Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Christmas reads

If anyone's looking for a late present for someone who loves beautiful books, I can thoroughly recommend The Sleeper and the Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell, and published by Bloomsbury. It's a re-imagining of The Sleeping Beauty, though bits of other fairy tales creep in as well - but as you might expect with Neil Gaiman, there are more twists and turns than you'll find in the intertwining stems of a climbing rose.

The story, which of course I'm not going to tell you, is mesmeric and beautifully told. But as well as this, the book is a very gorgeous object. Through the translucent cover, decorated with gold and black roses, you glimpse a sleeping girl, drawn onto the hardback itself. The illustrations, black and white with touches of gold, are absolutely luscious: detailed, dramatic and stylish. Even the page numbers are decorated with tiny drawings.

It's an absolute treat.

This is a newly published book. But my favourite Christmas read first appeared in 1973. The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper, is the second book of a sequence of five: this is also the name of the sequence as a whole. The first one, Over Sea, Under Stone, was written as a standalone in 1965. It does not have the same power as the subsequent books, but without it, they would not have been written - which would have been dreadful! They all draw on Susan Cooper's deep attachment to certain parts of the Britain she had known before moving to America: Cornwall, the Chilterns, Windsor, Wales. She invests these places with mythic significance, and the children who are her heroes move between the landscape of legend and that of everyday life, fighting the forces of the Dark. The Dark Is Rising takes place at Christmas time; there are unforgettable scenes of high tension - one where an unnaturally heavy snowfall is the first backdrop for an attack from the Dark, heralded by swooping rooks, another where carol singers provide the accompaniment for a heart-wrenching betrayal. I probably re-read the sequence every other Christmas - and there aren't many books I re-read at all. If you haven't read it, and you're prepared to accept that children's books are not just for children, you have a treat in store; or you could buy it for a child of your acquaintance. (And then borrow it!)

I probably won't post now till after the Christmas jollities. So I'll leave you with some pictures from the hill - no snow, no frost, but a very beautiful winter afternoon light.

Thank you for visiting, and have a very lovely Christmas!

That's Cheddar Gorge in the distance.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

History Girls

It's funny, isn't it - up here on the hill, you never see another writer from one month to the next. And then, all of a sudden, off you go to two writerly gatherings in a week. (What would be a good collective name for a bunch of writers? A gossiperation? A twitterance? Answers on a postcard, please, or better, in the comments section.)

So after Folly Farm, I had a few days to catch my breath (and do some work) and then it was off to London to meet up with the History Girls. Amazingly, there was a blue plaque outside the building beside the Thames where we first met three years ago - who knew we were that famous?

The History Girls is a group of writers of historical fiction and non-fiction. We each blog once a month - my date is on the 16th. Since we first met, there have been quite a lot of changes, so this weekend many of us were meeting for the first time. Here are some of us. I'm fourth from the right at the back.

Photo taken by Isabel Adomakoh Young
We had an amazing tea: -

Lydia Syson, writer of This Burning Summer, admiring our beautiful cake
We admired the view: -

And, of course, we talked! It was particularly good to meet the writers of four books I've read and very much enjoyed over the last year or so. Lydia Syson has written A World Between Us, which is set in the Spanish Civil War, and more recently, That Burning Summer. This is a love story set in the Second World War, when the sky above the south of England hummed with the drone of war planes. Unusually, it explores the situation of conscientious objectors - who are often now discussed in relation to the First World War, but far less frequently in relation to the Second.

Liz Fremantle (just right of centre in the picture, with blonde hair and a stripy top) writes books set in the Tudor period. The one I read was Queen's Gambit, which is about Katherine Parr, Henry V111's last wife. It's a subtle portrait of an intelligent, interesting woman, who becomes the unwilling object of the aging King's attentions. The writing is beautiful:

'Queen's gambit accepted,' says the King, taking her white pawn, rolling it between fat fingers. 
        He looks at her, sunken eyes flashing, his breath wheezing as if there is no space for air in him. 
        'I could make you Queen,' he declares.
        Droplets of spit land next to her ear.
        'You tease, Your Majesty,' she says.
        'Perhaps,' he growls. 'Perhaps not.'

Clare Mulley's book, The Spy Who Loved, is a non-fiction book. (Clare is on the extreme right of the photo.) If you'd written it as fiction, a kindly editor would probably have sighed and pointed out that it was ridiculously far-fetched - a beautiful Polish girl becomes a spy for the British in the Second World War and does outrageously brave things: like, if memory serves, walking into a German prison to rescue a French resistance worker - and succeeding - and breaking lots of hearts along the way. Really? Well, yes - really. The girl was called Krystyna Skarbek/Christine Granville, and the book is gripping: I think it's always fascinating to read about extraordinary courage - especially if, like me, you're a complete wuss.

