Monday, 17 April 2017

OUT OF BOUNDS by Val McDermid, reviewed by Celia Rees



Val McDermid
I've been a huge Val McDermid fan since her Women's Press, Lindsay Gordon days. She was one of a number of women writers in the '80s who were taking crime genre in a new direction, putting women at the centre of the action, not as victims but as detectives, or in Lindsay Gordon's case,  journalists. These women were resourceful, clever and fearless. Their personal lives were often complex, even chaotic. That didn't interfere with the dramatic tension of the novels but it allowed these writers to explore gender issues, the position of women in society. The crimes they investigated were often crimes committed against women: domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and murder but having women in the position of investigator brought a different kind of attention to crimes against women, brought them into sharper focus, looked at male motivation and drew attention to how shockingly common these crimes are.  I found writers like Val inspirational. I was a teacher at the time with ambitions to write. I'd  always read crime fiction and these writers were a revelation. I remember thinking, why not YA? (or Teenage Fiction as it was known in those days). This was what I wanted to write and I didn't see why I shouldn't fuse the two. My first novels were YA thrillers with girls driving the plot. 

Out of Bounds is Val McDermid's 30th novel. Her heroine is Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie,  a cold case investigator with a penchant for artisanal gins and the kind of intelligent, independent frame of mind that inevitably causes clashes with her superiors. The unsolved cases that she investigates, suddenly sparked into life by new discoveries, might have been committed decades ago. The investigations are difficult, complex, often baffling, but Pirie is dogged in her pursuit of the perpetrator, or perpetrators, driven by the desire to bring justice for the victim, no matter how long ago the crime was committed. 

Her new novel sees DCI Karen Pirie suffering from a personal tragedy, the loss of her partner that occurred in a previous novel. She is in a difficult, dark place, unable to sleep, she roams the city. McDermid's novels have a very fine sense of place based in the writer's intimate knowledge. She knows her places and she knows her people. Her ear is pitch perfect. Her characters, major and minor are deftly drawn and vivid. 

Out of Bounds begins with a group of boys stealing a Range Rover. The teenage joy riders end up three dead, one in a coma. A routine DNA test brings Pirie into the equation.  The DNA sample seems to be the solution to a 20 year old murder case. On the surface, it seems open and shut but nothing is straightforward in a McDermid novel. Pirie and her assistant are led into an increasingly puzzling and complex maze of familial connections, none of which make surface sense. 

Meanwhile, a conversation over a gin or two with an old colleague alerts her to a mystery death which is likely to be dismissed a little too quickly as suicide.  A cold case aspect allows her to take an interest and she is drawn into an increasingly dangerous political intrigue involving powerful forces determined to keep hidden what really lay behind a terrorist bombing two decades ago which had been blamed on the IRA. 

Both cases twist and turn around each other in an increasingly complex way but Pirie pursues both with characteristic determination to bring justice to those who have been denied it. She allows nothing and no-one to stand in her way and this brings her into conflict, not only with her superiors but with others who will stop at nothing to keep the truth hidden. 

The cold case adds real complexity to the plotting and the need for forensic and painstaking detective work. It also opens up the possiblity of real threat from those who have hidden the truth for decades and want it to stay hidden. Pirie is equal to both, as is her creator. The plotting is faultless, the tension meticulously calibrated to wind to the maximum as the novel progresses. There are no gaps, unlikely leaps or plot holes here, no questionable motivation. Nothing stretches the bounds of belief. Everything makes sense - you just don't know how until the end. With Out of Bounds,  the reader is in a very safe pair of hands.  

Monday, 10 April 2017

Guest review by Catherine Butler: THIS EARLY DARK: MICRO-POETRY AND ULTRA-FLASH FICTION by Michael Cadnum



Catherine Butler is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University, where her academic books on children’s literature include Four British Fantasists (Scarecrow/ ChLA, 2006), and Reading History in Children’s Books (with Hallie O’Donovan; Palgrave, 2012). She has also produced numerous novels for children and teenagers, as well as some shorter works, of which the latest is Twisted Winter (A&C Black, 2013).

