The Chalk Man by C J Tudor

Tags

There has been quite a buzz around C J Tudor recently with her third novel, The Other People, due for release on 23rd January. Given the strong reviews and the author’s connection to my home city of Nottingham it felt like time for me to get on board and start reading her work. With a reference from Stephen King on the front cover of The Chalk Man, her first novel, maybe I should have had an inkling of what to expect but it turns out those friendly, twinkling eyes on her profile picture are actually a gateway to darkness!

The story starts with some grim events in the village of Anderbury in 1986 and from there it alternates chapters between then and 2016. Eddie a slightly awkward 12 year old, along with his friends, finds a dead body chopped into pieces in the woods. Ed, now a 42-year-old teacher who has inherited his childhood home and continues to be haunted by the mystery in his past. The different time periods give the book a nice pace as they deliver different insights into the characters and events.

The 1986 timeline is filled with childhood nostalgia, especially as I am a similar age to the gang of Eddie, Fat Gav, Hoppo, Metal Mickey and Nicky. Their early teen antics and cultural references were often familiar for me and I found myself quickly drawn into their group and engaged with their story and relationships. Things take a turn when the gang all receive a message in their secret code – chalked men drawn on their driveways – to meet up at the park, but none of the group left the message or the trail of figures that leads them to a body in the woods.

There was a genuine sense of tension throughout the twisting story and although there are hints of where it is going there is a complexity that has you constantly reconfiguring the dots and reassessing what has really happened. How reliable is the narrator and what should we make of his interpretation of both people and events? Although I raced through the book, completely absorbed by it, the writing wasn’t rushed. The story took hold of me and seeped into my consciousness so that even when I had to pull myself away from reading, it remained there on the edge of my vision, a constant companion.

I was completely hooked from start to finish and even after the grand finale the ripples of ending continued to hit home. The final scene was completely unexpected, even though on reflection there was a clue earlier on, and left a sinister edge to the whole narrative. A combination of coming of age novel and murder mystery that blurs the lines of reality The Chalk Man is an engrossing debut novel and I look forward to quickly moving on to C J Tudor’s second book The Taking of Annie Thorne.

Synopsis

It was only meant to be a game . . .

None of us ever agreed on the exact beginning.

Was it when we started drawing the chalk figures, or when they started to appear on their own?

Was it the terrible accident?

Or when they found the first body?

The Story of Trees by Kevin Hobbs and David West

Tags

,

Trees are getting a lot of attention at the moment, as people start to see them as a potential ally in facing the climate emergency. It is an essential lesson for our species to understand that we are not separate from nature, we are not to laud it over our natural environment, but we are sustained by a mysterious life support system that we must care for and respect.

The Story of Trees is a beautifully illustrated guide to different species of tree across the world and the ways that they have supported and helped us over the course of human history. With a double page spread on each species it creates an excellent reference work that can be read through or dipped into and returned to time and again.

The illustrations are attractive and detailed and supported by cutaways where appropriate of fruits and seeds. The accompanying words detail some basic facts alongside the human history of each tree, the way they have helped to shape and sustain human life through their wide variety of gifts. It has been brilliantly researched and contains a wealth of knowledge that can only enhance our relationship with the world around us.

It is an education and a joy to spend time amongst the wonder of trees from all around the world and hopefully an inspiration to walk out and meet those that thrive locally, acknowledging them as far more than a pretty view or shelter from unexpected rain. The Story of Trees will see you regularly returning to your bookshelf, not just a reference guide but a retreat to refresh your spirits. A lovely book.

 

The Story or Trees is published on 18 February 2020 by Laurence King Publishing. I received an ebook via Netgalley but recommend a hard copy which I’m sure will do even greater justice to the captivating illustrations.

 

How Many Stars?

I have tended to shy away from providing star ratings alongside my reviews and having seen various comments on this subject I don’t think that I am alone in having some concerns. The value in the ratings is that it allows reviewers to distinguish reviews and for readers to quickly gauge interest, but to gain that value readers have to be familiar with each reviewer’s approach to the ratings. In isolation, the star ratings are meaningless and it is only once they are seen in a wider context that they become useful.

In view of this, I thought I would spend a little bit of time considering what the stars (using a 5 star system) mean to me, so that where I put a star rating alongside a review it is clear what that rating means to me. There is a temptation to want to lean towards higher ratings because this feels good, it is nice to be able to tell an author or publisher that you have given their book a 5 star rating but, unless there is some clear differentiation, that compliment is hollow. It also damages the integrity of all other reviews and casts doubts on genuine 5 star reads.