The fourth book, by Imogen Robertson, is called The Paris Winter. It's set in Paris in 1909, in a world of artists and emigres. To begin with, it seems like a coming-of-age novel, interesting particularly because of its setting. But it turns into something much darker: a sort of Gothic thriller, with dastardly villains and peaks of heart-stopping tension. (Well, no hearts were actually stopped in the reading of this book so far as I know - but you get the picture.) This is one to curl up and lose yourself in, with the fire flickering and a glass of something warm by your side. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Finally, a mention of Daughters of Time (you can get to it from the revolving display up above on the right). This is an anthology of stories about significant women through the ages, written by History Girls, edited by Mary Hoffman and published by Templar. I have a story in it about Aethelflaed, who was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and who became a leader in her own right - the Lady of the Mercians. My story is about the transition between the two roles. Katherine Langrish writes about Julian of Norwich - no easy task, to make the life of someone who spent most of her time sealed up in a cell into a story, but successfully done here. Celia Rees explores the last days of Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself under the King's horse. Penny Dolan writes about Mary Wollstonecraft, Joan Lennon about fossil hunter Mary Anning - oh, I could go on. What a good present this would make...!

So there it is. Normal reviewing service will be resumed soon - except there's something called Christmas looming up, isn't there? Hm...

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Folly Farm

Apologies for not having posted a review so far this week. It's mainly because I was here for a few days, at Folly Farm, for a gathering of children's authors, all members of the Scattered Authors' SocietyFolly Farm is a beautiful place. It was converted by the Avon Wildlife Trust into a conference centre a few years ago, and there are ponds and woods and fields and streams.

There is also this extraordinary ancient tree. It's called the Folly Oak, but I couldn't find anything else out about it, so I don't know exactly how old it is. Isn't it magical?

We had that mix of sunshine and mist that makes for the most enchanting effects, especially with the glow you get in a late winter afternoon. My camera isn't really up to coping with such subtle light as well as I'd like, but here's an attempt.

The company was great, the food was outstanding, the sessions we had were intriguing and energising. Two in particular stood out: one where we brought to the room any plot problems we were having with works-in-progress. The ideas and suggestions fizzed like spectacular fireworks. The other was a sort of meditative exercise; we had to imagine we were walking in a wood, and we went down some steps, and into a cave, and we met an animal, and were given various gifts... After it, not only did I feel incredibly relaxed - I also had a new idea about what will probably be my next project. This was the wood I visualised as my starting place.

And then on the way home, I stopped by Chew Lake because I saw these.


Monday, 24 November 2014

Reading the detectives 3: The Dr Siri series, by Colin Cotterill

You stumble across good books in all sorts of ways, don’t you? Often, people whose judgement you trust recommend them to you. Sometimes you read about them in reviews, or on blogs like this one. Sometimes a cover catches your eye in a bookshop.

I’m actually mystified as to how I came to have a copy of one of Colin Cotterill’s series about the reluctant chief coroner of Laos, Dr Siri Paiboun. I found it in a pile of books in my son’s old room. I thought perhaps he’d left it behind after a visit home, but he denies all knowledge of it. It was published in 2007 – perhaps I bought it in a 3 for 2 promotion, and then decided I didn’t like the look of it after all.

I don’t know. Anyway – reader, I read it. And loved it. And then I read the one that preceded it – for some reason I had bought the second in the series – and most of the ones that followed it. (I’m trying to keep one or two in reserve, in case a time comes when no other book will do.)

The books are set in the late 1970s, when a communist government has just taken power in Laos. Dr Siri has been a freedom fighter and doctor in the jungle, and his close friend Civilai is one of the men in power. Siri is in his late 70s and looking forward to retirement – but: ‘There was nothing frail about Dr Siri… His short, solid body still scurried hither and thither like a curious river rat. Younger men were hard pressed to keep his pace… His mind, resplendent with his newly honed skills, had become even keener of late… For reasons he was still trying to fathom, he’d been delegated Laos’s honorary consul to the spirit world.’ (Oh yes - his body is host to a long-dead shaman called Yeh Ming, which doesn’t sit easily with Siri, as he’s by nature a cynic and a realist.)

