Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Ghost Drum, by Susan Price

I've just finished reading Ghost Drum, which was originally published by Faber in 1987 and won the Carnegie Medal. So it's thirty years old - but it doesn't feel it. It feels intensely fresh and vivid.

Like The Snow Child, it has its roots in Russian folklore. And like Northern Lights and La Belle Sauvage, it features a shaman - well, several - and the ghost drum itself has a good deal in common with Pullman's alethiometer. I had been thinking how interesting it is that serendipity often leads you to books that link up with the one you've just read - but I guess it's actually the other way round: Ghost Drum had been on my Kindle for a little while, and I was prompted to read it because I vaguely realised that it had links with The Snow Child and with La Belle Sauvage.

But it's a very different book from either of those. It's like a piece of embroidery, worked with rich jewel colours on a piece of dark velvet, intense and vivid. It's remarkable.

I was going to write a proper review, but I came across this one by Julia Jones, and it says everything I would have said and more, so I'm just going to point you towards it here.

But one last thing. This book won the Carnegie, and it's wonderful - but it's out of print with traditional publishers. (Though Susan Price has published it independently herself, together with its two sequels.) Why is it out of print? I can just see the three books bound together and illustrated, perhaps with woodcuts - it would make a beautiful book!

Saturday, 6 January 2018

La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman

First, an apology - I read this while I was away, a few weeks ago; the copy was borrowed, so I don't have it by me to refer to. But I did make some notes.

I really loved Northern Lights. I felt spellbound by this world, so similar to ours, but so different in such enchanting ways. Lyra was a delightful character; warm, brave, loyal, stubborn - it never seemed surprising that she commanded such loyalty among the other characters. And what characters they were: Iorek the bear, Serafina Pekkala the lovely witch, the intrepid balloonist... and in each case, you get two for the price of one, because of the brilliant concept of the daemon - the familiar creature which each person has. Imagine that - always having someone with you to have your back, someone who knows you as no-one else can, who can advise you and encourage you!

I still liked The Subtle Knife, but not so much. And I had considerable reservations about The Amber Spyglass. I was not engaged by the creatures on wheels, and felt the whole thing had become unwieldy. But there was still much to enjoy, and I was very sad to leave the world of Lyra's Oxford - especially as she and Will had been so unsatisfactorily separated.

And so to the much anticipated first volume of Pullman's new trilogy, The Book of Dust. At the beginning, it felt wonderful to be drawn back into that world. Pullman is, of course, a master storyteller, confident and immensely skilled, and it immediately feels as if we are in safe hands. The hero is a boy called Malcolm, who lives at his parents' pub close to the river, just outside Oxford. He helps out at a nearby nunnery, and always has his ears open ready for a good bit of gossip. So of course, he's intrigued when a baby mysteriously arrives and is put into the care of the nuns. The child inspires affection in everyone who comes across her - including Malcolm, who soon becomes devoted to her. And he soon discovers that she will need every bit of his resourcefulness and courage to keep her safe from those who are hunting for her. The baby, of course, is Lyra.

All goes well for the first part of the book. The characters seem rather to echo those of the earlier trilogy - Malcolm has the warmth and courage of Lyra herself, and Will's ability to be ruthless when necessary. (Will is also very capable with his hands, and the descriptions of his work mending shutters etc are lovingly detailed.) And there's a courageous woman professor, also as in the earlier books - and a romance which develops, between Malcolm and Alice, a girl who works at his parents' inn. At first the two children don't get on at all, but that changes, and she helps him with Lyra when, as the waters rise all around them, they rescue Lyra from her enemies and flee in a sturdily-built little boat - The Belle Sauvage.

It was at this point that I became a little restive. The waters rise - and rise - and rise. The boat goes on - and on - and on.Though Malcolm is only 11, he turns out to be immensely practical and resourceful, and capable of taking on grown men in defence of his charge. Even so, he has to be baled out (sorry!) by some creatures from what feels like a quite different world - a giant, a fairy enchantress - as well as by a rather more humdrum pharmacy, which pops up at just the right time to provide nappies and other baby supplies for Lyra. I've read other reviews which say that the pace really picked up with the flood; but for me, it went on for far too long, and the world which seemed so solid and certain to start off with began to seem far less substantial. (And not just because it was largely underwater.) And then... it stops: and I gather that the next book will take up the story some twenty years into the future. So... what about the characters we've come to care about? What about the nuns - what happened to them? What about Malcolm and Alice?

There's still a great deal to admire and to enjoy in La Belle Sauvage - how could there not be, with a writer of Pullman's calibre? But with Northern Lights, he set the bar very high. With this book, beautifully written and full of splendid things as it is, I don't think he quite reaches it.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

A few weeks ago, I was in Brussels, staying with my son and his family. I woke up early, when it was still dark, and settled down to finish the book I'd been reading. It was The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey; it's about a couple living in Alaska who have lost one child and never been able to have another. Then, out of the snowy landscape, a girl appears. Is she real, or have they created her out of their need?As I finished it, I glanced out of the window. In the light of a street lamp, I saw that the soft drizzle was turning first to sleet, then to snow. I didn't expect it to settle, but it did. It was a magical moment - it was as if the book itself had conjured up the snow, just as the couple had conjured up the child.

That snowfall was the finishing touch, but even without it, this is a beautiful, brilliant book. It's based on the old Russian folk tale of Snegurochka, which is about an old couple who make the child they have never had out of snow. In this story, the couple are called Jack and Mabel. In middle age, they have moved north to Alaska as pioneers, to carve a farm and a new life out of the wilderness. The landscape is vividly evoked, with its abundance of wildlife (including bears, pine martens, silver foxes, lynx and salmon), its remote mountains, its swift-running rivers - its beauty.

Mabel has never recovered from the death of her baby some years before - one reason for the move to Alaska is to escape the heartbreak of seeing other people's children. They keep themselves to themselves, but eventually realise they need other people in order to survive, and they make friends with their neighbours, George and Esther. Esther, practical, warm and unconventional, is the perfect friend for quiet, sad, self-contained Mabel, whose icy heart begins to thaw. She and Jack begin to live again, and to rediscover each other.

And then an extraordinary thing happens. After a snowfall, Jack makes a child out of snow. And immediately after that, they glimpse a real child, who has apparently emerged from the snow. Is she real?

Well, she turns out to be. But there's more than a sprinkling of magic about this child.

I won't say any more. I know I'm late to the party with this book and many of you will already have read it, but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't. But - I read a lot. I read many books I would be happy - no, delighted - to have written myself. But it's not often I read one and think - there. That's how to do it. That's what it's all about. Mal Peet's Keeper was one, and this is another.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Happy New Year!

So, as 2017 recedes into the mist...

Looking towards Glastonbury from the Mendip Hills
 ... may your path through 2018 be as clear and bright as this one, between land and sea!

The coastal path on the Ile de Re, near La Rochelle in France

Saturday, 30 December 2017

Showing off!

When I was at school in Derbyshire, 'showing off' was probably the very worst thing you could do - possibly apart from being 'mardy'. (Which means being a wimp, a crybaby.)

I still feel hesitant about showing off, but I'm going to do it anyway. After all, if I can't show off on my own blog, where on earth can I?

So here are two bits of news about my new children's book, Jack Fortune and the Search for the Hidden Valley. The first is that it's been chosen to be part of The Summer Reading Challenge 2018. Organised by The Reading Agency and administered in libraries, this seeks to keep children reading over the summer holidays. Each year they have a different theme, and this year's is Mischiefmakers - and Jack is certainly a maker of mischief! Here he is, together with all the other books chosen this year - he's on the second row from the bottom, fifth from the left.

And the second is that Jack has been included in a round-up of the best books of 2017 by Books for Topics, an organisation that recommends books for use in primary schools. I'm thrilled to see him in both of these!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Les Parisiennes, by Anne Sebba

I am truly in awe of the enormous amount of research that went into the making of this book. It's about the lives of women in Paris during, just before, and just after the Second World War. It's surely true that up until recently, the narrative of the war has largely concerned itself with men - for understandable reasons, but still: that means that there are a lot of untold stories about women's lives in the war that have yet to emerge. Anne Sebba brings an astonishing variety of these stories out into the open.

There are some particularly interesting issues around her choice of France - and in particular Paris - as the setting for her book. Britain was not occupied: France was. For everyone living under the occupation, there must have been choices to be made, compromises to create, accommodations to be decided on. Put simply, did you keep your head down for the sake of your family and try as far as possible to avoid trouble - or did you 'take arms against a sea of troubles' - and resist? It could not have been an easy choice.   

Paris in the thirties, as it's described at the beginning of the book, was a hub which drew in people from all over the world who wanted to experience its culture, its art world, its lifestyle. Many of them found themselves caught up in something very different when the Germans invaded, and they reacted in different ways. Coco Chanel took a German lover. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor eventually left when it looked as if life was going to become less luxurious than they were used to. It must have seemed unbelievable that such a cosmopolitan city could ever come under the yoke of the Nazis. But after the initial shock, Paris set its chic little hat straight, squared its shoulders and carried on, as far as possible, in the way that it always had. It helped that the Germans had a sort of reverence for the city: they didn't want to destroy it, they wanted to enjoy it.   

