Summerscale returns with fascinating tale of a wicked boy

The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer
Kate Summerscale
Penguin Press
Pub Date: 12 Jul 2016


Author Kate Summerscale rose to prominence back in 2008 with the publication of  The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House, a Victorian-era Scotland Yard  investigation of a murder on a country estate. The book, based on actual events, was a hugely enjoyable tale of Victorian crime, which was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction 2008, and became an International Bestseller. She has proved adept at turning long forgotten Victorian events into compelling modern stories. It is a talent she demonstrates once again in her latest book ‘ The Wicked Boy’.

The book takes as its subject the murder, in 1895, of a young mother by one of her sons, 13 year old Robert Coombes.

The reporting of the trail and trial transcripts themselves take up a big chunk of the first half of the book: indeed,  at first, I wasn’t sure if all we were going to get is the tale of murder and subsequent trial – and indeed whether or not the true murderer is on trial or not. Was Robert driven to commit his crime by reading violent ‘penny dreadful’ novels?, did he have help from his younger brother Nattie? Is he covering for Nattie?  The story of the trail is fascinating and what Summerscale skilfully does is add context, explaining the thinking of the time and actually providing a more complete picture than would have been available to anyone at the time of the ideas, beliefs and rational at work within the English legal and mental health systems.  And even within the confines of the story of the trial – and the information available at the time –  you may find yourself surprised by the trial and the thoughts of the jury.

But there is more to the story than a trial. You get that plus the book taking you on a journey into life inside Broadmoor (probably not what you expect); through the first and second world wars and beyond. That it does this is to the credit of Summerscale’s detecting, research and writing skills. In her hands Robert Coombes emerges as a truly fascinating and complex character. You are not forced to like him, indeed, you may not, but it is hard not to be engaged by his story.

A fine slice of popularist







Tyler’s shrew fails to delight

Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold (Hogarth Shakespeare)
Anne Tyler
Random House UK, Vintage Publishing
Pub Date 16 Jun 2016 

What could be better than the pairing of one of my favourite authors of all time, Anne Tyler, and one of my favourite Shakespeare plays – The Taming of the Shrew.  Sadly, quite a lot.  Tyler’s book is part of Vintage’s “Hogarth Shakespeare”, marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death: “The world’s favourite playwright. Today’s best-loved novelists.” Nice idea, to a point, but also a gimmick, and despite Tyler’s best efforts, that is all the Vinegar Girl ever feels like.

So we get Kate Battista a pre-school teacher in Baltimore (obviously). She lives at home with a teen sister and a mad scientist  /  academic father who is on the verge of a major scientific breakthrough. The problem, due to immigration laws  he is also about to lose his brilliant eastern European lab assistant, Pyotr, unless …

I really really wanted to love this book, but it felt uncomfortable – Anne Tyler books don’t feel uncomfortable: the effortless fluidity of her prose doesn’t allow for it; but here the prose often feels clunky and unconvincing.

I had hoped that mostly disposing of the bianca/bunny plot line would mean a more focused and sharper battle between Kate and Pyotr, but alas, no.

I kept trying to put a brave face on it, but it was no use. It just felt like a 74 year old trying too hard at writing YA fiction.

The most disappointing novel of 2016.

Review copy: Random House/NetGalley

United in Diversity

In a  week’s time we get to vote (and I urge you all to do so whether you’re a remainer or brexiter). It’s been an enthralling campaign a long and quite tiresome campaign full of sniping and misinformation in an “I’m more patriotic than you are Na-nana-naa-nah!” Kind of way.

I’m voting remain. There, got it out of the way right at the start. Many reasons for this, but even if I had no heartfelt reasons I’d still be voting remain just because the brexit argument, to me, lacks any kind of common sense. Here’s why.

What Being in EU Costs

Going Out – £350m a week

Right, if you haven’t worked this out yet, let’s put this one to bed right now, the UK does not send £350m a week to Brussels. Our rebate is deducted this end, before the money is sent, which immediately takes the contribution down to £276m a week. Still a lot of money I hear you cry. We could do a lot with that money. Ok.

Coming Back

Around £88m a week comes back and is spent in the UK on things like regional aid and support for farmers. Well we could take that back right away, right? Indeed, any future government could decide after a Brexit that it should take that money away from farmers and regional aid (used to build infrastructure mostly) and say, give it instead to the NHS instead. Could is the key word here. In reality we were amongst those fighting hardest in EU to get this money channelled to farmers in particular. Anyone who seriously things we would leave and not match the money currently going to farmers, has never met a rural tory MP. Also, things still need building, and infrastructure and regeneration are money generators and job creators so even whilst some of the regional aid money might be clawed back, most would still be heading to the same places.

Around another £27m a week comes back to support things like research projects in UK universities and companies. Again, on the face of it this looks like an easy saving. But in reality the UK is keen to be seen as a centre of excellence attracting the best minds and a critical mass of research capability helps put the UK at the very centre of global development and industry.  So, some money might be saved but again very doubtfully £27m

Indeed as I write this Vote Leave have published an open letter, signed by ex-London mayor Boris Johnson and ministers including Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Priti Patel, saying “It is important that people and organisations now receiving funding from the EU know that their funding is safe if we Vote Leave on June 23.”, indeed guaranteeing that money until 2020. Indeed they go on to say “that scientists and universities should expect that funding will be much more generous after we take back control and give them the priority they deserve.” Not sure where this ‘extra’ money is coming from. In fact, ignoring the extra money, I’m not sure where the confidence to make the promises comes from. This send money, will become unsent and just part of treasury coffers so unless it is ring-fenced in some way, there will be no guarantees, and any guarantees could be changed by any government, any year, if it deemed the money was needed elsewhere.

There are other in’s but even ignoring those and saying there would be a like for like matching of the above funding out, we are still left with a very tidy sum of around £161m.

We have £161m a week to spend – hurrah

Actually, no we don’t, especially if we still want access to single market like countries such as Norway in the EEA. They may not be EU members but they do have to pay their associate member fees.  Those fees, not much cheaper that being a full member. Norway’s contribution to the EU in 2011 was £106 per capita, compared with the UK’s net contribution of £128 per capita in the same year. Current ratio between the countries is similar.  So any deal the ‘out’ UK makes likely to keep access to the single market, is likely to swallow most of that remaining £161m a week.

BUT … even if we could magically take that original EU budget contribution on put it into the NHS our current yearly net payment to the EU would fund the NHS for roughly 19 days a year at current operating costs (NHS Budget £2.25bn a week).

