Thursday, 31 December 2015

Congratulations, Vivian French!

Really thrilled to find out this morning that Vivian French has been awarded an MBE in recognition of her services to literature, literacy, illustration and the arts.

I first met Viv at the end of the 90s, when I was doing a part time course in creative writing at Bristol University in the Department of Continuing Education. Viv taught the segment on children's writing - well, it was actually only half a segment.

I hadn't thought about doing children's writing. Although I was doing some educational writing, I wasn't expecting to be able to write any kind of fiction and get it published; I just wanted to learn how to do it better. But Viv was enormously encouraging and enthusiastic about a short story that I wrote, and she made me think I could do it - and so, in the end, I did. It was also through Viv that I found my lovely agent, Lindsey Fraser. 

So I owe her an enormous amount. Getting that first book published, and all it led to, has enriched my life enormously, and I'm sure I'm only one of thousands who have benefitted from Viv's infectious enthusiasm and generosity. She was such a good teacher - we all learned so much from her, both about writing itself and about the business; she was inspiring but also very practical - and very funny. I've seen her doing a workshop with children, too - brilliant: they loved her.

I just heard on the news that there's controversy already about whether a certain political adviser deserves the honour he's been given. Well, I don't know about that. But with Viv, they've awarded an honour that is utterly and absolutely deserved. Congratulations, Ma'am! (Or should that be Master?)

And the sun's shining. So at least two excellent reasons to feel cheerful this morning.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

News from the hill

I first had the idea for this blog when I was walking our old dog, Jessie, on the hill where we live. I took her up there most days, and I found it was a wonderful way to let my mind range free and think about writing - a good deal - but about other things, too.

Jessie was a wonderful dog. Her mum was a border collie. We didn't know about dad, but going by the way she looked, we think he was probably a long-haired retriever. Here she is in the Lake District, looking very noble!

After she died two years ago, I thought I would still walk up on the hill, and I did from time to time, but not very often. It wasn't the same without a dog; we missed Jessie terribly.

We weren't sure whether to have another one. But then we met a couple called Pete and Caz, who had a really delightful white-and-tan collie called Skye - and they said they were hoping to breed from her. So we decided that if Skye did have puppies, we'd have one; if she didn't, we'd leave it.

Well, romance blossomed for Skye with a handsome working dog from Bodmin called Harry.

And on the first of September, the puppies were born. Ours, Nessie, is at the bottom of the picture, with a black spot between her ears. We called her Nessie as we wanted a Scottish connection, because of Skye; we went though lots of Scottish islands, but though lovely, none of the names seemed quite right for everyday use, and then our daughter, Katie, came up with Ness.

We've had her for just over a month now. We had to wait till she'd had her second lot of vaccinations to take her for walks, but now, at last, we can. They have to be fairly short to start off with, but soon she'll have full possession of the hill (which is called Roundhouse, for reasons I'll explain at some stage). She hasn't been to the top yet, but we're getting closer every day. Here's the view she would see on a misty morning - if she looked up, which usually she doesn't, because the smells on the ground are far too enticing!

Or if it's a clearer day, a bit further round to the south:

And here's Nessie as she is now. She's full of energy, she chews anything she can get hold of, and she's quite adorable!

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Capital, by John Lanchester

This book is being serialised on the BBC, and it starts tonight. I reviewed it here a few months ago - I really enjoyed it. It tells you a lot about the vagaries of high finance, as you'd expect with Lanchester being a financial journalist - but over and above that, I found it an absorbing tale of the people living in a London street, and how that street had changed.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Paris, after the attacks

The day after the attacks in Paris, earlier this week, Imogen Robertson, writer of historical novels including The Paris Winter, posted this picture on Facebook. It's by Gwen John, and it shows a corner of the room where she lived in Paris. I was immediately struck, because as it happened, I'd used it the week before in a writing class I run; it was only after I read other people's comments that I realised Imogen had actually posted it as a quiet response: the calmness and beauty of the image contrasting with the horror of what had happened.

I'm not a poet. But very occasionally, I feel that only a poem - even if it's a bad one - will serve to express the thoughts and feelings associated with a particular event. So here is what I wrote.

Light slants in
Through a tall window.
A muslin curtain partially obscures
The streets of Paris.
On a table, a posy of flowers:
Their petals dry now
And falling. A sweet, lingering scent
Of lost dreams. Of lost life.

She who placed these flowers
And loved this room
Will not return.
Her dark thoughtful eyes are
Closed for ever. Light and life
By an assassin's pointless gun.

Another petal falls.

© Sue Purkiss

Monday, 16 November 2015

Lament for lost bookshops

The nearest city to us is Bristol, and the part of it I usually go to is the area round the Triangle - up above the city, but not quite as high as Clifton Village. The university is nearby, and the Wills Building and the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery are lovely landmarks. Park Street, which rises steeply up the hill from the centre, has lots of independent shops and cafes, including the Bristol Guild, which has the most higgledy-piggledy layout of any shop I can think of, so that you climb a few steps or turn a corner and discover a bit of it you've never seen before, full of wonders.
Park Street, with the Wills Building at the top

The other attraction of this area has always been its bookshop/s. When I first moved to Bristol, some thirty five years ago, at the top of Park Street was George's. It too was housed in a delightfully all-over-the-place building; it too was full of wonders. It was founded by William George at the age of 17 in 1847 in Bath Street, moving to Park Street a few years later. In 1929 it was bought by Blackwell's, but retained the name of George's till the late 80s, when it became Blackwell's. It must have been a few years after this that a cafe was installed downstairs. Perfect.

Not long after this, a big department store a few hundred yards away closed, and rumours flew around as to who had bought it. We soon found out. It was Border's, a new book store chain from America. At first people were suspicious. Wasn't this a bit brash and over-the-top, a department store full of books?

Well, no. It turned out that it was actually rather splendid. It was spacious, it had everything you might be looking for, it had comfortable chairs and sofas, and nobody minded if you spent hours there browsing. And of course there was a cafe for sustenance. It became an ideal meeting place - it didn't matter if the other person was late, because there was so much to occupy you. The children's department was fantastic.

It reigned supreme for several years. But then Border's in Britain was hit by whatever it was hit by, and all the stores were closed down, including ours. It was a sad day for book lovers in Bristol.

But worse was to come. Blackwell's, presumably hit by the downturn in trade since the advent of Border's was apparently unable to take advantage of its rival's demise, because just as Border's closed, Blackwell's sold off the greater part of 89 Park Street to Jamie Oliver, and squashed itself into a tiny (relatively) space on the ground floor. It still had a reasonable choice of fiction, and of books for older children, but every other department was woefully curtailed. So,I imagine, people went there less and less, because they knew that the chances of finding what they wanted were pretty low, compared to if they shopped online.

