Category Archives: OneWorld Books

The Parentations – Kate Mayfield

One of my favourite books of the year so far (and if you want to see my top books and possibly win a selection of them, then head here) is without question Kate Mayfield’s debut novel The Parentations. Now I mention getting nervous about books quite a lot, like I am constantly having to smell salts in my library which is not the case, but the size (500 pages) and premise of this book (immortality) did originally give me pause for thought. Yet I was swiftly enveloped in this novel and reminded that there can be nothing more rewarding than a big chunky book with an incredible tale to tell, and this is quite the tale indeed.

OneWorld, hardback, 2018, fiction, 500 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

They aren’t even sure he’s still alive. They’d tossed around ideas about him so often and for so many years that they’d created a shared fantasy about the kind of man he might have become. He might still be a boy, they reasoned. They considered, too, that he might be dead. They have no way of knowing.

The Parentations starts in 2015 as the Lawless sisters wait for three things. The first is the day that they can go and look for a boy who they see as a son, in a designated place they return to each year not knowing if he is still alive but always hoping. The second is for a regular sleep that each of them takes for a long time while the other watches over. The third is a delivery of some kind of medicine. We then flit across London to the Fowler household where a similar shipment is due to arrive and where some members of the house are also trying to find a secret stash of it they believe has been hidden. To find out what links these two households and why they are awaiting this tincture we must head back several hundred years to a volcanic eruption in Iceland that reveals a pool of immortality.

Now initially I admit I was a little bit ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight then’ however we are soon completely with Stefan in 1783 as this volcanic eruption takes over the island and how once having stumbled across this pool he soon becomes a guardian of sorts for it. Over a few hundred years (which Mayfield deftly and swiftly moves us through) more people drink from the pool who create a secret community. These include a couple who have a child with special gifts, who needs to be sent away and hidden as it seems their immortal secret has been discovered by those who wish to use it for harm. This is how we end up back in London in the early 1800’s and from here the story, which has already been brimming, takes its full gothic turn and force as we join the lives of the Fowlers and Lawless sisters and see how their lives become entwined. I will say no more on the plot because I wouldn’t want to spoil the twists, turns and delicious romp you have ahead.

At nine o’clock no movement is detected. A group of women have come forward. They have paid a large sum to test the miracles of the gallows. One woman bares her breasts. The hand of a hanged man is believed to cure tumours. She mounts the scaffold. She has no fear, no hesitation, as she takes Finn’s hand in hers. Just as she raises it to her breast, his head rolls and his eyes open and meet hers. The woman faints clean away.

If you love all things gothic then you will adore this book, especially if you like your gothic Victorian, and who doesn’t? Mayfield takes us through the darker parts of the societies and streets of London from orphanages to grand houses, from prisons to the gallows and everything in between. We have dramatic deaths, murders, saucy shenanigans of all sorts all with that ‘sensationalist’ pace and plotting that the likes of Wilkie Collins revelled in so much. You know Mayfield is having a huge amount of fun as she writes this and it’s an utter pleasure to be along for the ride, she also builds this dark and brooding London fully to life, in all its shadowy layers. What you also have is Clovis Fowler, who is one of my new favourite wicked women of fiction. I will just give you a little glimpse of how her husband sees her below, just to whet your appetite, she could almost give Mrs Danvers of Lydia Gwilt a run for their money.

‘Finn, I prefer that you not eat in the bedroom.’
‘You prefer? Another word you’ve picked up at those lectures of yours? I’ll eat where I like.’
‘I thought it would please you. I try to improve my English.’
Clovis waits for a response, but he eats and drinks and grows weary – weary of her. His wife’s beauty no longer interests him. There is no gown, no simple or complicated design that is capable of dimming her voluptuous body, yet he no longer has the addiction he once did for her. In this, most men would think him quite mad, or a sodomite, but a man, especially a man like Finn, does not like to be used, and the feeling in his tackle goes limp whenever he thinks of her trickery. So he dines in silence.

Yet amongst all this romp and sensation there is some incredibly moving moments and thoughts subjects The Parentations. The immortality which I initially felt a bit ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight then’ about goes from being the best thing you could wish for to the ultimate curse. How do you have to look after yourself if you have to try and live forever? What situations must you avoid? How do you cope as some of those around you that you live age and die? How must it be to want to die and be unable? The other particularly poignant strand of the novel is how we see society and culture progress and change over the years and how some of the characters we come to love, but might not live to see these changes, would benefit from them. I found that incredibly emotive.

Again, this shows the brilliance of Mayfield’s writing. Her characters are wonderful, even the ones you are meant to hate (yes, the fabulous Clovis) and come fully formed with all their complexities and how they change in the subtlest of ways along with the times – another interesting element of the book – and as they try to survive what life throws at them. Mayfield also writes the shifting of these time periods and the atmosphere and changes in London as it moves towards 2015, without hitting you over the head with changes in technology, décor, etc she fully evokes exactly whichever decade you are in.