We’re GREAT [I think – by and large – we already are, by the way]

Hang on. We don’t need Europe or access to the single market you cry. Are you serious? The EU is the largest economy in the world and is the world’s largest trading block, and accounts for roughly half our trade? You want to see businesses leaving the UK, tell them you are making it harder for them to do business in one of its biggest markets.

We can just wing it. True, we could. Our businesses could trade with Europe in an adhoc manner. Of course, they would still be subject to all the EU regulations which we no longer have a hand in creating and to tariffs of some sort, but it could be done. Oh, unless you’re in the financial services industry. They would have to relocate, in the same way that American financial services are required to relocate to London or Dublin, or Frankfurt etc in order to do business in Europe. Similarly that is why a number of Swiss banks currently operate their investment bank business through subsidiaries in the UK in order to be able to operate in the EU, as Switzerland’s trade deal with the EU do not allow this via Switzerland.

Sod Europe, we’ll all trade instead with other parts of the world. [pssst ….pssst … you already can]. EU membership doesn’t compel you to trade with Europe. That’s why the EU has so many free trade agreements with non-eu countries, that we already benefit from.

Out, we need to negotiate our own individual agreements, and – ‘do a google search’ – these things take YEARS to do. Yes, but Switzerland has agreements with Canada, China, Japan and Singapore you say. Well, the EU has an agreement with Canada, an agreement with Singapore is in the process of being adopted, and there are Japan and China agreements currently being negotiated. The Swiss ones took a long time to conclude and are all weighed heavily in favour of the other countries. The Chinese one basically give China access to the Swiss market immediately, whilst the Swiss get access to China’s market gradually over 10-15yrs (if the agreement isn’t amended, and China has an option to do so every 2 years)

Outside we’d have to commence negotiations from scratch with these and the other countries the EU has agreements with. Will China still want to do a deal with us and get access to our 60m+ consumers? Probably, but I suspect their priority will be gain access to the EU’s 740 million consumers first, and I also suspect the EU will probably come away with better terms that either the Swiss or the UK alone could or would manage.

So whilst it would be true to say inside the EU we can’t make our own trade deals, why would we want to if it means getting a rubbish deal?

And let’s not forget that we are going to need LOTS of these trade deals. And these negotiations take a long time. What exactly are British businesses meant to do in the years it takes for these deals to be done?

Then, again, we needn’t worry about all this because some people, such as Matthew Elliott former Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance and Chief executive of the Leave campaign reckon that the EU countries as so dependent on trade with the UK, that there is “There is no question about it, Britain will still have access to the single market after we Vote Leave. It would be perverse of the eurozone to try to create artificial barriers – and would do far more damage to them than to anyone else,” he says. If he means will we still have access during the period we are withdrawing from the EU (expected to take two years), he’s correct. Nothing will change the day after the vote and during the period of uncoupling the UK would continue to remain part of the single market and benefit from all the current EU trade agreements. But he is clearly seriously deluded if he thinks the EU is going to lets us leave and keep still keep the main trading benefit of membership? Before you reach your own conclusion there bear in mind that half of the UK’s total trade is with the EU while just 8% of total EU trade is with the UK. Remind me who needs who here?

Some on the leave side have put forward the idea that German business is so terrified we’d leave that there would be pressure to keep us in the single market by allow us to comply with a “free movement of labour” which allows for workers from the EU to come to the UK with a firm job offer, as opposed to the full free movement of citizens. Nice idea, but whilst Germany is certainly centre in the EU, there are 26 other members who will  have an equal say, and probably say hang on – they’ve voted to leave and we are going to let them back in on a preferential deal? – a deal in fact that many other of the member states would possibly want? Where is the sense in that? Also, the EU hasn’t been playing hard-ball with the Swiss for two years to roll over on this one.

OK, we’ll be Norway. It’s great.  – The European Economic Area (EEA)

Ok, so we want out but we do still want access to the club benefits. So we join the EEA. We’ve just pleased business who want minimal disruption and to retain as much access to the EU market as possible. And this is where it gets fun. For the EU the internal market is not just about vacillating trade in goods and services: it also about the free movement of citizens. But, we are leaving to help stop that you cry. Not going to happen, sorry. Back in the 90’s when the internal market was extended to the EFTA countries, such as Norway and Switzerland one of the key conditions was the free movement of citizens. Those thinking the EU would offer the UK a deal minus that or the above ‘labour only’ deal (and the precedent it would set) has clearly seen a different history of trade negotiations to me. Not going to happen.

Norway is also currently top dog in this group of countries. A possible UK attempt to join could leave it threatened that the UK might come in, take control, and start playing politics and holding up agreement of EU rules for reasons which might not align with Norwegian interests. Norway could choose to block any UK membership. And, yes, they can. The EEA agreement requires an applicant to the EEA to have the support of all the existing members – Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein (Norway blocked Slovenia’s attempt to join). The EU, amusingly, also has a veto over membership of the EEA. Given the EEA is meant to be a stepping stone for full EU membership not a ‘step-out’ stone, they could veto the idea.

 “If you want to run the EU, stay in the EU. If you want to be run by the EU, feel free to join us in the EEA.” – Nikolai Astrup MP, Norwegian Conservative Party.

Immigration, Immigration, Immigration,

So where would the EEA/Norway option leave us in ‘taking back our borders’? Quick answer, exactly where we are now. Neither of the main political parties is advocating a post brexit return to full immigration control for those from the EU. – some members of the Leave campaign are: parties aren’t.

Er, ok, What about Switzerland – they do alright AND they had a referendum for strict immigration controls right?

Well … relations between Switzerland and the EU are governed by around 100 bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU’s single market. The main chunk of these agreements were done in two batches taking seven and three years respectively to negotiate. But due to the increased size of the EU, the Swiss were told in 2014 that the current agreements would not be renewed and renegotiated. Instead, the Swiss would need to adopt a similar agreement to those of the EEA members. Without such a framework the EU stated no further agreements on Swiss participation in the internal market will be concluded.

The Swiss also had a referendum in 2014, when 50.3% of the population voted in favour of the introduction of strict quotas on all foreigners. So? It hasn’t harmed them … has it? They have taken back their borders.

As yet the Swiss government have not implemented any law to introduce such quotas. Were it to do so it would be in breach of its bilateral agreement with the EU on the free movement of people. This would trigger a clause where the EU could immediately nullify all the other bi-lateral agreements it has with Switzerland. Would they?

