4.8.22

The Big Six

 

Back on the Norfolk Broads, it was a pleasant surprise to find The Big Six much more enjoyable than I remembered, though again there is a bit of a slow start while the mystery is set up and the crimes committed. But once the Ds arrive, the story picks up pace. This really is Dorothea's shining hour. It's she, with her novelist's gaze, who has the psychological insight to predict what the villain will do next.

'You'd never think that Dot got such a head on her,' said Bill, as they climbed over the fence.

The three young Death and Glories are agonisingly slow to realise that they're being framed, and the reader (along with Dot) solves the 'mystery' much more quickly than they do; however, the delight of the plot is in trapping the villain and gathering the proof, rather than guessing whodunnit. It was rather shocking to be reminded what a faff taking photographs used to be, in the days before we could whip out our phones -- the flash, the exposure, the shutter speed, the chemicals, the darkroom -- it's slow and fiddly and cumbersome and frankly I'm not sure I could be bothered. Perfect for Dick, though. 

The Big Six (named after the 'Big Five' murder detectives of Scotland Yard, though this is never explained in the book) is a lot of fun.

2.8.22

The Old Ways


I've been looking out for a copy of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways for a long time, and I was thrilled when it popped up on Brotherhood Books. Macfarlane's books are ones I want to own, not just borrow. They are to be sipped and savoured, not raced through, and I managed to stretch out The Old Ways for over a month. 

Macfarlane's prose is dense, thoughtful, evocative, considered. He mixes personal memories with nature observations, philosophical musings with provovative conversations with the people he meets on his travels. The Old Ways is subtitled A Journey on Foot, but one section consists of a sea voyage in a small boat through wild Scottish waters. Most of his walks occur in the British Isles, but he also walks in Israel, Tibet and Spain. Inevitably my mind was drawn to the songlines and Dreaming tracks of Australia, and Lynne Kelly's account of memory paths, and I held that awareness as I was reading, which gave Macfarlane's beautiful words an extra layer of resonance.

Is it weird that for me reading nature writing like this becomes akin to a mediation in itself, almost a spiritual practice? Lee Kofman quoted Robert Macfarlane in The Writer Laid Bare. I'm already looking forward to a time when I can pull one of his books from my shelf and immerse myself in re-reading.

31.7.22

Don't Kiss Them Goodbye


What can I say in my own defence? Books about psychics and the paranormal are my junk food, and Allison Dubois' Don't Kiss Them Goodbye is the equivalent of a bag of chips -- enjoyable enough while you're scoffing it down, but of questionable nourishment. Dubois is the real life woman behind the TV series Medium, which I haven't seen, and this is a loose memoir about some of her experiences as a psychic. Is is all true? Who knows. I can't help thinking that there must be some basis in reality for the spookily accurate visions Dubois reports, and which seem to be borne out in more scientific testing (unless the entire book is a tissue of lies).

I must admit I'm susceptible to a desire to believe in something beyond death, whatever form that might take, so I'm easy prey to this kind of account. I'm prepared to accept that I'm not alone in this desire, and perhaps it's this longing that feeds these visions, or messages, or 'communications' from the other side. On the other hand, would I let Dubois give me a reading? You bet I would.

Now my problem is whether to tag this book as fiction or non-fiction!

29.7.22

Secret Water

 

I'm sad to report that re-reading Secret Water was an unexpectedly upsetting and uncomfortable experience. It used to be one of my favourites -- not right up there, but definitely in the second tier -- but I don't think I'll be able to go back to this one.

Secret Water is set in the Norfolk Broads, in a real landscape (you can look it up on Google maps) of islands and tidal mudflats. The Swallows are marooned by their parents for about a week and charged with making a proper map of the area, and this time, to her great delight, the baby of the family, Bridget, is allowed to camp with them. Bridget's presence is a real joy ("I'm old enough... I bled more than anyone") and adds an extra element of peril when danger looms -- she can't swim yet. The late arrival of the Amazons reunites the whole gang, and Nancy wavering between being explorer and "savage" is, well, very Nancy.

