Saturday 11 September 2021

The Island of Missing Trees, by Elif Shafak

 I first came across Elif Shafak when I was listening to an online talk last year from the Hay Festival. She was on a panel with Philippe Sands, a writer I very much admire: partly because he is a human rights lawyer as well as an author. He's an engaging speaker as well - as was Elif Shafak, who impressed by her intelligence and composure. She also happens to be very beautiful, which isn't relevant to her writing, but is too obvious not to comment on.

Originally from Turkey but now living in England, she mentions in her acknowledgements that when she left Istanbul many years ago, she didn't realise that it was for the last time. So she knows what it means to be an exile from her home country. And that is one of the things this book is about - though there are many more.

At the centre of the story are two lovers, Defne and Kostas. Defne is a Turkish Cypriot, Kostas a Greek one, and they fall in love in 1974, just before civil war breaks out on the island. We only find out gradually what happens to them; the story unfurls over three time periods, 1974, the early 2000s, and the late 2010s. In this latter period, the viewpoint character is Ada, the couple's daughter - who knows little of their past, but is devastated by her mother's recent death, and does not understand why none of their relatives have reached out to her. But then her aunt arrives on the doorstep, and gradually the secrets of the past come out of hiding.

So it's about civil war, and the impact of the past on the present, and about the different agonies of those who leave and those who stay: it's about memory, and love, and growing up. It's also about trees. In fact a fig-tree is one of the main characters: it gradually reveals much of the story, which it gleans from the creatures which visit it - ants, butterflies, a mosquito, a bee. Kostas, a gentle man, studies insects and trees, and we learn how trees can help each other and defend themselves, and how interdependent all forms of life are.

It's a wonderful, magical book. The story is engrossing, but there's so much else to the book as well as the central tale, and the magic is the natural magic of the earth. I like the world this author has created, and I'm very happy to see that she has written many more books, which I look forward to exploring.

Thursday 26 August 2021

Kathleen Jamie - Scotland's new makar

 I've just read that Kathleen Jamie has been named as the new makar (national poet) for Scotland. I met Kathleen a couple of years ago on a course at Ty Newydd, and afterwards I read her book of essays, Sightlines. In honour of her appointment, I'm reposting what I wrote about it afterwards.

A couple of months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was about to go on a course on nature writing (at Ty Newydd – I wrote about it a few posts back). She chuckled, and said, “Oh, but nature writing’s so boring, isn’t it?”

I was taken aback and lost for words. Now, I would say to her: but what do you even mean by nature writing? How could it be ‘boring’ to read about something which I know she loves, just as I do? How could she not be interested in reading about what gives life to us, and makes our planet apparently unique - and how it is under profound threat?

Or perhaps I’d just give her this book by Kathleen Jamie and say, “Just give this a try. Go on – do.”

Kathleen was one of the tutors on the Ty Newydd course. I had heard of her before, but though I’d given this book to a couple of other people as a present, I hadn’t actually read it myself. I’ve just remedied this, and have found it completely engrossing – and therapeutic. It’s autumn, which is a beautiful season but has at its heart the fading of things – the fading of light, the falling of leaves, the gradual death of flowers. Of course it’s not all bad – there are birds that arrive as well as those that depart, and there are already buds on the bare branches. But still – it’s a season when it’s easy to succumb to a generalised feeling of sadness. And there are one or two things going on in the outside world which are also just a tad worrying.

So there have been mornings when I’ve woken up feeling gloomy. But as soon as I begin to read a chapter of Sightlines, I am taken into another place - and what a relief that is. That is perhaps a cliché: certainly, it’s my stock, easy answer when someone asks me what I like about reading: “A book can take you into another world…” But in this case, it really feels true. The book is a collection of essays. In most of them, Kathleen travels to Scottish islands, though there’s also one where she goes to a Norwegian museum and reflects on whale skeletons (in other essays, she writes about encounters with living whales); another where she decides she needs to see inside the body, not just outside, and examines pathogens under a microscope; another where she recalls an archaeology dig, from which the discovery of the ancient skeleton of a young girl lingers in her mind.

