Hookline Books

About Me

Yvonne Barlow I love books, love reading - who doesn't? I also love to hear what other people think of books - we may agree or disagree, however I love the exchange of ideas. Tell me your thoughts, read our books and tell me what you think.

Experience and imagination - do they need each other?

November 12, 2021

One of the most powerful novels I have read in the last ten years is The Road Home by Rose Tremain.  I’m not sure how many of you read this tale of an Eastern European immigrant newly arrived in London, but the novel won an Orange Booker Prize, and I have to say that I probably bored friends by pushing copies into their hands and telling them they would gain empathy with the immigrant experience.

So, it was a surprise today to hear Rose Tremain question her right to have written a novel that came not from her own ‘tribe’ (my word, not hers). The reason: cultural appropriation – using the practises of a group you do not belong to tell a story, their story!

She said on Times Radio, “The whole question of cultural appropriation, who we can and cannot be and what we can and cannot say, is very vexing for writers like me because that is exactly what I have done: pretended to be people whose lives are outside my experiences.”

It is a question that has made Tremain, author of Restoration, Music and Silence, The Gustav Sonata, consider giving up writing. She said, “It is terrible to engage with someone’s life and do it badly so it doesn’t feel real.”

However, my sense is that she has not done it badly. I still think of Lev, the main character from The Road Home, whenever I’m in Earls Court. For this is where Lev first stepped of the bus with little money, no English and nowhere to bed down for the night. I loved the whole novel. It helped me understand the immigrant experience, the search for work, the alienation, homesickness and the thin thread of hope that enough could be earned to provide a better life for those back at home.

And it brings us to the important question, should writers even try to tell a story that is not from their field of experience? Should Alexander McCall Smith have attempted the tale of Precious Ramotswe? With its Botswana setting and clear-cut African characters, should this Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University have crossed gender, nationality and cultural gaps to tell Mma Ramwotswe’s tales?

Most of us who have read the detective series would say, absolutely yes! For one thing, the stories are of human weaknesses and understanding, with messages that cross cultural boundaries. Another important aspect of the series is that McCall Smith’s stories of Botswana provide a realistic image of Africa, far from Bob Geldolf’s stereotype of humble folks in mud huts facing starvation and war. He shows us modern Africa where people work in offices, drive, go to the supermarket, have offices, hairdressers and like to sit in their gardens and drink tea.

Of course, few writers are as skilled as Rose Tremain and Alexander McCall Smith. But is it not in a storyteller’s remit to imagine, to put themselves in circumstances far from their own? Was our old Homer ever tempted by singing Sirens or did he just imagine them? Did Shakespeare have personal knowledge of the tight, passionate families that came to be the Montagues and Capulets? 

Personally, I believe all authors should explore a story, and we, the readers, should decide whether or not it works.


Environmental novels

November 2, 2021

Cop26 brings the environment into tight focus, making me think of novels I’ve read that have highlighted the fragile links between humans and the natural world.

The first novelist to spring to my mind is Barbara Kingsolver. Her Flight Behavior is an engaging tale of migratory butterflies displaced from Mexico. That might not sound like the best plot but under Kingsolver’s ecologist hands the story blends mankind’s awe at the spectacle of millions of butterflies turning up in rural Tenn...

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Fiction can add paint to history

October 27, 2021

I’m reading Black and British by David Olusoga, a terrific read reaching back to Roman times when forces of Afro-Romans arrived in the third century and were stationed in Cumbria. Olusoga sweeps forward through the Blackamoors, during Elizabethan times, to Black Britains who fought at Trafalgar, through to the wars of the 20th century. He writes much about the Georgian fashion for having a young black pageboy, such children were often treated like pets among the wealthy, dressed up and fete...

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What are you afraid of?

October 21, 2021

Halloween is next week and the search for scary books is upon us.

I am not a fan of being scared. My imagination can go into overdrive with the gentlest of noise in the middle of the night – Once I spent a night wide-eyed, convinced there was a ghost dragging chains behind him in the hallway and it turned out to be a mouse trying to get out of a plastic-lined bin. When it comes to inciting fear, I need little help from a book.

However, at Hookline we do have a few scary novels.

What lies...

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A small pebble on a rocky landscape

October 18, 2021

Many manuscripts reach me but few grab my attention so completely as Mission by Paul Forrester-O’Neill. This story, set in the United States, begins with a small boy who overhears his mother tell his father a horrendous lie. The plot follows the boy to adulthood as he tries to make amends to his father.

A boy and his father are separated by an unforgivable lie. Twenty years later they meet, and the dying father tells John of the men who cheated him and the town of Mission that spurned him...

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Bringing news to life

October 13, 2021

County lines is a big crime issue. Gangs are using young teens as runners to transport drugs and money across the country. The teens are young enough to not arouse suspicion by police and, once drawn into the world of drug running, getting out is near impossible. Young people have been stabbed, murdered and even pushed to suicide.  

It’s a terrifying world that did not exist when many of us were young. However, we read about it in newspapers and imagine it far away from our own lives. This...

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To give up or to soldier on

October 12, 2021
Mark Billingham said he gives a new book 20 pages. If the story hasn't set up its plot, given him characters worth following and prose he cares about then he tosses it aside. 
Now Mark is a crime writer who knows his craft. The successful crime novelist's books regularly feature in best seller lists and his Thorne novels were turned into a television series. However, he said his wife disagrees with him. Speaking at this year's Cheltenham Literature Festival, he said that she soldiers on throug...
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