But that brings me to the uncomfortable part. There are other kids around, and instead of being explorers or pirates or prospectors, these children have chosen to be "savages," calling themselves the Children of the Eel, complete with carved totems, corroborrees (sic), human sacrifice and cannibalism. The discomforts mount. A small black buoy is referred to as a 'piccaninny.' Savages, missionaries, native kraals, mastadons, buffaloes and dhows are all jumbled together in an exotic (pan-African?) mish-mash. It's awful. At the end, Captain Walker speaks pidgin to the Eels ("You. Black man. Strong fellow...") and they speak back to him in gibberish. That was the point when I realised that I can never read Secret Water again.

27.7.22

Thinking in Pictures

Isn't this a terrible cover? There was a 2010 telemovie biopic about Temple Grandin, which apparently used to be on Netflix, but isn't anymore (I looked it up). I'm not sure I would have chosen Claire Danes to play Temple, and this cover image has a very peculiar vibe, but it's the content that matters, right?

Temple Grandin's book, Thinking in Pictures, was, as far as I know, the first first-person account of living with autism. Grandin is well-known as a designer of humane equipment for handling cattle; about a third of slaughterhouses and cattle facilities in the US use her designs. She has a gift for imagining situations and seeing them as a cow would; she knows what startles and frightens them, and her designs eliminate things like dark shadows, sudden colour contrasts, and slippery ramps. She knows that cows are calmer when they can touch each other, and that they will follow peacefully a curved walkway where they can't see too far ahead. Grandin loves animals and has an intense fellow-feeling for cattle, and she sees it as her mission to make the experience of slaughter as compassionate and serene as possible.

Grandin's account of the way she sees the world and the way she thinks  -- not in words, but in associations of images -- is absolutely fascinating. I'm not sure that the medical research she cites is totally up to date anymore, but she is very thorough in wanting to understand her own neurological differences and brings the vividness of lived experience. The chapters do jump around in a disconnected way, but that only adds to the authenticity of her account. A really interesting and enlightening read.

25.7.22

Honeybee

 

Craig Silvey's Honeybee was the other library book that copped the coffee spillage -- I felt sightly less guilty about this one, because it had obviously been well-read already (The Writer Laid Bare was brand new), and I knew there were other copies available for the long line of readers in the reserve queue. Honeybee has been incredibly popular, but I must confess I approached it with a degree of caution, knowing that it centred on a trans character, and knowing that Silvey himself is not trans.

I don't think there was any need to worry (I haven't found any complaints from trans readers themselves either). Honeybee is a gorgeous novel, sympathetic, funny, warm and painful, a totally accessible and friendly introduction to a difficult area of experience. Honeybee/Sam/Victoria is such a vulnerable but kind and thoughtful character, it's impossible not to be on their side from the outset, and Silvey leads us gently but inexorably through their life story to a point where their identity makes perfect sense even to the most sceptical or ignorant reader -- I guess we are in the position of Vic, the frail, bereaved old man who befriends Sam for all the right reasons -- and if Vic accepts Sam for who they are, then we will, too. The novel is sprinkled with stories from all sorts of people Sam encounters along the way -- drag queens, bikers, a bright school girl, his mum, his step-father's scary criminal mate -- they all have their own tales of suffering, survival and joy to share, and this added immense depth to this deceptively simple story.

I really loved Honeybee and it makes a perfect introduction to issues that some people still find very confronting. It's adult fiction, but young adults could also get a lot out of it, with perhaps a language and violence warning.

(Disclaimer: I met Craig Silvey years ago when Jasper Jones had just come out, and he was absolutely lovely -- I suspect nothing has changed.)

20.7.22

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea

 

For my money, We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea is the best of all the Swallows and Amazons books. It features the Walker family, and it's set in August, so towards the end of the same summer holiday as Pigeon Post (the Amazons and Ds have been left behind in the north). The story takes place over only a couple of days. 

The first third of the book moves more slowly than I remembered; there's a bit of set up as the Swallows meet Jim Brading and arrangements are made to do some local sailing on his boat, Goblin. It's slightly horrific to realise that Jim, who seems so grown-up to the Walker children, and who smokes a pipe (!!) is presumably only 18 or 19 and just about to start university... only a few years older than John. The long set-up also serves to reinforce Jim's fear of losing his boat to unscrupulous 'salvage' operators, which is why the children are later so reluctant to ask for any kind of help.

However, once the fog sets in, Jim goes missing and the Swallows find themselves drifting helplessly out into the North Sea, the story goes at a cracking pace. The middle third is the most harrowing, as gripping and suspenseful as any book I've ever read. John and Susan usually appear in the series as the sensible, capable elders, quasi-parental figures who can handle anything. But here they are really tested -- John is taken out of his comfort zone, he makes mistakes, he is sailing a boat larger than any he's been in charge of before, and having to manage pretty much single-handed in wild weather. But he rises to the challenge, thinks things through and mostly makes the right call, after his first dreadful error. Meanwhile dependable Susan is rendered utterly helpless by seasickness ("ough...ough...ough..." -- it's horrible to read, poor Susan, I know how she feels) and it's she who insists they go on rather than turning back, because she simply can't bear it. For the first time we see John and Susan really rattled and arguing as they are driven on and on through the wild, stormy night.

Mrs Walker's premonition that something might have gone wrong might be the second instance of the paranormal in the series? But the final section of the book provides much needed relief and a fun cruise to the finish line as Goblin arrvies safely in Holland and the children's father turns up to take them home. 

  'You'll be a seaman yet, my son.'

 And John, for one dreadful moment, felt that something was going wrong with his eyes...

 Yes, it's called emotion, John, deal with it. We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea is an absolutely terrific read.



17.7.22

Mary Bennet

 

How funny that so many writers have seized on the figure of Mary Bennet to create their own interpretation of Pride and Prejudice! Is it possible that plain, bookish Mary holds a special appeal for writers? I must admit that I always identified most with poor, overlooked, pompous, priggish Mary of all the Bennet sisters.

Jennifer Paynter's Mary Bennet (since reissued as The Forgotten Sister) is at least the third Mary-focused novel I'm aware of. I read Janice Hadlow's The Other Bennet Sister last year -- or was it the year before? Oh dear... And I've also seen a Colleen McCullough book, The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet, floating around second hand. I'm slightly tempted to read the McCullough, just for completeness, but the blurb, something about Mary having blossomed into a violet-eyed beauty to rival her sisters, really put me off.

At first I didn't think I was going to enjoy Jennifer Paynter's take on Mary's story either. There was something slightly sour about Mary's narration, and Lizzy emerged as quite the villain early on -- perhaps not a wise decision, given that most readers would have picked up the book in the first place because they were Lizzy/P & P fans! However once I pushed past the early chapters, I found myself thoroughly engaged. In this re-imagining, Mary finds herself attracted to a lower-class man who happens to be a brilliant musician, and this opens the opportunity for Mary to experience her own version of overcoming pride and prejudice. The Long family, barely mentioned in the original, play a pivotal role in this version. Paynter is an Australian author, and there was particular delight in having Mary end up emigrating to New South Wales and making a new life for herself, (almost) free from the class constraints of the society she's left behind.

Mary Bennet is a clever, accomplished slant on a beloved classic -- not unlike the character of Mary herself!

15.7.22

The Writer Laid Bare

 

Something terrible happened as I was unloading the car after borrowing Lee Kofman's The Writer Laid Bare (as recommended by Susan Green) from the local library. I had my hands full -- handbag, book basket, letters, my daughter's keep cup, keys. And of course the inevitable happened: the keep cup tilted, and coffee dribbled out into the book basket, all over the library books... which were in the worst possible position, spines down, pages up... So I have thoroughly ruined two perfectly good books. I haven't confessed to the library yet (I've been in iso with the dreaded spicy cough) but I will of course pay for their replacement. However! You should have heard me cursing Daughter Number One and her abandoned coffee -- it was not an edifying scene.

ANYWAY. I've read a few of these how-to-write guides lately and Kofman's is definitely one of the most enjoyable. Temperamentally we are quite different; Kofman relies more on instinct and intuition than I do (though I could probably stand to loosen up a bit), and it was delightfully refreshing to see the way she tosses all those 'rules' overboard. So you love adverbs? Go ahead and use them! You want to 'tell', rather than 'show'? Who cares, sometimes that's a more efficient way to go. Start in the middle of the action? Sure, you can do that, but who says you have to?