And now the inevitable has happened. Last week I went to Bristol and headed for Blackwell's - and it's gone. After all those years of bookshoppery at the top of Park Street, now, in what must be the most bookish area of Bristol, there's nothing. Even the university doesn't have a permanent bookshop. I stood in front of that blank window, and I felt very sad.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Foxcraft: The Taken - by Inbali Iserles

Inbali Iserles
I first met Inbali Iserles some years ago, when she and I both had books out with Walker Books. I'm not sure which mine was: probably The Willow Man. Hers was called The Tygrine Cat, and it was amazing. It was an animal fantasy, about, well, cats. Inbali posited that there is a line of aristocratic cats descended from ancient Egyptian ones, and the book followed the fortunes of the young heir. It was a beautifully written book, and notable for the way Inbali immersed herself completely in the world of cats; she described the way they move, think, behave, in such closely observed detail that it was difficult to believe she hadn't actually been one at some stage. It's a very long time since as a child I read Paul Gallico's books about cats, Thomasina and Jennie; but I think The Tygrine Cat had a similar feel to it.

Now she's chosen to enter the world of foxes. It's an interesting choice of species. Of course, foxes have been a staple ingredient of fables and fairy tales for probably as long as the stories been told: and they aren't usually the heroes. The persona attached to them is frequently that of the sly trickster: cf the tale of the three little pigs, or the cunning charmer in The Gruffalo. And in real life, vilified as hen killers, they have traditionally been hunted. Recently, they've moved into the cities where their behaviour seems to be changing; no longer the shy creatures of the countryside, they have become, it seems, more bold and more visible, lured by the easy pickings in dustbins and parks.

Inbali, however, tells her story from inside the heads of foxes. Her point-of-view character is Isla, a fox cub living in the Great Snarl (London?) initially with her parents, brother and grandmother. Isla's story begins when she loses them all, and finds herself alone and vulnerable - at the mercy not only of the furless (us) with their fearsome manglers (cars), but of a mysterious and terrifying group of other foxes who seem to be intent on hunting her down. Her only ally is a fox called Siffrin, who begins to initiate her into the mysteries of 'foxcraft'. He's charismatic and powerful - but is he what he seems? Is he really on her side?

Like The Tygrine Cat, this is beautifully written, with richly realised characters and an epic feel to it. Clearly, it's the opener to a series. I'm very much looking forward to the next one.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Dust That Falls From Dreams - by Louis de Bernieres

For a start, isn't that a lovely title? Very evocative, a little bit of alliteration, a nice rhythm - just the job.

Louis de Bernieres is best known for Captain Corelli's Mandolin, a story about Crete in the 1939-45 war. It was a love story: one which, if I remember rightly, eschewed an easy happy ending. There was a film of it too. He has also written a trilogy set in South America, the first book of which is called The War of Don Emanuel's Nether Parts. This, again as I remember it - it's quite some time since I read it - has more than a whiff of magical realism about it, and also some pretty graphic cruelty and violence. Then there was his collection of short stories set in an English village, called - both the village and the book - Notwithstanding. They are about as different as could be from the South American trilogy: they are a series of related stories about some of the people who live in the village: gentle, affectionate, ironic, perceptive, quiet - I loved them.

His latest book, The Dust That Falls From Dreams, has some of those qualities and covers some of the same territory, in that it's set in an England of the recent-ish past (the First World War), and it follows the fortunes of three families who, at the beginning of the book, are neighbours. The McCoshes, with three daughters, live in the middle. On one side is the Pendennis family, 'recently arrived from Baltimore', with three sons, and on the other are the Pitts, with two sons and a French mother.

The first chapter is set in the year that Victoria has died. The book then fast-forwards twelve years, which, of course, brings us perilously close to the First World War - which will change the lives of all the characters for ever, as it must have done those of most people.

It covers familiar territory: the horrors of trench warfare, the rigours of nursing the wounded, the influenza epidemic which polished off more people than the war itself, the impact of the horrors the survivors have experienced or witnessed. But - I read somewhere that de Bernieres has said that what he wanted to do was to write a family saga: and that's what he's done. Each character has his or her own story, and there are some delightful eccentrics as well as some who exhibit very true-to-life complexity and unpredictability. Despite the often tough subject material, the book has a lightness of touch and a charm which make it just delightful to read - it put me in mind of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles, and it's equally as readable.

I love it that de Bernieres is prepared to try out all these different genres and play with them enthusiastically, like a puppy with a toy. What next, I wonder?

Sunday, 1 November 2015

The Last Kingdom: continued.

NB - Don't read this first if you haven't yet watched the second episode, and are intending to!

Hm - didn't enjoy this episode as much. For one thing, in terms of plot, not that much happened; Uhtred found out that the word had been put about that it was he who'd killed Ragnar, and not the banished man who was after revenge. Eventually, after being chased a few times by people who wanted to kill him, he got the message that the only way was Wessex, so he went south. There he found that the priest who had been his tutor was at Alfred's court - and wouldn't you just know it, but only the other day he'd been saying to Alfred that what they needed in the fight against Guthrum was a spy who could pass as either a Dane or a Saxon - someone like this lad he used to know called Uhtred, for instance. And here he was! Alfred, despite apparently being able to read minds, wasn't certain he could trust him - so he sent him to Reading to do a bit of spying. Uhtred came back, having cunningly sussed out the ONLY place between Winchester and Reading suitable for a battle. Alfred took his advice, but just to be on the safe side, had Breda and Uhtred hung up in cages in case they turned out to be traitors. Breda did not look best pleased, and having seen what she could think of to do with a sharp twig, I think if I'd been Uhtred I'd be more worried about her than about Alfred. Or Ubba, or Guthrum, or his wicked uncle.

As I thought, Alfred is made out to be a weedy looking character who is rather suspiciously intelligent. Certainly not classic hero material. The justification for this (apart from the need to leave the hero stuff to Uhtred) is, at least in part, I imagine, the reference which I think is in Asser's Life of Alfred to some mysterious malady from which he suffered.

The Uffington White Horse. This is where the battle took place.

The episode ended  with the Danes and the Saxons lined up ready to begin the Battle of Ashdown. Alfred's older brother, Aethelred, is still the king at this stage. In the contemporary records, it says that Aethelred delayed getting the battle started because he was busy praying - but in this version, it's the king who's raring to go, and Alfred who, so far, is nowhere to be seen.

He was a clever and cultured man and a great strategist, But I hope they don't forget he was a great fighter too.

Friday, 23 October 2015

The Last Kingdom: BBC2

Some years ago, I was thinking about writing a book for children which would involve time travel back to significant points in the history of Britain. The first place I planned to head off to was the cottage where Alfred the Great burnt some cakes. (The story goes that Alfred, the only king left standing in the England of 878, had fled from the Danes ans was hiding in a peasant's hut in some marshes, gloomily contemplating his woes. The peasant's wife, unaware of the true identity of her guest, asked him to keep an eye on some cakes she was baking; he, sunk in misery, forgot about them, and when the good lady returned, she found them burnt. She was cross.)