Wherever she goes, she is supremely attentive. She looks, she listens, she tastes, she touches, she thinks, she explores, she reflects. And she does this so effectively that the reader is right there with her, feeling the force of a wind strong enough to knock you over, seeing how gannets glint against a storm cloud, shocked at the speed with which killer whales slice through the water.

But she doesn’t simply describe what she sees. She muses, considers, makes analogies, asks questions. The reader follows not just her physical journeys, but the path her thoughts take. At the back of it all is an awareness of transience. As she says in the book’s final paragraph:

There are myths and fragments which suggest that the sea that we were flying over was once land. Once upon a time, and not so long ago, it was a forest with trees, but the sea rose and covered it over. The wind and sea. Everything else is provisional. A wing’s beat and it’s gone.

(She is flying in a helicopter as she leaves a remote, storm-swept island, where she had found a dead swan, describing its outstretched wing as a full metre of gleaming quartz-white, a white cascade: the swan’s wing, the wind, the helicopter flight – they all link into a chain of thought.)

Boring? Not by any stretch of the imagination.

Tuesday 24 August 2021

Jill Murphy: 5/7/49 - 18/8/21

You can probably just about see from this picture that this is a well-worn book. You'll see it even better from the picture below: one page has a tear in it and both are creased from frequent handling.

It's well-worn because it is well-loved. It was probably the book we read more than any other when our children were small. Just to see that picture, with the house, and the moon, and the cat, and the car, and the owl swooping across the night sky - and those first words: 'The hour was late." - takes me back to that moment when it's bedtime, and a child is curled up by your side, and together you know that you are about to embark on a magical incantation.

Yet there's no obvious magic in the story. It's a simple tale of Mr Bear, who is finding it very difficult to get to sleep. He tries going into Baby Bear's room, into the living room, into the kitchen, into the garden, into his car; but everywhere he goes, there is some noise that keeps him awake. Finally, he goes back into the house to his own bed, and is just drifting off... when the alarm goes!

But the pictures are perfect - the bears' expressions are brilliant - and the words are beautifully balanced and so good to read aloud. I read this so many times I knew it off by heart: I remember one time when I was shopping, with my first child in a pushchair. He started to get fractious. I recited Peace At Last, and all grew calm.

The book was written and illustrated by Jill Murphy, who also created the Large family (elephants, naturally), but is perhaps most famous for the Worst Witch series, which is about a girl called Mildred Hubble and her trials and tribulations at a boarding school for witches. The books, and the TV series which they gave rise to, where much loved by my daughter (and me too) - but Peace At Last has always retained the crown, and continues to do so with my grandchildren.

And yet I realised when I read the other day that Jill Murphy had died, at the far-too-young age of 72, that in an age when we know so much about so many writers, I knew nothing at all about her. I don't know why this is. From the photographs of her, she looks lovely, with a huge smile and an obvious sense of fun: she seems to radiate happiness. Perhaps she didn't court publicity: perhaps she didn't need to, and could simply allow her books to speak for her.

I'm so sorry she has died so soon. I wish her, as I wish all of us, Peace At Last.

Saturday 8 May 2021

The Lamplighters, by Emma Stonex


The first thing to be said about this book is that it is very, very beautiful. The photograph doesn't actually do it justice: the cover depicts a lighthouse, surrounded by dark, swirling clouds and seas - rich crimson, ultramarine and black, with a scattering of gold - the colours are much more vivid than in the photo. In my edition, which is said to be a Waterstone's exclusive, the colours bleed over onto the page edges: such drama!

