Monday, 25 April 2022
Sunday, 9 January 2022
A couple of months ago, a friend put me onto a detective series by a writer I hadn't heard of, Louise Penny. They're set in Canada, she said, in Quebec. I think you'll like them.
Well, sixteen books later, I can confirm that she was absolutely right. (There is a seventeenth, but it's still expensive on Kindle, so I'm trying to exercise a little self-discipline and wait till the price comes down.) I thoroughly enjoyed these books. What's more, they did me good - they were therapeutic.
Well, I find autumn a difficult season. Nothing complicated about that: it's the dark nights, it's the sense that not only is winter coming, but it's going to be hanging around for months and months. As days shorten, so my mood sinks. For this time of year, I need reading which is both engrossing and comforting.
And although these are ostensibly murder mysteries, they are comforting. For the most part, the characters they feature are nice. They're quirky, kind, funny and witty. Take Inspector Gamache himself. He is not your usual star of detective series; he's not miserable, he doesn't have a fatal flaw - he has friends, for heaven's sake, and a happy marriage. He's big, strong, gentle, perceptive and kind - but if you need someone strong and decisive when push comes to shove, he's the one I'd choose over Rebus, Simon Serailler, Albert Campion - even Dr Siri. (Not sure who I'd pick between him and Elly Griffiths' Nelson, though - that would be a close call.)
But he's not the only star of this series. That would be the village of Three Pines, which has a magical quality about it - a touch of the Narnias. For a start, it's not to be found on any map, and it's not discoverable by GPS. It's small, it nestles among fairy-tale forests, and in the winter it snows and is beautiful. It's inhabited by a bunch of eccentric friends. They're not all faultless, not by any means: some of them do bad things. But somehow they're all people you'd love to have as your friends - even Ruth, the crazy old poet who insults everybody and is only nice to her pet duck. Gamache comes across the village on an early case, and eventually ends up living there. Along the way, apart from the murders he has to solve, he encounters corruption in the police force which almost destroys him, terrorism, difficulties with his son; but nothing dents his belief that people are essentially good - indeed, he's known for choosing as colleagues people whom everyone else has given up on: they inevitably come good in the end, and are fiercely loyal to the Chief.
So why are the books so comforting? Well, the belief in kindness and goodness clearly helps. So does the version of winter, which is so much more magical than the dank, damp and dreary variety which we see so much more of. The stories are gripping, and the conversation is funny and sharp - it's as if you're in the company of a bunch of a delightful group of friends, who will always be able to entertain you.
And then there's the food. There is so much wonderful food. The owners of the bistro and guesthouse, Gabri and Olivier (I think that's his name, but may be wrong) produce the most delicious snacks and meals at the drop of a hat, but they're not the only ones; everyone seems to have their own speciality, except Ruth, who simply helps herself to what everyone else cooks. There are croissants, and brownies, and masses of maple syrup, and sandwiches with the most gorgeous fillings, and spicy soups - well. Who wouldn't want to live in Three Pines, despite the high incidence of murder?
If you haven't been there yet, do drop in. See you in the bistro.
Saturday, 11 September 2021
I first came across Elif Shafak when I was listening to an online talk last year from the Hay Festival. She was on a panel with Philippe Sands, a writer I very much admire: partly because he is a human rights lawyer as well as an author. He's an engaging speaker as well - as was Elif Shafak, who impressed by her intelligence and composure. She also happens to be very beautiful, which isn't relevant to her writing, but is too obvious not to comment on.
Originally from Turkey but now living in England, she mentions in her acknowledgements that when she left Istanbul many years ago, she didn't realise that it was for the last time. So she knows what it means to be an exile from her home country. And that is one of the things this book is about - though there are many more.
At the centre of the story are two lovers, Defne and Kostas. Defne is a Turkish Cypriot, Kostas a Greek one, and they fall in love in 1974, just before civil war breaks out on the island. We only find out gradually what happens to them; the story unfurls over three time periods, 1974, the early 2000s, and the late 2010s. In this latter period, the viewpoint character is Ada, the couple's daughter - who knows little of their past, but is devastated by her mother's recent death, and does not understand why none of their relatives have reached out to her. But then her aunt arrives on the doorstep, and gradually the secrets of the past come out of hiding.
