Monday, 17 July 2017

The Audition - a prequel to Seraphina

It's quite a while since I read Rachel Hartman's Young Adult fantasy Seraphina - four years, in fact, Goodreads tells me (I do like their new feature which lets you track multiple readings, incidentally...) and it occurred to me that I still had the sequel to read. I'd been hoping it might turn up in the library, but since I swapped to using the mobile library I would have had to be organised enough to order it. And of late, in fact, I have been finding it easier to read everything on my Kindle, because holding books is too painful and tiring, and limits the other things I can do. Since I have a new garden to weed, and have developed a fiendish crochet habit lately, holding real books has had to give way - we have to compromise sometimes!

Anyhow, I'd gone online to find the sequel, and happened instead upon the prequel, The Audition. This is an excellent teaser for the book and, for me, an instant reminder of the characters and why I liked them so much. There's lots of warmth and humour and a feeling that people are complex and multi-faceted - funny, resourceful, childish, manipulative and most importantly, real. Something about Princess Glisselda in the prequel brought to mind James Thurber's princess in his short story Many Moons - since I unreservedly adore Thurber, that's a guarantee that I'm going to be back in a world of toe-curling bliss.

I'd been intending to start Shadow Scale, which is Book 2, but reading The Audition has persuaded me (viz, the Thurber echoes) that what I want to do is re-read Seraphina first - in fact, whyever hadn't I planned that from the first, since I thought it a delightfully original novel, with some truly original and fascinating dragons. If you haven't read it, why not start here with The Audition? You won't find it on Amazon, but you can download it here free:

At the end of my re-read I'll post about the book properly - for some reason I didn't get round to more than a brief comment on Goodreads when I finished it, although I know I meant to review it because I'd enjoyed it so much. After all, what's not to like with a cornucopia of dragons, music and adventurous young women?

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

The Dog in the Tapestry Garden

While looking for images of medieval greyhounds (as you tend to do, when you're a sighthound owner - it does become an obsession) I happened upon a lovely illustration which I had to follow up. It turned out to be from a book written in 1942 by illustrator Dorothy P. Lathrop, who was also responsible for illustrating much of Walter de la Mare's work - indeed, although her name hadn't rung any immediate bells, I instantly recognised her drawings from The Three Mulla-Mulgars. For those interested, there's a good blog post about Lathrop here.

The Dog in the Tapestry Garden is a darling little book - only 40 pages long - about a lonely Italian greyhound called Felippa who wants to play with the little white dog she can see in a tapestry. Sweetly, the dedication is to a dog, obviously the model for Felippa. The story could have been written by Elizabeth Goudge, it's very much in her style.

I had to read it online as I couldn't afford a secondhand copy (surely some publisher would love to reprint this, even if it's not in colour?). You can find it, and read for free, at - all you need to do is register for an account and you can borrow it for two weeks. The de la Mare book is there too - if you don't know it, it's also rather enchanting.

There was quite a fashion in the first half of the 20th century for such books, especially those illustrated by woodcuts or lithographs. It was such a fertile period, with illustrators like Eric Ravilious and Gwen Raverat contributing to a distinctively modern revival in wood engraving which, I suppose, was ideally suited to shorter works (for instance, Canadian engraver Cecil Buller's Song of Solomon), where text and illustration are of equal weight. It's nice that now illustrator/writers like Jackie Morris are picking up the threads and producing exquisite small works with the kind of pictures that you can lose yourself in for hours. These modern versions are as often illustrated with paintings these days (full-colour printing not being quite as prohibitively expensive as it once was) but I've seen some beautiful examples using print techniques. There was also - is still? - the lovely, regular example of Clifford Harper's woodcut-style drawings in the Guardian's Country Diary. My mother used to snip them out and send them to me (the online version of CD seems to have gone over to photographs - sad, in my view).

Dorothy Lathrop, Goldfish, 1944

I've always meant, on this blog, to look at illustrated books on the same basis as I do the written word - that is, simply as a reflection of what I like best. So, if it's not shooting myself in the foot to promise anything at all here (because that's worked so well in the past!), I think this may herald an occasional series on illustrated books. The Dog in the Tapestry Garden, happened on by accident, feels like a very auspicious beginning to such a venture.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

The Wolf in the Attic

I've given this 5 stars on Goodreads for its writing, which is lovely, but I do have ambivalent feelings about it. Not enough to stop me recommending it, albeit with caveats - in fact, I'll be interested to see what other people think. One of the reasons I liked it so much is that the author, Paul Kearney, is obviously crazy about mythology, and loves to feel the weight of myth behind everyday life.

Anna, his heroine, is a creature from myth herself, in a way, emerging from the wreck of Greece, her mother killed by Turkish soldiers on the beach in a conflict that seems to reverberate through history (or have I just copy-edited too many books about Turkey?). Anna and her father escape to Oxford where his political activism becomes more and more an act of desperation, driving him to drink and to neglect of Anna. Her only real companion is the doll she brought from Greece, and too poor to find any other pastime, she wanders the streets of the city alone.