Publishers don't give such luscious treatment to a book unless they really have faith in it - and you can absolutely see why Picador would have had that kind of faith in The Lamplighters. it begins with a rivetting mystery. In December 1972, Jory, the boatman, takes supplies and a relief keeper out to the Maiden Rock Lighthouse, which is on a pinnacle of rock beyond Landsend in Cornwall: isolated and difficult to reach because of wild seas. Normally, the resident keepers would be waiting to help him moor the boat and unload, but today no-one is there, and Jory realises that something is very wrong. He goes to fetch help, and when they eventually manage to get into the lighthouse, they find that all three keepers have disappeared. The table is laid for two, and two clocks have stopped at the same time.

The mystery of what happened to them is never solved, although a possible explanation is eventually given in the book. The story is taken up in 1992, when a writer contacts the women who were left behind by the three keepers, saying he wants to undertake a new investigation. The stories of the three women are interwoven with the stories of the three keepers, and gradually, the complexities of their relationships - and what may have led to the tragedy - are revealed.

It's a very powerful book. The lighthouse itself is at the very centre of things, and it comes as no surprise to find out that Emma Stonex has always been fascinated by lighthouses. She vividly describes the wildness of the sea and the strangeness of the life on this inaccessible place, and her depiction of Arthur, the chief keeper, in particular, is subtle and deep. The book is a kind of memorial to the lighthouses and their keepers, for of course they are all automated now; they're surrounded with an aura of romance and heroism, rather as the lighthouse itself is surrounded by the elements of wind and water.

I felt slightly less satisfied by the supernatural element, which becomes more significant in the later part of the book. It felt as if this was introduced, but the author wasn't certain how much credibility to give it, so it wasn't fully realised. And there were one or two other elements which came in later on which felt similarly not quite right to me - can't really discuss them without giving too much away.

But those quibbles apart, this is a wild and wonderful book - one to read as the night draws in, and preferably with a storm rattling the windows - with maybe a branch tapping against the glass...

Sunday 25 April 2021

The Last Bear, by Hannah Gold

This book was written for children - but that certainly doesn't mean it should only be read by children. It's original and captivating, and very timely.

The Last Bear is an unusual and enchanting book which doesn't shy away from difficult and pertinent issues - in particular, it looks at the question of climate change and what it's doing to life on our planet. But as well as this, it explores the loss of a parent, and what that does to the remaining parent as well as the child. If that all sounds very heavy, it's really not. The 'messages' emerge very naturally from the story - there's no sense whatever that the reader is being lectured.

April Wood is eleven, and lives with her father, a climatologist. Her mother died when she was four, so April scarcely remembers her - 'whenever she thought of her, it was like thinking of a lovely summer holiday she'd once been on.' Her father, however, has coped less well. He buries himself in his work, and scarcely notices that he has a daughter. So, for instance, April has to cut her own hair with a pair of garden scissors, because her father simply doesn't see that it needs attention. So April looks odd, and is teased at school. But she's not unhappy: she loves animals, and enjoys watching a family of foxes which lives in their unkempt garden: '...she preferred animals to humans anyway. They were just kinder.' That last, brief sentence really sums up how she relates to other children: she does not like school.

Then an opportunity arises for her father - and April - to go and spend a few months on a remote island - Bear Island - in the Arctic Circle. Despite her grandmother's misgivings, April is delighted, because she thinks that, as they will be the only two people on the island, it will bring herself and her father closer together - they'll make snowmen, they'll explore, they'll observe wildlife together - he will 'see' her. But none of this comes to pass: her father is too busy, engrossed in a job which should really be done by two people - quite apart from the fact that he never notices April anyway. (Really, you feel like shaking him. He's not intentionally cruel, but he is selfishly wrapped up in his own grief.)

She's disappointed, but she's a resourceful child, so she goes off on her own to explore. In particular, she believes that there might be a polar bear on the island - even though she's been told that there can't be, because since the ice has been receding because of climate change, bears can no longer reach Bear Island from Svalbard further north. But she turns out to be right - there is a bear, and it's in pain and in desperate need of help. 