Michael Cadnum is a prolific author of both novels and poetry, and I’ve long been one of his admirers. As its title suggests, the contents of This Early Dark include both fiction and poems; however, since both are reduced to highly concentrated bouillon cubes, it is hard at times to say which is which. Very short poems and extremely short fictions, consisting of two or three lines apiece, are scattered through its pages. This is the slimmest of slim volumes, but it contains multitudes. Cadnum’s novels are poetic, and his poems, even when short, often contain a seed of narrative that could quite happily be coaxed to novel length. Just add water – or wonder.

Some of Cadnum’s work has a specificity that is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams, or indeed the haiku tradition that so inspired the Imagists. They take a familiar and “ordinary” experience, and pebble-polish it:

How lovely, the wrinkled tablecloth now that everyone’s gone.

This image pulls our gaze to it, but does not ask us to look beyond itself. Sometimes, though, the poet notices himself noticing: “I realize the book is reading me and I close it”. Or, a little less unsettlingly:

If we could stay like this--
dawn rain
my neighbor
trying forever to
start his car.

The promise of poetry is that we can stay like this, that moments can be pinned like moths, or framed like photographs. Except that poetry works in more dimensions than two, drawing on all the senses and their attendant moods.

Memory, absence and regret are prominent in many of the pieces here, and rain seeps through much of the collection, far more than one would expect from a writer who has lived much of his life in California: “Years after the cat is gone shadows everywhere wash themselves”; “I found your cigarettes in the suitcase and wake with your cough”; “I thought you touched me but it was the rain”. Often, the particularity of experience gestures towards metaphor:

After dark I wish I had not cut off so many branches.

Is this the small-hours fretting of an overenthusiastic gardener, or of someone who has been too profligate with life’s possibilities? (Both, of course.) Occasionally, there is a proverbial quality to Cadnum’s lines, as well as an observational one:

Only when it’s gone does the passing jet whisper.

Cadnum is a novelist, and often the ghost of a story, or the embryo of one, peeps from his words, teasing us to wonder what happened just after, or just before:

Soapsuds across the carpet where you left the bath to watch him leave.

The pieces were written over a forty-year period, but it is not clear whether they are arranged in anything resembling chronological order: the quality of Cadnum’s perceptions appears consistent throughout. Intimate relationships with people, with nature, with things, thoughts and feelings wheel through its pages, winking in and out like stars. I am not certain of Cadnum’s working method, although perhaps it is expressed in one of the shorter pieces here: “I burn the words to make them happen”. In any case, This Early Dark is a valuable and inspirational collection.

This Early Dark is published by CreateSpace and as a Kindle edition.





Monday, 3 April 2017

WIDOWS AND ORPHANS by Michael Arditti, reviewed by Adele Geras







There are certain books - you will know the sort of book I mean - which catch the light. They bring forth reams of newsprint, both real and virtual; they gather prizes; they provide pleasing controversies; they divide opinion; people notice them. There are only a few of these because there's limited space for reviews and the world of those who read reviews is a little one, although also a very pleasant one. The really HUGE books which reach millions of people are the ones which  jump a kind of imaginary barrier and are taken up by those who would ordinarily never read a book, or call themselves 'readers.' I'm thinking of  Girl on the Train or Fifty Shades of Gray or the oeuvre of Dan Brown. 

Those books, the flashy ones that make tons of money and the less flashy but very much garlanded ones which win prizes and column inches, are very few in number. The bestseller lists are instructive in many ways, but what they do not show is the less-good sellers. And these, I have often noticed, are frequently more interesting than their more glittering sisters and brothers further up the charts.

Recently, I took a train across Europe, as is my wont whenever I go on holiday. I am flying phobic and Eurostar and trains through the continent is how I get about. This is an extraordinarily pleasant way to travel and I recommend it, but this is not the place to hold forth about free croissants and lovely scenery. It takes a long time to get anywhere and Kindle comes into its own on a trip like this. The book I read in February on my way to Switzerland and for a day or so after I'd got to my hotel was Widows and Orphans by Michael Arditti. I'd read a review in the Spectator (the only review I saw)  and it sounded just up my street.

