Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Eleanor Oliphaunt is Completely Fine, by Gail Honeyman

This book has absolutely rightly done really well, so probably lots of you have read it already. And I can’t say mouth about it because it would spoil its unexpectedness. But I’ve just finished it so I want to acknowledge it and say how much I enjoyed it.

It’s about a young woman who at the beginning of the book has very little in her life, and is convinced that’s how she likes it. She lives alone, has a job she tolerates with people who puzzle her, and can only get through the weekends by drinking copious amounts of vodka alone in her flat. But gradually things begin to change, and we find out, bit by bit, why she is in this state.

It’s sad, shocking, but also very funny. I feel better for having read it.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Assassin's Fate, by Robin Hobb


First, let's just take a look at the cover. Isn't it perfectly luscious? It's by Jackie Morris, who recently collaborated with Robert MacFarlane on a beautiful book called Lost Words, which seeks to reclaim - particularly for children - words to do with nature which are apparently no longer widely familiar.

That book is wonderful, but let's get back to this one, which I finished last night. (There were tears, but more of that later.) The bee represents a child called Bee, who has been kidnapped and taken to an island called Clerres, whose white stronghold is also pictured. If you look closely, you'll see in the decoration of the letter 'A' two candles; Bee carries with her a candle, broken into two, which was made by her mother, now dead. She dreams about candles too, and about lots of other things. This dreaming is important, and it's part of the reason she's been kidnapped.

It's a very fat book, and it's the last in a very long series, which features Bee's father, Fitz, and his 'friend' (it's not the right word, but it's difficult to really explain their relationship without telling too much of the story), the Fool. It's fantasy, and I don't often read fantasy (although some of my favourite books in the past have been fantasy, notably The Lord of the Rings and The Dark Is Rising). I got into this one because several writer friends whose opinions I respect had enthused about it. When I downloaded the first one, I read a few pages and decided I couldn't be bothered to get into this world. Months later, for some reason, I decided to have another go - and I was hooked.

Robin Hobb is a brilliant writer. Not only does she create a complex fantasy world: she peoples it with richly realised characters who you really care about, she tells a story that hooks you in and won't let you go as few people can - and somehow, she keeps all the zillions of narrative threads in her fingers, over thousands upon thousands of pages, and weaves them together with the utmost skill. One example - the first few books concern Fritz and the Fool, and their lives in the Six Duchies. The next sequence deals with an entirely separate country, the Rainwilds, and its neighbours the Bingtown Traders, who possess the extraordinary liveships, which are sentient and have talking, moving figureheads. It's not at all obvious that these two sets of stories are connected, except by virtue of taking place in different parts of the same fantasy world - but in the next sequence, you discover that they are in fact intimately connected. It's just so clever - I have no idea how she manages to keep all those plates spinning.

The way she manages to bring it all together and explain most - not all - of the mysteries, in this last book, is an absolute tour-de-force. And it's so sad at the end - sad because of what happens, but also because you know you're saying goodbye to all of the characters. (Unless - unless - she changes her mind. There are stories still to be told...)

In the meantime, I may just have to go back to the beginning and start all over again.

Monday, 19 February 2018

Soothing things

Have been rather busy lately, which is why I haven't been here much. But today I felt in need of a bit of soothing, so instead of looking at emails or the news, I started to look through my photos. And they very quickly began to do the job - with a little help from William Wordsworth and John Masefield.


Here's the first. I took it one day last week, when I went for a walk round the reservoir. It was a beautiful afternoon: bright, cold and very windy. The picture is actually deceptive because it makes the water look calm - in fact, it was turbulent, full of restless energy: so much so that it seemed alive, prowling and predatory. It made me think of that bit from Wordsworth's Prelude - though, as I discovered when I looked it up, he was actually talking about a mountain, not a lake:

..............................................the huge Cliff
Rose up between me and the stars, and still,
With measur'd motion, like a living thing,
Strode after me.

And a little further on:

But huge and mighty Forms that do not live
Like living men mov'd slowly through my mind
By day and were the trouble of my dreams.

And here's the next: a picture of the Bristol harbourside.



I was heading towards the ss Great Britain, which has something fresh to see every time I go. But this, below, is an old favourite, not a new one: on the door of each cubicle in the loos is an extract from a poem to do with the sea. This is one. It seemed the perfect accompaniment to Bristol, as well as to Brunel's beautiful ship. And I like the last line, which says that by travelling, we may 'know the thoughts of men in other lands'. It's what we need, but often signally fail to do: to know the thoughts of others.


And finally a picture from the dear old hill, and one from the Avalon Marshes: and a final thought from Wordsworth's poem, Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey.