I discovered that Athelney, where this incident took place, was not far from where I live. I went along there and was bewitched by the atmosphere of the place; it's still marshy, (it was where the famous floods were on the Somerset Levels, two years ago) and remote, haunted by the cries of water birds. The ninth century seemed almost within reach as I gazed out towards Glastonbury Tor.

Anyway, more of that another time - but I was hooked. I plunged into researching the story of Alfred the Great, discovering what an unusual and enlightened leader he was during that dark time. I began to write a book - this book.

But somewhere along the way, I discovered that Bernard Cornwell had also become interested in Alfred - who was a very popular figure in Victorian times but is relatively unknown now. (King Arthur is far more famous, and he wasn't even real. Or not very.) Cornwell was way ahead of me; the first book in his series, The Last Kingdom, came out while I was still writing mine. Plus, he is better known than me by a factor of about a million and one.

I decided not to read his book, for obvious reasons, and I never have. But now it's been televised, and the first programme was on last night. It's been marketed as the BBC's answer to A Game of Thrones, and that makes sense, because George Martin's saga clearly draws heavily on Viking and Dark Age tropes. I've been looking forward to it immensely, and it didn't disappoint.

So far, Alfred - my hero - has been mentioned but he hasn't appeared. In Cornwell's story, the hero is Uhtred, the heir to a Saxon nobleman in Northumberland who is killed in battle by the Vikings. Uhtred is captured by  a Viking called Ragnar, and eventually becomes part of his family.

The battle scenes are visceral, so much so that there were frequent moments where those of us watching flinched and covered our eyes protectively. I won't go into detail because some of you won't have seen it yet - but there was a particularly unpleasant incident involving an eye... So far, it hasn't reached the territory of my novel, but Wessex - and Alfred - is foreshadowed. A priest whispers to Uhtred that for his own safety he must flee, not from Ragnar but from his own uncle; and he should go to seek out Alfred and Wessex - the 'last kingdom' of the title. And one of the Viking leaders speaks greedily of Wessex, as the greatest prize of all. This same priest also lectures Uhtred as to the importance of reading and writing - if something is written down, he says, it becomes a truth that cannot be tampered with. Another marker is laid down; education was one of Alfred's great concerns.

I was fascinated by all this - the interweaving of history and fiction, the careful structure of the plot - but it also stuck me how much the visual medium brings to the story. There are moments which are clearly intended to be iconic, and will probably become so; the one where Uhtred the child is plunged into a stream, and emerges as a man, and rather a beautiful one at that, And the one where Ragnar rides up to the Saxon fortress completely wrapped in a massive cloak. (Made out of what? Furs? Feathers? Whatever, it's extremely stylish.) He slowly unfolds it, and holds aloft the head of the young heir: an action which is mirrored at the end in different circumstances.

But what are they going to make of Alfred? Well, I'm very interested to find out. A story can't have two heroes, and Uhtred is clearly the hero and a half of this one. So what role is my hero going to play? Well, I'll certainly be watching to find out.

Monday, 19 October 2015

A question of Good and Evil - or, 'Muddle and Win', by John Dickinson

I recently met John Dickinson at a writers' conference, henceforth to be referred to as Charney. All sorts of things took place at this conference, including serious (well, not very) writers masquerading as Tudor market traders, innkeepers and thieves; a savage and snarling quiz, a great deal of talking and eating; and one of the most effective and funny talks I've ever listened to. This last was given by John Dickinson*. It was on the not-obviously-riveting topic of publishing and finance, and it was brilliant.

Another thing we do at Charney is that we take some of our books with us, and swap them or buy them or - if we're very desperate - bribe people to take them away. Curious, I looked at John's books, to see what kind of thing someone so clever and so funny would be writing. Not surprisingly, the answer was - something very clever and funny. Muddle and Win, in fact.

There were other books by him for older children, and they looked good too. But I liked the format of this one. It was a hardback, smaller than the average size, with nice cream paper and a beautifully clear font. Just right, somehow.

Now, you need to know what it's about. It's not all that easy to say. The battle between good and evil? Well, yes, but so's Paradise Lost, and it's not much like that. A cross between Terry Pratchett, Horrid Henry, and that new Disney film called Inside Out? Hm, that's closer. It has the comic fantasy of Pratchett, it has - like HH - a perfectly horrid character and an annoyingly virtuous character, and a lot of the action takes place inside a character's head. By that, I mean it actually takes place; we aren't talking about thoughts here, we're talking about a rather dear little devil called Muddle, and a very cool guardian angel called Windleberry, who are fighting it out for the soul of the practically perfect Sally Jones - inside the complex, beautiful and well-ordered chambers that make up her mind. The consequences for either of them of losing will be dire, so the stakes are high.

And the resolution involves muffins.

I don't think I can put it any more clearly than that. It's witty, it's funny, it's beautifully written, and it's full of characters such as you'd meet almost nowhere else. Here's a little taster: introducing Windleberry, guardian angel and celestial super-agent.

He had served in every heavenly department and was thorough in everything he did. Other angels marked the sparrow's fall, but Windleberry gave it marks out of ten, and made it fall again if it scored less than three. Other angels counted the hairs on a human's head, but Windleberry clipped a tiny numbered label to each one and offered them round for sponsorship... He never carped, he never questioned, he never came back to complain about how difficult it was...The only thing with Windleberry was that you had to remember to shout 'stop'.

Monday, 12 October 2015

'O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea...' *

Have been in Cornwall, by the sea - which was magical. Normal service will be resumed soon: in the meantime, let's go down to the beach...

This is just north of Padstow. Very delicious pasties were eaten, from Chough's Bakery.

This tower, Stepper Point, was built as a 'day mark', to guide navigators. On the other side of the Camel Estuary you can just see Polzeath and the nearby cliffs, where the next few pictures were taken.

Polzeath. The sky had just cleared after rain, and the colours glowed.

 This headland looked just like a dragon, with its head resting in the sea, and spines jutting up from its neck.

In the distance, in the picture above, is Tintagel, where Uther Pendragon used trickery and Merlin's magic to sleep with Igraine, Queen of Cornwall. The subsequent child became King Arthur. It's easy to believe in magic in a place like this.

Patterns in the sand. I'm tempted to say the sands of time, but I think that might be a bit over the top.

* This is from Beeny Cliff, by Thomas Hardy. He met his first wife, Emma Gifford, in Cornwall, and wrote beautiful poems about her and about this landscape years later after she died, in an outpouring of regret and remorse because he hadn't been nicer to her in their later years. I wish they'd been happier - but it would be very sad not to have the poems.