To address this concern and enable a full range of reviews to be given I would like to see the 3 star review given genuine credence. How do readers, authors and publishers feel when they see a book given 3 stars? Do they dismiss it as disappointing or do they go on to read the review as a whole to understand the rating better? It would be nice to think that the review is the main reference point rather than the rating, but it is not hard to imagine that people are drawn to 4 and 5 stars (and maybe 1 star for the schadenfreude) but dismiss what they think of as an “average” rating. If that is the case then giving 3 stars renders the actual review (which might have absorbed a good deal of time and care) redundant.

From a personal perspective, I would see a 3 star rating as meaning that a book is a good read and recommended if you have an interest in the genre or topic. It should be considered as a positive review that reflects a genuine enjoyment in reading the book. From this base, a 4 star read will then be highly recommended to anyone with an interest in the genre or topic and likely to be enjoyed by other enthusiastic readers. These are stand out books that I have thoroughly enjoyed and am excited to talk about and share with other people.

If I give a 5 star rating this is a special award reserved for books that have had a dramatic impact on me, such as shaping or changing my thinking about a particular topic, or defining something such as a universal truth or a deep human emotion in a profound way. These are books I believe everyone should read as they have something to say to us all. I will wrestle with myself before issuing the 5 stars to be certain that it is justified.

Heading in the other direction, which I haven’t really had to do with reviews so far, a 2 star would have some things to recommend it but not enough for me to be able to suggest it to others to read. It might be the beginning of a journey to better things for an author, or something that I just didn’t connect with personally, in no way a lost cause but read at your own risk. Hopefully I’ll never have to give a 1 star rating to anything.

I’m interested to know what others think of star ratings. As a reader do you have an automatic avoid response to a 3 star rating in a review or do you see it as a positive? As an author or publisher are you interested in the feedback of a 3 star review and do you see it as a negative response to your book? One of the reasons that I like to review books that I read is to encourage authors in the work that they do and I enjoy and I would hate to think that something I thought of as a positive response to a book was interpreted as negative. It’s just one of the difficulties that come from being a book blogger.

Borderline Citizens by Robin Hemley

Tags

We live in an age where for many of us travel is considered a right. Given the environmental cost of travel and the way that much of it is merely to provide diversion from everyday lives, it was refreshing and reassuring to read Robin Hemley’s introduction to Borderline Citizens, in which he expressed the desire for his travel to have a purpose. Before we even approach the fascinating work that Hemley has put together, this is an important issue for me.

I find myself increasingly caught in a tension of beliefs between a radical localism and a global outlook and I see good writing as a crucial balance to that tension. Humans are having a devastating impact on the world around us and this is the main driver for my desire to live a local life that reduces my negative impact on the planet and (hopefully) ultimately can make it a positive, regenerative impact. At the same time, however, I have grown up in an age where technology has made the whole world more accessible to me and I have seen the benefits of shared journeys and experience and of understanding my place in that broader context.

It is important that we have connectors who can bring back stories and link our local communities to the bigger picture, without the need for all of us to jump on a plane. Robin Hemley fits this role perfectly, aware of the importance of what he is doing and the obligation he owes to the earth to ensure that his travel adds value far beyond him as an individual. In doing so, he presents in Borderline Citizens a series of insights from a range of settings that sit precariously on the edges of nationhood and lead us to question the meaning and value of the nation state.

The stories are diverse. A refugee exiled to an island off Australia to prevent him making a new life for himself and simply trying to do as many good things as he can before being sent back to Afghanistan where he expects to be killed. The Union Jacks that fly across the Falkland Islands clinging to a culture 8,000 miles away that bears little resemblance to the reality of life in the South Atlantic and stifles its own emerging identity. The confused identity of being India surrounded by Bangladesh and vice versa. The people of Manila remembering the horrors of Japanese destruction during WW2 with a strange mix of brutality and humour.

Each of the stories is enlightening, but taken together they leave the reader with a deep recognition that people are people and our national identities, especially when feeding a sense of nationalism, drive us apart and seek to separate us, rather than bring us together. That is not to say that humanity should be homogenised, our local cultures are hugely important as they are forged from life in that place and hold the handed down wisdom of generations adapting to climate, soil and the local environment. When that culture develops into nationalism, however, and seeks to build up one at the expense of an “other” it turns from an inclusive positive to a divisive negative.

Borderline Citizens is part of a proud heritage of travel writing that helps us to understand each other in a way that allows us to be different but united. We are able to celebrate the different experiences and environments that have shaped our distinct cultures while accepting each other as fundamentally the same. We can share, empathise and learn from each other without any need or desire to compete or feel superior, knowing that our differences are not judgments to be decided better or worse, but journeys to be shared and enjoyed.