And a lot of women made the pragmatic decision to help them enjoy it. Some danced with the handsome German officers, sang for them, slept with them, fell in love with them. 

But others took a different route, and as the book goes on, the focus shifts to the many young women who played a huge part in setting up and running escape routes and resistance networks - women such as Genevieve de Gaulle, the niece of Charles de Gaulle. She worked on an underground anti-Nazi newspaper: she was captured and sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp. She survived and returned - but only just. 

Of course the bulk of the women who were sent to Ravensbruck and other camps were Jews, and only a tiny percentage of them survived. There is a photo in the book of one of the Rothschild, beautiful, poised, expensively dressed: how could this woman have ever imagined the state to which she would be reduced in the hell of the camps?

Anne Sebba also explores - through interviews as well as documentary research - the story of what life was like for the few who survived and returned. 

After the war, the Parisians wanted to party and then to move on. Too awkward to delve into who did what during the occupation, once the initial denunciations - often of women who had slept with the enemy - were over. They didn't know what to make of these women who had returned from hell, skeletal thin, malnourished and ill, with harrowing tales to tell of their treatment. Many of them came home to find their families dead, their homes and livelihoods gone. And too often, Paris shrugged its shoulders and forgot about them. Anne Sebba puts that right. 

Friday, 22 September 2017

Stories from Greece and Rome

This isn't one book - I've recently read three which are set among the Greeks and Romans.

The Beautiful One, by Frances Thomas
The story of Helen of Troy is a powerful and enduring one - she must have a claim to being one of the most famous women in the world, EVER. Yet she herself is curiously absent from her story; we see her always through the eyes of the men who desire her, fight over her, or eulogise her beauty. This book seeks to redress the balance by telling the story of Helen as a child. We see her living happily with her family, aware that she is beautiful because of the reactions of others, but seeing this mysterious beauty as something apart from her, something separate. She dreads marriage, but knows it's inevitable because of her position as a princess and a woman; there's a sense that she'd rather do something else, but there are no other options. She does have a romantic dream that perhaps one day she'll meet someone very handsome and there will be a coup de foudre... the reader shivers a little at this point, because, of course, we all know what's going to happen.

I became engrossed in the story - it's strange how this can happen, even when you really know how it's all going to end - and ancient Sparta seemed a perfectly real place. The legends - such as that of Leda (Helen's mother) and the swan - are really skillfully woven in; Helen hears them, finds them strange, but knows they must be true. My only quibble is that I hadn't noticed that this is quite a short book, and was quite startled when it stopped: I wanted to go on reading about Helen and poor Menelaus and the unfortunate Clytemnestra and all the rest of them. So I hope Frances Thomas will continue her story - which is suitable for teenagers and adults.

The Centurion's Son, by Lynne Benton
A fast-paced story set in fourth century Roman Britain (in Caerleon in Wales, to be precise). It tells the story of Felix, the son of a centurion. Twelve year-old Felix is puzzled and concerned when his father disappears without even leaving any food in the house. But there's much worse to come - his father is accused of treachery, and Felix is turned out of his home. Felix, certain that his father is innocent, is determined to clear his name and find him. 

The only person apparently on his side is a British slave girl, Catrin, who has mysterious powers - a sort of second sight. Together, the two friends manage to unravel the mystery and restore the centurion's good name - but they have to go through danger and heartache on the way.

This would be an excellent book to use with young pupils (7-9 or thereabouts) 'doing' the Romans; it's an exciting read, and it also tells you a great deal about the Romans and how they lived and ruled. There are some nasty moments, though - one in particular. But then I'm sure there were lots of nasty moments in Roman Britain!

Mark of the Cyclops, by Saviour Pirotta
Back to Greece for this one, which is the first of  series and is aimed at a similar age group to Lynne
Benton's - both are perfect as background reading for children at KS2 studying the Greeks and Romans; the stories will engage young readers, and will also unobtrusively tell them an enormous amount about the civilizations they're learning about.

Mark of the Cyclops is a detective story. Like all good detective stories, there is a detective and a sidekick. The detective is a clever slave boy named Thrax, and his sidekick - his Doctor Watson - is the narrator of the story, a young scribe called Nico. They're both delightful characters, with the potential to develop in future books. When they travel to a wedding with their master, an engagingly awful poet, they are asked by her mistress to help clear the name of a slave-girl who has been accused of breaking a valuable vase. A mysterious figure with the mark of the Cyclops on his face seems to keep cropping up... what can it all mean?

The story's very enjoyable - but I was particularly struck by the amount of detail Pirotta includes about life in Ancient Greece - what they ate, what they wore, how they travelled.