Friday, 25 September 2015

The story of Colonel Anne - White Rose Rebel, by Janet Paisley

I was given this book recently by my son, who had just been on a course at Moniack Mhor where Janet Paisley was one of the tutors. I had never heard of her before - and I'm seriously wondering why: because this book - published some years ago in 2007 - is hugely enjoyable and satisfying on a number of levels. Why hasn't it been all over the bookshops? Or perhaps it has, and I just missed it? It's a sad thought that so
many books come out nowadays that it's very easy for even really good books to get lost.

Or is it because it centres on Scotland, and hasn't made it south of the border? I hope this isn't the case. I don't see why it should be, but I suppose it's possible.

Anyway, whatever. It's a very, very good book. At the centre of it is the charismatic Anne Farquharson -also known as Colonel Anne, la belle rebelle, and many other more or less complimentary things - who played a significant part in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, when Bonnie Prince Charlie sought to gain not only the Scottish throne, but also the English one. She loves and is loved by Angus MacGillivray, but she also loves - and marries - the equally charismatic Aeneas McIntosh. For a short time the marriage is everything it could be, but as the rising gathers force, Aeneas and Anne find themselves on different sides. Anne is for the Prince. At first she is carried away by the romance and the rightness of his cause, and by the longing for her country to be free of the English yoke; but as time goes on, she begins to see that Charles does not have the character and stature which his country needs. By then, though, it is too late; the tides of war are rolling inexorably towards Culloden.

I only knew the bare bones of this part of Scottish history before I read this book. But I have been to Culloden. I'm not normally, I think, particularly sensitive to the atmosphere which some people sense in places; I've never felt the presence of ghosts, let alone seen one. But Culloden is a desolate place, with a brooding sense of melancholy. How could it be otherwise, when so many were brutally slaughtered here, and so many hopes died?

This book explains what led up to the battle. But it also reveals a society where women were at least the equal of men, and where a culture had been created which ensured that everyone within a community was cared for: the clan chief was responsible for his people and cared for them; he held the land for the good of all, not on his own behalf. After Culloden, all that was changed.

So - the book is a terrific, page-turning read. The characters are complex, larger than life perhaps, but immensely attractive. There's a lot of humour in it. The battle scenes are horrific, but all the more convincing for that. There's quite a lot of rompery between the sheets - which Janet Paisley writes about so much better than Ken Follett. (See review of the latter here.)

But above and beyond all this, the book makes you think about a different sort of society that might once have been possible - and about all that was crushed and lost at and after Culloden. And it makes you understand a bit better why many Scots feel as they do about nationalism.  

The book is published by Penguin.                                              

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Nicola and Val and hiding behind the sofa

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a recording of an Edinburgh Festival event - Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party, interviewing Val McDermid, the famous Scottish writer of detective novels. Somehow or other, despite my enthusiasm for the detective genre, I'd never read one of her books, but I thought it sounded an interesting combination so I had a bit of a watch.

It was very clear that Nicola Sturgeon is a great admirer, and I think that Nicola Sturgeon is very impressive - so I soon decided to download the first book in the series about psychologist and criminal profiler Tony Hill and policewoman Carol Jordan. ( And then the next, and the next, and the next... having a rest now - my nerves need it!)

The two are both complex characters: attractive, intelligent, talented and troubled. Mind you, it's not surprising they're troubled, considering all the things Val McDermid puts them through. Not only do they track down serial killers, but they not infrequently become victims, or at least collateral damage themselves: there are some very grisly descriptions, and if I could have read the books from behind the sofa, believe me, I would have. (Incidentally, I wonder what Dr Tony Hill would say about the psychology of people who read books about such terrible things? I worry about that, I really do...)

The plotting is brilliant, and the can't-put-down factor is off the scale. But, as in so many of the best detective series, it's the developing relationship between the two hunters which is the really riveting factor - and it's this which, for me at any rate, makes me want to keep reading the series - though the insight into the mysteries of the criminal mind also grips. Incidentally, the series was televised under the title of Wire In The Blood, with Hermione Norris and Robson Green, but I missed that too.

The first book in the series is called The Mermaids Singing, and here is a link to the interview. (But apologies to readers outside the UK; I don't think you'll be able to see it.)

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Watch the Lady: Elizabeth Fremantle

So what is it that makes the Tudor period so endlessly fascinating to writers? Well... passion, treachery, adventure, a turbulent political climate, beautiful (albeit probably uncomfortable) clothes, larger-than-life characters, royalty, Shakespeare... Hm. Yes, it does seem to have one or two things going for it - and Elizabeth Fremantle's new book taps into most of them.

But above all, it has two fascinating characters at its heart - as well as a number of others on the periphery. The 'lady' of the title is Lady Penelope Devereux, the sister of one of Elizabeth's favourites - the Earl of Essex - and the stepdaughter of another, the Earl of Leicester. The title comes from a piece of advice given by Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's trusted adviser, to his son, Robert Cecil, who is the other viewpoint character in the book. Burghley and Cecil are both aware that Penelope is not only beautiful; she is also highly intelligent, politically astute, and the driving force of her flamboyant
family. Burghley sees her ability and advises his son to watch her. Cecil sees her ability too, but he's also very aware of her beauty. There's poignancy here, because Cecil is crooked, not beautiful at all. The first time he sees her, she smiles at him - a smile that 'would light up the shadows of hell'. Usually, girls look at him with 'disgust'. As a result, though he will always be an enemy of her brother, his feelings for her are ambivalent - and in the end, this helps her to survive in the dangerous world of Tudor politics.

Penelope is a passionate character. When she is very young, she falls in love with Sir Philip Sidney, the perfect knight: brave, loyal, chivalrous, learned. He falls for her too, but her marriage is a matter of political and economic expedience; she is obliged by her family to wed Lord Richard Rich - they need his wealth, and he needs their ancient lineage. The marriage is not a success, but Penelope is a pragmatist and she makes the best of it - and finds that she is able to turn the situation to her advantage: she takes charge.

Her brother, handsome, charming, ambitious, becomes to the Queen the son she has never had. But along with all his good qualities, Essex is also headstrong and erratic; he suffers from mood swings which leave him sometimes plunged into despair and sometimes dangerously out of control. Penelope is the rock of her family; her mother, who lost the Queen's favour when she married Leicester, is foolish, and her sister wants a quiet life, away from the temptations and dangers of court. It is up to Penelope to improve the fortunes of the Devereux clan - but she also wants personal fulfillment; she wants love.

Elizabeth Fremantle weaves a richly coloured tale of Elizabeth's court. Naturally, as a novelist she takes leave to use poetic license - in Richard Rich's proclivities, for example, but also in a delightful scene where she imagines how Shakespeare might have come to compose his famous sonnet: My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun... She reveals the complex machinations and manouevring for place and power, and she shows how Tudor realpolitik is merciless in its sacrifice of the innocent - I could hardly bear to read about the fate of a certain character, whose name I won't reveal. It's always interesting to see how novelists deal with characters who have become well-known to us through other novels and history books; Penelope Devereux is not widely known, but many of the others are very familiar. Elizabeth herself  emerges, at this later stage of her life, as an unlikeable but also rather pitiable figure: Cecil evokes pity and revulsion in roughly equal measure.