I'm not sure that this book was widely noticed. I've not seen it in bookshops. Most people on Amazon enjoyed it very much, and I liked the fact (from the blurb) that it was about a newspaper in a small English seaside town and its editor. I'm fond of books/movies/TV/anything set in the offices of a newspaper. 

Also, I'd once appeared at a reading festival at a school in London and  Michael Arditti was speaking at the same event. I caught sight of him sitting in a Green Room eating sandwiches. I've heard him on Radio 4 from time to time on Saturday Review as one of Tom Sutcliffe's guests, but I've never met him, so for once this is a review from me of a book by someone whom I don't know.  

I realised that the title had a double meaning, too, and patted myself on the back for this. 'Widows' and 'orphans' are terms in printing, as well as meaning what we all know they mean. I thought it was a very clever title. Also, I was drawn to the rather retro cover.

This is a long introduction to what I want to do, which is to recommend this wonderful and unputdownable book to all those who like novels which are about, to quote someone very close to me, "Proper people in interesting situations." 

Duncan Neville is the editor of the Francombe Mercury, the local paper in a small seaside town. The paper has been in his family for generations and he feels a proper pride in it, and the way it has explained, described and recorded the life of the town for a very long time. The paper is now under threat. Because of the internet, all newspapers are feeling nervous. People no longer get their news in this old-fashioned way and Duncan is beleaguered. He's divorced from his wife. His ex-wife has married again and had a daughter, who is disabled. He has a teenage son, too, who gets into teenage-type trouble. His mother lives in the town and she's quite a character. He is friendly with the gay vicar. His enemy, Geoffrey Weedon,  from way back in his schooldays, is a rich, rather vulgar entrepreneurial type, who has always looked down on Duncan, even though Duncan is a much better person.

When Francombe Pier is burned to the ground, Weedon has a plan to open it again as a kind of adult entertainment centre: a sort of sex emporium on stilts. He has the Planning Committee in his pocket, according to some. Opposition to this plan forms one strand of the plot, but there are so many others that it's hard to list them all. Above all, it's Duncan's journey through a turbulent time in his life. We meet his close friends, his colleagues, his mother, and the woman he grows to love. I will not spoil anyone's fun by revealing the end, but it's a novel in which every single character is carefully taken account of. Arditti is interested in the life of the town, in the way the newspaper deals with 'all human life' and he structures the book brilliantly by starting each chapter with an extract from the newspaper itself. This means that by the end, we, too, have grown fond of this publication.

It's written straightforwardly, in plain language, with no posturing, no faux lyricism and this means that the emotional punch of the things that happen to the characters is all the stronger. We get to know and love Duncan through the book, and we are desperately wanting a good outcome for both him and his paper. 

If I were a bookshop, I'd stick a label on the cover saying: satisfaction or your money back, or some such. Please get in touch with this blog on Twitter if you read it and hate it. I'm betting that  almost everyone who picks it up and starts it will love it and thank me for putting them in touch with this brilliant writer who is  not sufficiently appreciated.

Widows and Orphans is published in paperback by Arcadia Books at £8.99. ISBN: 1910050644
£8.99

Monday, 27 March 2017

Guest review by Dianne Hofmeyr: ABOUT GRACE by Anthony Doerr



Dianne Hofmeyr is the author of many novels for young people. A keen observer of the natural world, she has also written picture books mostly set in Africa. Zeraffa Giraffa, illustrated by Jane Ray, was selected for The Sunday Times Top Hundred Children’s Books in the past ten years and The Magic Bojabi Tree, illustrated by Piet Grobler, is the subject of a piece of music specially composed and played by the Worcestershire Symphony Orchestra. My Daddy is a Silly Monkey, illustrated by Carol Thompson, and The Glassmaker’s Daughter, illustrated by Jane Ray, will be coming out soon.