The room is dripping in tat. A frayed lampshade sends a sickly, yellow glow into a grey corner that rivals the afternoon’s clouds. Puckering across the single bed a dingy, blue blanket fails to disguise the lumpy mattress. A weathered, Lusty chair, meant for a garden and cocktails, sits beside a small, unused Victorian fireplace in this rented room in Pimlico. It’s noisy, a bit smelly, and a hidden paradise. Kay Starr sings from a beaten up portable gramophone, two men stand entwined in a small moon-shaped space in the centre of the room. To dance naked is unbearably exciting. Jonesy lets David take the lead.

As I said earlier The Parentations was an instant hit with me, hence being one of my books of the year so far. I have no doubt that it will be one of my books of the year full stop as ever since I closed the final page these characters and their stories have held a place in my heart which continues to grow. Go and get your hands on it. Right now.

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Filed under Books of 2018, Kate Mayfield, OneWorld Books, Review

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach

I don’t dabble in much non-fiction it has to be said. I often worry that non-fiction equals boring, books of endless descriptions and facts don’t tend to work for me, and this includes fiction novels where the author is showing off the research, they feel like a lecture. I do like to learn about new things though. Not a contradiction in terms at all am I? Narrative non-fiction is good for this, as are books that make learning fun, conversational and occasionally a little bit naughty yet always with a sensitivity. Do such books exist? Of course, if they are written by Mary Roach, and ‘Packing for Mars’ is her latest book all about the great unknown that is space.

OneWorld Books, paperback, 2011, non-fiction, 312 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I have to admit that when I heard that Mary Roach’s new novel was going to be about space the thought of ‘what, really?’ went through my head. She had already covered death (‘Stiff’), the supernatural and paranormal (‘Six Feet Over’) and sex (‘Bonk’) so space worried me slightly, I wasn’t sure th subject would hold me quite like the others.

I admit I was intrigued by the planets and stars as a youngster, but I have never had even the slightest interest in being an astronaut or humans travelling through the unknown. I certainly don’t rush to see films like ‘Apollo 13’ though the idea of aliens intrigues me. That said ‘Packing for Mars’ being packed – do you see what I did there – with wit, humour and the questions you would like to ask but probably wouldn’t dare to if you could, it was a real winner with me.

“Space doesn’t just encompass the sublime and the ridiculous. It erases the in-between.”

Being non-fiction ‘Packing for Mars’ doesn’t have a plot and so not only is it really hard to give you enough of taster, especially as the book is crammed with fascinating facts and true tales of space travel, it is is rather hard to write about it in depth. I don’t want to tell you all of my favourite stories and nuggets away because then you might not read the rest, though in truth I loved the entire book and that is because when you read a Mary Roach book you feel like you are having a conversation, full of giggling, with her. There are even knowing jokes and asides in the form of the footnotes. It is just a pure pleasure to read. It also makes the facts and information fun and who knew knowing more about things like gravity etc could be so much fun?

“To understand the Project Albert mind-set, you need to spend a few moments pondering the forces of gravitation. If you are like me, you have tended to think of gravity in terms of minor personal annoyances: broken glassware and sagging body parts. Until this week, I failed to appreciate the gravitas of gravity.”

This is not a case of dumbing down the scientific either, I do fear some people may read the blurb and think that Mary Roach isn’t taking this seriously as she looks at how people go to the toilet or vomit in a spacesuit (which made me laugh) and how they cope with no air, hot showers etc but it is her curiosity and interest in everything that can happen in a space ship that makes it so interesting.  It is not all jokes either. With scientific experiments come the tests, the accidents and the things that go wrong, and when talking about dead bodies, monkeys being used as test pilots and other slightly morbid twists, she is also incredibly sensitive and looks at it all from an emotional level too.

‘Packing for Mars’ is a book that levels with its reader, almost saying ‘I didn’t think space could be so interesting did you? But look at this… and this… and this.’ Her enthusiasm catches you through the pages and I bet you will find yourself saying ‘oh just one more chapter, oh go on then and another’, I know I did. I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, so do please give it a whirl.

Have you read this book? Have you read any of Mary Roach’s other non-fiction novels? Which non-fiction books, not including narrative non-fiction, have you been charmed by rather than lectured at? I feel very lucky as whilst reading this book felt like having a conversation with Mary Roach, I actually had one with her and Gavin for The Readers Summer Book Club which you can listen to here, and if that doesn’t convince you to read the book nothing will. She’s hilarious.

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Filed under Books of 2012, Mary Roach, Non Fiction, OneWorld Books, The Readers Summer Book Club