But the heart of the novel is the character of Penelope - warm, clever, courageous and loyal. It's a delight to keep her company as she plunges into the intrigues of Elizabeth's court, and yet somehow manages to retain her integrity throughout.

Saturday, 29 August 2015

The Century Trilogy, by Ken Follett

First up, apologies for not having posted for such a long time. It's been a busy few weeks - particularly the bit where we had two nine year olds to stay! - with not much time or head-space for writing blogs.

But of course, I've still been reading. In fact, I've just finished an enormous trilogy by Ken Follett, and that's what I want to have a bit of a think about today. I say 'enormous' advisedly - I actually started with the third book, because someone had lent it to us - and it's two and a half inches thick, and big with it! I went on to read the previous two on my Kindle, so am not sure if they're as long. Reading the trilogy this way reminded me of the advantages and disadvantages of reading an e-book; it's much, much easier on the wrists, but it's frustratingly difficult to look back and check who this or that character is, and how they're related to the others.

The boxed set. (See how big they are?)

And there are a lot of characters. The trilogy follows the fortunes of five families through the twentieth century; there's the Williams family from the Welsh pit valleys, and their nemeses/neighbours/bosses, the Fitzherberts; the Peshkovs, who start off in Russia and spread to America; the Dewars, American aristocracy; and the Francks/Ulrichts, from Germany. Hm - not sure if that adds up to five: the families spread and mutate, so if you don't pay attention it can easily get a little confusing.

What Follett does is to use the fortunes of these families as a vehicle for nothing less than relating the entire history of the tumultuous twentieth century. So in the first book, Fall of Giants, he covers the Russian Revolution, the First World War and the Depression. The second, Winter of the World, covers the Second World War, the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of the Cold War, while the third, Edge of Eternity, deals with life in East Germany, the Civil Rights movement in America, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Watergate - and rock and roll.

Astonishingly, one or other of these five families is present at every single significant event. Assassination of Martin Luther King? Check. Assassination of Jack Kennedy, and then of his brother Jack? Check. The party at which Stalin is given the news of the Hiroshima bomb? Check. The moment when the Japanese planes swoop down over Pearl Harbour? Check... and so on.

On the one hand, it gets to be a bit difficult to swallow. But on the other hand, it's a very clever way to give the 'inside story' as to how all these things came to happen, and what their ramifications were to be. I have a far better idea now about, for instance, how the Berlin Wall came to be built - and why it was eventually allowed to disintegrate; how President Kennedy's policies on Vietnam, Civil Rights, and the economy were all tied together with his political struggles; and more broadly, about the nature, scope and drawbacks of the huge political movements of the twentieth century.

Follett does all this very well; I'm in absolute awe of how he manages to keep this vast, sprawling subject matter under control - and to cover so much, and with such clarity. He is also a very good story teller; he keeps you turning the pages, because you want to know what's going to happen next - both to the characters, and on the wider world stage. (And of course you know roughly what's going to happen on that wider stage, so there's also the interest in how he's going to link it all in.)

I don't think he's so good at character. His people are not two-dimensional; he's much better than that. They aren't just sketched in - but they're not fully drawn and painted either. Their function is to be in the right place at the right time, with the characteristics that will be necessary to make them act in the required way to bring about the desired result.

I have one more quibble. The sex scenes. There are a lot of them, they're described in excruciating detail - and they're all almost exactly the same. And do they add anything to the story? Others may feel differently, but on the whole, I think not!

But to sum up - the trilogy is very readable, incredibly informative, and an astonishing achievement. If you like to learn about history through fiction - as I do - it certainly deserves a place on your shelves. (Or if you or your shelves are feeling a little weak, on your Kindle or other ebook.)

Friday, 7 August 2015

'Of shoes and ships and sealing wax...'

Actually this post is about none of the things in the title - but like the Walrus's list of conversational topics, it's a bit of a mish-mash. I've been back and forth to various places over the last few weeks, and there are a smattering of things I'd like to share.

The first visit was to my niece in London. We ate a lot of cake, but in between pursuing this very important piece of reearch, we went to see an exhibition of paintings at Dulwich Picture Gallery, by Eric Ravilious, who was an official war artist in the Second World War. His paintings are water colours, but  they're very unlike most water colours. He is fascinated by the juxtaposition of landscape and man-made, particularly industrial objects, but also paints the most intriguing interiors. He uses small, precise brushstrokes to create the most wonderful luminosity in skies and seas, and finds beauty in places of no obvious loveliness, such as war offices and submarine interiors. For more about him, please see this post by Lydia Syson.

There is a rather sweet little coda to this. My niece was carrying her nine week old baby son in a sling, and he was the subject of many admiring glances. One elderly gentleman stopped and smiled. 'The best thing in the whole exhibition,' he said quietly.

Dangerous Work at Low Tide
My niece also has a two year old whose birthday I had missed, so we went to the very wonderful children's bookshop in Herne Hill, Tales on Moon Lane. My great-nephew likes buses and trains, and he likes things that rhyme. I found this book by Michael Rosen. I can't do a proper review of it, because I only had a speedy look through in the bookshop before handing it over - but apparently it went down an absolute storm with Ben. That Michael Rosen will clearly go far, as will his illustrator, Gillian Taylor.

My niece also recommended some detective novels to me. They're by Anya Lipska. Set in London, they're about an unlikely crime-fighting duo - a small, blonde policewoman called Natalie Kershaw, and a Polish fixer/investigator called Janusz Kiszka. They'tr terrific - clever plots, funny, and with great characters - beside the two mains, there's Oskar, Kiszka's loyal, wisecracking but slightly ineffectual best friend. I've read all three - the first is Where The Devil Can't Go - and my only complaint is that the last one finishes with a heartbreaking hint of what could happen next - and probably a lengthy wait till the next book. Sigh.

I read the last of these books in Dorset, where we went for a few days and walked on the Jurassic cliffs and sat on the Jurassic shore. Here are some pictures. It was lovely. Enjoy your summer, wherever you are!

Above and below: looking east from Thorncombe Beacon

Looking west towards Lyme Regis


Sunday, 19 July 2015

Looking at the Stars, by Jo Cotterill

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a gathering of children's writers in Oxfordshire. It's an annual event, held in a mellow golden stone manor house owned by the Society of Friends - the Quakers. It's a lovely setting, and the conference is always a great opportunity to relax and re-charge the writing batteries in the company of other writers.

This year it was all that, but it was also enormous FUN. There were drama workshops (hand on heart, I have to say my Somerset pie-seller had to be heard to be believed, though even that palled into insignificance beside the panel discussion examining the TV potential of poodles juggling avocados), hilarious (no, really) insights into the financial constraints of publishing, and a wonderful variety of readings from works-in-progress, ranging from the chilling-and-absolutely-spell-binding (Katherine Langrish) to the oh-please-stop-our-sides-are-achingly funny from John Dougherty. And outside the set events, there were of course hundreds of conversations about the ups and downs and twists and turns of the writing world.

