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

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.

Monday, 27 February 2017

MY DEAR, I WANTED TO TELL YOU by Louisa Young, reviewed by Linda Newbery

I can't think why it's taken me so long to get round to reading Louisa Young's engrossing First World War novel. It was widely publicised, having been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and also chosen for Richard and Judy's Book Club, guaranteeing a wide readership. This thoroughly involving story includes an area of the war and social history which isn't - as far as I'm aware - much covered in fiction, namely the pioneer work in facial reconstruction undertaken by Major Harold Gillies. It stands alongside Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy as a powerful exploration of the physical and psychological effects of injury and trauma.

We first meet Riley Purefoy as a boy of eleven, when he's hit by a snowball in the face (neatly prefiguring the far more serious injury he'll receive ten years later while fighting in the Ypres Salient). This incident introduces him to the bohemian Waveney family, including daughter Nadine, and through them to an elderly pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir Alfred, who promptly recruits the boy as a model and then general assistant. Thus the clever, enterprising Riley is introduced to the artistic middle class of Kensington, and begins to see a future for himself beyond the more limited expectations of his working-class parents.

By the time Riley joins the Army, still only eighteen, he is in love with Nadine, aware that her French mother discourages their association because of his lowly origins. His wit and adaptability soon lead to him being commissioned, however; and Nadine herself, loyal and spirited, scorns her mother's doubts. Their growing love is set against the decline in trust between Riley's Commanding Officer, Peter Locke, and his beautiful but vapid wife Julia. Julia wants nothing but to be a good wife to Peter, but finds him increasingly remote from her, both in his letters and in person when he comes home on leave. Longing to receive and offer physical solace she is dismayed by his perfunctory, almost brutal, embrace in bed. Lacking much purpose, even after giving birth to a son, Julia becomes obsessed with the need to preserve her looks. Her experiments with eyebrow tattooing and facial peeling treatments are set against the more drastic remodellings being attempted at the nearby Queen's Hospital, in Sidcup, where her VAD sister-in-law Rose works under the supervision of Harold Gillies. (Alongside Gillies, another real person we glimpse here is Kathleen Scott, Louisa Young's grandmother, a former student at the Slade School of Art who assisted the surgeon by making models and casts of patients' disfigured faces.)

Inevitably, Riley Purefoy arrives at Queen's for treatment. "The young man who had been the arrowhead of the system of destruction now became the epicentre of an industry of reconstruction. He who must destroy had become he who must be mended.' Some writers, describing terrible injuries like Riley's, veer too close to sensationalism and even relish, but Louisa Young strikes just the right balance: there's enough stomach-turning detail to make the reader aware of the huge and painful adjustments faced by Riley and his fellow patients, but not so much as to seem gratuitous. 

The relationship between Riley and Nadine - now a nurse herself, serving in France - has till now been characterised by openness and honesty, which makes the letter that gives the book its title all the more heartbreaking. Two letters from Riley to Nadine begin in this way: the first sent from the Casualty Clearing Station on a standard form; the other from the Queen's Hospital, enlisting the help of Rose Locke. Both letters include lies. The first is understandable and probably not unusual. The second is devastating. 

The Armistice comes before the novel ends, and we see the uncertainties it produces. 'No one ever wins a war, and wars are never over.' For Riley, 'Before, while it was still on, I was Captain Purefoy, wounded soldier. Who am I to be now? Mr Purefoy, disabled ex-serviceman? His age rang through his head like the tolling of a bell. Twenty-two, twenty-two, twenty-two. There was an awfully long time ahead of him.'

What sort of life can these characters rebuild? Where has the war left them? These questions clearly intrigue Louisa Young, as she has gone on to explore them in a sequel, The Heroes' Welcome. I hope that among other things there will be a fulfilling role for Rose, who is pivotal in the plot of this first novel, supporting all the other main characters and even keeping her patience with the exasperating Julia, while assuming that she'll never find a loving relationship of her own. Maybe she'll be proved wrong.

