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!