At Last A (Big) Pilgrimage

It’s been a while………

I’m starting to really enjoy avocado by the way. We were having our first meal out since, well, since who knows when (Feb 2020?) and I elected to have a dish where avocado is listed as an ingredient.

The world might have paused on its axis during the last eighteen months, but my palette has become bang up to date, those recipes in the Saturday Guardian are looking almost accessible!

Why were we eating out? The same reason we were having our first night away from home in eighteen months too – we had gone to run an event. The Big Pilgrimage Marathon, the first appearance on the running calendar of this quirky looking offering from Big Feat Events.

I wore a shirt too. With buttons and everything. We felt so grown up as we ordered our chicken and avocado.

Contemplating avocado

Our Premier Inn sat on an identikit retail and industry park which could have been in any number of towns around the UK. Bloomin’ convenient though – as well as our meal next door in The Beefeater, we visited Decathlon and the MASSIVE Tesco without needing to use the car.. We’re from sleepy Devon see, “ooo shiny things” our gaping, gawping mouths dribbled as we hunted for a pint of milk in a supermarket the size of Paignton.

For our first ‘away’ fixture for 18 months we had been tempted by the promise of historic trails, epic skylines, farmland, beaches and boardwalks, not to mention, woods, forests, an abbey, several churches and a cheeky boat ride. Yes, The Big Pilgrimage sounded right up our street. 

The route follows the first 27/28 ish miles of a recently discovered Pilgrim Trail called The Old Way. Our section started at the site from The Pilgrim Fathers left our shores on The Mayflower (in Southampton) and finished at Fort Nelson, home of The Nelson Monument and The Royal Armouries Museum. Which was handily only ten minutes from the aforementioned Premier Inn. Which was where we were to leave our car. It’s almost as if they’ve planned this stuff.

Nothing wrong with the Premier Inn, but we didn’t have the best night’s sleep…… 

one of us is VERY organised…… (it’s not me)

“WE’VE OVERSLEPT!….. Oh no, it’s 11.30pm”

“THERE’S SOMEBODY IN THE ROOM! WHAT ROOM? WHERE AM I? WE’VE OVERSLEPT…….”

That sort of thing. All feckin’ night.

It was quite a relief when the 4.15 alarm went off.

That’s early! I hear you exclaim. Well, yes it is, but the rather snazzy, leather interiored National Express coach charged with delivering us to Southampton was leaving at 6.15am. And we wanted time for showers, coffee and Weetabix complete with lukewarm milk. 

We gathered our kit. A VERY straight forward process for Nicky as she meticulously laid it out the previous night….. I think I ‘put’ mine out and so, as usual, I left the kit gods to decide whether I had everything I needed. 

En route to the start

As the coach pulled away from Fort Nelson (nr Portsmouth) in the gloomy half light, we hadn’t yet appreciated the panoramic view from here. After finishing some hours later in the sunshine, we were astonished by the vistas on offer. The very bright and cheery Big Feat crew member had ticked our name off the coach list and counted us all aboard. The welcoming and friendly driver hadn’t quite grasped the brief as he asked “What time is your return journey?”. “We’re running back.” His face seemed to ask “Why?”

Visit The Isle Of Wight Festival” screamed the huge posters as we pulled in near the Red Funnel ferry terminal. In the spirit of Rob Deering’s Running Tracks (see my review here), this immediately evoked memories of visiting the festival in 2006. What a weekend – The Prodigy, Foo Fighters, The Kooks, Primal Scream, Lou Read, Maximo Park…..

Registration was a jolly and good humoured affair at the water’s edge. We collected our race numbers complete with our first sticker of the day. Yes, we collected stickers which we then attached to our race numbers. What a great and individual touch – a volunteer in Pilgrim hat, naturally, handed us a bespoke sticker at seven of the notable points along the route. Nice.

The race briefing delivered to the 70 or so marathon runners captured the mood perfectly. Nothing to fear. Keep the water on your right. Look after each other. Don’t fret the ferry crossing………

And we were off, a watery sun soon dispensing with the slightly autumnal chill. 

3 miles of Southampton’s waterside suburbs gave way to greenery at Westwood as we started on the trails proper. Not before we had crossed the impressive bridge over the River Itchen and received a sticker from a young Pilgrim dressed head to toe in Southampton FC gear (getting ready to host Manchester United later in the day I believe). 

From there we tackled all sorts of shore line – paths, shingle beaches, compacted mud – and weaved in and out of the industry and piers lining Southampton Water. Before long (7 ½ ish miles) we had reached the beautiful village of Hamble and its much anticipated ferry ride. Three of the Hamble Pink Ferries were shuttling runners over the short crossing and we waited a couple of minutes before enjoying our mini cruise. 

Nicky and I are quite used to trail events having quirky sections and approximate distances and so, as advised in the race briefing, we didn’t fret about the boat ride. A couple of runners were in a quandary about whether to pause their running watches. We just enjoyed the ride and were soon having to propel ourselves using our feet again as we disembarked. 

The Warsash Nature Reserve on the shoreline came next, lush and green and picturesque and still very, very flat! Through miles 9 to 12 we were still following the shore as it again became quite industrial. Nicky and I are used to running relentlessly up-and-down trails at home and the lack of elevation seemed to be tiring our legs in different ways.