I so enjoyed Kofman's personal story. She is generous is sharing her own failures and misfires in a way which is very reassuring. She is frightening accomplished, fluent in several languages, and has read widely. She quotes from a huge range of other authors, including one of my favourite non-fiction writers, Robert Macfarlane, whose book The Old Ways I was co-reading (it is really spooky how often this happens). I wonder if I'll get to keep this book now I've destroyed it? If I'd had to choose a how-to-write guide to keep, it would probably have been The Writer Laid Bare.

13.7.22

Pigeon Post

 

Pigeon Post is another summer story -- the whole gang gathered at the lake, but not able to sail yet because the Walkers' mother hasn't yet arrived. So instead they are camped on the parched hillside, prospecting for gold. I must say mining has never really captured my imagination, though I love Sovereign Hill as much as the next person, but I still love Pigeon Post, perhaps because it's largely Titty's story.

One of my favourite episodes in the whole series is here, when the expedition tries dowsing for water and the only one who succeeds in getting any response from the hazel twig is Titty (though Dorothea, of course, desperately hopes it will be her...) I think this is the only vaguely paranormal event in the Swallows and Amazons universe, but there is no doubt at all that Titty experiences what she does, and that the water is really there. I love her initial fright and resistance, and her courage in overcoming her fears, which to me makes the discovery of the spring more exciting than Roger's finding of the gold (though that is fun, too). 

Titty really comes of age in this book -- she's the one who leads the others through the hill after the tunnel collapses ("Pudding Heads"), and she leads the other able-seamen in fighting the fire. I'm glad to see the developing friendship between her and Dot (I love when Dot reads her novel aloud!), and the whole mix up with Timothy the armadillo, and the lovely quiet scene at the very end when the hedgehog returns to the well. A very enjoyable installment!

8.7.22

Coot Club

 

No Swallows or Amazons in Coot Club, but we do have the new recruits, the Ds, who quickly make friends and begin learning to sail on the Norfolk Broads. Did Arthur Ransome realise that if he stuck to writing adventures for the summer holidays, his cast of characters would grow up long before he ran out of ideas? Coot Club is set in spring, between Winter Holiday and Pigeon Post, the next summer break.

Coot Club is packed with incident -- the crew of obnoxious Hullabaloos chasing Tom up and down river in their noisy motor cruiser; the rash Admiral, Mrs Barrable, presiding over her fleet of little boats; the twins, Port and Starboard, hitchhiking with one strange boat after another to catch the Teasel; and finally a wonderful wrecking and the heroism of the pug William, sent over the mud with a rescue line.

I didn't read Coot Club as often as the books with the Swallows and Amazons in them, but I thoroughly enjoyed this re-read. There's less imaginative play here as the twins and Tom and their younger friends, the Death and Glories, are too busy watching over nesting birds to create pretend scenarios; but Dorothea can't resist starting to write a novel, The Outlaw of the Broads, inspired by the pursuit of Tom, which she's still working on in the next book.

It was funny to notice that the same sailing hints appeared in Coot Club and Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways which I was reading at the same time!

6.7.22

The Detective's Guide to Ocean Travel

 

As soon as I saw the charming cover of Nicki Greenberg's middle grade mystery, The Detective's Guide to Ocean Travel, I immediately wanted to read it, but it's taken me a while to get around to it -- so long that the sequel, The Detective's Guide to New York City, is already out!

Set in my favourite decade, the 1920s, and an irresistible location for a mystery -- the closed world of an ocean liner on a short voyage across the Atlantic, and with an appealingly bold but sensitive heroine in Pepper Stark, the captain's daughter, there were so many fun ingredients stirred into this book. It was a bit of a slow burn to start with, as noted by Memoranda, but the action ramps up in the final third to a breathless but satisfying conclusion. This was an atmospheric read which would make a wonderful film, if anyone could afford the sets -- does Clive Palmer still have that replica of the Titanic?

4.7.22

The Haunting of Hill House

 

What is going on with me? I say I don't like horror, and here I am reading another horror story. I say I'm never going to read another Shirley Jackson novel, and look at me, borrowing The Haunting of Hill House. I must admit I'm going through a bit of a paranormal/ghost story phase at the moment, listening to the Uncanny podcast, so let's chalk it up to that.