The Council of the EU has stated: “…the Council reconfirms the negative reply in July 2014 to the Swiss request to renegotiate the Agreement. It considers that the free movement of persons is a fundamental pillar of EU policy and that the internal market and its four freedoms are indivisible. The Council confirms its view that the planned implementation of the result of the vote threatens to undermine the core of EU-Switzerland relations, namely the so-called “bilateral I agreements”

The Swiss have found out that the price of access to the free market is free movement. We would too. Yes, we are a bigger country and the world’s 5th biggest economy etc etc etc BUT let me remind you again, currently around half of the UK’s total trade is with the EU while just 8% of EU trade is with the UK. Tell me who you seriously think has the upper hand in any negotiations here?

The deadline for the Swiss to pass an implementing law on quotas is 9 February 2017.

Interestingly, recent opinion polls in the country suggest if the referendum were re-run now (and it is starting to look more and more likely it will be re-run in the next 18 months) the result would be reversed and there would be a clear vote against restricting free movement from the EU and having a immigration quota system.

It’s all about Sovereignty 

We are just fed up of being ruled by Brussels with all their laws and their courts telling us what to do in our own country. We need to take back control so our elected politicians in our parliament and courts are making the decisions.

I think we need to understand what the various bits of the EU institutions do first. Shall we have a quick run through of the main EU institutions and what they do? Yes, it’s my website, so let’s. According to Article 13 of the Treaty on European Union, the institutional framework comprises 7 institutions:

  • the European Commission;
  • the European Parliament;
  • the European Council;
  • the Council of the European Union (simply called ‘the Council’);
  • the Court of Justice of the European Union;
  • the European Central Bank;
  • the Court of Auditors.

We’ll skip the last two but look at the rest.

What does the Commission do?

Proposes new laws

The Commission is the sole EU institution tabling laws for adoption by the Parliament and the Council.

Manages Policy & Allocates EU funding

– Sets EU spending priorities, together with the Council and Parliament.

– Draws up annual budgets for approval by the Parliament and Council.

– Supervises how the money is spent, under scrutiny by the Court of Auditors.

Enforces EU law

– Together with the Court of Justice, ensures that EU law is properly applied in all the member countries.

Represents the EU internationally

– Speaks on behalf of all EU countries in international bodies, in particular in areas of trade policy and humanitarian aid.

– Negotiates international agreements for the EU.

Membership: UNELECTED! There I said it. The Commissioners and senior staff of the Commission are unelected. But they are put forward for posts by the elected governments of the 28 member states, and are only appointed subject to confirmation by the elected European Parliament.

What does the Parliament do?

The Parliament has 3 main roles:


– Passing EU laws, together with the Council of the EU, based on European Commission proposals – The European Parliament may approve or reject a legislative proposal, or propose amendments to it.

– Deciding on international agreements

– Deciding on enlargements

– Reviewing the Commission’s work programme and asking it to propose legislation / says which laws it would like to see introduced. The European Parliament already cooperates with the Commission in the process of drafting the Commission´s work programme and the Commission shall take into account the priorities expressed by Parliament at that stage.

– Parliament, acting by a majority of its Members, may request the Commission to submit any appropriate legislative proposal. Parliament may, at the same time, set a deadline for the submission of such a proposal. The Parliament committee responsible must first ask the Conference of Presidents for authorisation. The Commission may agree or refuse to submit the proposal requested.


– Democratic scrutiny of all EU institutions

– Electing the Commission President and approving the Commission as a body. Possibility of voting a motion of censure, obliging the Commission to resign

– Granting discharge, i.e. approving the way EU budgets have been spent

– Examining citizens’ petitions and setting up inquiries

– Discussing monetary policy with the European Central Bank

– Questioning Commission and Council

– Election observations


– Establishing the EU budget, together with the Council

– Approving the EU’s long-term budget, the “Multiannual Financial Framework”

Membership: Democratically elected members from all member states

What does the Council of the European Union (‘The Council’ ) do?

– Negotiates and adopts EU laws, together with the European Parliament, based on proposals from the European Commission

– Coordinates EU countries’ policies

– Develops the EU’s foreign & security policy, based on European Council guidelines

– Concludes agreements between the EU and other countries or international organisations

– Adopts the annual EU budget – jointly with the European Parliament.

– the holder of executive power, which it generally delegates to the Commission.

Membership: Elected government ministers from the 28 EU countries. The Council meets in 10 configurations, bringing together the relevant ministers from EU countries: General Affairs; Foreign Affairs; Economic and Financial Affairs; Justice and Internal Affairs; Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs; Competitiveness; Transport, Telecommunications and Energy; Agriculture and Fisheries; Environment; Education, Youth and Culture.

What does the European Council do?

– Decides on the EU’s overall direction and political priorities – provide the impetus, general political guidelines and priorities for the EU’s development – but does not pass laws.

– Deals with complex or sensitive issues that cannot be resolved at lower levels of intergovernmental cooperation

– Sets the EU’s common foreign & security policy, taking into account EU strategic interests and defence implications

– Nominates and appoints candidates to certain high profile EU level roles, such as the Commission

Membership:  Heads of State or Government of the 28 EU countries, it meets at least 4 times a year and includes the President of the European Commission as a full member.

How it votes: Qualified majority voting applies in the Council. Under this procedure, when the Council votes on a proposal by the Commission or the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, a qualified majority is reached if two conditions are met:

  • 55% of member states vote in favour– in practice this means 16 out of 28
  • the proposal is supported by member states representing at least 65% of the total EU population

Blocking minority

The blocking minority must include at least four Council members representing more than 35% of the EU population.

What does the European Court of Justice do?

– Interprets EU Law. (this bit is important!)

Comprises 3 branches:

  1. the Court of Justice: this court continues to give preliminary rulings, hear some actions against EU institutions brought by EU countries and take appeals from the General Court. It now also gives rulings in the area of freedom, security and justice, makes decisions on police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, and issues arising from the Charter of Fundamental Rights;
  2. the General Court: this court has jurisdiction to hear actions against EU institutions brought by citizens and, in some instances, by EU countries, and appeals from decisions of the Civil Service Tribunal;
  3. the Civil Service Tribunal: this Tribunal deals exclusively with cases on labour relations between the EU and its civil servants.

Ok, got all that? Right, now let us get down to a couple of choice morsels…

The un-elected European Commission makes law.