As we approached the halfway point the course turned and headed inland. With the beautiful marshes of Titchfield Haven to our right, the runners in the 14 (ish) mile half marathon race were crossing their finishing line as we passed. Always looking to raise a smile, I drew on my footballing glory years and shaped to swerve left into the finishing funnel before side stepping and running straight past – this raised a smile or too and we exchanged some laughs with a couple of spectators enjoying the chilled out atmosphere in the sunshine. We then headed off through the beautiful village of Titchfield itself.

Titchfield Abbey is really quite spectacular and worth the very brief detour to enjoy in its full glory. The trails from this point on were glorious, old railway lines, farmland and woods. At some point during all of this I managed to take a tumble. “No lazy steps” is one of my trail running mantras – a few years ago I did go through a phase of hurling myself to the floor at random times. 

Anyway, on some particularly firm and even ground, I caught my feet in a trailing bramble and down I went.

“Are you ok?”

“Yes”

“Are you sure?”

“Can we talk about something else!”

“Have you hurt your pride……..?”

That might have been as we went through Wickham (around mile 21) now I think about it!

Then The Meon Valley Trail which was busy ish with families enjoying the gorgeous and accessible countryside. This was followed by The Forest Of Bere which preceded the two longest climbs of the day as we began to sense the finish line within our grasp. From mile 23, still in the forest, we had caught a few fellow runners and felt we were really in our stride. Running well and taking walk breaks for difficult terrain or to eat and drink, combined with being in the company of my partner in adventure, my beautiful and inspiring soul mate Nicky, the miles and time simply slid by.

This really is our happy place – running together on the trails, either talking dribble, solving our quandaries from ‘real’ life, or just enjoying each others company in silence as we let the peace of the surroundings seep into us. Before we knew it we were at the ‘200m to go’ sign. A lovely short downhill section on the grass and we held each others hand aloft to celebrate another challenge completed. Of Nicky’s 38 marathons and my 45, 27 have been completed side by side. It is the best feeling.

This route is a belter. The work that has happened, in advance and on the day, in creating it, marking it and marshalling it shines through. The finished product is superb, take a bow Big Feat Events.

Oooo look, a video too:

Running Tracks by Rob Deering

Some books speak to me, speak of truth. Some have me nodding along with a wry smile, like I’ve been found out. Some books find the words which have previously failed me, expressing how I feel. Some have me laughing out loud when an ironic, or comedic moment lurches from the page. Some have me needing to take a quiet moment.

This.

This book does all of that.

So. Why should YOU read this book? Read on and you will discover……

Firstly, you don’t need to be a fan of running and/or passionate about music to enjoy Running Tracks?

Not as much as you’d think. 

The years since Rob Deering discovered running are richly documented here, along with the soundtrack to those years. So, if you had absolutely zero interest in either running or music, it could potentially pass you by. But, I promise you it won’t.

Running Tracks is about so much more than that. 

Break time in the van is reading time for me.

This book is about how we progress in life, about what makes us, what develops within us. Rob Deering has music in his blood – as a musician and as a listener. Running appeared later in his life. But it has become just as much a part of his DNA. The book goes far deeper than merely chronicling that progression. The author beautifully shows us how a new hobby or passion gets moulded into our soul, our personality, our very way of life, whilst still maintaining the truth of our self. It’s a neat, clever and humbly delivered trick which worked to get me thinking about how I personally have evolved into the person I am now.

Rob Deering is a comedian, musician, director, radio host, podcaster, and now author. He is also a runner. Through his running, and the platform of his other work, he is a prolific fundraiser for Parkinson’s UK, a cause which isn’t just close to his heart, it is in his heart.

Rob Deering’s first book and he’s immediately wearing out the black marker pens!

He delivers his debut foray into the publishing world with a refreshing and poised pen. Using the parallel of music and running to coincide with moments of his life, he has given us a unique take on ‘memoir’.  

From his personally curated, but randomly delivered playlist, there’s a tune for 26 (point two, naturally) of these occasions and each paints a vivid picture of an unforgettable moment in time for Rob. 

The book feels rich and warm. His passion for the combination of music and running radiates from every page. There is nothing dictatorial about the musical choices, the author doesn’t impose his listening preferences upon us, he simply says why each piece of music so perfectly fitted each moment of the run in question, and how that reflects equally perfectly on a point in his life.

The details he adds about the structure of each tune only serves to immerse us deeper into why a rhythm, bass line, chord structure or sample hit the spot for him.

Running Tracks paints great pictures of the author’s favourite running locations.

Similarly with running, Deering has a refreshing honesty to his writing – I have no doubt that even non-runners will have no trouble relating to him. He employs an accessible style of narration and there is no attempt to mystify the act of running. The author, like most of us, has learned as he has progressed, often (again like most of us) by getting things wrong! This journey plays out through the book – putting routes together, pacing himself, finding the types of runs which bring him the most pleasure – his writing celebrates all of this and shows how available exercise can be. 

Why did I enjoy this book so much?

Running Tracks feels personal to me in many ways. Not least because (full disclosure), my name features in the back of the book alongside the many hundreds of others who supported the book at its inception. 

With fellow comedian, author and runner Paul Tonkinson, recording an episode of Running Commentary.

My to-be-read pile was always likely to feature a book about running and music. This is especially the case when it is written by half of the duo behind my favourite podcast (Running Commentary, alongside Paul Tonkinson). The fact that it is a fine work of writing is icing on the cake.

Music and running feature so heavily in my own life and even though we might often be on quite different pages in our choices of runs or tunes, it is most definitely the same love. We both put on a pair of trainers and get out of the door, and we’re always glad that we did.