So it's about civil war, and the impact of the past on the present, and about the different agonies of those who leave and those who stay: it's about memory, and love, and growing up. It's also about trees. In fact a fig-tree is one of the main characters: it gradually reveals much of the story, which it gleans from the creatures which visit it - ants, butterflies, a mosquito, a bee. Kostas, a gentle man, studies insects and trees, and we learn how trees can help each other and defend themselves, and how interdependent all forms of life are.
It's a wonderful, magical book. The story is engrossing, but there's so much else to the book as well as the central tale, and the magic is the natural magic of the earth. I like the world this author has created, and I'm very happy to see that she has written many more books, which I look forward to exploring.
Thursday, 26 August 2021
I've just read that Kathleen Jamie has been named as the new makar (national poet) for Scotland. I met Kathleen a couple of years ago on a course at Ty Newydd, and afterwards I read her book of essays, Sightlines. In honour of her appointment, I'm reposting what I wrote about it afterwards.
Tuesday, 24 August 2021
You can probably just about see from this picture that this is a well-worn book. You'll see it even better from the picture below: one page has a tear in it and both are creased from frequent handling.
It's well-worn because it is well-loved. It was probably the book we read more than any other when our children were small. Just to see that picture, with the house, and the moon, and the cat, and the car, and the owl swooping across the night sky - and those first words: 'The hour was late." - takes me back to that moment when it's bedtime, and a child is curled up by your side, and together you know that you are about to embark on a magical incantation.
Yet there's no obvious magic in the story. It's a simple tale of Mr Bear, who is finding it very difficult to get to sleep. He tries going into Baby Bear's room, into the living room, into the kitchen, into the garden, into his car; but everywhere he goes, there is some noise that keeps him awake. Finally, he goes back into the house to his own bed, and is just drifting off... when the alarm goes!
But the pictures are perfect - the bears' expressions are brilliant - and the words are beautifully balanced and so good to read aloud. I read this so many times I knew it off by heart: I remember one time when I was shopping, with my first child in a pushchair. He started to get fractious. I recited Peace At Last, and all grew calm.
The book was written and illustrated by Jill Murphy, who also created the Large family (elephants, naturally), but is perhaps most famous for the Worst Witch series, which is about a girl called Mildred Hubble and her trials and tribulations at a boarding school for witches. The books, and the TV series which they gave rise to, where much loved by my daughter (and me too) - but Peace At Last has always retained the crown, and continues to do so with my grandchildren.
And yet I realised when I read the other day that Jill Murphy had died, at the far-too-young age of 72, that in an age when we know so much about so many writers, I knew nothing at all about her. I don't know why this is. From the photographs of her, she looks lovely, with a huge smile and an obvious sense of fun: she seems to radiate happiness. Perhaps she didn't court publicity: perhaps she didn't need to, and could simply allow her books to speak for her.
I'm so sorry she has died so soon. I wish her, as I wish all of us, Peace At Last.
Saturday, 8 May 2021
The first thing to be said about this book is that it is very, very beautiful. The photograph doesn't actually do it justice: the cover depicts a lighthouse, surrounded by dark, swirling clouds and seas - rich crimson, ultramarine and black, with a scattering of gold - the colours are much more vivid than in the photo. In my edition, which is said to be a Waterstone's exclusive, the colours bleed over onto the page edges: such drama!
Publishers don't give such luscious treatment to a book unless they really have faith in it - and you can absolutely see why Picador would have had that kind of faith in The Lamplighters. it begins with a rivetting mystery. In December 1972, Jory, the boatman, takes supplies and a relief keeper out to the Maiden Rock Lighthouse, which is on a pinnacle of rock beyond Landsend in Cornwall: isolated and difficult to reach because of wild seas. Normally, the resident keepers would be waiting to help him moor the boat and unload, but today no-one is there, and Jory realises that something is very wrong. He goes to fetch help, and when they eventually manage to get into the lighthouse, they find that all three keepers have disappeared. The table is laid for two, and two clocks have stopped at the same time.
The mystery of what happened to them is never solved, although a possible explanation is eventually given in the book. The story is taken up in 1992, when a writer contacts the women who were left behind by the three keepers, saying he wants to undertake a new investigation. The stories of the three women are interwoven with the stories of the three keepers, and gradually, the complexities of their relationships - and what may have led to the tragedy - are revealed.