Monday, 20 February 2017

QUICK READS: the 2017 books. A review by Adèle Geras

If everyone were fully literate, there would be no more wars.  Okay, that's overstating it. Of course it's not true, but it's near enough to the truth to be something worth saying.  If there were Universal Literacy, our prison population would be very much smaller. If girls were educated properly all over the world, then the terrible things that happen to them would not be done with such horrifying impunity.  If the people who don't read were to start reading (and I don't exempt the President of the USA from this, by the way) their lives and the lives of everyone in their sphere would be immeasurably improved. There is nothing, not one single thing, to be said for ignorance and illiteracy, or you may be certain someone would have said it by now. Even the nastiest of politicians pays lip service to education and indeed, it's a fine thing. But Literacy is different. It's impossible  to navigate the world without it. Even if you don't want to read Dostoevsky, you do want to be able to decipher labels in the supermarket and enjoy the shiny magazines that tempt you from the supermarket shelves. You want to be able to read letters sent to you from your daughter's school. And perhaps more than anything, everyone in the world should be able to share the pleasure of reading a story to a loved child. People need to read and for many reasons, there are those who can't. 

Some have been overlooked at school.  They've managed (and don't ask me how, because it's one of life's greatest mysteries) to sit through years and years of formal education without being able to decode the language they need. Others have reading difficulties, like dyslexia, but even these can be helped enormously by the right choice of book. Take a bow here,  Barrington Stoke: the publishing house which has made books for dyslexic readers somewhat of a speciality. [Linda Newbery's latest title, UNTIL WE WIN, comes from them.]

There are, in addition to children who've slipped through the net, an enormous number  of people who are fluent readers in their native languages,  but who haven't yet learned English to a standard which will allow them to read say, Ian McEwan or Margaret Atwood. They need short, easy books which will lead them on to other books when their language skills improve. These books have to be interesting and gripping and grown up. They need to be written in simple words, but those words still have to pack an emotional punch, or be funny, or exciting or interesting.

Enter Quick Reads. The brainchild of Gail Rebuck, then of the House of Random (Random House) and now of the House of Lords, they are short books for those who find reading hard for some reason and who are intimidated by bookshops. Nowadays, Galaxy sponsor the books and the best thing of all is: they cost £1.00 each. This means that it's easy for libraries, literacy classes, prisons etc to buy them in large numbers and they've been enormously successful in all those places.

I must confess an interest. I've written two Quick Reads: LILY: A GHOST STORY in 2006 and OUT OF THE DARK in 2016. 

When this year's books were announced, I was cheeky on Twitter  and asked to read them because  I wanted to write this piece.  I'm passionate for the cause, and I thought that this year's crop looked very enticing. I was right. I thoroughly enjoyed all of them.  In the picture below, you'll see them displayed,  except for the one non-fiction book, which is a Quick Reads version of a classic by Susan Jeffers: FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY. That's hidden by the other titles. 

The books, in alphabetical order of authors, are: 

Harry Bingham (editor) Dead Simple (8 Killer Reads from 8 bestselling authors) ISBN:9781409169123  Orion Books

Rowan Coleman: Looking for Captain Poldark 
 ISBN 9781785033189 Penguin

Jenny Colgan: A Very Distant Shore
ISBN:9780751566192  LittleBrown

Amanda Craig: The Other Side of You
ISBN:9780349141725  LittleBrown

Dreda Say Mitchell: One False Move
ISBN:9781473640634  Hodder

The stories in Harry Bingham's collection are perfect for the intended audience. They all set up a situation which resolves itself by a neat twist in the tale. There's a widow who is not what she appears to be, a game of Scrabble played in prison which ends in an unexpected way, a scary tale which involves caged birds as you've not met them before and an unusual confidence trickster who gets more than she bargained for. They're written by experts in grabbing your attention, like Mark Billingham and Clare Mackintosh. Antonia Hodgson has a very good story set in the past, and Harry Bingham's own contribution leaves a (deliberately!) nasty taste in the mouth. 

Rowan Coleman's book has a group of online chums drawn together by their love of the Poldark series on a very unusual road trip. They're intent on meeting Aidan Turner and their adventures are both funny and touching. There's a love story here which I saw coming, but that's no bad thing. Indeed, it will make  the diffident reader feel clever when they spot it, and introduce them to one of the great pleasures of reading: feeling you're in some way in cahoots with the writer. It's a lovely story and lots of people will enjoy it hugely.

