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

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Some Short Catch-up Reviews

These are just two of the books I've read recently, in this case both from NetGalley. I'll be adding some more of these catch-up posts over the summer. Too many good books to ignore!



Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina is a most attractive heroine - despite growing up in isolation she's bright and bold and courageous, an excellent role model. Faced with the disappearance of a child on the Biltmore Estate where she lives, she overcomes her fears of the forest outside and learns much in the process. The Biltmore setting is splendid, I immediately wanted to know more about this iconic house and to explore its nooks and crannies further - I'd have loved this book if I'd read it as a child and am delighted to find there is already a sequel.




The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

I felt that this was a novel of two parts. The first part seemed like a successor to the Tilling of E.F. Benson, with its authors, a protagonist who wants to be a writer, its local busybodies... Part two got much more serious, as war becomes ever more imminent and the young men start to sign up for the Front. Belgian refugees arrive and the horrors of war start to bite. It seemed to me that the transition was a little uncomfortable, though perhaps that's reasonable and possibly intentional on the part of the author, reflecting the kind of shock that people must have felt at the disintegration of their cosy lives - it certainly makes this a novel hard to classify. I wanted to read it for its Tilling setting, since I'm a big fan of Benson, but felt at the end that it could equally have been set anywhere else along the English south coast, without losing anything. I gave it four stars on Goodreads, but perhaps if it had been possible to do so, I've have gone for 3.5 instead.  I'd still recommend it though, with the reservations I've described.




Friday, 15 July 2016

In Which I Confirm My Eccentricity...

... or maybe just my poor time-keeping? Anyway, a combination of circumstances last year meant that my 2015 reading list was only kept systematically on Goodreads (the same has happened for 2016 - although I think I'd quite like to go back to the monthly list I used to keep here on the sidebar, for now I'm making do with an updating Goodreads widget of recent reading. I do like being able to keep track of reading year by year, though, and I've been meaning to do something about last year's for months now (well, six and a half months, actually). But until I can create a "proper" page (and if, indeed, I ever get round to it), here is a link to my 2015 booklist: https://www.goodreads.com/user_challenges/2269153

However, even though it's mid-July 2016 as I post this, I thought I would still pull out some absolute favourites from last year, because there were some real high points and I've enjoyed looking back across the year and seeing what discoveries and rediscoveries I was making.

First, non-fiction, and Ronald Blythe, an author who has become like an old friend since I rediscovered his writing; restful and thoughtful, he reminds me of a birdsong on an evening in early summer, or the gentle shushing of the waves breaking on the beach, and of the steady cycle of the year.



Many of his books are drawn from his "Word from Wormingford" column for the Church Times, but this memoir is about his youth, and his involvement with the early days of the Aldeburgh Festival, with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears.

Regular readers will know that one of my major interests is fiction for children and young adults, and for that I've chosen The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge, winner of the Costa Book of the Year Award for 2015. It's a wonderful and complex work by an extremely talented author. I've loved everything she's written and she just gets better and better. It's about due for a re-read and when I do, I'll review it properly here.



Two new-to-me authors both fall into the same category of fantasy, but are very different. Mike Shevdon's Sixty-One Nails is urban fantasy, set in London. Inevitably it gets compared to Neverwhere, but its alternative London, the world of the Feyre, isn't much like Gaiman's London Below. Shevdon wrote an interesting piece about why he made the choices he did in writing it - thinking about it now, it's another I want to read again (how do I ever manage to read anything new when the familiar is so endlessly fascinating?). It's the first of four in the series, by the way.

In contrast, Jodi Taylor's Just One Damned Thing After Another has begun a new addiction and I am having to ration myself frantically to avoid simply walloping through all the Chronicles of St Mary's in one fell swoop. Because I absolutely adore them! Her writing, and I'm not just talking about the Chronicles here, offers the best kind of emotional roller-coaster, full of fun, laughter, tears and heartbreak (she does dreadul things to her characters, I don't know how she can live with herself sometimes!). This series has everything I could ever ask for: history, academic back-biting, time-travel... I'm happy to say that there are currently seven books and three - no, four! - short stories (the penultimate of these, Ships and Stings and Wedding Rings, made me snort with laughter on a train journey, most embarrassing). I also read The Nothing Girl and the follow-up Christmas short story, Little Donkey last year, and am now prepared to assert that Jodi Taylor Can Do No Wrong.