If grace is an elegance and charm of movement, or of proportion, or of expression, or even the divine power given to man for spiritual rebirth, you will certainly find it in Pulitzer prize-winner Anthony Doerr’s novel, About Grace. And if you were swept away by All the Light you Cannot See, his first novel About Grace will be a fascinating insight into what makes him such a force as a writer. The same moving compassion and intense attention to detail shines though.

It opens with Winkler. Doerr keeps a distance from his protagonist by seldom using the man’s first name, David, so the narrator seemingly becomes a mere observer of events. Winkler is on a plane setting out on a journey to find his daughter. He has run away from his previous life and abandoned both his wife and daughter and has been living on a remote Caribbean island for more than two decades. Why?

Winkler has strange premonitions, or dreams as he calls them – he can clearly see what is about to happen before it happens. He falls in love with his wife in Anchorage, Alaska (clever choice of city as it anchors him to his past) as if it has already been predetermined. They have a child, Grace, but because of his premonitions, he fears the future and what it holds for her. Twenty-five years later he finally has the courage to return to Alaska to discover his daughter’s fate. But the reader is left guessing right until the very end to know whether Winkler’s dream comes true.

The story is both about grace and redemption. Winkler is a flawed character and a reader might be frustrated at his refusal to face his fear of going home. But in abandoning his family, he has committed an unforgivable transgression and Doerr makes him work hard to regain grace, both in the concept of what true grace is and also his daughter, Grace.

The most striking aspect of the book is Doerr’s ability - rather like Annie Proulx's - to turn the natural world into a magical, almost mythical place. Icy cold is never colder than in Doerr’s hands. And the intensity of his landscape both in Alaska and on the tropical island turns landscape into character. Clearly Doerr has been influenced by his ecology teacher mother and everything from the fascinating detail of snowflake formation to the hibernation habits of insects is written about in such a way that one is sensually drawn into the world of David Winkler. 

And if you are looking for another dip into the world of Anthony Doerr, try his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector.




Monday, 20 March 2017

THE FACTS OF LIFE by Paula Knight, reviewed by Linda Newbery


I don’t have children, and am sometimes expected to account for that to inquisitive strangers. “Oh? Is that from choice, or …?” is a frequent response to what seems to be taken as an admission, rather than a statement, of my childless state. These casual questioners seem unaware that that innocuous “or … ?” might possibly plumb depths of grief or loss (though not in my case) which no stranger has any right to probe. As for the idea of choosing not to have children … such a decision is often viewed as peculiar or selfish. Last year, indiscreet remarks from Andrea Leadsom, then a contender for the Conservative party leadership, prompted explanations from her rival Theresa May about why she’s childless: explanations which no male politician would ever be required to give. Yes, we’re in the 21st Century (where, as Paula Knight points out, the world hardly needs more inhabitants) but still it seems that women are required to be wives and mothers by default; or, if not, to have some good excuse ready for those demanding to know why not. 

The Facts of Life confronts this head on. I met Paula years ago on an Arvon course and have tracked her progress since as a successful illustrator of children’s books.  This is a new departure: a memoir told and shown in versatile comic-strip form. Referring to herself as ‘Polly’, though it’s clearly her own experience she draws on, Paula traces her early and adult years, from her awareness of bodily functions and sex, on through career opportunities, relationships and friends’ pregnancies (exclamations and congratulations followed swiftly by a sense of inadequacy – this shown so neatly in talking heads and speech balloons, no commentary needed) to conception, loss and finally resignation and adaptation. It’s striking how little the Swinging Sixties and the arrival of the contraceptive pill affected the advice given to teenage girls in the 1970s: ‘Polly’, born in 1969, got from parents and teachers the clear expectation that marriage and motherhood were to be her destiny.