Rob Deering loves the big (and not so big) city marathons, the book visits London and both New and old York, whilst I’m more likely to be found at a low key event in a field somewhere. Also, some of the random and inconsistent distances of my events might play with his head, the crowds of runners and spectators at his favourites would play with mine. BUT, it is still the same love.

And here’s the biggie, I simply don’t like running with headphones. Rob Deering feels that so much of the running experience ties into the playlist accompanying him. It is STILL the same love, we all find our rhythm when we set out on our running journeys and how we access that rhythm is a personal thing. 

All of which still doesn’t mean that music doesn’t feature in, nor evoke memories of, my own running. I admit to being slightly jealous as my running and music associations will never have the immediacy of Deering’s, but it is still, I reckon, the same love.

Take chapter 20 where he talks about the incredible band, Rush. I won’t spoil any of his stories by expanding on where and how Rush’s The Camera Eye sound-tracked a run for Rob (go and buy the book and find out!). BUT I can tell you that every time I hear Rush it transports me back to Toronto Beaches Jazz Festival Half Marathon on a trip as a guest of their long time producer, Terry Brown. A story for another day……

There are many other moments and references in this fabulous tome which speak directly to me, but the book is Rob Deering’s story to tell, not mine. I simply whole heartily recommend that you grab yourself a copy and find out for your selves. 

My copy is already well thumbed!

As a work of standalone creative non fiction, Running Tracks is a joy to me. It is a refreshing departure from those generic and formulaic memoirs of the famous. I was thrilled to read a book full of tricks and surprises which deals emotions in spades. I rolled easily from chapter to chapter, eager to peer through another window into the author’s world.

You know what, go and buy it, find out for yourself!

Links:

robdeering.com

Rob Deering’s Running Tracks Radio Hour

Running Commentary

Twitter

Parkinsons UK

THE WOMEN’S PRIZE FOR FICTION

My beautiful wife Nicky is always surprising me with new challenges. Let’s learn to swim – and then tackle a 2.5 challenge across Weymouth Bay. We run marathons – let’s try and run 100. Let’s cycle the length of France (she’s already a Lands End to John O’Groats veteran) So it’s hardly surprising that these challenges have now extended to books!

Let’s read the shortlist for the Women’s Prize and pick our own winners.

And so a cardboard box duly arrived and we treasured that ‘new books’ aroma as we teased this gorgeous collection out into the light.

The Women’s Prize originated as The Orange Prize, after the male dominance of book awards reached the ridiculous stage of there being no women on The Booker Prize shortlist in 1991. Please check out the story of the Women’s Prize and the great work they do year round beyond the headline prize.

This year’s judges include Bernadine Evaristo and Elizabeth Day, have a listen to what they are looking for in a winning novel.

Here’s the thing, I briefly started reviewing books I’d been given – kindly passed to me by authors or publicists. I find that so, so hard; so I have stopped signing up for ‘free’ books. I couldn’t stand the guilt or the pressure to ‘enjoy’ a book before I wrote about it. With the Women’s Prize challenge that Nicky and I have taken on, we have ordered and paid for the books which feels much more comfortable when it comes to appraising them. Which is handy, because I sadly haven’t loved all six of these.

I created a score card for the books – marking them out of ten for things like originality, emotional impact and whether I would hunt out other work by that author.

So. In reverse order……

NO ONE IS TALKING ABOUT THIS by Patricia Lockwood. (DNF!) If I don’t enjoy a book, or worse, I abandon reading it, I am in no doubt that says as much about me as it does the book. I suppose I still see reading as an escape from the random scroll of doom of social media. This book is told via a social media ‘timeline’. The random nature of the posts show a narrative unfolding amongst the chaos. I’m afraid I read the first 20 or so pages a couple of times and then had a nosey at the prize’s reading guide. By this point I was confused and frustrated and moved on. I know I should embrace challenging themes and forms, but I really was struggling!

TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyashi. (42/90) A poignant and dark study of immigrant reality in America. A very sad story in many ways – a tale of family and loyalty as well as addiction and the frailty of friendships. I found it a restless read as I squirmed at the exposure of an addicts deterioration and the depression of our protagonist’s mother. Gifty, the story’s main character is obsessively working on mice in her laboratory, hoping to explain the brain process of her own brother’s addiction. All the time her mother is cocooned at home sinking deeper into her gloom. The book tackles many issues, including the racism and rejection of ‘other’ in small American communities, and I can see how it has found it’s place amongst the potential winners of this fine literary prize.

HOW THE ONE ARMED SISTER SWEEPS HER HOUSE by Cherie Jones. (54/90) It never ceases to amaze me when I look up an author after reading their book and see the words ‘debut novel’. This is a powerhouse of a book – far beyond ordinary achievements of the average debutant. The main character, Lala, is trapped in a violent and controlling marriage and the book doesn’t flinch from the painful reality of such a life. Set in the ironically titled Paradise on the Caribbean island, Barbados, we get a full exposure of life below the glossy images in the holiday brochures. The book starts with a horrific murder and carries on from there. Cherie Jones holds the reader just out of reach and I couldn’t help but turn the pages despite slightly dreading what might come next. There’s no doubt the author is an extraordinary talent; the book may not have quite impressed me the way the following three have, but it is a masterclass in characterisation and controlling a wild narrative.