I've combined my choices for that hard-to-define category which for me is represented by authors like Thirkell and Pym (I re-read the glorious Crampton Hodnet during the year), and which mostly falls into the period 1910-60, though it might extend a bit on either side depending on how I'm feeling. My choices - for there are two - reflect my growing interest in Golden Age crime novels, helped along by the fact that there are so many excellent reprints these days, and one is always finding new authors to delight in (much, much more of that anon). For last year, though, I've gone back to two old favourites, Margery Allingham and Edmund Crispin.


I'm not sure I'd read either before - if I had, it was when I was very young. Cargo of Eagles is typical Allingham territory, with saltmarshes and skullduggery - sadly, she died before it was finished, so it doesn't add anything to the Campion enigma and really isn't a patch on her at her best. However, I'll read anything in which Campion so much as gets a toe in, so I'm including it here. The Crispin, on the other hand, is just pure, unadulterated joy - always supposing you like Crispin in the first place, as my husband lamentably doesn't. Fen is at his most fey here, rusticating in a Devon village to write his book, but actually taking any excuse he can not to work. It has a lot in common with another book I adore, Michael Innes's Appleby's End.

Finally, and because it made me very happy, and led to about three weeks of solid re-reading, I was delighted to find that Robin Hobb had returned to her characters Fitz and the Fool with a new trilogy  - will this be the final one? I fear so, because it is beginning to tie up the uncertainties and questions from all the other books, and to draw together all the characters. So far she has published parts 1 and 2, Fool's Assassin and Fool's Quest, with the final part due out in March 2017 (oh lord, so long to wait... and on a cliffhanger like you've never seen). Having read both, I went back and read the Tawny Man trilogy again, and I think it very likely that, when I get my hands on the last book, I will celebrate by reading the whole of the Realms of the Elderlings from start to finish - hmm, I can see a major project in the offing. I really don't need a new project.


Another fantastic Jackie Morris cover - love her work. When I saw the first of her Rain Wild covers I kept stroking it. I'd like to be able to go back and replace all my earlier editions with her covers. Sigh.

So, that's the round-up of 2015. My challenge was 125 books and I read 120 - there were probably a few non-fiction books that didn't get included, in fact, as I didn't read cover-to-cover, but I was doing quite a bit of research on English country houses, as my groaning bookshelves attest. I picked up a fantastic selection of books on the subject secondhand, which would have been a wonderful asset if I'd got a job in a stately home, instead of in a barracks!

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Island of Dreams by Dan Boothby


Isn't this a lovely cover...

I bought Island of Dreams almost the moment I spotted it - the cover caught my eye and I'd clicked "Buy" without even looking further. And before long people are going to be sick of me recommending it (grin). I stayed up much, much too late the night I read it.

At one point Dan tells someone he's just met, "You've got my job." Well, what I'd like to say to him is, "You wrote my book." Because, like him, I grew up reading Gavin Maxwell's books, not just Ring of Bright Water but the others as well, and my favourite is The Rocks Remain. And I read obsessively about his life for a long time and felt connected to him in ways I hadn't to other authors. I even have a slight edge on Boothby, being old enough to have actually met Gavin Maxwell (albeit fleetingly, and anyway he didn't notice girls) and, while I haven't been to Skye, or to Sandaig, I did spend time on the west coast of Scotland as a child, and loved it there. One day I'll go back...

I hope Dan will forgive me calling him by his first name, but his writing style is so immediate, so friendly, that I find it hard to think of him otherwise. He had a somewhat rackety childhood, and a convoluted extended family (I identify there, too), and describes himself on his website as having been "chronically peripatetic" before he moved to Scotland to live in Maxwell's last home, the lighthouse keeper's cottage on Eilean Ban (the "White Island" of John Lister-Kaye's biography of Maxwell). There he cared for the tiny island, conducted tours, and learned to know all its moods and foibles.

San's own story is interspersed with Maxwell's, as he tries to understand the author, and his enduring interest to readers and tourists. There's no hero worship, Dan may be an admirer, but he's awake to Maxwell's many faults, especially over finances, and to the damage he wrought on some of the people closest to him. Despite this, