TagSandstone Press

Three reviews: İşigüzel, Nors, Glaister

A trio of short reviews first posted on my Instagram.

Şebnem İşigüzel , The Girl in the Tree (2016)
Translated from the Turkish by Mark David Wyers (2020)

The narrator of this novel is about to turn 18 when she decides she’s had enough. She climbs the tallest tree in an Istanbul park, and determines to stay there. The text we read is her account of her past, present and future. ⁣

It’s the voice that strikes me most of all: a smart, articulate voice that loops back and forth between stories, able to command a world within the tree even as she’s trying to make sense of the world below. The girl’s reasons for wanting to escape her life gradually become clear, encompassing events in her family and broader violence. This is a poignant, engaging and ultimately hopeful book.

Published by AmazonCrossing.

Dorthe Nors, Wild Swims (2018)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2020)

I knew from reading Dorthe Nors’ previous collection, Karate Chop, that her stories tended towards character studies with a dark streak. So, when I saw there was a story called ‘Hygge’ in this new collection, I suspected that it wouldn’t be as cosy or convivial as the title suggested. ⁣

‘Hygge’ is narrated by a retired professor who views himself as something of a silver fox. He treats the attention of the ladies at the senior club with an air of bored amusement. At the moment he’s with Lilly, they’ve just had an argument, and she would like that to be put behind them. The narrator is reminded of his old Aunt Clara and his students in the 1970s – for different reasons, neither of them good. The ending is truly chilling.⁣

Elsewhere in Wild Swims, we find ‘The Fairground’, in which a woman compares the idealised version of love she imagined in childhood with the disappointing reality she has experienced as an adult, with an abandoned fairground serving as a metaphor for the difference. The protagonist of ‘On Narrow Paved Paths’ keeps herself busy helping out a terminally ill friend, but there’s a sense that she is also propping herself up. In ‘By Syndvest Station’, two friends collecting for charity encounter an old woman in deep poverty and distress – one is shaken, but the other has something else on her mind. It’s another fine collection of stories from Nors.

Published by Pushkin Press.

Lesley Glaister, Blasted Things (2020)

Every novel of Lesley Glaister’s that I’ve read – this is the third – has been atmospheric, Blasted Things perhaps most of all. ⁣

In 1917, Clementine is a nurse on the Western Front. She is about to elope with Powell, a Canadian medic, when he is blown up. Clem is reluctantly forced to return to life with Dennis (a doctor who stayed behind to treat people in the UK), which is where we find her again in 1920.⁣

A chance encounter leads Clem to meet Vincent, whose face was partially destroyed in war. He reminds her of Powell, and she falls for his well-spoken charm. But Vincent is really a grifter, who’s out to see what he can get from Clem. ⁣

There’s some really effective writing in Blasted Things such as when Glaister breaks up her usual style to convey the disorientation of wartime. I also found it a gripping story – you just sense that the tale of Clem and Vincent will not end well, but exactly how it plays out is another matter.

Published by Sandstone Press.

The Angel in the Stone – R.L. McKinney: a snapshot review

More than 20 years on, Calum is still haunted by his brother Finn’s death in a climbing accident. Their mother Mary, who now has dementia, blames Calum for Finn’s death, and is becoming increasingly paranoid as her condition progresses. Calum returned to Scotland five years ago, following a failed relationship in America. He still isn’t entirely settled, even now. Meanwhile, Calum’s estranged daughter Catriona is heading over from Aberdeen, seeking reconciliation and carrying secrets of her own.

The Angel in the Stone is the second novel by R.L. McKinney, an American writer who has lived in Scotland since 1995. In the book, McKinney weaves a nuanced portrait of family relationships, exploring what may cause those bonds to fray, break, or be made anew. There are also neat thematic parallels in the background: the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, and the changing face of the Highlands. All in all, The Angel in the Stone is an interesting read, worth checking out.

A version of this review was first published as a thread on Twitter. 

Book details 

The Angel in the Stone (2017) by R.L. McKinney, Sandstone Press, 298 pages, paperback (review copy). 

Book notes: Rosy Thornton and Nikita Lalwani

Rosy Thornton, Ninepins (2012)

Cambridge academic Laura Blackwood and her twelve-year-old daughter Beth live in Ninepins, a former tollhouse build atop a dyke out in the fens. To help make ends meet, Laura has been renting out the adjoining old pumphouse. As the novel begins, her latest tenant arrives: Willow Tyler, a seventeen-year-old care-leaver. Laura is wary of taking Willow on, because she’s younger than previous tenant, and there are whispers of arson in her past – but she wants to give the girl a chance, and Social Services will pay more rent than would a private tenant. But the subsequent months bring problems with the weather,Willow’s estranged mother, and Beth and her friends.