Post-viral fatigue syndrome and the break-up of a relationship take Polly into her thirties, when a new man, Jack, offers a new chance. Flexible page layouts animate her dilemma. While an hourglass trickles down the centre of one page, two Pollys face each other from either side: one a paint-spattered artist, the other smugly pregnant, her baby-bulge counterpointing the inward curve of the glass.  On another page, a Janus-headed Polly looks left and right at the pros and cons of being a mother. “’Sometime later’ was here now … “  While examinations and tests continue, a well-meaning acquaintance tells her, “You’ll never know love quite like it unless you have children,“ – a familiar statement that pushes other kinds of love into second or third place. The excitement of conception is followed swiftly by miscarriage, more than once, and we accompany Polly as she cocoons herself against the platitudes offered so kindly by friends. The graphic approach works brilliantly here, as we see her assaulted by music, noise, words and visions. Finally, when the barrage of tests and the whirlwind of expectation and disappointment become too much, Polly and her very supportive Jack begin to examine their future without children.

In one drawing a crack in the wall behind two talking heads widens and splits as Polly counters the assumptions of a former friend preoccupied with childcare. Facing a campaign poster image of the clichéd ‘hardworking families’ beloved of politicians, Polly reflects, “As a person without kids, you must prepare to be effaced in a society where ‘family’ means ‘children’.” But compensations are to be found in the natural world and in new friendships – and, self-evidently, in art. The decision not to persevere is not an ending, but the start of new explorations and a reassessment of values.

There’s quite detailed medical information throughout, but also humour and a light touch. In one drawing, a deceased Polly sits upright in her wicker coffin to ask, “Um, do you have ‘Farewell Regality’ by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset?” If she doesn’t have children, who will be around in her old age to take care of such things? The charm, skill and wit of the drawings, recalling Posy Simmonds, and the cleverness and variety of page design, fully involve the reader in a tale that is very personal but never self-pitying. This is a tricky balance to strike, and Paula Knight is to be congratulated for producing a book which will be of particular value and comfort to people of both genders whose experience is similar to Polly’s and Jack’s, but should also have wider appeal for its insight into the lives of others and for its exploration into the big questions of life: why are we here? What difference can we make in the world? 

The Facts of Life is published by Myriad Editions.