As we transition into a new decade it feels like this is a message we need more than ever as we see Western democracies turning increasingly to populist voices of national identity. The winning messages in recent years have been about building walls and separating from our neighbours, when the crises we face as a species need us to collaborate rather than compete. We need to hear more stories like those Robin Hemley is sharing, but we also need to find a way of telling them that can be absorbed into our collective conscience as effectively as the snappy soundbites of populist nationalism. That is an enormous challenge, but somewhere in the solution is a place for good writing such as this and I commend it to you.

#WednesdayWhimsy Terry Pratchett

Tags

 

Odd thing, ain’t it… you meet people one at a time, they seem decent, they got brains that work, and then they get together and you hear the voice of the people. And it snarls.

 

I have a lot of love for Terry Pratchett. I read a lot of Discworld books in the late ’80s and early ’90s and have recently felt a desire to reacquaint myself with his wonderful humour and biting social commentary. This quote from Jingo, which was published in 1997, has struck a particular chord.

 

Quick Thoughts for January 2020

A new year beckons and with it hopes, dreams and resolutions. On a personal level there will be some repeat resolutions this year unfortunately, all those ones about losing weight, getting fit, healthy and active. They always seem to be the trickiest and most easily put off, so we go again. I also intend to be much more active on this blog, which means lots of reading to be done and hopefully a more reliable flow of reviews and thoughts.

On a more serious note, hope is a little harder to come by. The recent anti-Semitic attacks on people and property in the US and UK are frightening. The rise of far right nationalism and the empowerment and normalisation of racism and other divisive language and beliefs is truly shocking. More than ever, as we face global crises such as the climate emergency, we need to come together and collaborate both as a species and with nature as a whole, but the powers that be seem to be driving us apart. We have to ask in whose interest this is and hold those powers to account.

Unfortunately, social media seems to make matters worse. I love the opportunities that Twitter has given me to “meet” new people, share ideas and experiences and understand different perspectives, but at times the negativity and outright aggression of social media becomes deeply unsettling and exhausting. Whilst there are ways to cut out the worst of it I also feel that too much pruning can take away the whole point of being involved. A final resolution for me is to try to find a good balance in making social media a pleasurable and positive experience and to build others up in an environment that seeks too often to knock them down.

Reading

I have decided to dedicate the early part of January to C J Tudor. As a (formerly) Nottingham based author I am keen to support her and I have heard lots of great things about her work so I’m looking forward to catching up with her first two novels, The Chalk Man and The Taking of Annie Thorne. This should lead me in nicely to her appearance at Waterstones Nottingham on the 23rd to launch her new novel The Other People.

Other than Tudor, I know there are a host of Orenda Book releases on their way and I am keen to keep on top of these as Karen Sullivan has a truly inspired sense for quality when picking her authors and publications. I am really excited about new books from David Ross, Louise Beech and the new Chastity Riley novel from Simone Buchholz, among many others. I am also very much looking forward to a new Orenda Roadshow and hoping I can make some dates.

I closed out 2019 with some excellent non-fiction books courtesy of the publishers on Netgalley so will also be keeping my eyes pinned for new releases there. I would urge you to take a look at The Future We Choose (reviewed here and due to be released in February) which is an essential read about climate change and our role in shaping the future.

Party Time

Obviously, we get New Year’s Day in January and the Feast of the Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, on January 6th, but for a literary party we need look no further than Burns night. Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759, so we can all raise a glass of something to his 261st birthday this year.

Happy New Year everyone, hopefully light will shine into the darkness.

The Wax Pack by Brad Balukjian

Tags

1986 was the year that I discovered baseball, so the premise of The Wax Pack immediately appealed. Brad Balukjian buys a pack of baseball cards from 1986, sealed in the old style wax wrapper, cracks it open and begins a journey to track down the random mix of major leaguers that he finds inside. One of them is a Met, the World Series winning team that I watched on Channel 4, a then still relatively new TV channel that had made a name for itself by broadcasting “minority sports”.

The author’s aim is to find out what happened after baseball. He has a pack of cards that cover unspectacular journeymen to Hall of Famers and he wants to find out what they did next, how they coped with the end of a career that is inevitably short. Again, it is a premise that appeals to me, it smacks a little of The Boys of Summer but less formal and more free form, because my relationship with baseball is not so simple as a love of the game, in fact for large periods the game itself has been mostly absent.

I have always been a fan of baseball stories as much as, to be honest more than, the actual three hours or so of gameplay. I quickly fell for Gary Carter, Daryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden as they won the World Series, but I also idolised Roy Hobbs, Crash Davis and Ricky Vaughn from the big screen and revelled in the stories of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Satchel Paige, Willie Mays and Tinker to Evers to Chance. In The Wax Pack Brad Balukjian has added to those stories, added to a fascination that has never left me despite living over three thousand miles from my nearest MLB stadium.