Sorry, but it doesn’t. You can say so as often and as loudly as you like, but the fact is it only makes proposals, which are then debated, amended and passed (or rejected) by elected national governments (Council) and directly-elected MEPs. The Commission by itself simply cannot make final decisions on either EU law or policy.

Our parliament and courts have no power to make decisions

I’m sure by now you are aware that a vote to leave will mean the UK can once again run its own country, make its own laws, and have its own courts. This one is trotted out quite a bit.

So, let’s start with the notion that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rides supreme over all other courts.

What the ECJ does is interpret EU law and to require member States to comply with EU law – law which has been made in the first place by the same member states (including the UK).  And, here is the important thing. It interprets EU law. It has no power what-so-ever over any law that does not have an EU directive/regulation at its heart. What does that mean in practice? Well, last year a House of Commons research paper which looked a UK Acts of Parliament and Statutory Instruments from 1993 to 2014 to ascertain which implement or refer to UK obligations under EU law, they found 13.2% of UK law for the period was EU-related. Clear evidence indeed, I think you’ll agree, that we are over-run by Brussels lead legislation and rules, and are clearly struggling as we only make 86.8% of our own laws without EU interference.

But, that still 13.2% where we have to do what the ECJ says though, right? In essence, yes. You see the European Communities Act 1972 (a UK Parliament Act – yet another one of our own pesky laws) provides the basis for EU law trumping UK law in this instance. So, just so we are clear sovereignty fanatics, the UK Parliament agreed to the primacy of EU law in 1972. Of course as a UK act, any government could, at any time, merely amend or revoke this Act, and throw the primacy of EU law out of the window. Of course doing so would create a membership crisis, but it could be done, and we have the sovereignty to do it.

But, back to the power of the ECJ over our courts. The ECJ can only rule (or interfere if you’re a brexiter) if asked to by one of our national courts.  If our courts didn’t refer questions about the interpretation of laws to the ECJ, the ECJ couldn’t ‘interfere’.

When I’m in conversations with people about this issue and they are complaining about the court or how EU laws and regulations are killing them and the country and usually ask then to name a few regulations, directives that we’ve implemented in the UK that are causing most pain and hardship. Surprisingly, almost all can’t come up with any or start mumbling about straight bananas. You’d think if it was something bad enough to cause you to make a decision to leave the EU over it, you’d have quite a list or terrible laws they’d imposed upon us against our will.

But maybe you have read that since we joined the EU the UK has lost 75 per cent of cases at the ECJ – losing 101 of 131. Sounds bad right? Right, now this IS where we ‘uk’ are taken to court by the Commission.  Most of these cases actually involve a failure to implement EU law on time, or correctly (or at least notify the Commission that we have done so). Believe it or not the Commission has better things to do generally than dragging member states before the court, and so it doesn’t bother except for in these types of cases – or ones involving alleged illegal state aid – that it is confident is a sure-fire winner. Our record is also pretty much on a par with most other member states.

It is also worth pointing out that The ECJ can and do strike down/Revoke EU Directives / Regulations, and that the European Parliament can and has taken the Commission to court.

But what about them saying we have to let prisoners vote and that we can’t send terrorist home etc …

The prisoner one is interesting actually, as the case was French not a UK one and of all thing the French prisoner who brought the challenge, Thierry Delvigne, was appealing as he’d been stopped from voting in EU Parliament elections (Oh the irony) under a law in force at the time which imposed a blanket ban on those sentenced to more than five years’ imprisonment. And, here is the rub, the EJC judges said that the ban to which “Delvigne was subject is proportionate”.

But then again with and the alleged terrorist cases you probably mistaking the ECJ for the …

European Court of Human Rights [ECHR]

  • The court is a stand-alone body, and is not a branch of the European Union
  • Even after Brexit all ECHR judgments would still be binding on us.
  • Did you know since 1966 UK has ‘lost’ less than 2% of cases lodged against it in the ECHR.

Where I am?

Love the EU?

Do I think the EU is perfect? No, of course not.  They (we included remember) hung the Greeks out to dry. It was nothing short of shameful.

Are there inefficiencies in how the whole thing works? Yes. But show me any organisation where that is not true. We are not the only member states who’d like to see change, but instead of trying to reach out and work on means to achieve this we prefer to just sit and moan on the sidelines. And let’s be honest no is more guilty than demonising and using the EU as a scapegoat that national politicians, it is after all much easier than taking responsibility yourself. But, the EU too needs to do better at showing what it does and demonstrating its value more. It needs to be less remote.

Could it be more democratic? Ofcourse. But, again here is the rub, those currently complaining about its lack of democracy are the very ones who would shout loudest at any move to make it more democratic. Hey, let’s all elect the EU President …

Also, almost all the democracies I know have very undemocratic aspects to how they are run Judges, the House of Lords, civil servants in the UK); and how they elect their presidents (Electoral College votes) in the US, for example.

But, let’s also not pretend there are not difficult times ahead.  The possible ascension of Turkey to the EU is also likely to continue to be problematic. This is after all another reason why many a brexiter wants out, to make sure if and when it does happen thousands of turks don’t just show up on the doorstep. English patriot brexiters tend to prefer their Turks to be ones who never come to the UK. It would, after all explain why famous dead Turk, St George (who never set foot in Britain) is England’s patron saint and the symbol of proud English patriotism.

Rough Trade

We seem to want to have our cake and eat it and seem to think even when we leave the EU will let us do so without any penalties or negative impact, because they need us more than we need them. This just seems to be a case of wilful ignorance.

If we are going to leave and not just end up exactly where we are now, saving a few quid, but having to obey all the rules without a seat at the table, the UK’s hope are going to need to negotiate a detailed and deep free trade agreement with the EU and other countries – and all within the two years it takes us to actually leave.

Yes the EU are going to want to do a deal, and they are going to want to try and do so in a way that make us want to return to the fold sooner rather than later, BUT the EU is not going to ‘reward’ the UK for leaving by giving it a deal that gives it all the benefits of being in the EU club but without any of the excess baggage, and is certainly not going to give it a preferential deal to that held by actual member states (i.e themselves).

And the EU is a club, just like a professional association (trade or otherwise), even a political party. Likewise most of us have been or are in these. There is usually a fee and there are usually things the money is spent on you don’t always agree with and rules or policies that you think are rubbish. And yet, you remain because the benefits and positives out way those negatives. That’s the EU.

What was the last club or trade body you left that gave you better terms to use their resources and facilities than you had as a member?