The story of how she and the bear get to know each other, and how she helps it to regain its health and strength, is magical and very touching. I won't tell you what happens at the end, but trust me, your heart will be in your mouth. April puts herself in extreme danger in order to save the bear and get him back to Svalbard: her adventure, in the end, brings her closer to her father - who finally wakes up and realises how close he has come to losing his daughter.

Hannah Gold brings off a clever sleight of hand with this story. It is not, in some ways, realistic: a real polar bear would not, one imagines, allow a child to come so close to him, let alone give her rides on his back: a real organisation would not - one imagines - allow a man to take his small daughter to live on a remote island with no shops or facilities, let alone a school. And as for what happens at the end - well, health and safety would have conniptions.

But you accept all these things, because everything else about the story is so real and so convincing. The bear's physical presence is vividly evoked: his smelly breath, his size, his strength - and his plight. And April, with her courage and persistence, is a character you absolutely believe can win through, despite the enormous obstacles she faces.

The book is beautifully illustrated by Levi Pinfold. His pictures show just what a huge and powerful beast the bear is: April is tiny beside him. Tiny, but tough, imaginative and resourceful. It's a thoroughly delightful book - I loved it.

Friday 23 April 2021

An apology, and thanks for all the comments!

Dear readers! 

I've often felt a little bit sad that although I get readers on this blog, I never seem to get any comments.

But I've just discovered a whole load of comments which have been sitting there, some of them for ages, waiting patiently to be moderated! 

It was such a treat to read them all, and now I'm off to change the settings so that this doesn't happen again. I must have changed them after a spam attack, and then just forgotten about it.

I feel very cheered, and will post a picture of cowslips to say a big fat thank you to you all!

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Underland, by Robert Macfarlane

 The first thing to say is that I do realise how useless I am at keeping up this blog. I am very envious of a friend who has written down every book she's ever read in a notebook (several notebooks? A bookcase full of notebooks?) - and yet I have utterly failed at writing a bit about a book just once every couple of weeks or so.

I'm not making excuses - well, I am - but I think it's because I read a lot, and as soon as I've finished one book, I start another. Plus, I sometimes have several on the go at the same time. And during this lockdown in particular, I've really felt the need for bookish worlds to escape into, one after another - and to stop to review each one just seems too big an ask. (Not, of course, that anyone's asking except me.)

But, I've just finished the latest draft of my work in progress and don't yet know what I'm going to write next, so I'm going to try and catch up a little bit. But of course, it's some while since I've read some of these books, so you'll have to bear with if if there's a certain lack of detail.

First up is Robert Macfarlane's Underland. Now, I have to confess that while I have read other books by Macfarlane, I haven't always round them easy to get into. Typically, I read a few pages or a couple of chapters, and think Oh, what beautiful writing this is! - and then find myself gravitating towards something easier. I do wonder if this is partly to do with being immersed in children's books, and in crime fiction. With both of these, the story is all. At the end of each chapter, there needs to be a hook which draws you inexorably into reading the next chapter. And you don't spend an awful lot of time writing description - there is room for it, and some children's books have mouthwatering descriptions - but it's subservient to the story.

With nature writing, the case is quite different. I think it's probably fair to say that with nature writing, observation and description form the bedrock of the essay or book. Other things will emerge, but that's where you start. So your expectations need to be different. You need to slow down, take your time, read carefully. Whereas naturally, what I do is gallop through.

However with Underland, it was different. It was gripping.

As you might deduce from the title, it's about exploring underground. It's divided into three sections, called the first, second and third chambers. The first deals with caves and tunnels in Britain; the second with undergound tunnel networks in Paris, Italy and Slovenia, and the third with caves in Norway, Greenland and Finland. 

The first chapter concerns the Mendips - of which the hill in the title of this blog is one. Macfarlane doesn't just desribe the landscape. He muses on it, reflects on it, explores it through a network of ideas and cultural references. Looking at this first chapter again, my eye is caught by this, from Sean, the friend who will be his guide to the Mendips: 

"This has been a funerary landscape for over 10,000 years. It's a terrain into which we have long entrusted things, as well as from which we have long extracted things." 