PIRENESI by Susanna Clarke. (59/90) Here we go. A fantasy novel. A flippin’ fantasy novel. Obviously I would just skim read this and cast it aside as slightly bonkers. Except I absolutely loved it. Sure the setting takes some getting used to for those who like their novels set on the streets of Sheffield or in the grimy apartments of hidden New York. Once I got my head around the endless halls and gothic statues which dominate the story. The main character, known as Piranesi after being given the name by the ‘Other’, methodically maps the statues and the waters which ebb and flo around them. These, at least to start with, are the only characters. They meet weekly and quite early on I found myself suspicious of the ‘other’ and willing Piranesi to be less trusting and more questioning. The writing is exquisite and I couldn’t help but feel myself entering this strange world of legend, an underground complex with its tidal flooding and bones of previous lives. I can’t say too much, the whole book is a slow reveal. The main character is a fabulous study of an innocent mind living in isolation followed by a slow drip of realisation as the truth of his surroundings become apparent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this won.

UNSETTLED GROUND by Claire Fuller. (72/90) What a beautiful book this is. The cover is simply gorgeous. I nervously turned to page one hoping not to find the contents an anti climax. Far from it, this is a belting story. So many of the characters in all of this short list are living tough and almost unthinkable lives. Here, middle aged twins, brother and sister, suddenly find themselves marooned in a life they barely understand. They had lived with their mother until she passed away at home (an episode not without its dark humour in the telling) and left them ill equipped to sustain their existence. A whole barrage of history related to the land on which their cottage sits and the land owner himself reveals itself as the twins’ world starts to implode. Julius, who is more wild and adventurous and his twin sister, Jeanie, are as frustrating as they are endearing to watch. Their inability, or in some cases, refusal, to accept or engage with the help that is available had been pleading with them! Claire Fuller writes this so elegantly and her portrayal of the existential crisis endured in the twins’ simple country life is mesmerising. There’s a cracking, slowly revealed story here, don’t think for one minute it is all contemplative puddle gazing. An impressive tale of country life, family and the secrets they hold. Should it win? Well, for me it is this or:

THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennet. (75/90) Using my highly scientific scoring method, Brit Bennet just pips Claire Fuller to be my pick for the Women’s Prize. This book too features twins and they are also from a strange and remote town. There the similarity ends. The twins in Bennet’s epic novel are from the (fictitious) town of Mallard in Louisiana. Mallard is populated by ‘light’ but black folk. The town’s population would “never be white” but are also determined “to never be treated like Negroes”. Two teenage twins, girls, Desiree and Stella, find themselves hemmed in by the oppressive way of living in the town and run away to find a new life. The are quite different in their outlook and they find themselves forging different paths. Stella almost accidently discovers that she can pass as ‘white’ and is soon pushing this lie to forge a new identity and existence. It covers intense friendships, appalling relationships, loss, the deep history of racism and the pull and push of racism. The supporting cast are a colourful bunch and they each had me along for the ride; performing queens, a bounty hunter, a spoiled teenager rebelling against her privilege as well as the ever present townsfolk back in Mallard. The writing is pitch perfect, the ambitious writer in me was drooling over relentlessly beautiful sentences. Should it win? Yup (although my heart can’t let go of Unsettled Ground!)

RAINBOW MILK by Paul Mendez

A debut novel. A bloomin’ debut. Such power and emotion in his first book. Take a bow Paul Mendez.

Now. Be warned.

It is a bit rude in places. Ok, it’s pretty feckin’ graphic. Those of a sensitive nature might find their eyes watering in the early stages. The full force created by the urges of the young man at the centre of this story are quite openly exposed. Mendez writes with an ferocious passion. The story deserves every bit of the raw sex which sets the scene early in the book.

Before that though, the book begins 50 years earlier with a young Jamaican couple (from the Windrush generation) struggling to come to terms with their decision to move from the Caribbean Island to the Midlands of England. They are, of course, linked to the story which follows. This sets a bleak backdrop of racism and forgotten dreams and gives context to the rest of the book.

Jesse, a young black man, brought up a Jehovah’s Witness, finds his life in the Black Country capitulating and ends up fleeing to London where he finds he can use his youthful black body for financial gain. His journey to this point is delivered with a series of necessarily blunt blows within the narration. A white step father is kept from getting close to Jesse by a mother who shows nothing but resentment and disappointment towards her son.

I believe Rainbow Milk is closely personal to Mendez and his delivery of both the rough physical moments, the heart-breaking cries for help as well as Jesse’s many cringe worthy and naïve moments is so exquisitely poised. And the issues at play are voiced with such force that I struggled to get my head around this being a debut!

The crushing isolation felt by Jesse as he becomes increasingly desperate to express himself both emotionally and physically leads to him mistakenly seeking sexual attention from a fellow young Witness. This leads to his removal from the Jehovah’s Witness fellowship and cements the estrangement from his mother and step father. It also sets the scene for him fleeing to London.

He suffers at the hands of some of the men he encounters but also finds the sexual joy he imagined with others. Amongst the one night stands, quick and quickly forgotten fucks in toilet cubicles, gradually a love story unfolds. After a particularly rough customer, Jesse finds himself needing to quickly understand the risks still at play of AIDS.

The drinking, the drugs and the debauchery are just as full on as the sex, until a near tragedy slowly brings him together with a man, Owen, who seems to truly love him. Paul Mendez gives us hope amongst the chaos and is maybe saying there is a way to navigate this life if we have faith in ourselves. Jesse battles an abusive childhood, religious oppression, relentless racism and homophobia as well as rejection, loneliness and terrifying health scares.