So he’s an unusual character - as are the other regulars in the series. Take his nurse, Dtui, who assists him at the morgue. She longs to be a doctor herself. She’s plump, clever, and funny. Then there’s Mr Geung, the other member of the morgue team. He has Downs syndrome, but he has been trained by Siri’s predecessor, knows the procedures better than either Siri or Dtui, and is an essential member of the team. Civilai shares Siri’s wit and cynicism. This core group is joined later by a policeman called Phosy and by another ex-revolutionary, who becomes Siri’s second wife.

This bunch of wise-cracking misfits prove to be incredibly good at deciphering mysteries and righting wrongs, and they are the central, dazzling attraction of the series. The dialogue crackles, and the books are very, very funny. On the cover of the first one I read, they are compared to Alexander McCall Smith’s Ma Ramotswe books, but they’re much edgier and, particularly as the series progresses, also much deeper. As with many series, the context is at first quite shadowy, but it becomes more sharply focused as the series goes on; in one book, for instance, Siri finds himself a prisoner in Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime – and there’s nothing funny or whimsical about the way that experience is described. Gradually, we find out more about the recent history of Laos – Siri meets the deposed king in a surreal encounter in an orchard; although they have been on opposing sides in the struggle for the country’s future, they spend a happy night getting drunk together. Later, Siri finds himself involved in the plight of the Hmongs, a tribal people who have few rights and whose ancient way of life is being trampled in the name of progress.

These books are absolutely delightful. They have so many of the prerequisites of a good book – they transport you to another place that you knew little about; they’re funny; they have moments of high drama; the dialogue is sharp and witty; the characters earn your affection, and the narrative is cleverly handled. If you haven’t come across them yet, you’re in for a treat.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Winter Horses, by Philip Kerr: Walker Books

Philip Kerr is the creator of the Berlin detective, Bernie Gunther - one of those ironic characters who hides his heart of gold beneath a cloak of cynicism. He doesn’t like the Nazis, but he doesn’t see himself as hero material; he’ll do what he must to stay alive. As the Nazis grow more powerful, and when the war breaks out, he increasingly finds that he has to make compromises with which he’s often not comfortable – but he does his best to be a decent human being. I like the Bernie Gunther books, particularly the earlier ones – and if you are planning a visit to Prague, Prague Fatale, in which Bernie gets tangled up with Reinhardt Heydrich, is a great companion read.

The Winter Horses, a book for children/teens, operates in similar territory, where allegiances are not always obvious and survival is not a given. It is set in 1941 on a nature reserve in the Ukraine, where an old keeper, Max, is left in charge when his boss flees before the German advance. Before he leaves, the boss announces that Max must shoot all the animals, to stop the Germans using them for meat. Max does no such thing. Although he is Russian, he rather likes the Germans; his mentor, and the founder of the reserve, Baron Falz-Fein, was German, and Max speaks the language well.

So when, a couple of weeks later, the Germans arrive, Max is not particularly worried; and in fact the officer in charge, Captain Grenzmann, takes to him – they share a love of horses.

But not of all horses. The reserve is the home of a small group of Przewalski’s horses, almost the last surviving members of an ancient race dating back to prehistoric times. These are tough, wild horses which do not like to get too close to humans, and certainly don't allow themselves to be mounted. Max loves them, but the Captain regards them as an ugly, inferior species with no place in today’s world, and he wants them to be hunted to extinction. As he explains to Max, this should be the fate of any inferior species...

Which brings us on to Kalinka, a girl who Max finds hiding on the steppe. Kalinka is Jewish. She has seen her family, her friends and neighbours being shot by the Germans. She is completely alone, until she happens to meet up, first with two of the Przewalski’s horses, and then with Max, who helps her and hides her. She develops a strange bond with the horses: can they help each other to survive?

Although he hates almost everything Grenzmann stands for, Max, like Bernie Gunther, is prepared to go quite a long way to keep on his right side. One night he’s asked to dinner – and he knows that horsemeat will be on the menu. Kalinka cannot understand why Max if friendly with the Captain, but Max points out that there is good reason to keep onside with him; he can destroy them all. Grenzmann draws very good pictures of the horses he likes to ride, and he gives one to Max: ‘…every time the old man looked at it, he marvelled that an artist of such great sensitivity should be capable of such diabolical cruelty.’ No-one is entirely bad – though Granzmann comes pretty close, despite his friendliness towards Max.

The climax of the hunt has a mythic quality. It’s not an ending that would work in an adult novel, and I'm not sure that it entirely works here, but it’s certainly a joy to be able to finish a novel set in such a place at such a time on a high. There is something of the fairytale about this book. It’s set in a forest, it features a child who is helped by wild animals, there’s a cottage in the woods… in the prologue Kerr tells us: ‘… even if there are some parts of this story that are not exactly true, they could be, and that is more important.’ It’s harrowing in places, but somehow this sense that we are reading something that is part fable keeps the horror at a distance.