And I am worried about how this will affect our economy and growth. Most businesses and most economists think leaving would be bad for business and bad for the economy. Of course, the Leave campaign rightly point out that many of these ‘experts’ have been wrong before. But, just for a moment, are you seriously telling me that had all these economists been instead championing the out side of the argument that the Leave campaign would be ignoring them, saying they can’t be trusted look at the things they got wrong before?  I think not.


My partner works in the NHS, so Vote Leave’s battle bus has been a huge annoyance throughout the campaign carrying, as it does, the slogan: “We send the EU £350million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead.” As I have already pointed out even if we did send that and all of it could be use for the NHS it would fund it for roughly 19 days. But, that money wont be going there as Dr Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes, Devon and chairman of the House of Commons health select committee, stated when this repeated lie – as , this is what this claim is – was a key reason for her changing her mind from leave to remain.

If we really want to help the NHS the government – this one, a labour one, or any other one – should start by just wiping the PFI debts crippling the finances of most of our hospitals. We don’t need the EU to do that. It’s like Tony Benn said “If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.”, and let’s be honest here, we can always find money for wars and killing people.

This kind of investment too would mean that we didn’t need so many other eu citizens or migrants from other parts of the globe to help keep our NHS on its feet.

And speaking of the NHS, have you noticed when you read about “health tourism” and people flooding here to use our NHS, you never hear about the 190,000 UK pensioners living across Europe, using their European Health Insurance Card to access free healthcare. And think about it for a moment. Most other EU citizens coming here to live and work are young, and healthy. So is it really them or those 190,000 UK pensioners who are likely to be a bigger burden on the NHS/other European health services?

Democracy & Law

When I look to legislation over my life that I have most objected too, or found the most preposterous it has all been generated solely by the UK’s elected political parties: like The Health and Social Care Act 2012, Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, Crime and Disorder Act 1998, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, The Dangerous Dog’s Act 1991. This year we’ve already added to that with the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, a law which pretty much outlaws every psychoactive substance that exists or could exist except for a brief list of legal drugs;- alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. This is a piece of legislation clearly written by someone who failed all their GSCE science exams.

Worse still people tend to conveniently forget that much of our law these days derives not from primary legislation (acts) but from Statutory Instruments (SI) – almost all of which sails through Parliament with a wink and a nod, and many full acts are merely vessels to facilitate this. As parliament’s own website explains, Si’s are: “a form of legislation which allow[s] the provisions of an act of parliament to be subsequently brought into force or altered without parliament having to pass a new act”

For the past twenty years the very parliamentary democracy that the leave campaign so wants to protect has been skilfully moved away from primary legislation (acts), where it need to go through multiple parliamentary stages and receives proper scrutiny and the power to amend, towards secondary legislation (SI’s), where it does not. The EU had nothing to do with that erosion of our ‘democracy’.


We should of course talk about immigration. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it, and it’s not racist to either want to discuss it or worry about it. But, by the same token we also accept that for a group of society it is the answer to any question starting: what is wrong with your life. The ‘we’re’ full, pull up the draw bridge mentality that sees all immigrants as either: here to take our jobs/here to claim our benefits, a belief that they always jump to the top of any queue.

The blame always lies elsewhere.

Some in the leave campaign also make an argument about how it’s not really about not loving immigration but it’s about the fact that we have now remembered the colonies and suddenly decided we want to make sure we are not discriminating against them etc etc.

Well, immigration into the UK from outside the EU already account for half of all immigration. Likewise, just over two thirds of London’s immigrant population is non-EU in origin.

And for a big chunk of leave voters they want to stop all immigration, not just from the EU. They don’t want people from India or Africa coming here either.

And interestingly when the Tory’s made their promise to bring immigration down to the tens of thousands, before having to backtrack and say you can’t control EU immigration, they still failed to reduce the numbers coming in from outside the EU.

I think if you’re voting leave purely because of immigration then you are ultimately going to be very disappointed and disillusioned by the actual reality of brexit Britain.

Do more people from the EU want to come here than brits want to go to other member states? Yes. Number of reasons for this: one is that we’ve been quite successful relatively – something we’ve done within the EU by the way – and of course children in other countries bother to learn a language other than their own, which opens up more work opportunities. It’s because English is the most spoken after Chinese you say. Actually English is third behind Spanish – now, if only there were a country in the EU where that was spoken.

Sadly, as the debate moves into its final week immigration seems to have become the one can’t see the wood for the trees issue.

I suppose some situations are a bit like the half full, half empty glass view of life. I feel a bit like this when people are talking about immigration. On the one hand are those who see other EU citizens coming here to live and work in high numbers as a threat, and they worry – often genuinely – about the pressures it places on Schools, Housing, The NHS, and other public services. Their solution, stop them coming and send some back if possible. One the other hand there are those like me who think, what a great opportunity. Surely for a country that is seeking to nurture a growing and flourishing economy the actual solution is build more houses and schools, train and hire more teachers, builders, doctors, nurses; to adequately fund our hospitals so they have safe staffing levels and management so that they don’t have to close wards to save money and space.

With housing, as Danny Dorling said in his book All That Is Solid: How the Great Housing Disaster Defines Our Times, and What We Can Do About It  the perceived ‘national’ housing shortage is in fact a regional shortage, and merely part of the growing north/south divide.

“Even in London there are, as the 2011 census revealed, more rooms than people, many more rooms than people. In fact… there are more rooms that are designated as bedrooms than there are people living in the city.”

Yes, so, in some areas there are clearly more acute pressures due to work opportunities etc, but again if we made ourselves less London and the south centric we ourselves could start to tackle this.

How? By overhauling most of our housing laws (all UK based and free of EU influence)  for starters, as these have allowed hoarding, leaving properties empty, but-to-let without any power to tackle the landlords of  squalid properties. Both labour and Tory have passed laws to keep the prices of housing in London up. Great if you’re a home owner, not so great if you’re not.  Like New York? Like Berlin? They both have forms of rent control. Again, this is our choice, not the EU’s.

Likewise the gap between rich and poor in this country is down to the policies of successive UK governments not an evil EU.

My Life

I look at my life, most of which has been as part of the EU. I’ve been lucky to live in relatively prosperous and – at least within the EU – peaceful times. I know people getting sniffy and dismissive when you talk about peaceful times, but you only need look at countries around the EU to see that Europe as a whole hasn’t been without conflicts during this time.  You may just think the lack of conflicts between EU member states is a mere coincidence. Fair enough, but as coincidences go I think it’s a pretty good one.