The sense of place is vivid in Rosy Thornton’s new novel – the damp atmosphere of the fens and the remoteness of Ninepins come straight off the page. The dislocated setting provides a fitting background and mirror to the story: Laura starts to feel increasingly distanced from Beth, who’s now getting into trouble in ways she never previously did; and Willow is trying (though not always succeeding) to leave her mother behind. Besides this, the whole book moves along nicely, all adding up to an engaging read.

Rosy Thornton’s website
Thornton writes about the novel on Sally Zigmond’s blog
Some other reviews of Ninepins: A Bookish Affair; Book Dilettante; Kate Phillips for For Books’ Sake.

Nikita Lalwani, The Village (2012)

Anglo-Indian director Ray Bhullar arrives at the Indian village of Ashwer to make a documentary for the BBC. Ashwer’s inhabitants are mostly ordinary folk, but for one detail: a member of each family has killed someone. This village is an open prison, whose inmates are allowed to live with their families; it’s had no reoffenders, and only one (unsuccessful) escape attempt. Ray’s aim is to make a film that will allow her British audience to appreciate the people of Ashwer as they really are; but her white colleagues – producer Serena and (ex-offender) presenter Nathan – are not quite so noble-minded.

The ethics of documentary-making are at the centre of Nikita Lalwani’s second novel, as Ray tries to find the balance between telling a good story and not exploiting her subjects. It’s no easy task, because she finds herself inadvertently getting closer to certain villagers than she’d intended. And Ray’s own ethical sense is not entirely clear-cut – she’d love to be able to film people completely candidly, but that would mean not having their consent. Lalwani documents the thorny tangle of these issues, building up to a couple of tense set-pieces at novel’s end.

Running in parallel with this is Ray’s personal struggle with herself – her sense that, despite her Indian heritage, she may not fit in with the culture of Ashwer as much as she’d thought. It adds another layer of complexity to a novel which ends in a resolution which feels as much a compromise on Ray’s part as a step forward for her.

Nikita Lalwani’s website
Interview with Lalwani at The Asian Writer
Some other reviews of The Village: Maia Nikitina for Bookmunch; Laura Reading Books; Arifa Akbar for the Independent.

Q&A: Robert Davidson of Sandstone Press

With The Testament of Jessie Lamb having won the Clarke Award last week, I thought it would be interesting to find out more about the small Highland press which published the book. So I got in touch with Sandstone’s Managing Director, Robert Davidson (pictured left, © Gary Antony), who was kind enough to answer a few questions.


DH: What’s your background, and where did the idea for Sandstone Press come from?

RD: Sandstone flowed quite naturally from the activities of my earlier life. I sometimes entertain the dangerous notion that everything up to its beginning was preparation for what was to come. For more than two decades I had lived not just a double life as engineer by day, writer by night, but triple since I was also intently involved in hillwalking, the local community, the Neil Gunn Trust, Reviews Editor at Northwords Magazine, and much else. My second book was titled Total Immersion; not for nothing. Something had to give and in 2000 I came out of my job with Site Works begun and many other projects being actioned. Soon I was Managing Editor at Northwords, where I spent three years. By that time much had been learned of what not to do and a bit more about what actually works. To extend both my own creative work and also my work with other people and projects, a new structure with new mechanisms was required and Sandstone Press was born. I think it must be obvious from outside the company that, by now, Sandstone Press is a lot bigger than any one person. There have been changes in personnel, the arrival of two great Board members in Iain Gordon and Moira Forsyth, ever rising ambitions, great support in recent years from Creative Scotland, achieving Faber Factory Plus as selling agents, many more books and increasing international recognition and outreach. My early ambitions are now refined down to project management of the whole thing. Personal projects will have to wait. I have probably written my last book, which is a sadness, but the larger project prevails. Don’t misconstrue that as a complaint. This is one of the most exciting times of my life.

DH: What do you look for in a book when you’re deciding what to publish?

RD: The strap line to our principal logo is ‘contemporary quality reading’. The list has also become refined and now focusses on outdoor (which is a natural product of our Highland location), literary and biographical non-fiction, and more general, contemporary fiction. An increasing number of titles will be bought in from abroad and it is likely that we will publish fewer, high risk, first time authors. That rather avoids your question though.

The first thing I look for is the ‘idea of the book’, and I feel it is best if it can be described in just a few words such as ‘the biography of the recently retired leader of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team’ or ‘what happens to a child when his parents mysteriously disappear in Australia’. This is the seed from which all else grows. There can be too many ideas at root, I believe, and ideas which come along in the course of writing should conform to that key note.

The second thing both I and Editorial Director Moira Forsyth look for is, quite simply, good writing. Good writing can carry a book through to a disappointing conclusion and it still be deemed a success, as every reader must know. Some of their favourite books have flat or implausible endings. The word ‘quality’ looms large for us and I guess that recognising quality beyond personal leanings is one important mark of the successful publisher.

Increasingly we must seek the commercial. Personally, I love the art book. I love the quixotic and different and lyrical. To also publish such titles we must first pay the bills. We therefore seek quality and commercial attributes combined.