The musical references are fabulous, Jesse finding solace and motivation in some of the great R’nB and soul greats, as well as cutting edge contemporary artists. Through Owen, the man who he falls in love with, he discovers the music of Joy Division and Public Image Limited and finds himself deeply entranced (helped by the drug use naturally) by some of the sounds from my era!

Mendez had me rooting for Jesse throughout and plenty of tears were shed along the way.

A riveting, heart wrenching and ferocious read which manages to caress the senses as well as battering them.

I’m saying nothing more, you’ll have to read it to find out for yourselves!

PS: The title isn’t referring to what I thought it was….

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead

Here we go. Having been humbled by the prose, the depth, the power and the sheer beauty of this book, I’m struggling to find sentences worthy of describing it.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016, Purlitzer Prize winning novel is just tremendous. Why? I shall try and explain.

Firstly, it is exquisitely crafted. There isn’t a wasted sentence in the book. My novel writing ambitions (and indeed, my efforts to date) feel like the surface of a puddle after delving into the oceans of depth on offer here. And that’s before we start on the extraordinary story. This is the second Colson Whitehead book I’ve read, and they have both been magnificent. (The other being The Nickel Boys)

The story is exquisite. Taking the metaphor of The Underground Railroad to mean so much more than just a series of safe houses runaway slaves might use for shelter. In the book, set in the first half of the nineteenth century, there really is a secret underground railway. There are engineers and conductors, each with their own reasons for taking the risk on behalf of the slaves. It is a bright and inventive take on one of the darkest times in history.

I found it scary that even within a few hundred pages I could start to become anaesthetised to the horrors of slavery and the casual murder enjoyed in some of the southern states particularly. The author doesn’t push any parallel with the racism of today, but as a reader, these were never far from my mind. In fact, Whitehead delves further back into history to highlight the massacre of Native Americans rather than labour any contemporary (or indeed populist) narrative. I keep saying it, this book is terrific in ways I’d never thought of.

It is so powerful, honestly. So powerful without seemingly trying to be. The main character Cora finds herself anew in each of the states into which the railroad deposits her. She has followed her mother’s footsteps (or so she thinks, but no plot spoilers). The narrative seems to gather poignancy as the book draws to a close with some breathtakingly, heart breaking moments of realisation.

Cora’s escape from the plantation in the deepest south is far from smooth and throughout the book, literally from start to finish, she suffers unimaginable pain and loss. She really is our hero, and her strength is solid. I could not fail to be inspired to look for everything positive in my own life by her seemingly natural ability to push on.

Colson Whitehead graphically portrays each state’s methods of dealing with “the negro problem” and doesn’t hold back with the horrific imagery. Yes, it is a bruising read, but somehow sublime in its telling. I lost count of the number of times I said to Nicky (my gorgeous wife and fellow member of our two person book club), “I bloody love this book”!

I am left enriched and moved and felt I’d travelled an uncomfortable and torrid journey from Africa, through the deep south into the faintest of promised lands further north.

As I write this in April 2021, I can’t help but think we’ve gone backwards, as a (human) race, in so many ways. I hope that if the time came to be counted, I would be brave enough to become a conductor on The Underground Railroad. This will never be my history. I am in the utterly privileged position to say that. BUT, I feel even more privileged to have Colson Whitehead show me THIS history.

Remarkable.

DISGRACE by J.M. Coetzee

The last book review I posted was of Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru, a densely plotted, artfully crafted and challengingly narrated tome. After such a hefty read, Coetzee’s 1999 Man Booker Prize winning Disgrace was a much more straight forward tale in comparison. Not in any sort of simplistic way, far from it, but J.M. Coetzee delivers his depth in a more naturally chronological order. As I keep saying, as a writer myself I enjoy reading far and wide to try and absorb some of the language and style used by these extraordinary authors.

Skim reading Disgrace would do this gorgeous book a disservice. Peel off the top layer and you’ll find subtle explorations of contrasting themes running through the story.

David Lurie, a twice divorced teacher at the Technical University of Cape Town has a compulsive affair with a student. The affair itself is awkward and clumsy. Coetzee’s direct and pointed narrative exposes the main character’s weaknesses and his traits as the whole episode unravels. From a position of respect and comfort, Lurie’s life is dismantled and he finds himself seeking refuge with his daughter, Lucy. Lucy lives on a countryside smallholding and her lifestyle, as well as the company she keeps, is a startling departure for David.

What Coetzee does so well with this book is blend the personal, intricate details of lives being lived with the deeper issues of class, race and gender as South Africa attempted to prepare for the 21st century. I found myself opening up to the realisation that so much in life is just accepted. The casual disregard for women, which feels almost institutional in the early stages of the novel, for example. Also the assumptions of how the colour of skin determines our status. Not only that, the horrific crime which occurs at Lucy’s farm (as well as the later crime David suffers) is almost expected. David struggles to understand Lucy’s acceptance of what happens (without giving anything away) and he has an undercurrent of shame which just adds to the disgrace of the book’s title.

There is a brutal honesty about a middle aged white man believing that he “…has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well.” He hasn’t of course, as becomes apparent early on. He believes that it is alright to have women slot into his life, purely to fulfil his desires. As I have said, this is both awkward and shameful in its telling. Coetzee, as I’m sure a more scholarly reviewer would better explain, seems to parallel South Africa’s attempts at truth and reconciliation with David’s lived experience. I find myself humbled by writing as eloquent as this. The narration prods and embarrasses the reader into glancing at the mirror to check for signs of the flaws being portrayed.