When writing a road trip book there has to be a balance to the narrative. Long hours are spent journeying (especially when driving around a country as vast as the USA), relatively fewer focus on the purpose of the journey, in this case 13 somewhat random baseball players, and the author’s personal story also inevitably bleeds into the account as it intersects with the interviews. Balukjian manages this well, revealing enough of himself to be engaging but without distracting from the main participants.

He also homes in on the individual stories, not being trapped by the mundane questioning of modern media savvy sports stars, but digging underneath to the real people and their authentic struggles. It is a fascinating insight into the human endeavour and the openness and honesty of the retired players is at times startling. This is a real tribute to the author who shows a genuine compassion for his subjects whilst continuing to pursue the difficult topics, the impacts of parents, both absent and present, the predictable temptations of being a ball player and the difficulty with coping both with the pressure of the game and the absence of it.

The only very slight niggle is when the author, maybe buoyed by the openness of some of his other interviewees, is a touch harsh on Carlton Fisk, the Hall of Famer, who didn’t feel so strong a need to join in his project. It is the one moment when his humility drops a little and a touch of petulance sneaks in, but I suppose when your self-funding stretches to a hefty fee for a few seconds at a signing event rejection can sting.

It certainly doesn’t detract from what is a thoroughly entertaining and insightful read though and I’m sure The Wax Pack will appeal to all baseball fans.

 

The Wax Pack is published on 1 April 2020 by University of Nebraska Press. I was provided with an ebook by Netgalley in return for this honest review.

#MusicMonday The Quireboys 7 O’Clock

I don’t go to see enough live music, but a few weeks ago I managed a trip down memory lane to see Skid Row and the Quireboys at Nottingham’s Rock City. I hadn’t seen either band for close to thirty years so didn’t really know what to expect, but neither disappointed.

Spike was in his element leading the Rock City crowd through a series of classic songs and as we sit on the cusp of a new year it is surely time for a party. Thirty years ago 7 O’Clock seemed far to early to kick things off, but these days it suits me fine!

It’s another Music Monday, as created by Drew at The Tattooed Book Geek

The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac

Tags

,

We are faced at this very moment with a climate emergency. Christina Figueres is Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. She took the role shortly after the failed COP15 in July 2010 and led the delivery of negotiations that resulted in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Tom Rivett-Carnac was the Senior Political Strategist. As a result, they feel like suitably qualified people to guide us through the nature of that emergency and provide some hope and crucially action that we can all take to face it.

The first section of the book covers the junction that we currently stand at and the two potential directions that we can choose to take. The differences are extremely stark depending on the future we choose. We can try to keep going down our current route, burning fossil fuels, over consuming and competing to pile pressure onto our planet’s resources and ecosystems, or we can seek to transform the way we live and accept that we are part of one whole and need to live in balance with the planet that sustains us. Both will transform our planet and our quality of life, but in radically different ways.

The next section considers the mindsets that are required to take on the task that we face. This is about the determined optimism and ultimately resilience that we will need in order to find hope in our current situation. We cannot stare into the future like rabbits into headlights. It is also about moving our mindset away from competing for resources that are perceived to be scarce (and creating scarcity through the dysfunctional behaviours of competition) towards collaborating to provide what each person needs at the point that they need it.

Having now set the scene and laid some groundwork the meat of the book looks at what we can actually do to face the crisis of climate breakdown. It is essential to understand that we can make a difference and that we need to take action individually, as well at the structural level, if we are to succeed in the transformation that our planet and species needs.

The suggested actions are a mix of orientations, ways of looking at the way we live and realigning some of our basic assumptions about what makes a good life, and specific things that we can do collectively and as individuals to move towards a new regenerative economy and culture. It is essential if we are to succeed in the grand vision that we each take personal responsibility for moving our own individual lives towards that vision.

We also need to understand that this is not about moving backwards or diminishing the human experience, but is rather a positive and creative vision of moving forwards into a way of life that combines both the awe and wonder of the natural world and the best of human ingenuity. The future is a move away from exploiting the earth and its resources to collaborating with it (and as an intrinsic part of nature ourselves) in a creative, regenerative project.

We are in the midst of an emergency, but The Future We Choose reveals that we are also fortunate to be alive at such a defining moment in our history. This is our opportunity to understand the meaning of our lives and to become a part of the bigger picture of life on earth in a positive way. The last 50 years have been a destructive search for meaning through consumption, a race to accumulate, but the next 25 or so are our opportunity to reshape our culture to the natural patterns of birth, death and regeneration and truly take our place in the world.

The Future We Choose is an urgent read, but it also requires an urgent response from us all. Take the first step now.

 

The Future We Choose is published on 25 February 2020 by Bonnier Books UK. I was provided with an ebook by Netgalley in return for this honest review.