DH: Let’s talk about The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which I guess could be considered your breakout book. Clearly it has struck quite a chord; what was your feeling when you read it?

RD: I had no doubt about its quality as I turned the A4 sheets. I am already on record as saying it is a work of genius on several levels. Mature adult subjects treated through the eyes of a child or young adult are difficult to almost impossible to bring off and it takes an author of the highest calibre to do so. Jane Rogers achieves this with what looks like consummate ease. Its themes are contemporary and vital. It gives food for thought, indeed argument, to feminists, environmentalists, moralists of every stamp, and Christians. The work goes deep. If your heart is not aching for Jessie and her father by the end it must be made of stone. To me, all of these things were obvious. There is a part of me that wants to carry the book forward with Sandstone alone, but Canongate’s offer of partnership will work best for the title and the author. It was also too generous to refuse and I should say that I am very happy with the relationships which have developed and which are continuing to develop.

DH: What can we look forward to from Sandstone in the future? What are your ambitions for the press?

RD: My ambitions for the Press are what they always were. We are to be a self-sustaining, which is to say sustained by trade, international publishing company located in Highland Scotland, employing here and contributing to our economy. The rest is growth and  . . . Beyond that? Let me repeat what some senior Waterstones personnel said to me earlier in the year in Edinburgh. ‘Just keep publishing great books.’

DH: Finally, please recommend a book that you think deserves a wider audience (but not one that you publish).

RD: I should have been ready for this one! Still seeing myself as a writer, editor and publisher I would choose Journal of a Novel (The East of Eden Letters) by John Steinbeck for other writers, for editors, Letters from the Editor by Harold Ross, original editor of the New Yorker, and for publishers, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, of course.


Thanks to Robert for taking the time to answer my questions. You can find out more about Sandstone Press on their website.

Jane Rogers, The Testament of Jessie Lamb (2011)

They called it MDS – Maternal Death Syndrome. No one knew where it originated, but its effects were all too familiar: to lay waste to the brains of any women who became pregnant – with no possible exceptions, because everyone carries the disease. Jessie Lamb is a teenager living near Manchester; though her father is a fertility scientist, she has little care for the state of the world – as far as she’s concerned, this is just the way things are, and any problems are for adults to deal with.

But then, through a friend, Jessie gets involved in Youth For Independence (YOFI), a movement centred on the idea that young people must repair the damage to the world which adults have caused:

[…]maybe, if we could get enough people to join us, trying to create a different way of living on the planet, maybe that in itself would start to produce an answer to MDS. A solution we couldn’t even imagine yet. (p. 29)

There’s a touch of wishful thinking in Jessie’s thought process, here; and she soon leaves YOFI when the reality doesn’t match up to what she’d hoped. But there’s also a strong desire to do something to help; and, though none of the other protest groups which spring up in the wake of MDS is attractive to Jessie, she never loses that desire.

Jessie finally believes she has found the thing she can do when she hears about the Sleeping Beauties: girls who have volunteered to be placed into a coma so they can bring to term frozen embryos which can then receive a new vaccine against MDS (frozen embryos alone can be vaccinated because they don’t carry the disease). Jessie’s father is quite enthusiastic about the prospects of this programme initially, but soon changes his tune when his daughter declares her intention to volunteer – so much so that he holds her captive to stop her; that’s where we first meet Jessie, and where she’s writing the text we hold, which is her attempt to explain herself.

The whole world might be in the grip of an epidemic in The Testament of Jessie Lamb, but the focus is decidedly intimate. Jane Rogers seems to signal this near the near the beginning of the novel, when she has Jessie and her friend Sal imagine what would happen in a world without humans – the implication being that this playful speculation is as far as the book is going to go down that particular avenue. Likewise, though there’s social unrest in The Testament, it all takes place ‘off-stage’ or on TV news reports. This novel is about Jessie, her relationships, and the decision she wants to make.

The Testament of Jessie Lamb is a novel that challenges its readers to see things from its protagonist’s point of view. In the end, I can’t quite do this: I can see where Jessie is coming from – for her, it’s about having the power to do something that makes a difference, even if adults think that difference is too insignificant for the price that must be paid – and Rogers charts the course of Jessie’s thoughts clearly. But I still feel as though I’m viewing Jessie’s thought process as an outside observer, rather than truly inhabiting it. Be that as it may, The Testament is unforgiving in its treatment of hard consequences and decisions; it has the courage of its convictions and, for that, firmly deserves to be read.

This novel has been shortlisted for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Click here to read my other posts about the Award.

Jane Rogers’ website
The publisher, Sandstone Press
Booker Prize interview with Rogers
Some other reviews of The Testament of Jessie Lamb: Niall Harrison for Strange Horizons; Aishwarya Subramanian at Practically Marzipan; Richard Palmer at Solar Bridge; Sophie Playle for MouthLondon.

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