Charney Manor

Everyone takes a few of their books and leaves them lying around on windowsills and shelves, and on the last morning, bartering takes place, of the you-can-have-my-book-if-I-can-have-one-of-yours variety. (I always find this a bit tricky, because I want everyone else's books, but never think anyone could really, seriously want one of mine.) Anyway, I came home with a lovely little selection, and the first one I read was Jo Cotterill's Looking at the Stars.

Now, I had heard of this book, and I knew that it was up for a number of awards - it was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for the UKLA Award, the Oxfordhire Book Award and the Nottinghamshire Book Award - and probably for others too. But I didn't know what it was about. I did know that in the past Jo has written contemporary, hard-edged fiction for teenagers, and that more recently she'd written a series called Sweethearts for 'tweenagers'; and looking at the cover, which shows the silhouettes of two children holding hands against a background of stars and a sort of mosaic pattern, I imagined that this was going to be a sort of romance with perhaps a touch of magic or fantasy.

But it's not. The story is set in an imaginary country, but it's not a fantasy country. It's a paradigm of all the countries which are governed by a repressive regime, where girls and women are not allowed to speak unless they are spoken to, where certain groups are purposely turned into scapegoats, where death is dealt out at a whim, and where the uncertain and desperately hard life of a refugee seems to offer the only chance of safety.

The main character is Amina. At the beginning of the story, where she is living with her family, in poverty but just about in safety, her inability to conform and her lively imagination are seen as dangerous disadvantages. But when their live are turned upside down, these very qualities are the ones which will save her and those around her. There is a magical moment when she tells her first story in the refugee camp, to try and reach out to a little boy who has been traumatised by things he has seen. One by one, people from neighbouring lean-tos and tents creep closer, drawn by the power of Amina's story-telling. Like Scheherezade, she tells a story each night: news spreads, and while they listen to the stories, the refugees are reminded that other lives are possible, that there may be something beyond the horror.

As Jo says in the notes at the end of the novel, it's 'about hope and human resilience'. But it's also about the power of stories. In a sense I was right, because there is magic in it - just not of the wand-and-wizard variety.

Have you read any good teenage novels lately? It would be great to have some recommendations!

Thursday, 2 July 2015

In Tearing Haste - letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor

Last week, I was wondering round my local bookshop, Waterstones in Wells. (There are no independent bookshops within easy reach, and this Waterstones, previously Ottokars, is a very good shop which has always been very supportive. They did a lovely window display when The Willow Man came out, even commissioning a willow sculpture as a centrepiece. For six weeks or so, The Willow Man was their best-selling children's book. Oh, those were the days! And they hosted a book launch there for Warrior King, and that was nice, too.)

Anyway, I was in the mood for a non-fiction book - something not too heavy, something to fit the summer season. Nothing about wars or other horrors - something to escape into. And I saw this: In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor, edited by Charlotte Mosley. The swallows flying across a blue sky with letters in their beaks looked just right, and besides, I used to be practically a neighbour of Deborah Devonshire. Well - we both lived in Derbyshire. Granted, I was brought up in a council house and then a little terraced house in the ex-mining area in the south of the county, whereas she presided over Chatsworth, one of the grandest stately homes in the entire country, set in the glorious Peak District (and I think the model for Pemberley, in Pride and Prejudice) - but still, I'd been round her place, even if she'd never set foot in mine. And I knew she was one of the famous Mitford sisters, of whom one (Diana) married the British Fascist leader Oswald Mosley; another (Unity) became obsessed with Hitler, was very close to him for several years, and shot herself in the head when war was declared. Nancy wrote sharp, funny novels, including Love In A Cold Climate, and Jessica (Decca) became a communist, eloped to Spain during the Civil War with her cousin Esmond Romilly and later became an American citizen and a political activist and investigative journalist, associating with Martin Luther King and Maya Angelou. Debo herself married the Duke of Devonshire and transformed Chatsworth into a massively successful concern which attracts huge numbers of visitors and employs a great many people.

So quite an interesting bunch.

Chatsworth House - Debo called it 'the old dump'.

About Patrick Leigh Fermor, I only knew that he was a famous travel writer. I had never read.his books, though I knew we had one or two on the shelves.

Well, In Tearing Haste turned out to be a tremendous treat. They both lived very long lives: Patrick - Paddy - travelled a good deal, and eventually settled in Greece, and so they wrote to keep in touch. (How will this work in the future? Will there be compilations of emails and tweets...?) They moved in some very lofty circles - Debo writes of meeting the Queen Mother at various functions (Debo was fond of nicknames, and for some reason refers to the QM as Cake - Paddy becomes 'Whack'), and she was a good friend of the Prince of Wales. But she knew people in very different circles too: she was a friend of Lucian Freud, the painter - which by all accounts wasn't at all an easy thing to be; she knew Kennedy and Harold Macmillan well, and she had lots of farming friends - she was very knowledgeable about rare breeds and obscure cattle diseases.

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire

Although they had many friends in common and some of their circles touched, they had very different interests. Paddy, above all, was passionate about writing and was immensely widely read: Debo declared that she loathed reading - she freely admitted that she had never read even any of Paddy's books. But she certainly shared the family talent for writing; her letters are lively, funny and entertaining, with a tremendous zest for life and a complete lack of sentimentality. She must have been about 85 when she wrote this; she was moving out of Chatsworth into a  much smaller house (well, obviously!) in nearby Edensor, and writes to Paddy about the difficulty of sorting out what to take. If I were in that position, I think I'd be feeling mournful about the passing of time and life etc etc - but not Debo:

There are marvellous entertainments called car-boot sales and that's what I need. You can buy a Rembrandt for a few quid in any old field. So why not sell a few?... I MUST go and fill a cardboard box.

Paddy's letters are marvellous. He was an inveterate traveller and adventurer (he swam the Hellespont
when he was 70), and he clearly loved company, even though he chose for his home a remote spot on the coast of Greece. During the war, he worked undercover with the Cretan resistance: in one famous exploit, he and a group of friends kidnapped the German general in command of the island. At one point, he tells Debo, the general was gazing out to sea, quoting thoughtfully from a Latin poet; Paddy picked up the quotation and completed it, and from then on the two men developed a rapport - and many years later, they met again and reminisced about old times.

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Neither Debo nor Paddy ever seems to have wasted time feeling sorry for themselves. Of course, they had huge advantages and, compared to most of us, they led very privileged lives. But they experienced personal tragedies too - inevitably, in such long lives. They don't dwell on these, just write in a very matter-of-fact way about, for instance, the death of a dearly-loved spouse or sister, and then go on to talk about other things. They both seem to have had a great capacity for enthusiasm and joy, and I think this is what makes them such good company.