The Haunting of Hill House is the basis for a Netflix series, but they seem to have changed a lot of details in the story, centring it on a family with several children rather than the team of young investigators who gather in the novel. Hill House is cleverly written, leaving it ambiguous as to whether the phenomena experienced by Eleanor are objectively real (certainly several of them are shared with the other observers) or occurring inside her own mind (there are some things that only she feels).

Likewise, who knows whether the paranormal phenomena reported by ordinary punters (eg on Uncanny!) are influenced by reading books like Hill House, or whether Shirley Jackson herself experienced some ghostly happenings? Certainly there seem to be common phenomena (and apparently Jackson did a lot of research before she wrote her book). Cold spots, footsteps, mysterious thumps and voices, are all frequently reported, as is a sense of dread and senseless fear. But poor Eleanor seems particularly possessed -- by a malign spirit, or her own psychological demons? Again, the novel leaves the question delicately, creepily open.

1.7.22

Daemon Voices

 

Philip Pullman's collection of essays and speeches, Daemon Voices: On Stories and Storytelling was lent to me by one of my book club friends -- oh dear, I can't remember if it was Pam or Sian. Because of the nature of the collection, there is a certain amount of repetition in themes and even in ancedotes and quotes, but this just helps to reinforce Pullman's passionate message about the importance of story to make meaning in our lives.

I agree with a great deal of what Pullman believes. He is very cranky with the British education system and the various gatekeepers who take it upon themselves to decree what children should and should not be reading, and who seem set on removing all the joy and delight from reading by dissecting texts until they are completely dead (there is a bit of that here, too). I especially enjoyed learning how young Pullman entered into the imaginative space of others' stories -- ''the space that opened up between my young mind and the printed page" -- beautifully put! He also loved Arthur Ransome and his badly illustrated books that lend such a unique flavour to the reading experience.

I also agree with much of what Pullman says about the evils of organised religion; though I don't join him in finding the terms 'spirit', 'soul' and 'spiritual' meaningless. This might be a difference of terminology, because he certainly finds a sense of awe and wonder in contemplating the natural world and the magnificence of the universe, and he does seem to find meaning in the stories, myths and webs of knowledge that humans have created and continue to create for ourselves and each other. So maybe we are not so far apart after all.

Apparently young Pullman spent some of his childhood in Australia, which was something I'd never known! He is one of us.

29.6.22

Is There Life Outside the Box?

Not long after I read Tabitha Carvan's delightful This is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch, what should turn up on Brotherhood Books but this autobiography by my own first obsessive crush. I was introduced to Peter Davison as the charming, rakish vet Tristan Farnon in the 1970s version of All Creatures Great and Small, and when he went on to take over the role of the Doctor in my other obsession, Dr Who, my wildest dreams came true (okay, second wildest dreams -- the wildest would have been if the TARDIS had actually landed in my backyard).

Is There Life Outside the Box? thus refers both to the TARDIS phone box and also to television itself: Davison has worked primarily on British TV for his whole long career. He's currently probably most well known for being David Tennant's father-in-law (DT wrote the introduction). The subtitle, An Actor Despairs, is apparently a play on a famous acting manual, An Actor Prepares, a reference which was totally lost on me but was luckily explained early on.

Davison is an engaging companion, sharing some well worn acting anecdotes, some more surprising stories, and a some personal insights too. He experienced his own wilderness years in the 1990s, unnoticed by me, because I kept seeing repeats popping up. I have a particular soft spot for a brilliant but obscure comedy-drama series called A Very Peculiar Practice, set in a university medical centre and written by Andrew Davies, who went on to write about a million adaptations including Pride and Prejudice. One thing I learned about Peter Davison which was I'd had no idea about is that this apparently super-Anglo, blond and blue-eyed actor has a black father, born in the West Indies.

In high school, my best friend and I made a pact that when our respective crushes (hers was Paul Darrow from Blake's 7) grew old and grey and weren't famous anymore, we would go over to the UK and track them down and take care of them in their dotage. Alas, Peter Davison seems to be still quite hale and active and well-loved, and in little need of my assistance. I might give it another twenty years!