I look at my six year old’s class at school. There are parents from England, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, Mali, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, Slovenia, France, Italy and Spain. This pleases me rather than upsets me.

Do I sometimes walk down the street and hear languages other than English being spoken? Yes. Then again, I’ve walked through comparable areas of a city in Madrid, Paris, Berlin and heard English being spoken (and not just by me).

To me the EU is an imperfect beast, but ultimately we are stronger together. It was true when Scotland was trying to leave the UK, and it is true now. And I do fear that if we vote to leave that Scotland will have another referendum on remaining in the UK, and I suspect this time they will vote to leave. I think it would be terrible for Scotland, but also for England and Wales.

My Dad, incidentally, is a passionate Scot. He voted No in 1975 to joining (actually to staying in and the Heath government had already taken us into the common market in 73); He voted remain, to keep Scotland part of the UK; and a few days before his 80th birthday he’ll be voting remain to stay in the EU. He doesn’t realise he’s meant to be one of those who wants to take Britain ‘back’ … back to the good old days of the 1950’s. I also think should we vote leave he’d quite possibly, though reluctantly, back a Scotland exit from the UK.

July 24th

Where are we? Still in the EU, regardless of the result of the vote. In fact even if we vote leave nothing can happen until the government invokes article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. So it’s a question of how long the government will take to do so. It may not be in hurry (although the Prime Minister did say it would be almost immediate).

Today the Leave campaign estimated it would have new deal with the EU by the end of 2020. That’s three and a half years and for that to happen we’ll need the EU to be feeling magnanimous, as once with invoke Article 50 – which obliges the EU to try to negotiate a ‘withdrawal agreement’ – we have two years from notification to reach agreement before  all treaties and agreements cease.  The EU can extend this period if there is unanimous agreement between other member states to do so. It should also be noted that giving any agreement is likely to be a ‘mixed’ one covering gods and services and investment etc, any agreement would need to be ratified by all the Parliaments of the other member states too.

What with all this, and unpicking our laws and other things there wont be much time for actually governing the country during this period.

While we are thinking to the 24th it’s also worth remembering that Referendums are, of course, not actually legally binding, so legally the Government can ignore the results if it wants (clearly this is not likely, but it is at least worth bearing in mind). Why can it ignore the will of the people? Well – you guessed it – because parliament (not the citizens of the UK) is sovereign.

Final Thought

If you have bothered to stay with me this long, well done, but like the referendum campaign, the good news is that it is almost over.

The vote leave campaign have made a lot of promises for brexit Britian, but remember Parliament is sovereign, it makes the decisions based on proposal from the government of the day, so they don’t necessarily have the means to deliver what they are promising – you shouldn’t just automatically presume the Gove or Boris will be leading the nation, post brexit.

To paraphrase the late, great, Bill Hicks what we have is “Just a choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to … close yourself off. The eyes of love, instead, see all of us as one.” That is how I see the choice between Leave and Remain. You may disagree, and that is your right.

Remember to vote next Thursday, and I mean that genuinely regardless of your position.

Oh and one final thing, ‘United in Diversity’, the title of this post? Well, as I’m sure you already knew, that’s the motto of the European Union.

This long winded ramble almost certainly contains some un-intentional plagiarism from some things I’ve read over past few months. Apologies. Had I known I was going to write this much when I started I’d have referenced it all like an actual article instead of a blog post.

Carey prison ghost story falls short

M.R. Carey
Little, Brown Book Group UK
Pub Date: 07 Apr 2016

In Fellside, our central character is Jess Moulson, who wakes up in a hospital bed to be told that she has suffered severe burns in a fire during which her neighbours’ ten year-old son, Alex, died. Worse still, Jess is suspected of having set the fire deliberately and is going to be charged with his murder. The problem is she doesn’t really remember what happened, as she was high on drugs at the time, and when the case gets to court she has little to fight the prosecution’s version of events. Wracked with grief about Alex and accepting she was to blame, Jess decides to starve herself to death.

Following a predictable guilty verdict, Jess is transferred to Fellside, a maximum security prison near Leeds. She is still refusing to eat, so resides in the Hospital’s infirmary, where all (the prisoners run a book on how long she will last ) await her inevitable demise. But then Alex appears to Jess as a vision / ghost, and tells her she must live, and that she didn’t kill him. Jess decides to live and mounts a miraculous recovery much to the surprise of the infirmary staff, in particular, Dr Salazar, and the annoyance of Harriet Grace, the queen bee in the prison, who has lost a lot on money with Jess’s survival, and will want to take her revenge at some point down the line.

So far, so good. Are Jess’s visions real or merely a symptom of her trying to stave herself to death??? Can she really use ‘him’ to solve the murder and get out of prison? Good question. To find out you need to tick your high level of suspension of disbelief box.

Whilst there was a surprising level of believability to the characters in The Girl With All the Gifts, despite the subject matter, that tends to go missing and get replaced by stock character cliché here.

The book pivots around the lucrative drug ring operated by Harriet Grace  – with the aid of corrupt Guard Dennis Devlin – and how that impinges on Jess’s attempts to clear her name and save herself. As you might expect from a book set in Prison it is often brutal and unflinching and Carey writes violence well. Indeed for around the first half of this book I was gripped and expecting to hail it the same way I did ‘Gifts’ but the problem for me was the further the book progressed the less engaged I became and more it started to feel like watching a naff tv programme.  Jess’s walking through people’s dreams, coupled with cartoonish and clichéd characters such as Dennis Devlin, just got more than a little annoying.

It was still an ok book, but it started with the promise of being much more. However, I still like Carey’s attempts to add something new to the horror genre, and will gladly pick up whatever he writes next.

New voice delivers entertaining missing girl mystery

Dear Amy
Helen Callaghan
Penguin UK – Michael Joseph
Pub Date: 16 Jun 2016 

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the ‘thriller/mystery’ genre, although I don’t tend to read them as often as I once did, in part because the ones I was reading were getting to feel a little bit samey.  So it is always nice to discover a new voice and to get a interesting premise to boot.

Margot Lewis is a school teacher in a Cambridge secondary school, St Hilda’s.  She is dedicated to her job and indeed her dedication – in helping a boy in her class deal with some anger issues – also led to her getting the role of  agony aunt for the local paper:  The Cambridge Examiner.  Her advice column, Dear Amy, gets all the usual kinds of letters you’d expect, including its fair share of crank ones, but  when she receives one from a girl – Bethan Avery – who went missing, presumed murdered back in the nineties – her instincts tell her it could be genuine, even though it makes no sense that she is getting the letter now.