Am now reading A Time Of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor's account (written thirty or forty years after the fact: how did he do that?) about his journey on foot from London to Constantinople (through, amongst other places, the Germany of the 1930s), begun in the winter when he was 19. As you can imagine, it's fascinating. And there it's been, sitting on our shelves for heaven knows how many years, somehow just ignored until now. So many books, so many treasures.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Congratulations to Tanya Landman, winner of the 2015 Carnegie Medal!

The Carnegie Medal is the big one for writers of children's books - the one we'd all like to win. (Well, we'd like to win any prize - but this one would be the cherry on anyone's cake!) The titles are chosen by librarians, and it's judged by a panel of librarians - but it's also 'shadowed' by lots of school children, who read the shortlisted books and discuss them, and can post their reviews on a special site. So there's a lot of buzz around it, a lot of excitement.

Well, this year it's been won by Tanya Landman for Buffalo Soldier, a book about a former slave girl who, in the chaotic aftermath of the American Civil War, decides her safest course of action is to pass as a boy and join the Yankee Army. It's remarkable, with a unique and consistent voice which absolutely draws you into the story and the head of its heroine.

Tanya Landman earlier today at the Carnegie presentation

The award ceremony was today, and Tanya, who is lovely and is a friend, used the occasion to make a speech in which she expressed her dismay at the effect that continuous testing and a highly prescriptive curriculum is having on children's creativity - and also her concern over the pressures on libraries, which are losing staff and funding to the point where many have closed and more are threatened with closure. It was a very good speech, and I expect it will be widely reported.

But to return to the book - I reviewed it not long after it first came out, and you can see that review here.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Marbeck and the Gunpowder Plot, by John Pilkington

Before he took to writing novels, John Pilkington wrote television scripts and plays for radio and theatre. Clearly, he has used the skills he learnt there in creating his historical thrillers: they are tightly plotted and full of reversals and surprises, with cliffhangers which are - literally, in the case of some of the characters - to die for!

It's obvious from the title of this novel (the fourth in the Marbeck series) that it features the famous gunpowder plot. Yet it's a tribute to Pilkington's writing that the outcome does not feel at all obvious; there is no loss of tension as you follow Marbeck's investigation. For Marbeck is an 'intelligencer' - a seventeenth century spy. His immediate master is called Monk, but he ultimately answers to Robert Cecil, spymaster first for Elizabeth and then for her successor, James. Marbeck discovers that there is a threat from Catholic insurgents, but he doesn't know what it is. He receives hints and clues from various sources, and it's a dangerous game piecing the story together and finding out who he can trust; the answer to that last question, of course, as in any good thriller, is very far from obvious.

The Tudor and early Stuart periods are so popular with writers that their significant movers and shakers have become familiar figures. Marbeck's world reminded me a little of that of C J Sansom's investigator, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake - the two are very different characters, but they operate in similar territories, though Shardlake is from the time of Henry V111. Cecil is a significant character in Watch the Lady, Elizabeth Fremantle's recently published novel, and he and his father appear in Philippa Gregory's novels about the Tradescants, Earthly Joys and Virgin Earth. And of course, the Tudor court and its dangerous politics are the subject of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall.

So the murky world in which Marbeck operates is a familiar one. It's certainly familiar to Pilkington; he re-creates each setting with great assurance. He seems to know early Stuart London better than most people would know the London of today - but more than that, he knows the detail of everyday life: little details, such as that 'muscadine' and 'alicante' were among the tipples of the time. And he can paint a vivid picture for us of what the hiding place of a Catholic priest would have looked and smelled like, of the vaults underneath Parliament, or of the seedy back streets and lodging houses.

Unlike the rather fragile Shardlake, with his crooked back, Marbeck is physically tough. He's a skilled and ruthless fighter, and the body count rises as he pursues his investigations. But he has his areas of vulnerability too: in particular, there is his love for Meriel. The story of this is obviously carried over from previous books, and I'm not sure what the obstacles to it were: in this book, she tries to put him off, but it's clear to the reader that they love each other. He is convinced that he's lost her, but by the end, it seems that there may be hope. But nothing is resolved: the ending is a triumphant cliff-hanger, and the book is a gripping read.

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Liberty's Fire, by Lydia Syson

Like Lydia Syson's previous books, A World Between Us and That Burning Summer, this novel has as its subject love in a time of conflict. The first was set in the Spanish Civil War - about which probably most of us know a little, but not very much. The second was set in WW2 - but in a seldom-explored corner of it: it deals with conscientious objectors. (We know a good deal about the fate of conscientious objectors in the First World War, but we hear far less about them in the second one - perhaps because we have come to see the first conflict as a largely shambolic bloodbath, whereas the second is broadly seen as a 'just war'.)

Liberty's Fire is set during the Paris Uprising of 1871, when the workers, starving and desperate after being besieged by the Prussians, declared that the people would govern the city through a Commune. It's a time about which I knew virtually nothing: after reading the book, I know a great deal more!

However, Lydia Syson is far too skilled a writer to overload the book with historical context. In the foreground of the novel are four vivid and appealing characters, and it is the stories of their relationships and the shifts they have to make to survive the turbulent times that drive the novel forward.

Anatole is a young violinist. I'm not sure that we're ever given a physical description of him, but it becomes clear that he is very attractive, in his personality as well as in his appearance. He has tremendous joie de vivre, and he's the kind of person whose charm and enthusiasm make him a magnet for other people. He is vaguely aware of this, but almost entirely guileless; impulsive, warm, generous - but perhaps a little careless about the effect he has on others. This is particularly so in the case of Jules, a young, well-to-do American with whom Anatole shares an apartment. Jules is a photographer, which means among other things that he is invited to be present at some of the significant events of the uprising - he is a witness. It quickly becomes clear to the reader that Jules is in love with Anatole. What's less clear is how aware Anatole is of this. He seems to have some sense of it, but chooses not to explore too deeply what Jules' feelings are for him; perhaps it's more convenient for him that way. Jules is a marvellous character, very subtly drawn.

The Commune has thrown out the normal conventions of social intercourse, and so when Anatole meets a working-class girl called Zephyrine, he is able to get to know her. They fall in love. Zephyrine is gripped by the ideology of the communards, by the idea of freedom and justice for all, and Anatole is swept along by her enthusiasm - only for both of them to see that neither side has a monopoly on cruelty and injustice. The fourth member of the quartet is Marie, a singer and friend of Anatole. She is ambitious, and she sees that the Commune may give her unexpected opportunities. But her brother is a soldier with the Nationalist (opposing) forces; as far as she knows he's a prisoner of war. She is desperate to help him, but she finds that her attempts to do so lead her into murky moral territory.