...........with an eye made quiet by the power
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

Thank you, John and William.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Midwinter Magic

A few weeks ago, in December, I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. I thought it was a wonderful book - I've written about it below. It's set in Alaska, and just as I finished it, I glanced out of the window - it was early morning, and still dark - and in the light of a street lamp, I saw that it had just begun to snow. It seemed quite magical.

Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition: photo by Frank Hurley


Since then, I seem to have been in thrall to books set in the frozen north - or, well, in frozen Britain. I read Susan Price's Ghost Drum series, set in the snowy north of Russia (again, scroll down); then, in company with lots of fans all over the world, I re-read Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. This, if you've not read it, tells the story of Will Stanton, who, one mid-winter, finds out that he is not just an ordinary boy, but the last of the Old Ones, whose task it is to fight in a battle against the Dark. As the struggle begins, the snow falls, until it is so thick that normal life goes into abeyance.

It turns out that Robert MacFarlane is a great fan, and he suggested on Twitter that people should re-read it during the season in which it is set, and discuss it. Lots of artists took part too, and posted marvellous illustrations - it was great!

Then I went on to Stef Penney's Under A Pole Star. I'd had this on my Kindle for a while, but somehow it hadn't been the right time to read it. Now it was. Set in the late 19th century, it's about Flora, the daughter of a whaler, who yearns to get back to the Arctic where she went to as a child with her father. There she meets Jakob de Beyn, an American geologist and explorer, and the two, already both in love with the Arctic, fall deeply and irretrievably in love. Unfortunately, there is a third player in their story, Lester Armitage: a driven and dangerously ambitious explorer. Things don't end well. It's a vivid evocation of the frozen landscape and of the Inuit people who are Flora's friends, and it's cleverly told in several different stories and two different timescales.

Following that, I headed east to Iceland and read two detective books by Ragnar Jonasson, Black Out and Rupture. I read the first two in the series some time ago; they're about a young policeman called Ari Thor, and like most good detective series, they're as much about the lives of the characters as about the crimes that have been committed. And, naturally enough, there's a lot of snow.

And now I'm nearing the end of another book by Eowyn Ivey, called To the Bright Edge of the World, also set in Alaska. But more of that next time.



What is the fascination of the poles? (I just heard on the radio of a musician who is about to set off to the Arctic to be a song-writer in residence, so it's not just me!) I remember when I was a child reading in a big, dark red encyclopaedia, called The Children's Wonder Book or something similar, about the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, and thinking how much I'd like to see them. (I still would.) And I'm fascinated by the eerie beauty of the photographs of Ernest Shackleton's Antarcticexpedition; I have a book about them.

Of course, I could go. These days it's quite easy - not as it was for Flora, Jakob and Shackleton. Perhaps one day I will. But in the meantime, how delightful it is to read about extremes of cold while curled up in front of a warm fire - to hear the call of the icy wastes, but to leave it for others to answer.

PS Some feedback, please: do you prefer the font smallish, like this, or larger, like the post below? Thanks.


Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Ghost Drum, by Susan Price

I've just finished reading Ghost Drum, which was originally published by Faber in 1987 and won the Carnegie Medal. So it's thirty years old - but it doesn't feel it. It feels intensely fresh and vivid.



Like The Snow Child, it has its roots in Russian folklore. And like Northern Lights and La Belle Sauvage, it features a shaman - well, several - and the ghost drum itself has a good deal in common with Pullman's alethiometer. I had been thinking how interesting it is that serendipity often leads you to books that link up with the one you've just read - but I guess it's actually the other way round: Ghost Drum had been on my Kindle for a little while, and I was prompted to read it because I vaguely realised that it had links with The Snow Child and with La Belle Sauvage.

But it's a very different book from either of those. It's like a piece of embroidery, worked with rich jewel colours on a piece of dark velvet, intense and vivid. It's remarkable.

I was going to write a proper review, but I came across this one by Julia Jones, and it says everything I would have said and more, so I'm just going to point you towards it here.

But one last thing. This book won the Carnegie, and it's wonderful - but it's out of print with traditional publishers. (Though Susan Price has published it independently herself, together with its two sequels.) Why is it out of print? I can just see the three books bound together and illustrated, perhaps with woodcuts - it would make a beautiful book!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

First, an apology - I read this while I was away, a few weeks ago; the copy was borrowed, so I don't have it by me to refer to. But I did make some notes.

I really loved Northern Lights. I felt spellbound by this world, so similar to ours, but so different in such enchanting ways. Lyra was a delightful character; warm, brave, loyal, stubborn - it never seemed surprising that she commanded such loyalty among the other characters. And what characters they were: Iorek the bear, Serafina Pekkala the lovely witch, the intrepid balloonist... and in each case, you get two for the price of one, because of the brilliant concept of the daemon - the familiar creature which each person has. Imagine that - always having someone with you to have your back, someone who knows you as no-one else can, who can advise you and encourage you!