There’s something about the dialogue that doesn’t quite work for me. It’s often used as a means of getting across information, so that characters speak rather gravely and in considerable detail about what’s happening around them. And they all speak in a similar way. So here’s Max, an old peasant: ‘I can’t argue with that, Kalinka. But all the same, your plan is founded on the assumption that the horses will do what you say…’ And here’s Kalinka, a young girl, talking about the horses: ‘I seem to have developed a bond with them. I’m not exactly sure why…’ They speak in exactly the same way, and it’s a little stilted - although perhaps that hint of unreality also adds to the sense that this is a fable, that although the tale is a bleak one, it has a gloss of enchantment.

It's an absorbing book, and it takes us into a little-known corner of the Second World War and indicates the difficulty of surviving in a world which is physically and morally uncompromising. It seeks to do this in a way which offers hope that good will ultimately triumph - and it goes a long way towards achieving this difficult aim. Interesting!

Monday, 10 November 2014

Reading the detectives 2: Harry Hole

'Harry Hole' isn't the title of the book I recently read - that's Police, and it's by Jo Nesbo. But Harry Hole is the star, even though he doesn't actually appear till quite a long way into the book. He's one of the most charismatic detectives in the history of crime writing, and even though he doesn't actually appear in this book till a good way through the book, he's without doubt its star.

Harry Hole is tall, thin and blonde, with lots of scars and burning blue eyes (so not unlike Nesbo himself, who, unlike Hole, is unfairly talented not just as a writer, but as a footballer, musician and financial wizard). Hole is an alcoholic and a phenomenally talented investigator, whose addictive personality means that he'll do whatever it takes to catch a killer. He's deeply in love with a lawyer called Rakel Fauke, and she loves him too, but understandably, she gets a bit fed up of being put in mortal danger whenever he's on a case, so theirs is a bit of an on-off relationship.

In this book, the tenth of the series, there's a serial killer whose victims are police officers. If you've read a Harry Hole novel, you'll know that Jo Nesbo is a great teaser. He is constantly leading  Harry and/or the reader up the garden path - a path with endless twists and turns and some very nasty characters lurking round every bend. The tension builds until you know that something really, REALLY terrible is going to happen - and then sometimes he lets you off the hook. But be wary if this happens, because pretty soon, just as you think you can breathe a sigh of relief, something much, much worse happens. There are endless false leads, and you will very rarely have a clue as to the real culprit until the last page.

As in many of the other books, Nesbo is ruthless about killing off characters we've grown fond of (in some very gruesome ways, too). He does this, and then he sets it up so you think another one's about to get the chop - but when you turn the page to start the next chapter, you find that lo and behold, it was yet another tease.

But there's an extra tease this time. Nesbo has hinted that this may well be the last Harry Hole book. Well, if what happens on the last page isn't an unmistakable hook, then I'm a best selling author with a Hollywood film in the pipeline. And it's a really, really mean hook at that. (And come on, Mr Nesbo: haven't any of those clever policemen - particularly Stale Aune, the psychologist - remembered that Valentin is still on the loose? Really?)

If you like detective novels with some extremely dark corners, then you should try the Harry Hole books. But be warned - they're addictive. And really not good if you have a tendency towards insomnia. 

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Reading the detectives 1: Inspector Montalbano

I’ve enjoyed reading detective series for a very long time. I was trying to think for how long: I certainly remember ‘discovering’ Agatha Christie, probably in my late twenties after a colleague proudly showed me his collection of ancient Penguin editions. I borrowed one and that was it, I was hooked. Then I went on to Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham etc, and later, I crossed the Atlantic (in spirit) to enter the super-cool world of Raymond Chandler.

But actually I think it started way before then. A lot of the series I borrowed from the children’s library were, in a way, detective stories – the Famous Five and the Malcolm Saville books, for example, both centred round a mystery – and usually a dastardly criminal – who had to be investigated by sleuthing children.

Recently, though, having a Kindle has moved my enjoyment of the genre up to a whole new level. It began when a friend recommended the Montalbano series, by Andrea Camilleri. (Incidentally, Camilleri wrote the first of this massively successful and much-loved series when he was 69. I find that curiously comforting.) I downloaded the first and loved it. For anyone who hasn’t seen or heard of Montalbano, he is an eccentric, short-tempered but very lovable Sicilian detective inspector. He lives in a house right on the edge of a beach, and often goes for an early morning swim to clear his mind. Probably the most important thing in his life is food – and woe betide anyone who interrupts his enjoyment of a good meal, or who serves him up a bad one. Other objects of his affection are his team – lascivious Mimi, loyal Fazio and the utterly bonkers Caterella; his long-distance girlfriend Livia, and his best friend Ingrid, the utterly beautiful six foot Swedish blonde, who helps him out in so many ways.