So the scene is set for conflicts of all kinds. Lydia Syson writes about all of them with skill, but it's her descriptions of the fighting which, as a writer, particularly impress me. I've written about battle scenes, and it's not easy; unless you can find good first-person accounts, how can you really imagine what it was like to be under a particular kind of fire? Well, Syson makes an utterly convincing job of it. Here, she writes of an explosion at a cartridge factory:

...the cloud had a capricious, uncapturable beauty: innumerable silvery ostrich plumes, continually unfurling, whirling, twisting in the air, revolving round themselves and others, endlessly and speedily rolling in and out of one another...And from the sky fell burning timber, molten lead, empty bullet cases and human remains.

The Commune only lasted a few short months, and the communards were ferociously punished. The issues are complex, but Syson handles them adeptly. And as we see how this movement by the people and for the people starts with passionate idealism, but becomes mired in the politics of necessity, perhaps we may reflect with perplexity on how the same story continues to be told - over, and over, and over again.

The book is marketed at young adults, but as is so often the case, I think it's also entirely suitable for 'old' adults!

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The first book I read by Kazuo Ishiguro was An Artist of the Floating World. I had taken my son up to Warwick University for an open day, and while he looked round, I bought this from the book shop. (I wonder if it still has one? Neither Bristol nor Exeter, where I've recently been working, appears to have one - which I find bizarre beyond words...) I read it in one sitting: I found it completely absorbing. I was fascinated by the world that was described - Japan pre and after the second world war, and by Ishiguro's subtle manipulation of the reader's response through his viewpoint (and unreliable) narrator.

Since then, I've read and enjoyed some of his books but found others more challenging. Now I've just read The Unburied Giant, his most recent one. The setting - a just post-Arthurian Britain - is very different from his other books, but there's a similarity about the voice, which is calm, apparently reflective and rational - almost monotonous. He certainly doesn't go in for flourishes. It's a semi-fantasy world, peopled with ogres, pixies, demons and a dragon - though none of these seem very real, and the ogres and pixies in particular don't appear to have an obvious purpose. (Well, not to me - though I'm probably just being dense.)

Arthur is dead, and the Saxons and Britons are living in a slightly uneasy harmony. Relations between the two communities are eased by a strange forgetfulness, which Axl and Beatrice, the elderly couple whose quest for their son forms the central narrative, call the 'mist'. They are puzzled by the way snatches of memory tantalise and then elude them; they want to regain their memories of the past, but they come to suspect that there may be things that would better remain hidden.

Along the way they meet other significant characters - notably Wistan, a brave Saxon warrior, and Sir Gawain, Arthur's nephew, now elderly (and a little reminiscent of the knight with the Questing Hound in T H White's A Once and Future King), and sometimes comical, but still noble and courageous. And they meet the boatman, a Charon-like figure (or is he an angel? He's described once as having a 'shining back', and he does his duty with a kind of sorrowful determination) who, it seems, cannot ultimately be escaped.

I don't think it's a particularly successful creation of a fantasy world, but I think that probably wasn't what Ishiguro was interested in. It's an allegory, with huge things to say about love, memory, war, reconciliation - about the very nature of humanity, which seems to leap from one conflict to another. A terrible onslaught is foreshadowed at the end of the book - one which took place fifteen centuries ago: but what have we learnt? Not a lot, when you cast a quick eye over the news.

This is just a preliminary response; it's not a book that reveals everything it contains in one quick reading.

Would love to hear anyone else's thoughts!

Monday, 18 May 2015

Visiting Vincent

I recently visited a museum in Amsterdam devoted to the art and life of Vincent Van Gogh: it's one of the best museums/art galleries I've ever visited. Follow the link here to read about it - and about the poignant story attached to this particular painting.

Monday, 11 May 2015

How I finally came to read John Green's 'The Fault In Our Stars'

Now, if you have any interest in books for teenagers/young adults - or even if you haven't - you have probably heard of The Fault In Our Stars. It's about two teenagers with cancer who fall in love; first published in 2012, it became a New York Times bestseller and was subsequently made into a film.

Although I do have a considerable interest in books for young people, I didn't become aware of it until a friend lent it to me - I have to confess, this was about a year ago, but I've only just read it. Why the delay?

Well, firstly, I'm not sure what I feel about books written about, or purportedly by, dying teenagers - or even in some cases by teenagers writing from beyond the grave (eg The Lovely Bones).It's not that the books aren't well-written or anything like that; it's just that I feel slightly uncomfortable about the notion that both the author and the readers are making use of an inherently dramatic, but very sad and private situation.

I realise that this isn't entirely logical. For a start, it's what writers do all the time. I did it in my own book, The Willow Man, when I wrote about a child with a serious illness. I had my reasons - one of my own children had been through something similar, and I was sort of writing about it in an attempt to come to terms with that - but all the same, having written it, I didn't just put it in a drawer - I got it published. But terminal illness - that feels like a step further. But perhaps it's not; really not sure about that one.

The main reason though - and this is an odd one - is that this book has clearly been extremely successful. It didn't need me. Now, clearly this is ridiculous - but nevertheless, if I hear masses about a book and I know it's doing really well, my gaze tends to slide over it in bookshops. Maybe it's because I've heard so much about it, it's almost as if I've already read it. Maybe - perfectly possible - I'm just jealous. Maybe when something is very highly praised, the reality can never quite match up to the expectation.

Anyway - the reason I finally settled down to reading The Fault In Our Stars is that I recently went to Amsterdam, and while there, I visited the Anne Frank House. When you have been round the house, seen the Secret Annexe and read and heard all the heart-breaking testimony, there is an area where quotes from people who have visited the house are projected onto a screen. Some are from famous people, some aren't. Well, John Green, the author of TFIOS popped up. One of the exhibits in the house is a list of all the Jews who were deported from Amsterdam and murdered in the extermination camps; Anne's name is highlighted. Green makes the point that underneath her name, two boys are listed, both called, I think, Arno Frank. What about these two, he asks? Why shouldn't they be remembered too? And I think he made an undertaking that he would remember them. It was an interesting point and it struck me. And then I remembered that the book had some connection with Amsterdam, and so when I came home I read it - and found that a significant and rather lovely section takes place beside the very same canal near which I had been staying.

Lovely Amsterdam - the setting for part of the book.

Well, this is a ridiculously long introduction to writing about the book, but finally I'm there. It's clever, it's sad, it doesn't sentimentalise or pull any punches; it's funny and witty and of course, it makes you cry. Are teenagers really that clever and articulate? Is anybody really that clever and articulate? Well, clearly John Green is. And he makes the point in an interview that teenagers are the ones who are reading the difficult classics, not adults. But, although I enjoyed their cleverness, Gus and Hazel did strike me as being super-exceptionally bright.

That said, it's a riveting story. You know it's not going to end happily - how could it, when you're told at the outset that the main character has terminal cancer? - but the twist that comes near the end is just guttingly unfair. A very, very clever book: deeply moving, often funny, and not remotely sentimental. I would certainly recommend it - but then, you've probably got more sense than me and have already read it.