I don’t think I’m going overboard when I describe this as a ‘masterpiece’. I’d previously read just one of Coetzee’s works, his thinly disguised memoir of adolescence, Boyhood, and in some ways the themes there are taken into later adulthood with Disgrace. I have no doubt there are autobiographical elements to Disgrace too, and I know he speaks directly to those of us similarly aged and privileged as David appears to be in the book.

I wonder how women readers feel about David? I found him frustrating and at times downright offensive. And yet, somehow, I was still rooting for him as the book drew to a close. Lurking behind the decisions made (often as a result of nothing more than his sex drive), there is a man who cares deeply about his daughter, one of his ex wives and the other women he encounters in the book. He also develops as a man (in my opinion) as his empathy for the dogs, which feature prominently, grows. But I couldn’t shake off the feeling that he still felt that women should accept their standing and make life choices accordingly.

In a relatively small number of pages, Coetzee has managed to have me nodding in agreement, lowering the book from my face in embarrassment and pausing to imagine myself in David’s situation. Oh, and he also had me walking around the house with the book in my hands as I simply couldn’t put it down.

I heartily recommend.

GODS WITHOUT MEN by Hari Kunzru

It isn’t my place to say whether a book is ‘good’ or not. From day one of this blog I’ve set out to only review books I’ve enjoyed. My challenge is to find the words to show you (assuming there is a ‘you’ out there) just what it is I’ve enjoyed about the book.

My reading (and reviewing) runs parallel to my own writing ambitions. The more I read, the more ambitious I become. And the more ambitious, challenging or obscure the books I read are, the more I want to challenge myself with my own writing.

All of which brings to Gods Without Men. A book which slowed me down. A book which had me turning back to double check where I was, who was who. There’s a lot going on! But, I loved it, I feel enriched for spending a week consumed with it.

And here’s why:

As the book progresses we follow the story of a young New York couple, Jaz and Lisa. They are in the Mojave desert on a break with their profoundly autistic son, Raj. Theirs is a tortured marriage and the events in the desert find them struggling to cling on to anything resembling normality. The chapters devoted to this narrative are dispersed throughout the book and on a simple level tell a compelling drama of a son who disappears amid the confusion of a seemingly failed partnership. But don’t be fooled, there is so, so much more to explore.

The book is about place. There is a three pronged rock in the desert which hosts most of the stories appearing in the book. Chapters jump between years and combine imagined legends of coyote and 18th century mystery. A rock star hiding from his band, an airline pilot creating an outpost eatery, scientologists and a cult of dubious legitimacy using the three pronged rocks to communicate with extra terrestrial life.

Keeping up? You will be flicking back to check you’ve got the right character in your mind!

The writing style is textured and lyrical, no bouncing along, page turning formula here. As the book progressed, I delved deeper into every sentence and found myself absorbed by the mood of the book. I couldn’t have read it any quicker, I’d have missed it.

The narrative of Jaz and Lisa is pained. The public (and media) reaction to the disappearance of Raj felt as uncomfortable as I felt when the McCann family were so cruelly scrutinised when their daughter Madeleine disappeared. Jaz and Lisa’s circumstances are further complicated by her Jewish heritage and his Punjab roots. These cultures clash and at their worst, the racist undertones they have towards each other are barely disguised. It’s not a ‘feel good’ book, but it’s a bloody marvellous read.

After finishing Gods Without Men I closed it in my lap and just took a few minutes to absorb what I’d just witnessed. I’ve followed it by starting J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace (which won the Mann Booker Prize in 1999). Coetzee’s work feels lighter and more traditional in its story telling by comparison. This contrast is pleasing on the eye and I look forward to sharing my thoughts on Disgrace. I’m enjoying varying the styles I read and Hari Kunzru certainly varies the pace and style, sometimes from chapter to chapter. Regular readers will remember I enjoyed his equally ‘literary’ White Tears.

For now though, I’ll recommend Gods Without Men, particularly for those of you wanting to delve into the possibilities of the unknown, question folklore and legend and revel in the ‘hippie’ style commune living which is certainly not portrayed as the idyll of a ’60s myth. Not only that, there’s a painful and frustrating love story running through the mystery of the disappearance of the child. It’s a fully loaded tome!

Is it any good? That’s not for me to say…….

Let In The Light by Gerard Nugent

So chuffed to be invited to take part in this Blog Tour.

This is Gerard Nugent’s debut novel. As a natural song writer, Nugent found himself forming the idea for this book after attending a local creative writing class. The idea was to find themes for his next batch of songs, but, combined with a chance encounter with an ex Brit Pop star working in a music shop, he found the plot for a novel forming in his head.

Let in the light is a bright read, the language and prose style both feel spacious – a feel good story some might say. But you don’t have to scratch far below the surface to find there is plenty of poignancy in this compelling page turner.

Songwriter, Richie Carlisle never wanted to be famous.

After stumbling into the limelight five years ago, he soon found himself crashing back out of it. Now, he spends his days working in a small music shop in Edinburgh, attempting to live a quiet life as a part-time dad.

But his 15 minutes of fame have taken its toll. His inspiration for songwriting, music and life in general seems to have all but disappeared.

When Richie is given a flyer advertising the first meeting of the Hope Street Songwriters’ Circle, it’s a chance to step back into the world. But after years of hiding away, letting in the light won’t be easy.