It's a very powerful book. The lighthouse itself is at the very centre of things, and it comes as no surprise to find out that Emma Stonex has always been fascinated by lighthouses. She vividly describes the wildness of the sea and the strangeness of the life on this inaccessible place, and her depiction of Arthur, the chief keeper, in particular, is subtle and deep. The book is a kind of memorial to the lighthouses and their keepers, for of course they are all automated now; they're surrounded with an aura of romance and heroism, rather as the lighthouse itself is surrounded by the elements of wind and water.
I felt slightly less satisfied by the supernatural element, which becomes more significant in the later part of the book. It felt as if this was introduced, but the author wasn't certain how much credibility to give it, so it wasn't fully realised. And there were one or two other elements which came in later on which felt similarly not quite right to me - can't really discuss them without giving too much away.
But those quibbles apart, this is a wild and wonderful book - one to read as the night draws in, and preferably with a storm rattling the windows - with maybe a branch tapping against the glass...
Sunday, 25 April 2021
This book was written for children - but that certainly doesn't mean it should only be read by children. It's original and captivating, and very timely.
The Last Bear is an unusual and enchanting book which doesn't shy away from difficult and pertinent issues - in particular, it looks at the question of climate change and what it's doing to life on our planet. But as well as this, it explores the loss of a parent, and what that does to the remaining parent as well as the child. If that all sounds very heavy, it's really not. The 'messages' emerge very naturally from the story - there's no sense whatever that the reader is being lectured.
April Wood is eleven, and lives with her father, a climatologist. Her mother died when she was four, so April scarcely remembers her - 'whenever she thought of her, it was like thinking of a lovely summer holiday she'd once been on.' Her father, however, has coped less well. He buries himself in his work, and scarcely notices that he has a daughter. So, for instance, April has to cut her own hair with a pair of garden scissors, because her father simply doesn't see that it needs attention. So April looks odd, and is teased at school. But she's not unhappy: she loves animals, and enjoys watching a family of foxes which lives in their unkempt garden: '...she preferred animals to humans anyway. They were just kinder.' That last, brief sentence really sums up how she relates to other children: she does not like school.
Then an opportunity arises for her father - and April - to go and spend a few months on a remote island - Bear Island - in the Arctic Circle. Despite her grandmother's misgivings, April is delighted, because she thinks that, as they will be the only two people on the island, it will bring herself and her father closer together - they'll make snowmen, they'll explore, they'll observe wildlife together - he will 'see' her. But none of this comes to pass: her father is too busy, engrossed in a job which should really be done by two people - quite apart from the fact that he never notices April anyway. (Really, you feel like shaking him. He's not intentionally cruel, but he is selfishly wrapped up in his own grief.)
She's disappointed, but she's a resourceful child, so she goes off on her own to explore. In particular, she believes that there might be a polar bear on the island - even though she's been told that there can't be, because since the ice has been receding because of climate change, bears can no longer reach Bear Island from Svalbard further north. But she turns out to be right - there is a bear, and it's in pain and in desperate need of help.
The story of how she and the bear get to know each other, and how she helps it to regain its health and strength, is magical and very touching. I won't tell you what happens at the end, but trust me, your heart will be in your mouth. April puts herself in extreme danger in order to save the bear and get him back to Svalbard: her adventure, in the end, brings her closer to her father - who finally wakes up and realises how close he has come to losing his daughter.
Hannah Gold brings off a clever sleight of hand with this story. It is not, in some ways, realistic: a real polar bear would not, one imagines, allow a child to come so close to him, let alone give her rides on his back: a real organisation would not - one imagines - allow a man to take his small daughter to live on a remote island with no shops or facilities, let alone a school. And as for what happens at the end - well, health and safety would have conniptions.
But you accept all these things, because everything else about the story is so real and so convincing. The bear's physical presence is vividly evoked: his smelly breath, his size, his strength - and his plight. And April, with her courage and persistence, is a character you absolutely believe can win through, despite the enormous obstacles she faces.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Levi Pinfold. His pictures show just what a huge and powerful beast the bear is: April is tiny beside him. Tiny, but tough, imaginative and resourceful. It's a thoroughly delightful book - I loved it.