no absolutely devastating sections designed to manipulate your emotions. This book is highly relatable for anyone who has suffered/is suffering from mental illness. Most people have some kind of trauma they usually keep in a locked drawer, and this novel may be cathartic if not triggering.

I have the sneaking suspicion that some of it must be at least semi-autobiographical. Hirvonen is extremely good at getting behind the facade, the veneer we construct day to day. Nobody wants to walk around telling everyone we meet that no, we are not okay. People don’t want to hear your struggle. There’s a pressure to act normal, and shame if we don’t. Most of my anxiety has consistently come from the fear that people will look at me and know my ‘failing’, that I’m not like them. That I had two hours sleep last night, that my palms are sweaty and my heart erratic. That my jaw is clenched and I feel sick with nerves. Everyone expects us to go through the motions of a normal life regardless. Anna struggles, but only Ian knows.


This book is not new, it was first released in Finnish in 2005. Anything written 2002-2010 was steeped in a pervasive post 9/11 existential angst that is simply no longer relevant. I felt Ian’s agonising over the US’s response to 9/11 (Ian is from New York) didn’t ring true and detracted from his personal story. It felt at parts like Hirvonen was shoe-horning politics into the character’s inner lives to keep up with the Zeitgeist. That is all.