The book’s blurb sets the scene.

I like how the author has built this plot. The first half of the book switches between ‘then’ and ‘now’ – feeding us the build up to Richie’s catastrophic 15 minutes of fame whilst following him as he tries to recover in the years afterwards. Set on the fictitious Hope Street, but in the very real world of Edinburgh, Let In The Light has a community of characters featuring on Richie Carlisle’s journey. All of the supporting cast seem to have intriguing back stories and Nugent gives us glimpses into their worlds as they interact with the plot. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that Let In The Light is the first in a planned series of novels about the personalities on Hope Street.

Dialogue is plentiful throughout the book and I found myself drawn into the conversations, nodding in agreement or rolling my eyes as Richie struggles to make good decisions. It is a modern, honest book – the exchanges between Richie and the mother of his child, Pen, are full of truth and expose the pain of their relationship. The responsibility and heartbreak of parenting through separation is sensitively explored. Their son, Finn, is never far from the centre of things, much as it is a tale of how music affects our lives.

The portrayal of Richie’s struggles, the dark times he battles after the failure as a ‘rock star’ and even darker times dealing with the fall out of Penn’s pregnancy and how they struggled to make things work after Finn was born, are all scrutinised. These issued aren’t forced on the reader, there is a pleasing lightness of touch to the language which seems to give us time to absorb the impact of the big decisions in Riche’s life.

As the book progresses, the interwoven histories of the characters are revealed, including Richie’s band mates and his boss in the music shop where he works. I won’t spoil any of the plot, but I think it’s important to note that all of this affects the mental health of Richie and others. The impact of deteriorating mental health is nakedly visible and on at least one occasion quite shocking. Like I said, this feels like a truthful book. Gerard Nugent is supporting the mental health charity, Health In Mind, with Let In The Light and all profits are being donated to this great cause.

A great tale of city life and how communities are formed and revealing that, within those communities, unlikely bonds and friendships can be formed. The writing feels accomplished and the author gives us plenty of great detail around the music and how musicians can work well (or not) together. The relationship many of us have with music, just how important it can be, the power of the song, are also constants throughout the narrative.





Gerard Nugent lives in Yorkshire with his family and two guinea pigs – he can be found on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or at his website.

Over at AMAZON Let In The Light is currently only 99p for kindle and the paperback is a bargain at £7.99 too.

BEING ACCOUNTABLE #3 MARCH 2021

I made myself a manifesto at the end of 2020 – I didn’t feel the need to make ‘resolutions’, I just wanted to hold myself to account and move through 2021 as proud of myself as possible. It went pretty well in January and February…….

March is always a strange one. So many dates. Anniversaries. Memories. Those that know me, and any of you who are long term followers of the blog will know that my sister died far, far too young. She was a mere 44 when her battle with illness ended on March 26th 2009. Five years she lived with cancer. Of course that date always hangs heavy over me during March, as does her birthday, which is earlier in the month. This year I’ve not fought it at all – grief is shite, but grieving is so important. My niece (my sister’s eldest) celebrates her birthday in March, and her youngest, my great nephew, celebrates his birthday too. And Mothers’ Day, which is always hard for my own mum of course. There’s always somebody missing. And so it goes on……..

So, I allow myself to drift through March a bit. This month there are no updates on my pledges – how many words I’ve written, how often I go running, how many articles, poems or stories I’ve submitted…. Nope, I’m just going to share with you all the positivity I’ve been lucky enough to find in the month.

Running

Ahhh, bliss

Despite getting down towards the end of the month, I’ve ran a whole lot more than I’m giving myself credit for, nearly 130 miles in fact. And I started and ended the month really enjoying myself out there too. It helps that I get to run with my wonderful, gorgeous and supportive wife too – she’s a bit more focussed than me on training and I enjoy joining her for some structured sessions as well as our adventures on the trails.

Reading & Writing

I’m still ticking over, in fact I’ve published 7 book reviews in March as well as featuring on my first ever Blog Tour (a publicity tool used by publishers – a series of enthusiastic book bloggers post reviews on set dates to support a book’s launch). I still haven’t got the hang of Instagram. It strikes me that many of the posters of #bookstagram posts are more concerned with creating arty pictures of books than they are with actually reading them. I’d rather 10 people read a book review of mine on here, and actually enjoy it, than a hundred people be impressed by my picture of a coffee cup or candle next to a book!

Have a look at the reviews of these ⏬⏬⏬ and more here.

While I’m on the subject of writing, a year ago one of my favourite authors, AL Kennedy, released a collection of short stories called We Are Attempting To Survive Our Time. A clever, sometimes dark, often mysterious, always gripping bunch of tales. I discovered this week that the hardback (a copy of which is one of my most treasure possessions) has sold a mere 85 (yup, eighty five) copies. I was stunned. It just shows that apart from at the very, very top there is hardly a living to be earned by authors – writing is a passion. And I’m glad I’ve been blessed to have that passion.

Al Kennedy has won the Costa Novel Award and has been long listed for the Booker Prize. Her collection of essays On Writing is one of my most read books. Read my review of an earlier award winning Kennedy novel, Serious Sweet here.

My review of David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count came to the attention of the author himself, which resulted in it becoming one of my most read blog posts ever (he shared it with his 3/4 million followers) It also, sadly, led to me being ‘trolled’ for the first time ever (I won’t be repeating what was said!).

The Beach Hut

They couldn’t wait to check out the deck chairs!