Catarella, Montalbano (aka Luca Zingaretti), Fazio and Mimi - from the Italian TV series

Like all the best detectives, Salvo Montalbano is very much his own man. He’s left-wing, cynical, and a natural rebel who loves to wind up his superiors and lives in terror of being promoted. He doesn’t toe the party line, and he certainly doesn’t follow procedures. He’s a maverick who inspires loyalty and admiration – even from the criminal fraternity.

So – I read the first one. Then his publishers did a very clever thing. They put the first chapter of the second book at the end of the first one. So, just at the point where you are reluctantly dragging yourself away from the sun-drenched shores of Sicily, you’re offered another chance. What harm can it do? You read the first chapter. You realise that not only are you being offered a brand new adventure – you are also being given the chance to pick up the threads left dangling in the first. And that’s it – you’re hooked. You don’t even have to get out of bed. With a few taps on the screen, it’s done: the second book is there. And so it goes on.

Young Montalbano, played by Michele Riordano

This cunning ploy certainly helps the publishers – but it helps you, the reader, too. You don’t have to waste time till you can get to a bookshop or till you can order the next book from the library – you can read the whole series end-to-end. So there’ll be none of that forgetting what happened earlier on in the series (well, you’d better hope there isn’t, because one thing it isn’t easy to do with a Kindle is to flick back through the pages to check on something). You get a clear sense of the series arc; of how the characters are developing, how they are affected by their experiences. In the case of Montalbano, you also begin to get a sense of the social and political context of the books, and of Camilleri’s own concerns about Italy and how it is governed.

But every good series comes to an end, so what did I read next? Well, for that you’ll have to wait till next time.

But meanwhile, PLEASE tell me about your own favourite detective novels in the comments. I'm on the lookout for my next series.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Hallowe'en book giveaway

So, it's Hallowe'en - is this spooky enough for you?

This was the first book I had published (thank you, A&C Black!) and it's about a ghost who's not scary enough - at least for his teacher, the dreaded Sir Rupert. With exams looming, tension is running high in the school for spooks - and to cap it all, the In-spectres are due to make a visit. Spooker and his pals need to pull off some pretty impressive haunting, and fast.

Terrifying illustrations by the wonderful Lynne Chapman!

I have a copy or three to give away - to win one for a trick-or-treater near you, or for your school library. I'll pick the winners out of a hat, and if you are one, I'll let you know. Good luck!



Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Snarling of Wolves, by Vivian French

Vivian French deftly uses elements of fairy-tale and myth to create the setting of The Snarling of Wolves; so, for instance, we find a (Less) Enchanted Forest, three Ancient Crones (who, like the Greek Fates, weave a magical web), more princes and princesses than you can shake a broomstick at, werewolves, zombies, a faithful troll - and an intelligence network of bats, whose leader, Marlon, wisecracks away like a character from Raymond Chandler.

The heroine, Gracie Gillypot, is a Trueheart, someone who brings out the good in people. The hero is Prince Marcus, who, unlike most of the other Royals in the Five Kingdoms, is brave, bright and adventurous. Gracie lives outside the Five Kingdoms (which are quite small, as Marcus realises when he looks down on them from the top of a tower), in the Less Enchanted Forest with the afore-mentioned Ancient Crones. The Crones are also responsible for keeping Foyce Undershaft safely away from the public. Foyce is half girl, half werewolf - and all bad. She hates Gracie, whom she blames for her captivity, and concocts a cunning plan to get her own back on the other girl and her beloved Marcus. Her hatred is the engine that sets the plot in motion.

The story moves at a swift pace and is liberally sprinkled with funny dialogue and great characters, as well as a generous scattering of fairy dust. I particularly liked the Ancient Crones (like calling to like, no doubt...) and the less ancient but still pretty elderly Queen Bluebell - but was also strangely drawn to the splendidly wicked Foyce and the conflicted but ultimately principled werewolves. All these are brought visually to life by Ross Collins' splendid illustrations. I wish I could show you some; you can get the idea from the cover with its magnificent werewolf, but you really need to see the full-page line drawings too. The artist clearly had a lot of fun, and he adds greatly to the reader's enjoyment of the book and understanding of the characters and their environment.