Monday, 13 March 2017

Guest review by Amanda Craig: TRAITOR'S BLADE by Sebastien de Castell






Like many readers, I’m an omnivore; but I have quite specific requirements for different states. When ill, my drug of choice is fantasy – not because it’s always an easier read, but because I want to be taken out of myself and into another universe.
At the start of this year, and thanks largely to London pollution, I had weeks of chronic asthma. What luck, then, to be sent a YA novel, Spellslinger, by Sebastien de Castell, a Canadian author whom I liked so much that I immediately ordered his adult fiction.
Tyrant’s Blade is the first in the Greatcoats quartet, and it’s so good that even if you think you hate fantasy, try it. I’d bet good money you couldn’t put it down after one page. Its hero and narrator is Falcio Val Mond, master swordsman and formerly the King’s First Cantor – a kind of travelling magistrate who gives judgements and restores order to the chaotic land of Tristia. Each magistrate, or Greatcoat, has a special skill in fighting, and each man and woman  is equipped with an extraordinary leather coat, which both protects the wearer from most weapons and hides numerous survival tools. (You will, I promise, long for one yourself.)
The King, the first decent ruler for centuries, is an intellectual and an invalid bent on improving the lives of a people which has been monstrously misruled by previous kings, and the nobility. Falcio saw him as a friend and saviour. Unfortunately, he has also had to kill his King, for reasons which slowly become clear. In consequence, Tristia is once again falling apart. Together with his two best friends Kest and Brasti, Falco has become little more than a mercenary, mocked as traitors and “tattercoats”. Then he gets hired by a rich noblewoman to guard her on the journey to the capital, where treachery, conspiracy and violence await them. There’s a faint chance that something may be salvaged from the ruins, but only if they keep the King’s last gift safe from their enemies.
Clearly inspired by Dumas’s Three Musketeers, these are gorgeously exciting stories with more wisdom about friendship, courage, mercy and truth in them than any Game of Thrones fan could desire. They are definitely not for children (the foul language, and scenes of torture and rape make them unsuitable for under-12s) but they preserve the sense of natural justice which children’s books display, and the female characters are as strong as the male ones.
Several aspects make them special. The first is Falcio himself. His mixture of cockiness, sorrow and determination to do the right thing make him the kind of old-fashioned hero who has been absent from books for too long. He succeeds in protecting the weak from the strong, sometimes and most movingly when he manages to inspire even the cruellest gaoler to letting him go free by singing the Greatcoats’ credo about freedom. His joshing relationship with Kest and Brasti is altogether more earthy and rude, but they each have the other’s backs. De Castell, a former fight manager, imbues the fights in his books with completely credible action and reaction. When Falcio describes how he fights with two blades (or none), you can see it all. For this reason, among many, the Greatcoats series would make compelling TV drama. (HBO, please note!)
The second thing is that the world of Tristia is not obviously magical apart from one thing: Saints are real, and people can (if unfortunate) become one. What seems to be comical invective (“Saint-Laina-who-whores-for-Gods” etc) is a fact of life, and Saints possesses Saint’s Awe, a power to make humans feel whatever strong emotion they embody. This detail, which seems minor in the first book, has by the penultimate novel Saint’s Blood, become something that threatens the whole population. 
The third aspect is that this quartet – the fourth, Tyrant’s Throne is out next month – is very funny. Fantasy often contains moments of comedy, but even the best tends towards portentousness. Here, the interweaving of personal disaster and tragedy is there right from the start when the noises Falcio and friends believe to be those of their noble employer having sex turn out to be those of death. Rude, rebellious, indomitable and vulnerable, Falcio is the kind of hero we all wish we could have in our lives. He got me through one of the worst asthma attacks of my life, and I am breathless all over again while waiting for his last adventure.

Published by Jo Fletcher Books. £8.99 pbk.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Guest review by Katherine Langrish: THE THREE ROYAL MONKEYS by Walter de la Mare


As far as I'm aware this is Walter de la Mare’s only novel-length book for children. It was first published in 1910 as ‘The Three Mullar-Mulgars’, a title so unhelpfully baffling even by early 20th century standards that by the time I read it in the 1960s it had been rechristened. Even as ‘The Three Royal Monkeys’ I think it’s not particularly well known. Which is a great pity.  As a child I was entranced by it, and I still am.

To explain the impression it made on me, here’s a bit of personal history. I began seriously to write stories when I was ten. I’d just finished all the Seven Chronicles of Narnia and CS Lewis was dead, so I knew there wouldn't be an eighth.  (‘The Last Battle’ was such a betrayal. The end of Narnia?  Nooooooo!  And I wasn’t fooled by all that ‘heaven is Narnia, but better’ stuff, either. There was no better place than Narnia.)

Aged ten therefore, my first 'book' was called ‘Tales of Narnia’: fan-fic before the term was invented.  My second, a full-length effort, was an historical novel which owed at least something to those of Mary Renault whose ‘The Bull From the Sea’ I had discovered in Ross-on-Wye public library. Then, aged 13 or so, I wrote another ‘book’ of short stories which I called ‘Mixed Magic’ (truly mixed: some not bad, some terrible) mainly derived from two more beloved writers, Edith Nesbit and Elizabeth Goudge. When I was 15 or 16 my fourth handwritten manuscript was heavily influenced by early Alan Garner (children encounter mysterious stranger in dripping English woods, pursued by minions of the triple Moon Goddess: standing stones and indifferent golden-faced elves figured largely). But my fifth effort, written in my late teens and early twenties, by which time I was beginning to find my own voice, owed a great deal to the enchantment I found in ‘The Three Royal Monkeys’.  I called my story 'The Magic Forest' and went on to write a sixth full-length ms (also unpublished) before eventually getting myself into print with ‘Troll Fell’.  And I enjoyed every minute of all of it.

