Helen R Brown

Telling tall tales

‘I think you’re an adult when you can no longer tell your life story over the course of a first date,’ says Glen David Gold. I emerged from his weighty memoir feeling more like I’d been through a marriage: sadder, wiser, still sifting the decades of detail for the moments when a little self-awareness could

Stripped to the bone

Early on in Amy Tan’s 1989 bestseller, The Joy Luck Club, a Chinese concubine slices a chunk of flesh from her arm and drops it into the soup she has made for her dying mother. She spills another bowl of soup over her young daughter, seriously scalding the child’s neck. When that scarred little girl

A cold coming to Cornwall

In 1939, Barbara Hepworth gathered her children and her chisels and fled Hampstead for Cornwall. She expected war to challenge her passion for abstract form. But her commitment deepened. The solid ovoids she sculpted carried the weight of grief and the hope of eggs. To Hepworth, they became ‘forms to lie down in, or forms

Torn between envy and contempt

Arriving at boarding school with the wrong shoes and a teddy bear in his suitcase, the hero of Elizabeth Day’s fourth novel is the latest in a long literary line of suburban lost boys sucked into the intoxicating orbit of a wealthy friend. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evelyn Waugh, Patricia Highsmith, Ian McEwan, Alan Hollinghurst and

Hornet highballs anyone?

After school last Wednesday, I watched my five-year-old daughter pop a dead cricket on to her tongue and proclaim it: ‘Like fishy popcorn!’ ‘MMMm, delicious!’ squealed her friend, reaching for more as a third little girl spat hers, discreetly, back into her palm. ‘I’m getting pistachio,’ said the spitter’s mum, picking up the packet for

The gangster life of Ryan

Lisa McInerney found a brilliant way to turn heads and hone her craft as the ‘Sweary Lady’ behind the ‘Arse End of Ireland’ blog. Taking a gonzo approach to the life she knew — first a council estate in Co. Galway, then a selection of much nicer houses in Cork — she let rip as

In praise of LSD

Ayelet Waldman is, surely, not the first writer to have scrolled through a list of ‘Books of the Year’ and become increasingly enraged to find her own book not on it. But where other authors manage to keep a dignified silence (sticking pins into critics’ byline photos in private), Waldman demonstrates a lively lack of

Wild, wild women

Who is the least likely candidate for an animated princess movie? That’s the question former DreamWorks animator Jason Porath asked his colleagues over lunch a few years back. Over the hour they kept one-upping each other with increasingly inappropriate heroines. Nabokov’s Lolita came out on top. Throughout the conversation, Porath kept throwing out the names

A bit player in the great drama

There’s a glorious scene in Astrid Lindgren’s first Pippi Longstocking book in which her fearless, freckled heroine strides to the centre of a circus ring and briskly lays out the World’s Strongest Man. Like most of the adults who expect to control her, he quickly learns that his inflated size, age and title are no

‘I wish you were never born’

All parents worry about the extent to which their children will expose their private weirdness to the world. They tell their teachers that Daddy takes his tea into the toilet and Mummy ‘actually pulled the car over’ for a closer look at the dead badger they passed on the school run. But the traumatic new

Out of the depths

‘This happens to other people.’ The Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead says she had heard the phrase countless times, interviewing the survivors of random disasters, and the idea had always puzzled her: ‘Why would they think other people are any different from them?’ But when her partner of ten years drowned while rescuing their small son

Sick transit

Sitting at her desk at the BBC in March 2006, researching a documentary about the Olympic Games, Caroline Jones pressed her thumbs deep into her eyelids, allowed herself to visualise a chocolate brownie and started to salivate. After work she stopped at the supermarket and bought some brownies… along with a chocolate loaf cake and

A legend in her own time

I usually dread the final 15 minutes of a celebrity interview: the awkward section during which the writer must steer the conversation away from the polite, mutually enjoyable discussion of whatever the star is currently promoting toward the juicy personal details that your readers really want to know and your subject really (and justifiably) wants

Patti Smith grows old too gracefully

‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins/ but not mine’: the opening lines of Patti Smith’s 1975 debut album, Horses, find a young woman marking her territory with fierce conviction. Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, she was (or was treated as) an invalid for much of her New Jersey childhood. The restrictions were physical and spiritual. But

Punk in a funk

Look up Tracey Thorn’s live performances with Everything But The Girl or Massive Attack on You Tube and you’ll find the comments posted beneath it full of praise for the liquid melancholy in her lovely voice. The simple sound of air passing from her lungs, across her larynx and out of her lips in the

Wolves in the Lake District get everyone’s pheromones going

Locate. Stalk. Encounter. Rush. Chase. The pace of Sarah Hall’s fifth novel follows the five stages of a wolf hunt as she imagines a pack of apex predators restored to the British countryside: the thrill of lean, grey flanks streaking through the bracken sending vital adrenalin coursing through an ecosystem grown sluggish. Her fiction is