All these elements are very fine, but the absolute tour-de-force is the ending. All the characters, and all the different strands of the story, are brought together (by means of exceptionally skillful plotting) in a stunning set piece, where the good triumph, the wicked are overthrown, the fairly average change for the better, the misunderstood receive a sympathetic hearing, and the onlookers - and - readers can only cheer in admiration and delight. I can't tell you any more about it because it would spoil it - but no word of a lie, I haven't admired an ending as much since I read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany.

This is the sixth in the Tales from the Five Kingdoms series, which began with The Robe of Skulls. You could read it as a standalone, but why would you? Better by far to read the whole series. And if anyone from Dreamworks or Disney is reading this (and why wouldn't they be?) - please note that this series would make an amazing animation. Oh, what you couldn't do with the path-with-a-mind-of-its-own, the troll who regularly loses his head, the silly princesses and the sinister Foyce!

I'd say the core audience would be 9-12 year olds. But as with so many children's books, you really don't have to be a child to enjoy it.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Cover Your Eyes, by Adele Geras

I had scheduled this to come out on Tuesday, my regular day - but the book came out yesterday, and it's all very exciting, so I thought, why wait? And so here it is.

Cover Your Eyes, published by Quercus, is a welcome return to writing for adults from Adele Geras, who is also a much-loved writer of books for children and young adults (notably Troy and the Egerton Hall trilogy). It tells the story of two women, the charming and rather mysterious eighty-year-old Eva Conway, once a famous fashion designer, and Megan Pritchard, a young journalist who is sent to interview her.

Megan has been having an affair with her married boss, Simon. At the beginning of the book, her hopes that he will leave his wife for her are dashed when he tells her that the affair must end because his wife is pregnant. Shattered and deeply wounded, she leaves her job. Her father is in New Zealand and her mother is dead; the only person she can confide in is her best friend Jay - and Jay is in America. The only positive thing in her world at the moment is an article she has written about Eva Conway. When it comes out, however, she finds it has been edited – badly, she thinks – by Simon. She becomes fixated on the idea that she must take a copy of the magazine to Eva and explain why the text is not the same as the one she had sent Eva for approval.

And so the action moves to Salix House, where Eva’s daughter, Rowena, has told her that her beloved house (in trust for Rowena to avoid death duties) must be sold, because they can’t afford to keep it up. It makes far more sense, she says, for them all to move to London, where Rowena works. Eva is distraught. Salix House means everything to her: it ‘had been at the same time a source of happiness and a repository of memories, many of which made her shiver even now.’ The difficult memories, we find, concern her marriage, but they go back even further, to when Eva first arrived in England from Germany many years ago.

Despite her own troubles, Eva is concerned by Megan's unhappiness. Although on the surface they would seem to have little in common, they are in tune in a way in which Eva and her daughter clearly are not. Rowena is urgently looking for a temporary nanny for her two daughters, and it quickly dawns on everyone that if Megan were to take on the job, it would solve a number of problems all at the same time.

The book’s prologue has already suggested that there is something mysterious and disturbing at Salix House. ‘She’s there. I’ve covered up her reflection in the mirror but I know she’s there. I’m under the blankets. I can’t breathe...’ There are things far back in Eva’s past which she has never been able to face, and, perhaps because of her own unhappiness, Megan too begins to see fleeting images in mirrors and to sense a restless presence. So both their stories unfold: we gradually find out about Eva’s past, whilst at the same time Megan’s present and future unfold.

Eva is a fascinating character – strong but also vulnerable, loving but apparently unable to love her own daughter, capable but oddly passive. I felt like cheering when she finally faced up to the past and took charge of her future, and I'd actually quite like a whole book just about her. (The descriptions of her dress designs, for instance, are delicious and intriguing.) With Megan, on the other hand, I felt quite cross, but that’s probably because I’m a fair bit closer to Eva’s age than I am to Megan’s, so that when Megan is agonising over Simon, I feel a little impatient with her – can’t she see how awful he is? When the truth, of course is, that she can’t, because she’s never been in love before.

This is the perfect book to curl up with on a dreary winter’s evening. You will not want to put it down till you have unravelled the mystery of Salix House, and – unless you are very cynical indeed! – you will be delighted at the way that everything is resolved. Adele Geras is expert at handling the intertwining narratives, at drip-feeding clues about Eva’s past, and at ratchetting up the tension. A haunting tale, in more ways than one!

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Wanting: by Richard Flanagan

I was given this book for my birthday by my son. I didn’t realise till my husband helpfully pointed it out to me that Richard Flanagan is also the author of A Narrow Road To The Deep North, which has just won the Man Booker prize – and which I had given my son for his birthday back in August.
So, moving swiftly on past this lamentable evidence of my inability to remember titles and authors – let's talk about Wanting.

