Sunday 24 April 2016

Earlier - on a hill near me.

It's clouded over now, and there's a chill in the air - but this morning it was glorious up on the hill. Here are some pictures.

This is Nessie, at the beginning of the walk...

Here are some bluebells in the first bit of woodland we get to. These aren't really bluebell woods; you don't get that intense haze of blue that you see in some woods, so when you do see a patch, it's a very special treat.

When you come out of the woods, you're out in the open, at the top of the hill - this is the best bit, I think, with marvellous views across the reservoir towards the Quantocks. But I took this one further down the hill.

This is the first orchid I've seen this spring.

And here are some cowslips - these have really spread over the last few years.

Really, a very fine walk indeed.

Monday 18 April 2016

Hour of the Bees, by Lindsey Eagar

This is the second of the books I've read recently which has a magical tree at its centre - the first was The Lie Tree, which I've written about below.

They do have some other things in common. The viewpoint character in both is a girl of about twelve - not quite a teenager. Both books deal with problematic relationships between parents and children. But they come from, and contain, very different worlds

. Whereas The Lie Tree is set in the claustrophobic world of Victorian society, Hour of the Bees takes place in the empty landscape of an American desert. In some ways it's a mythic story that is outside time - but Carol and her family are firmly rooted in 21st century America.

At the beginning of the book, Carol, her parents, her small brother Lu and her teenage half-sister Alta have arrived at the drought-ridden ranch of Serge, Carol's grandfather. Serge and her father, Raoul, have not spoken for twelve years, since the death of Serge's wife Rosa; but now he has dementia, and Raoul has arranged for him to be moved to a 'facility', a fancy place called Seville, which must be paid for by the sale of Serge's dearly loved ranch.

At first, it reads like a familiar story of a family at odds; Alta is splendidly moody, Carol wants to be at home with her school friends considering such vital problems as what sort of school bag they should all buy, Carol's mum is exhausted with the demands of work, children and doing the right thing by Serge.

But then it turns into something much more interesting. There are bees, which are mysteriously attracted to Carol, which no-one else can see - but in which Serge is keenly interested. Serge insists on calling Carol by her Spanish name, Carolina, and tells her how much she reminds him of Rosa. And he begins to tell her a story about a tree - a completely extraordinary tree. At first, Carol thinks the story is just that - a story. But then she begins to notice things. Ines, the dog, is older than any dog could possibly be. The heroine of the story is called Rosa. And though there is no longer a lake on the ranch - because, says Serge, the bees carried it away, drop by drop - there is the stump of a tree.

It seems impossible that the tragedy which is gradually revealed can possibly be sorted out within the compass of the book. But trust me - the ending will have you cheering from your armchair, while at the same time wiping away the tears.

I can't think of any other magical realist books for children, though I'm sure there must be some - but this sits firmly within the Spanish American area of that tradition. It's unusual, and really rather special.

Wednesday 6 April 2016

The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

I can't think of a single other book I've read which centres on a magical tree (the nearest I can get is the littl nut tree in the nursery rhyme, which bears a silver nutmeg and a golden pear - or the ash tree, Yggdrasil, of Norse legend) and yet I've just come across two on the space of a week.

The first is The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

, which recently made headlines by winning the Costa Book of the Year Prize - the first children's book to have done so since Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials. This is a richly complex gothic horror story, with language and concepts as challenging as Pullman's. It is the story of Faith, a girl whose father is a vicar but also an archaeologist and natural scientist living at the beginning of the nineteenth century - a time when people (mostly, but not entirely, men) could be all these things at the same time; when the worlds of art and science were much closer than they are now; and when new wonders were constantly being discovered - and old certainties anxiously challenged. 

Faith's father is strict and distant, and dismissive of his daughter, even though she is clearly much cleverer than her younger brother, Howard. No-one tells her why the family must suddenly move to the island of Vane, but Faith is a curious girl who refuses to be limited by what is expected of her, and she makes it her business to find out what is going on. 

She soon discovers that her father is fleeing from rumours that he is a fraud; that many of his most famous fossil finds are not genuine. She decides to investigate further - and she finds that at the centre of his obsessions is a mysterious tree which he has hidden in a sea cave. This tree, she eventually discovers, literally feeds on lies - and produces fruit which, when eaten, reveals hidden truths...

Meanwhile, the rumours about her father have spread to Vane. Gossip spreads, and the atmosphere becomes as menacing and brooding as the swiftly growing tree. Faith decides she will harness the tree's power to find out the truth - but of course, when we go searching for the truth, we don't always like what we find...

I found this a compulsive read, and you have to admire Faith's determination to confound expectations about what, in Victorian times, would have been appropriate for a girl in terms of life chances and behaviour. There are other interesting female characters too; her mother, Myrtle, seems fairly dreadful at first, but i very much warmed to her as she gradually revealed  unexpected depths of deviousness and determination.

The tree itself - well. Very sinister. There's something about this element of the story that reminds me of The Monkey's Paw, by WW Jacobs, which also features an object with mysterious powers found abroad, whose appropriation by westerners leads to unexpected and terrible consequences - as does Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. Perhaps there's something to do with colonialism going on here - the downside of the urge to explore which led to so many adventures and discoveries from the end of the eighteenth century on.

Coming soon: The Hour of the Bees, by Lindsay Eagar - another magical tree, but a very different book.

Sunday 3 April 2016

'O Wall, O sweet, O lovely Wall!' *

A few days ago on a family holiday in Devon, I was walking on the coast path above Ilfracombe when I saw this wall, and I was fascinated. We had come over the brow of the hill, just out of the picture to the left, so were looking down on the structure. At first I couldn't work out what it was. It's not obvious from the picture, but it was very wide - almost a couple of feet, I'd say. It was made of slate, which gleamed in shades of blue, grey, copper, silver and ochre: seven rows of slender slices of slate, packed close together, and the same on the other side. I imagine there was a space between, which was filled with earth. Then the whole thing was topped off, paved with bigger pieces of slate. It ran between two slopes, across a shallow valley. It was about three quarters done; the remaining quarter looked like a tumble-down bank.

Here's a close-up. 

I think that any dry stone wall is a thing of beauty, but this seemed to me to go several steps further. There was nothing to say who was building it. But think of the hours it must have taken, the skill it must have required, the patience it must have demanded, to fit together all those thousands of pieces of slate! I love it that someone  - or several someones - had decided that it was worth the effort, the time and the cost, to build this structure in the traditional way, instead of just knocking up a quick fence.

As we walked on, I looked more closely at the boundary at right angles to the new wall. You could see glimmers of stone, but the whole thing was covered in vegetation; all sorts of grasses and clumps of plants which later in the summer will no doubt flower and play host to insects and birds. It looks now just like part of the landscape, but once it too must have been shiny and new.

I keep thinking about that wall.

(*The title is in honour of this being Shakespeare Month. It's from A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act V, Sc.1)