The quality in ‘The Three Royal Monkeys’ which I endeavoured to reproduce in my fifth opus was a rich, exotic beauty tinged with pathos and melancholy, relieved by sure touches of comedy.  De la Mare tells the story of three monkey brothers who, upon their mother’s death, discover they are heirs to a great kingdom. This is how it begins.

On the borders of the Forest of Munza-Mulgar lived once an old grey Fruit Monkey of the name of Mutta-Matutta.  She had three sons, the eldest Thumma, the next Thimbulla, and the youngest, who was a Nizza-neela, Ummanodda.  And they called each other for short, Thumb, Thimble and Nod.  The rickety, tumble-down old wooden hut in which they lived had been built 319 Munza years before by a traveller, a Portugall or Portingal, lost in the forest 22,997 leagues from home.

The comic exactitude of this, and the strange names, entranced me. After the ‘Portingal’ dies, a monkey comes to live in the hut. He finds:

... all manner of strange and precious stuff half buried – pots for Subbub; pestles and basins for Manaka-cake, etc; three bags of great beads, clear, blue and emerald; a rusty musket; nine ephelantoes’ tusks; a bag of Margarita stones; and many other thing, besides cloth and spider-silk and dried-up fruits and fishes.  He made his dwelling there and died there.  This Mulgar, Zebbah, was Mutta-Matutta’s great-great-great grandfather.  Dead and gone were all.

But one day a royal traveller arrives, Seelem: ‘own brother to Assasimmon, Prince of the Valley of Tishnar’, accompanied by his servant.  Seelem becomes Mutta-Matutta’s husband. After thirteen years of marriage he leaves her to return to his heritage in the beautiful valleys of Tishnar. Seven years later on her deathbed, she urges her sons to follow their father.

“His country lies beyond and beyond,” she said, “forest and river, forest, swamp and river, the mountains of Arrakkaboa – leagues, leagues away.”  And as she paused, a feeble wind sighed through the open window, stirring the dangling bones of the Portingal, so that with their faint clicking, they too, seemed to echo, “leagues, leagues away.”

The rest of the book follows the brothers’ difficult and magical journey. Nod, the youngest, is ‘a Nizza-Neela, and has magic in him’: he is the possessor of the marvellous Wonder-Stone, which if rubbed when they are in great danger will bring the aid of Tishnar to them.

And who is Tishnar?  There are many mysteries in this book and she is one of them, with a whole chapter at the end dedicated to her.  She is ‘the Beautiful One of the Mountains’; ‘wind and stars, the sea and the endless unknown’.  She it is who instils in the heart a sense of longing; she brings peace and dreams and maybe, in her shadow form, death.

At any rate, the brothers’ journey is precipitated when Nod accidentally sets fire to the hut. In the fairytale tradition of the foolish yet wise younger brother, he makes many mistakes, but he is also the one who saves his brothers from the predicaments in which they find themselves as they trek through the deep moonlit snow of the winter forest – escaping the flesh-eating Minnimuls, tricking the terrifying hunting-cat Immanâla, riding striped Zevveras – the ‘Little Horses of Tishnar’ – finding friends and losing one another, quarrelling and making up.

It’s a deeply serious quest, an epic journey with no hint of tongue in cheek despite the fact that the protagonists are monkeys.  Delicately, de la Mare explores the transience of beauty, the poignancy of loss, the immanence of death: and his characters blaze all the more brightly in their course across this impermanent world. There’s a lovely chapter in which Nod meets and loses his heart to a beautiful Water Midden (water maiden) to whom he entrusts his Wonder-Stone.  Here is the song he overhears her singing ‘in the dark green dusk’ beside a waterfall:

Bubble, Bubble,
Swim to see
Oh, how beautiful
I be,

Fishes, fishes,
Finned and fine,
What’s your gold
Compared with mine?

Why, then, has
Wise Tishnar made
One so lovely,
One so sad?

Lone am I,
And can but make
A little song,
For singing’s sake.

If you haven’t read this book before and you’re looking for something at least as good as ‘The Hobbit’, this is for you.