The Police don’t seem to be  interested even as more letters arrive, but someone from the historical analysis team, Martin Forrester, is interested, and interested enough to help Margot solve the apparent mystery [No prizes for guessing what happened between them]  Then there is also the issue of another missing girl – Katie Browne – who used to be in Margot’s class, and Margot’s belief that the two cases/abductions/murders could be linked.

What follows is a thoroughly entertaining book. Callaghan has made Margot a likeable and fallible heroine who comes across as a believable person. The mix of first person Margot and third person supporting cast work well at driving the plot forward, although some of these supporting characters (Margot’s husband, for example) are a bit one dimensional. And it does get a bit farfetched towards the end, as levels of plausibility are tossed aside in favour of modern genre convention, but I wouldn’t hold that against Callaghan or her book.  There is more than enough here to make me look out for Callaghan’s next offering.

Review copy supplied by Penguin/NetGalley


Fish Bait and Ladies in Panties

I’ve not spoken about the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for a while, but one adjudication caught my eye this week, that I thought was worth a few words.

The ASA made a ruling today against Signature Creative Solutions (SCS) Ltd t/a Bank BUG in relation to a magazine ad for fish bait seen in Carp World magazine on 4 March 2016.

According to the ASA the ad “featured the body of a woman lying on her side wearing a bra and stockings, with her thigh and torso exposed. The woman appeared to be removing her underwear, with her right hand placed on her thigh, and her thumb between her underwear and skin.”

We could just stop there really. I’m sure I don’t need to explain why the ASA had a problem with this and why they received a complaint.  But just in case we and not sure this is an ad for FISH BAIT. I’ll say that again, FISH BAIT.

In response, SCS, could not understand what all the fuss was about.  They would never knowingly publish something offensive they said; it wasn’t an explicit photo; and the ad didn’t contain any discriminatory comments about women.  Well, that’s alright then. How about the magazine’s publisher Angling Publications?  They agreed with SCS. Clearly the ad could not be seen as being demeaning to women. What’s more the explained that the readership of Carpworld magazine was predominantly male, and so it was unlikely that they would be offended by the content.

So, let’s for argument sake say we accept the SCS and Angling Publications arguments thus far. Now let’s move on the just how a woman lying on her side wearing a bra and stockings and potentially about to remove her underwear related to the product being advertised – FISH BAIT.  SCS argued that it was totally relevant to the advertised product because the model in question had been used throughout their online advertising campaign, and the image also related to the sub-heading “It’s never looked so good!”. Angling Publications added they had run many ads with similar images in the past, which had proved successful in creating brand awareness, though did concede the ad was not directly related to the product. However, this was fine because the idea of the ad was to catch the reader’s attention, which they felt it did successfully.

Can I just check this is 2016, not 1972?  Seriously; in what little school boy world is this deemed acceptable? You are advertising FISH BAIT, and you actually think having a woman in her underwear and accompanying text stating “it’s never looked so good”, where the it in ‘it’s’ is clearly the woman, is perfectly fine? Being bereft of actual ideas and totally ineffective at coming up inventive and interesting advertising campaigns is not really an excuse to just be a bunch of sexist pricks. Maybe you’ve missed out on your true calling life to name and do the art work for beers with names like Leg-Spreader;  Raging Bitch, Mouth Raper, Top Totty, Naked Ladies etc.

Clearly the ASA told SCS that they should ensure that future ads did not portray women in a manner that objectified them and which was likely to cause serious offence, because apparently they needed to be actually TOLD this.

Medoran Chronicles continue to deliver

The Medoran Chronicles Book II
Lynette Noni
Pantera Press
Pub: 23 March 2016

Back when I reviewed Noni’s first installment of this series I concluded that I would be more than happy to return to Medora for another helping of her heroine Alex’s adventures, and here I am.  Noni’s first book introduced us to Alexandra (Alex) Jennings is a sixteen year old girl with jet-setting archaeologist parents, who finds herself stranded in own little Narnia, in this case a strange fantasy world called Medora.  Enrolled in a school for teenagers with extraordinary gifts, Akarnae Academy, she managed to make friends – Jordan, Bear and D.C.  – and one major enemy – Aven the banished prince from the Lost City of Meya – as she found herself in the centre of a battle between old warring factions.

As we rejoin Alex, her parents have been brought into the story (and Medora) and Alex’s life remains threatened by Aven. With the stage set in book one, this time we get to explore Medora in more detail and also learn more about various character’s powers. Noni does a good job of bringing her world to life and the central teen relationships have a believability. There are a couple of nice plot surprises, a teenage romance or two, some solid action set pieces and once again, Noni’s comic touch adds to the overall enjoyment.

Two books in and you’d be hard pressed to find a better or more engaging YA fantasy series out there. A guilty pleasure? No. Pleasure should never be a cause of guilt.

Review Copy provided by Pantera/NetGalley




With the taste of your lips, I’m on a ride -Toxic thriller provides for a page turning ride

The Poison Artist
Jonathan Moore
Orion Publishing Group
Pub Date: 10 Mar 2016 

As this book opens, San Francisco toxicologist, Caleb Maddox, is picking pieces of glass from a wound to his head. He has just had a serious and violent break up with his girlfriend, Bridget, and he is off in search of  solace and somewhere to drown his sorrows. He finds a local bar and  starts up a conversation with a beautiful and mysterious woman – Emmeline. She quickly becomes a burning obsession, and a secret he wants to protect at all costs, even when he subsequently discovers another man from the same bar that evening has been found murdered. The murdered man was poisoned , tortured and dumped in the bay; and he is not the first. Caleb soon finds himself assisting his best friend, Henry, the city’s chief medical examiner, in trying to find the cause of death, and a murder who seems set on  inflicting maximum pain on his or her victims.

The police, and one policeman in particular, are also very interested in the case and Caleb, as hints are given to a connection with his past. This past is mentioned frequently in passing but Moore obfuscates and keeps this past – which you instinctively know must have a bearing on events –  shrouded in the type of fog that San Francisco is famous for. He also avoids addressing – for much of the book – what caused the fight between Caleb and Bridget and why it caused such an extreme reaction.

As Caleb fights to help Henry solve the crime, and keep on top of securing valuable research data on how much pain a human body can endure to help the University secures a lucrative grant, he is constantly blindsided by his desire for Emmeline, he need to keep her secret and their promise not to lie to or hurt one another.