Jenny Colgan's very moving story of a young woman on the Scottish island of Mure is particularly relevant today. It concerns Saif, a Syrian doctor, who's found himself  part of a small community who are not quite sure what to make of him. Lorna, our heroine, is taking care of a very sick father and while the story is romantic in many ways, it doesn't shirk the difficult stuff. Said is 'not free' to kiss Lorna when she would like him to. He helps her enormously when her father dies. Each of them is part of the other's grieving and healing process and the landscape of Mure is an important part of the book. I think this story will be helpful to many people. As Saif says of Lorna's father's death: "It happened in the right order."  From which sentence we can deduce that there are deaths in his past which did not. There's a lot here which a sensitive teacher could discuss with a class of adults or older pupils.

Amanda Craig has done something miraculous with the word count allowed by Quick Reads. She's managed to combine three different strands in her book: a fairytale strand, an urban adventure strand and interwoven with both of these, a story about the Third Man Syndrome. She explains to us in a note at the end of the book that many have seen someone beside them when they were in difficulty who turned out not to be real.  Shackleton saw an apparition like this. Some people would call them guardian angels. In this book, the Other Person helps Will who is on the run and fearing for his life. Craig's book is about many things: drug dealing on the worst estates, knife crime, survival, and city life on the one hand, and on the other, love and roses and Beauty and the Beast and angels being there for you when you most need them.  Best of all, one of the two happy endings is totally unexpected. 

Dreda Say Mitchell's book is about what happens when you're trying to put your life together after serving time. This makes it an especially good book to read with young offenders. Hayley means well but gets sucked in to trouble anyway.  It's not her fault, but things take turns that she often can't cope with. The Devil's Estate is no fun. She has a child to look after and when she's robbed of the money she collects on the Estate, we get a Ticking Clock scenario which always makes for speedy page turning. I can't imagine readers not being caught up in Hayley's problems and willing her to be okay. 

These books are the 2017 Quick Reads and I recommend them heartily, and not just to readers who find reading a problem. Do spread the word about a fine initiative which deserves the widest possible publicity. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Guest review by Anne Cassidy - ELIZABETH IS MISSING by Emma Healey

Anne Cassidy writes crime fiction for teenagers. She has published over forty novels for young adults. She writes dark crime fiction and is best known for her book LOOKING FOR JJ which was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. MOTH GIRLS was published by HOT KEY in Jan 2016 and concerns the disappearance of two twelve year old girls. Her new novel NO VIRGIN  describes the aftermath of a rape. 
Review by Anne Cassidy

ELIZABETH IS MISSING centres on Maud an elderly lady who has dementia. Written in the first person it is Maud who tells the story of the present and her concern for her friend, Elizabeth, who is missing. Elizabeth is not at her house and Maud struggles to solve the mystery of what has happened to her. The character of Maud is completely convincing. Her struggle with dementia is outlined in every scene. She lives her life through making notes about things and then is confused when she reads those jumbled notes. Through her eyes we see her frustration at not being taken seriously by her carer and her daughter who both seem bewildered at her inability to do things right; her insistence at boiling an egg until the pot is burned; her trips to buy cans of peaches even though she has a cupboard full of them. The reader is bewildered too. Why can’t she just follow instructions; how is it that she can’t find a name for those things you drink out of. Anyone with any experience of dementia in their family will recognise these stages.

It’s a powerful and poignant representation of an illness. Maud’s grief at not knowing what has happened to her friend turns her into an amateur and confused detective, looking through windows, placing adverts in the local paper, facing the wrath of Elizabeth’s son.

Amid Maud’s confusion about the present are her crystal clear memories of the past, when she was a teenager and her married sister, Sukey, went missing. These passages of the book are triggered by events in the present and a story emerges of post war life, a family still on rations, the older daughter married to a spiv and idolised by her younger sister. Then Sukey disappears and is never found. Maud, the teenager, goes through the grief of someone missing and the desperation to know what happened to them.

This is a novel about two missing women, Elizabeth and Sukey. There is also a third though; Maud’s illness is slowly erasing her personality so that she will be the missing person in her family.