We were offered a spot on Preston sea front last year and have this year taken it up. Our new hut arrived and we have worked bloomin’ hard to get several coats of paint on it and kit it out. Nicky has always wanted one and it’s great to know we now have a little ‘holiday home’ regardless of what else we get to do this year. It is a game changer for sea swimming. Nicky has been getting in for most of the winter, bbbrrrrrr, and I shall be joining her, er, soonish! Having the hut to get out of the wind and have a hot cuppa after a dip is brilliant. The grandchildren have already tried out the deckchairs of course.

We’re rather proud of our efforts!

Things Are Coming Back

We’re off to do an actual event later in the month, hosted by Badger Events (see my article about them from last year here). Not only that, I’ll be making my triathlon debut(!) and Nicky competing in her third Half-Ironman when we travel to Stafford in July. I’ve also got a rather daunting ultra marathon booked later in July. Sadly, it’ll be a while before any decision is made on Nicky’s full Ironman for August, with much depending on travel restrictions. Nicky attempted the full distance in 2019 when the Outlaw had to be abandoned after the swim in horrendous weather and last year her Ironman was of course cancelled due to Covid. Third time lucky?

Work

I don’t really talk about work on here. Work is the thing I do because of the need to eat etc! Luckily I enjoy my job, but I’d been finding myself not enjoying my work surroundings over the last six months or so. So I did something about it…. I still work for the same supermarket, I’m still a home delivery driver, but I’ve moved stores. It took a bit of toing and froing, but I’m really, really happy now. This isn’t the place to discuss details, but it was another ‘March’ scenario which was draining my resolve. Rather proud that I did something about it rather than just grumble along unnecessarily unhappy.

So, I’ve excused myself my manifesto pledges for a month and now I’m back in the groove. Expect a far more productive report in April………..

THE LIES YOU TOLD by Harriet Tyce

I was rather chuffed to be asked onto the blog tour for Harriet Tyce‘s second novel, The Lies You Told. I eagerly ripped open the envelope and delved straight in. It had barely left postie’s hand!

My lovely wife had really enjoyed Tyce’s debut, Blood Orange and I had to get my book mark in quick to bagsie The Lies You Told, denying her the chance to read it first.

The book promised to be a thriller with dark and chilling plot twists. On the face of it this is not something I would ordinarily pick up. Joining the blog tour gave me reason to step outside my reading comfort zone. And I’m so, so pleased I did.

Our main character, Sadie finds herself with no choice but to leave her life in America, returning to London, the city of her childhood. Her life has taken some sinister turns with her husband and she packs and leaves with her daughter, Robin. In running from her present life she finds herself arriving in a past she had previously rejected.

Returning to the home of her childhood, Sadie rediscovers the haunting memories of an estranged and emotionally painful relationship with her late mother. There are many strands to this book, the mystery of her husband’s behaviour in America plays against the unravelling of her mother’s last wishes. The truths of these parallel stories are only drip fed to the reader in the clever narrative.

The chapters build the plot in layers. As more characters gradually enter the fray they add texture and depth, the tensions and dramas build. In fact, the long distance runner in me found the pace was like a well executed marathon. The early stages feel comfortable and the pain, tension, suffering all mount as the intensity rises. I particularly enjoyed this. Rather than throw me all of the juicy bits early, Harriet Tyce kept me turning the pages, eager to see where I was being taken to next.

Back in London, and with her daughter attending the select and competitive school of her own childhood, Sadie finds herself embroiled in school gate politics. These are particularly cruel and elitist fellow mums and Sadie is soon struggling to fit in. The same is happening inside the school for Robin. The world of education amongst the higher classes appears to be more vicious and cruel than at any level I’ve ever experienced. No plot spoilers, but these parents harbour deeply sinister secrets and some will stop at nothing.

More and more threads starting weaving their way into the story as Sadie, after linking up with an old friend and colleague, returns to the legal world as a junior barrister. The case she ends up working on involves defending a teacher accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. I’ll avoid spoilers again, but the twists start coming thick and fast once Sadie is back in chambers and in the court room. The anxieties of the school community and the never-far-away mystery of her failing marriage loom large in Sadie’s mind as she tries to focus on her role in court.

Interspersed through the book are vignettes of Sadie’s state of mind as Tyce hints at dramas yet to unfold. This is a clever tool, placing these fears and doubts in the readers mind before returning the narrative to the present. I have no idea what an ‘airport’ novel is, but I could easily imagine picking this up (assuming we are able to travel anytime soon) in an airport book shop and be racing through the furiously paced final chapter before unpacking my suitcase.

Clearly written from a position of knowledge, the courtroom drama is full of rich and satisfying detail. The uncertainty about the past, present and future of the book’s varied cast is exaggerated by Sadie being the narrator; sometimes the reader is ahead of her as her attention switches between the different avenues the story takes. I like that the tale unfolds in Sadie’s own voice and the added possibility of her not always being the most reliable narrator.

The book is perfect if you’re looking for a multi layered, thriller which gradually ups the ante as you turn the pages. It will also satisfy readers who are trying to work out who can or cannot be trusted – and be warned you might finish the book still not convinced about that.

Harriet Tyce grew up in Edinburgh before studying English at Oxford University. She went on to do a law conversion course at City University. Her subsequent MA in Creative Writing – Crime Fiction at the University of East Anglia followed 10 years of practise as a criminal barrister.

She lives in North London where her cat, Dougal, is very proud of her writing achievements.


Find Harriet on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or on her website.