Macfarlane expands on this, illustrating the thought with lots of examples of ancient burials, in Austria, in Israel, in Somerset itself, and mulling over their significance. Then, he goes underground with Sean. There is climbing over wet rock, there is the rope getting stuck, there is squeezing through narrow passageways. It's all quite terrifying - especially when he tells the incredibly sad story of a caver in the Peak District who got stuck in a narrow gulley and could not be got out. He's there to this day. So nightmares come true.

And this is the pattern of the book: erudite musing about the historical, philosophical, cultural or scientific significance of what he's seeing, alternated with jaw-dropping accounts of dangerous descents. I confess I'm a complete wuss: scared of heights, depths, deep water and narrow spaces. So I'm fascinated by the exploits of someone who is clearly not any of those things. And I am interested in caves, because of something I've been writing. And the writing is beautiful. So, yes, I was hooked.

Sunday 10 January 2021

Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, by Natasha Farrant

 I noticed the other day that this book, Voyage of the Sparrowhawk, has won the children's book category of the Costa award, and so I decided to send for it. The afternoon it arrived, on a cold grey day when the obvious thing to do was to curl up with a good book, I settled down on the settee and got stuck in.

It's 352 pages long, and other than getting up to make a cup of tea, I barely looked up until I'd read it. It's that entertaining.

Set just after the First World War, it's about two orphans, Lotti and Ben. Lotti's parents, wealthy, charming, and very much in love, both with each other and with their little daughter, are killed in a plane crash. Lotti inherits their beautiful house and their money - but her guardian is her ghastly uncle, Hubert Netherbury, who is a cruel bully who wants to enjoy her house and money and, seeing Lotti as an inconvenience, packs her off to an unpleasant boarding school.

The story starts when she is twelve. Having just run away from school, she meets Ben and they become firm friends. Ben's background is far less privileged. Having spent his early years in a horrible orphanage, he is rescued by Nathan, a kindly barge owner. Nathan comes across Ben and his older friend Sam and, moved by their plight, takes them in. However, a few years later the war intervenes. Sam joins up and is injured. Nathan goes to France to see him in hospital, and is killed in a bombing raid: Sam is missing, presumed dead.

By coincidence, the hospital is close to the village where Lotti's beloved grandmother lives. Strangely, she has lost touch with her grandmother; though she has written many letters to her, she has never heard back.

But then various things happen which convince the two of them that they have no choice but to run away - and to where else but that village in France? And in what but Nathan's old barge, the Sparrowhawk? With them are their two dogs, which help to move the action along nicely.

The charm of the book is largely in its characters - not just Lotti and Ben, but their supporting cast of friends and helpers. They are generous, spiky, kind, practical, funny, brave, and Natasha Farrant tells their stories with crispness and panache. It's not all spun sugar: there are instances of real cruelty, there's jeopardy - and there are quite a few deaths.

When you start to write books for children, someone will point out to you quite early on that you need to devise a way to get rid of parents. Otherwise, how can your child heroes have the adventures they need to keep readers turning the pages? Back in the olden days, Enid Blyton did it with a flourish: off the kids would go to boarding school, and in the holidays to Kirrin Island. Convalescence from a serious illness was another goody, as with Will Stanton in Susan Cooper's The Grey King. Or there's always a wardrobe. Natasha Farrant ruthlessly wipes out , not one, but two set of parents here. (Interestingly, I heard Frank Cottrell Boyce on the radio the other day, talking about the Moomins - and he pointed out that in the Moomin books, this doesn't happen: the family is at the centre of the books. Each member is important, and when an adventure is afoot, the parents aren't necessarily left out of it.)

All that aside, this is a wonderfully readable and exciting book: perfect for distracting children - and yes, adults too - from these rather dreary days in which we find ourselves.

PS If you're reading this and quite enjoying it, do consider becoming a follower of this blog. You'll get a notification when there's a new post, and well - it would just be nice!