I still liked The Subtle Knife, but not so much. And I had considerable reservations about The Amber Spyglass. I was not engaged by the creatures on wheels, and felt the whole thing had become unwieldy. But there was still much to enjoy, and I was very sad to leave the world of Lyra's Oxford - especially as she and Will had been so unsatisfactorily separated.



And so to the much anticipated first volume of Pullman's new trilogy, The Book of Dust. At the beginning, it felt wonderful to be drawn back into that world. Pullman is, of course, a master storyteller, confident and immensely skilled, and it immediately feels as if we are in safe hands. The hero is a boy called Malcolm, who lives at his parents' pub close to the river, just outside Oxford. He helps out at a nearby nunnery, and always has his ears open ready for a good bit of gossip. So of course, he's intrigued when a baby mysteriously arrives and is put into the care of the nuns. The child inspires affection in everyone who comes across her - including Malcolm, who soon becomes devoted to her. And he soon discovers that she will need every bit of his resourcefulness and courage to keep her safe from those who are hunting for her. The baby, of course, is Lyra.

All goes well for the first part of the book. The characters seem rather to echo those of the earlier trilogy - Malcolm has the warmth and courage of Lyra herself, and Will's ability to be ruthless when necessary. (Will is also very capable with his hands, and the descriptions of his work mending shutters etc are lovingly detailed.) And there's a courageous woman professor, also as in the earlier books - and a romance which develops, between Malcolm and Alice, a girl who works at his parents' inn. At first the two children don't get on at all, but that changes, and she helps him with Lyra when, as the waters rise all around them, they rescue Lyra from her enemies and flee in a sturdily-built little boat - The Belle Sauvage.

It was at this point that I became a little restive. The waters rise - and rise - and rise. The boat goes on - and on - and on.Though Malcolm is only 11, he turns out to be immensely practical and resourceful, and capable of taking on grown men in defence of his charge. Even so, he has to be baled out (sorry!) by some creatures from what feels like a quite different world - a giant, a fairy enchantress - as well as by a rather more humdrum pharmacy, which pops up at just the right time to provide nappies and other baby supplies for Lyra. I've read other reviews which say that the pace really picked up with the flood; but for me, it went on for far too long, and the world which seemed so solid and certain to start off with began to seem far less substantial. (And not just because it was largely underwater.) And then... it stops: and I gather that the next book will take up the story some twenty years into the future. So... what about the characters we've come to care about? What about the nuns - what happened to them? What about Malcolm and Alice?

There's still a great deal to admire and to enjoy in La Belle Sauvage - how could there not be, with a writer of Pullman's calibre? But with Northern Lights, he set the bar very high. With this book, beautifully written and full of splendid things as it is, I don't think he quite reaches it.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

A few weeks ago, I was in Brussels, staying with my son and his family. I woke up early, when it was still dark, and settled down to finish the book I'd been reading. It was The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey; it's about a couple living in Alaska who have lost one child and never been able to have another. Then, out of the snowy landscape, a girl appears. Is she real, or have they created her out of their need?As I finished it, I glanced out of the window. In the light of a street lamp, I saw that the soft drizzle was turning first to sleet, then to snow. I didn't expect it to settle, but it did. It was a magical moment - it was as if the book itself had conjured up the snow, just as the couple had conjured up the child.

That snowfall was the finishing touch, but even without it, this is a beautiful, brilliant book. It's based on the old Russian folk tale of Snegurochka, which is about an old couple who make the child they have never had out of snow. In this story, the couple are called Jack and Mabel. In middle age, they have moved north to Alaska as pioneers, to carve a farm and a new life out of the wilderness. The landscape is vividly evoked, with its abundance of wildlife (including bears, pine martens, silver foxes, lynx and salmon), its remote mountains, its swift-running rivers - its beauty.


Mabel has never recovered from the death of her baby some years before - one reason for the move to Alaska is to escape the heartbreak of seeing other people's children. They keep themselves to themselves, but eventually realise they need other people in order to survive, and they make friends with their neighbours, George and Esther. Esther, practical, warm and unconventional, is the perfect friend for quiet, sad, self-contained Mabel, whose icy heart begins to thaw. She and Jack begin to live again, and to rediscover each other.

And then an extraordinary thing happens. After a snowfall, Jack makes a child out of snow. And immediately after that, they glimpse a real child, who has apparently emerged from the snow. Is she real?

Well, she turns out to be. But there's more than a sprinkling of magic about this child.

I won't say any more. I know I'm late to the party with this book and many of you will already have read it, but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't. But - I read a lot. I read many books I would be happy - no, delighted - to have written myself. But it's not often I read one and think - there. That's how to do it. That's what it's all about. Mal Peet's Keeper was one, and this is another.