Set in the late 1830s, Wanting skilfully links two stories which on the face of it should have no meeting point. The first relates to an Aborigine girl called Mathinna (though, prophetically as it turns out, she has been christened ‘Leda’ by the Englishman in charge of the settlement where she lives, on a small island between what is now Tasmania, and Australia). The second concerns Charles Dickens, and the beginning of his affair with Ellen Ternan.

The link is a well-to-do English woman, Lady Jane Franklin. When we meet her, she is trying to
salvage the reputation of her husband, Sir John. He has disappeared while exploring the polar regions, and she is distressed by rumours that the expedition ended in cannibalism. Knowing that Charles Dickens has the ear of the nation, she appeals to him to help her end the rumours and restore her husband’s reputation.

Dickens is unhappy. His beloved daughter Dora has just died, and his marriage has become hollow. He throws himself into writing a play about the expedition, which at first is produced as one of his fêted home entertainments, but which is so successful that he decides to put on a professional version. One of the actresses is Ellen Ternan, and the rest – well, you know the saying.

Flanagan, through a narrative which switches from one story to another, and from one time to another, gradually reveals the story of Mathinna, and how she is the catalyst which eventually brings about the failed expedition. It is a terrible story. It’s not just Mathinna’s story: it’s the story of colonialism and specifically of the destruction of the aboriginal way of life, in which the profound victims are the aborigines, but their oppressors are also ultimately degraded and destroyed.

Wanting is a hard read, because it’s so relentlessly sad. Dickens is deeply unhappy, but so is his wife. Ellen is thrilled by Dickens’ attentions – but we know that the affair will not end happily for her. Mathinna is happy for a short while, but not for long. Lady Jane, unable to have children, takes up Mathinna as an experiment in education. But the child becomes – like Ellen – the object of an obsession. Ellen is many years younger than Dickens, and, dazzled by his celebrity, is arguably exploited by him. But there is no argument at all about Sir John’s abuse of, and subsequent unspeakably cruel destruction of Mathinna as a result of his obsession. Even so, he is not a pantomime villain. Flanagan shows us who and what Sir John is - and there are things to like about him; he shows us human nature in all its disturbing complexity.

From what I’ve heard about A Narrow Road to The North, based on Flanagan’s father’s experiences as a Japanese prisoner of war, that’s an even less comfortable, if at least equally remarkable read. Once, when I was a sixth-former, I went to a conference at Manchester University. One of the talks was about comedy and tragedy. The speaker suggested that  the two forms are just different ways of looking at the human condition. With tragedy, the writer considers the life of the individual – which is ultimately tragic because it ends in death. With comedy, the writer takes a broader view and considers humanity as a whole. It’s a distinction that’s always stayed with me, though I’m not sure how useful it really is: I mention it here because I want to find a way of suggesting that Flanagan’s bleak vision is not the only way of looking at life.

In other words – if you want a happy ending (and I really do like a happy ending!), Flanagan is not the writer for you. But if you are in the mood to think, and to face up to some of the darkest corners of the human soul, then he undoubtedly is.

Next week: a brand new new adult novel ( released later this week) from Adele Geras. Lovely!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Story of Matthew Buzzington, by Andy Stanton: published by Barrington Stoke

And this week, a children's book!

I read this book with my grandson, Oskar, just after we’d finished Mr Gum and the Biscuit Billionnaire, by the same author – and we both agreed that although we enjoyed the Mr Gum book, we much preferred this one. The story is really powerful: it’s great fun and has a strong narrative drive too - we read it in one day, even though there was sunshine and a swimming pool and lots of other nice holiday things we could have been doing instead. It has a lot of important things to say – about bullying, friendship, trust, individuality – but the messages aren't laid on with a trowel; they just emerge naturally from what happens.

The hero, Matthew Buzzington, is quite certain that he can turn into a fly. He keeps the faith, even though  he’s never actually managed to do it. At the beginning of the book he is living happily in the country with his parents and his little sister, who never says anything except ‘Elephant’. But then his father gets a new job and to Matthew’s horror, all of a sudden they have to move to the city.

At his new school, he is greeted by the school bully, Pineapple Johnson, the school bully, who is very big and very scary. Pineapple tells Matthew that if he can do something special, then he will leave him alone: if not, he will make his life a misery. This is exactly the time when Matthew’s superpower needs to come through for him – but yet again, try as he might to turn into a fly, it simply doesn’t happen. Pineapple does what he promised: he makes Matthew’s life a misery.