This was a great read. The writing is crisp and flows as readily and precisely as the absinthe in the book; and whilst the key aspect of the plot is not new, and has been done better (without saying where and giving it away) it is executed well, and does keep you turning the pages until the end.

I felt the end itself was slightly disappointing, but getting there was (despite the horrors in the book) fun. Expect the sales of absinthe to go up after this.

Review copy provided by Orion/NetGalley



Packard’s debut ends up lost at sea


The Painted Ocean
Gabriel Packard
Little, Brown Book Group UK
Pub Date: 03 Mar 2016 

Well, well, here is a book destined to cause arguments in Book clubs around the world.

The debut novel from Gabriel Packard is one of those arriving with stellar praise for some big hitting writers. Colum McCann says of the novel ‘as fearless tour de force. It is a rare achievement – an emotionally rich work of literature, delivered in the form of a gripping, page-turning story.”

So, what’s it about. This is certainly one of those instances where the book you end up getting is not the one you think you’re getting at the start. Most of the first half of the book is set in England and follows 11 year old  Shruti. Her dad left home when she was younger and now it’s just her and her mom. This is fine for Shruti as she has her mom all to herself. But, there is no happy ever after on the horizon in this story. Her mother is under pressure to return to the Punjab and remarry. Her Uncle Aadesh has lined up a good match, but there is a catch – she has to leave Shruti – put her into care. Shruti is sure her mother will not abandon her, but her uncle is persistent. Meanwhile life at school is no better. She physically and verbally picked on and bullied for being Indian. Her life is falling apart. Then a new girl, Meena, joins the school and immediately transforms Shruti’s life. Confident and confrontational, she soon has the bullies wrapped around her finger and coming to Shruti’s defence. She also has some suggestions on how to keep Shruti’s mother in the country. Shruti becomes obsessed with her saviour.

This first half of the novel, depicting Shruti’s childhood life was a mostly engaging tale of British Indian adolescence and was told with an air of believability and verve that at times reminded me of Meera Syal. Her voice felt true and there was a real sense of the loneliness, neglect, rejection, feelings of abandonment, racism, and bullying that pervades her life. She feels real and as a reader you care about what will happen to her.

Where things start to go wrong however is when the book suddenly moves ahead in time to University and beyond. At first you think we are going to go all ‘stalker’, when in fact it goes all Lord of  the Flies/The Beach and becomes totally preposterous, losing any sense of reality.

If horrible things happened in the first half of the book, really horrible things happen in the second half of the book. The problem is that  I quickly became so emotional unengaged, that ultimately I wasn’t truly bothered what happened to any of the characters as these horrors descended. One of the main faults for this lies with the fact that Shruti’s voice remains the same. What had first felt like a sense of authenticity, just starts to jar and not fit at all with where things are and what is happening.  She ceases to be at all believable.

This is not say that parts of this second half of the book  aren’t well written, and tense, they are; it is just they don’t gel or feel part of what preceded it.  I presume we are meant to view the second half of the book as allegorical and as a further exploration of the themes we have already covered in the book’s first half, but whilst that may be fine and dandy, it doesn’t really cut it for me if the story-telling doesn’t support it.

The ending is equally ridiculous and meta with a self critic of the novel – trying to address the criticism of the book before it even happens.  It is all a bit too knowing and ‘look at me, aren’t I clever’  from a man who teaches writing at New York’s Hunter College and has worked for literary big hitters such as  Peter Carey, Jonathan Franzen and E.L. Doctorow.

That all said, there is still just enough to like and admire in Packard’s debut, to make him an author to watch in the future, but The Painted Ocean is ultimately an uneven and confused disappointment.


Review copy provided by Little Brown/NetGalley


Lowell’s Bronte mystery a delight

The Madwoman Upstairs
Catherine Lowell
Pub Date: 01 Mar 2016

“Sunshine has a way of softening the recollection of the previous evening. But when I walked outside in the morning, the sun was nowhere to be found. The sky was a dull shade of concrete.”

Catherine Lowell’s delightful debut novel follows the only remaining descendant of the Brontë family – Samantha Whipple – as she arrives at Oxford University and (to quote the marketing material) “embarks on a modern-day literary scavenger hunt to find the family’s long-rumored secret estate, using only the clues her eccentric father left behind, and the Brontës’ own novels.”

Samantha, at the behest of her dead father, has taken up a seat at Oxford to study English Literature, but is less than amused to arrive to find that her accommodation is a room at the top of an isolated old tower, attached to the old college, that once housed victims of the plague. It is a grim place with peeling red paint and a horrible painting of an old woman (called The Governess ) hanging on the wall. All she want is to get on and learn – a task she thinks might, at least, be interesting when she discovers her tutor J Timothy Orville III is pleasing on the eye.

But as her ‘Bronte’ identity is revealed by the college newspaper, and everyone begins to think her father must have left her whole host of Bronte goodies – when in fact he left her nothing but a cryptic ‘Warnings of Experience’ message – events start to take a strange turn as personal copies of her dad’s books that should have perished in the fire that claimed his life, mysteriously start to appear in her room, and a literature hide-and-seek game ensues.

This is a wonderfully constructed piece of fiction, that constantly plays with the very concepts and ideas that lie at the heart of classics it references. The setting of the university and the tutor/pupil relationship especially allows Lowell to throw in conflicting approaches to literary criticism whilst at the same time driving forward the plot.  So we examine that age-old question of whether this is truth in fiction or fiction in truth, or both; the question of how far you project an author’s actual live onto their work, to explain their work; the ‘reliability’ of the narrator. It also looks at also idea of editing, and how things were often sanitised and managed by estates to protect the author/artist including willful destruction of diary entries, letters etc. that would contradict the character ‘created’ for them, and questions how often the thing you think you want most, is not really what you want.

This is, quite literally, a literary novel.

I loved it. Samantha is a likable wise-cracking protagonist, and the blend of the literary and the mystery is handled well enough to make this a genuine page-turner.

Of course the idea to take classic fiction and use its themes and/or characters for a new book is nothing new, and indeed, one of my favourite recent(ish) examples of this was Autoro Perez-Reverte’s Dumas Club (I loved that book) In fact I remember someone once describing Dumas Club as a beach book for intellectuals, and I suppose the same could be said for this. I’d have been more than happy to have been on a beach reading it (as opposed to being in a cold, wet, London).

Early days yet, but certainly the most enjoyable book I’ve read so far in 2016, and one that I’m likely to buy as gifts for others.


Review copy provided by Touchstone/NetGalley