It's at this point that one of the things I feel uneasy about happens - Anna meets, and is befriended by, C.S. Lewis. I can entirely see that Kearney admires Lewis immensely, and wants to pay tribute (Tolkien appears too), but the encounters lend very little to the narrative or to the sense of place. It's nice, and young readers may enjoy it, but it's not necessary. Neither man is very important to the rest of the book, except possibly as an ideal of the world of stability and kindness which Anna loses when she is forced to flee for a second time, and alone. On the other hand, I notice that in an interview the author said that he didn't feel he could write about 1920s Oxford without including Lewis. Hmm, well maybe... but I'm not entirely convinced.

[Spoiler alert]

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Oy Yew by Ana Salote

Among last year's casualties were a number of books I'd been planning to review, so alongside some reviews of recently read books, it's time to put that right, because there's some writing that's much too good to miss. And although I'm not approaching them in any particular order, we'll start with an absolute gem.

Quite early in 2016, Ana Salote asked me to review her debut children's novel, Oy Yew, and when I read the description and saw the cover I was pretty sure that I was going to like it. Before I go any further, not only do I adore this cover, but I loved the physical look and feel of the book, beautifully produced by Mother's Milk Books, a small publisher which aims to "celebrate femininity and empathy" by producing a small range of carefully chosen books.
Oy was slight, weakly, overlooked. He had thought himself some kind of ghost till one day, when he was about seven (he guessed), someone saw him.
    "Oy, you," said the girl. Startled, he had slipped away, through a gap, into a yard, through a hole, into the innards of a half-collapsed shanty. There he survived on crumbs and smells until, some years later, he was seen again.
Doesn't that make you want to read on? From that moment on, I was completely on Oy's side, willing him to find a better life. Unfortunately, when the second sighting happens, he is netted by the waif-catchers, older, stronger, faster children for whom capturing waifs is a sport. He is taken to a factory where, for the first time ever, he has someone to talk to. But he's not there long before he's sent on to work for the factory owner, Master Jeopardine, in the "big house".

Oy Yew is a book rich in influences and echoes: first and foremost, for me at any rate, is Charles Kingsley's The Water Babies, but there are also echoes here of the less well-known At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald. Both Dickens' and Peake's influence is clear in the glorious nominative determinism of the characters: Mrs Rutheday, Mrs Midden the cook, Miss Spindle and, of course, Jeopardine himself. Shades of Joan Aiken's Black Hearts in Battersea series, too, and Leon Garfield's Smith - all those wonderful dystopian, steampunk-y alternate histories which allow authors to explore complexities in a setting untrammelled by modern mores.

Amidst all this baroque extravagance of naming and setting, Salote keeps a firm grip on her story. The child characters are easy to care about and the creation of the microcosm of the big house and the wider world, which the children mostly know only by rumour and vague memory, is convincing and intriguing - where do the raft children come from? and where do they really go when they grow too large to be classed as waifs? And most of all, of course, who is Oy? An uncertain future lies before them all, always supposing they survive in the first place - it's a dangerous world, and waifs are cheap and disposable, there's always another climbing boy if one has a fatal accident. Or, perhaps, shows too much curiosity.

I've said before on this blog that I think some of the very best writing today takes place in the world of children's books, and I continue to be optimistic about the future of books when writers as good as Salote keep emerging. The sequel, Nondula, is due for publication shortly, so this is the ideal time to immerse yourself in Oy's world.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

New dog, new posts, and soon-to-be new home...

Milly in Devon - new dog, retired greyhound and bed-hogger

Last July when I resolved to be a better blogger I couldn't have made a bigger mistake. I'm not going to write about what happened here (if anyone really wants to know, there's a brief update on my About page).

I'm cautious, now, about saying I'll be here more regularly. For a start, there are now three dogs to be walked. Milly arrived in December and was an instant hit with Cuddy. Pip doesn't really care either way, except when someone else has the sofa and she wants it.

Milly meets Cuddy

Pip is Senior Dog, and conscious of her status. She's not conscious of much else, in fact, and spends most of the day asking to be let out, then in, then out again. I saw a post on Facebook yesterday of a dog outside a French window with the caption "Let me in because I want to go out again." That's Pip. She's had mast cell tumours for several years - in fact, has lived far longer than we expected - but she is full of cheerful anticipation for walks and food and, at twelve, is quite a good age for a small brown lurcher.

 Milly discovers the sea

Pip and Cuddy snuggling - a fairly rare occurrence

Pip and Milly do not snuggle. Cuddy will cuddle anyone, he's the cuddliest dog I've known. We should have called him Cuddles. I often do. He's also an escapologist. You walk near a fence with him and one minute he's beside you and the next - PING! - he's over it. And miles away. After a fox, a deer, a hare, a rook... we have to take him round the garden on a lead. Fortunately, Milly doesn't really know that she can jump, and Pip can't any more, so he goes alone, which makes him more inclined to come back. But lurchers and recall don't mix.