Then one day things come to a head. Pineapple sends round a note about Matthew. When it reaches him, and the teacher catches him, Matthew has had enough; he tells on Pineapple, and as a result, both are told to go and see the Head at the end of school.

But the Head forgets about them, and before they realise what’s happened, Matthew and Pineapple find that they have been locked in the school. And then things get even trickier...

The finale is brilliant – exciting and very satisfying. When they’re put to the test, Matthew and Pineapple both show their true colours – and so does someone else, someone entirely unexpected. This is a really, really good ending, which leaves you with a sense of delighted surprise that everything can have turned out so well.

The book is beautifully produced, with easy-to-read print which is well-spaced, and helpful, funny illustrations from Ross Coolins. And there’s a bonus at the end; a set of stickers which reproduce bits of the pictures. Oskar really enjoyed these, talking about which bit in the story each one came from and thinking carefully where to place them on a piece of card - they helped him to consider his thoughts about the book.

This is a very special book. Laugh-out-loud funny, absolutely gripping on the surface, with a lot to think about underneath. 

PS Another book that had Oskar and I chortling very merrily indeed was Stinkbomb and Ketchup-Face and the Quest for the Magic Porcupine, by John Dougherty. I reviewed it here.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon: by Linda Newbery

Welcome to the first post of my new blog! I've been writing for two group blogs - The History Girls and An Awfully Big Blog Adventure - for ages: but, late to the party as usual, I've never had a blog of my own before. Oh dear - I feel as if I'm sending my first child off to school for the first time... well, here goes, it's got to be done. Please be kind and visit often!

Linda Newbery's books have so far been mainly for young adults – though my own favourite, Lob, a take on the legend of the Green Man, is a story for younger children. A deeply satisfying story, it draws from myth, but is also a very real and human tale about the cycle of life: about death and renewal. 

Her latest novel is her first for adults. This is an eagerly anticipated event, so I’m really thrilled that I am able to make Quarter Past Two On A Wednesday Afternoon the subject of the first review on my new blog, and I'm very grateful to Doubleday for sending me a copy.

The mystery at the centre of Quarter Past Two begins with a  disappearance. Anna and her big sister Rose are in the garden on a summer afternoon. Anna is bored, and at a quarter past two, she goes off to the shops. When she returns, Rose has gone. A few of her things are missing, but she has left no note, no clue as to what has happened to her: she has simply vanished.

Twenty years later, Rose's family are still none the wiser as to her fate, and none of them, but particularly Sandra, her mother, and Anna herself, are able to break free from the aftershock of her disappearance. Anna drifts from one non-consequential job to another, from one boyfriend to another, seemingly with an urge to self-destruct when anything looks as if it might become permanent; she can't rest, she can't settle. Sandra refuses to discuss what has happened, but the brittle carapace she has built round herself looks as if it’s beginning to crack. Is she beginning to suffer from dementia, or is something else going on?

It looks at this stage as if the book is going to be a murder mystery, and Anna does take on the rôle of a detective – feeling that perhaps if she can find out what happened to Rose, she will be able to move on more effectively with her own life. But the narrative begins to twist and turn; Anna makes unexpected discoveries and meanwhile, her own life seems to be spiraling out of control. The story becomes broader and deeper. It’s like one of those Russian dolls; the outer one comes apart to reveal another underneath – and then that too reveals another, and another, and another. Nothing seems to be telling us what happened to Rose, but all sorts of other secrets begin to emerge, till we see that this apparently ordinary family has not one but several tragedies at its heart, which all impinge on one another.

Linda Newbery takes her time with this story – more so, perhaps, than she would have done had it been intended for young adults. The structure is complex, as the narrative emerges from the viewpoints of Anna and her mother at several different points in their lives. Something else which is possible because this is an adult novel is an ending which contains uncertainties, which is not at all what the reader – well, this reader anyway – would have expected. (Which would make it a brilliant book for book groups: so much to discuss! Could it – should it – have happened like this…?)

This is a beautifully written book which doesn't rush to exert its hold. But when it does, it will not let go. It’s a bit like the recent TV series, Broadchurch; every time you think you’re getting close to the heart of the mystery, it veers away from a solution and poses another puzzle. It’s quiet and complex: a gripping and disconcerting read. It's about the dramas in everyday lives; it's about how a single event can send out ripples which affect all those around it. Could you ever have predicted the ending? Read it, and decide for yourself.

With this accomplished and subtle story, Linda Newbery shows that no age group is beyond her reach.