When Milly arrived she was highly neurotic - she's always hated bangs and loud noises, so I was a bit apprehensive about the move, as we are usually surrounded by bird-scarers. In Devon, she used to refuse to go for walks if she heard the steam train whistle - just dig her toes in and refuse to move. So we didn't make demands on her - if she wouldn't go beyond the garden we didn't push her, if she wanted to spend the whole day on my bed we let her. It's paid off, she is now much more confident and obviously sees herself as not just a member of the family but of the pack as well. I was also a little nervous about her reaction to the cat and the hens, but it's been okay. Indeed, she seems to rather like the Loki the cat, while the hens are generally ignored after an initial dreadful moment when she caught one and I thought she might have hurt it. But the hen was merely ruffled and Milly received one of her very rare tellings-off - they are so rare that it seemed to take immediate effect. The chickens are, wisely, still a bit wary. (In fact, I could wish they were more so, as we have a fox lives very close by.)

I like this one! (All but the first photo © Slink Jadranko) 

Although my intention is to get back to blogging much more regularly, a mad decision to move house may interfere. We're only moving a few miles, to somewhere with slightly less land, and it won't happen for a couple of months, but it's going to be a very busy summer!

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Easter bunnies - a seasonal ramble

Vintage Chinese jade, age unknown

Most days when we walk the dogs at home we see hares. There is always something magical about them and on the occasions when I see one actually in our paddock, I feel privileged, even if they are eating the bark on my young apple trees. Cuddy* likes to see them too, although this is one of the reasons we are planning to move, so that we can have i) a dogproof garden and ii) live somewhere where we're not constantly surrounded by people waving shotguns (escaping dogs and gamekeepers are not a happy combination!).

Hares and rabbits have a long association with Easter - indeed, I suspect it was my enthusiasm for the Easter Bunny and his generosity with chocolate eggs which led to my having an imaginary friend who was a rabbit. Slightly smaller than me, she was a very girly rabbit, with a liking for bows on her ears and pink frocks with sashes. Her name was Bunny Dolores (that's Dol-lores with only two syllables, and there was nothing dolorous about her, so goodness knows where I got it from; I also had imaginary friends called Gary Susan and Old Sub, so your guess is as good as mine).

Later, I came across the Tinners' Rabbits, which at that time were thought to be associated primarily with the guilds of tin miners in Devon, hence their appearance in Devon's stannary churches. These three hares (because they are usually hares, not coneys) are conjoined by their ears in a constant-motion triskele, and appear in roof-bosses in churches in Devon and beyond. In a wonderful blog post  today on the mythology of rabbits and hares, Terri Windling talks about the Three Hares Project which tracked the hare triskele across Europe to India and China, finding that the Devon instances were nothing new.

Two German versions, from the 17th century

A modern Three Hares puzzle, by Will Witham

My own small tribute to the power of the three hares symbol is a Pinterest board called Tinners Rabbits, where I'm collecting images old and new for my own pleasure. A couple of other creatures have  crept in, I notice, where they seem to share a common source, and I haven't restricted my selection only to the triskele, finding many images which celebrate the mystical nature of these enchanting creatures (actually the board was originally shared with Green Men, but they got relegated somewhere along the way; the hares and rabbits inevitably demanded a space to themselves).

Happy Easter!

*I think I should add that he appears to like the idea of playing with them; if they would just chase him back he would be so happy.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

The Vicar's Wife by Katharine Swartz

I liked The Vicar's Wife a lot. It's the story of a woman moving from the US, where she has a busy life with a job she loves, to Goswell, West Cumbria, to live in old vicarage. Jane is reluctant to leave New York, but tells herself it is her British husband's "turn" to have the life he wants. Nevertheless, she privately resents the change, and makes little attempt to adapt to her new life. The only thing that piques her interest at all is the scrap of paper she finds while exploring the larder, a brief shopping list. She manages to identify the writer of the list tentatively as Alice James, wife of the vicar of Goswell in the 1930s, and thus, a former resident of Jane's new home.

At this point, Alice's story starts in parallel, and the two run side-by-side for the remainder of the book. In many ways, Alice is the real protagonist, although Jane is the one the reader is expected to identify with. But both are depicted with equal sympathy, as is the community of Goswell, clearly based on the author's own experience of living in West Cumbria (I've lived there too, and it's recognisable).

It may be purely coincidence that the title echoes that of one of Joanna Trollope's very successful "Aga sagas", though I doubt it, because this is very much in the Trollope tradition. Something Swartz shares with Trollope is the ability to create convincing child characters, and to engage your interest in them. The depiction of the gradual realisation of unhappiness is also very reminiscent of Trollope at her best. Even the cover could be Trollope, couldn't it?* I'm happy to say that it's not just bucolic, but appropriate to the story.

This is not the only time that Swartz has written about Goswell, I've discovered, and I shall be reading more of her books. Thoroughly recommended.

My copy was courtesy of NetGalley.

* Indeed, I have noticed since writing this that another of Swartz's books is called A Village Affair.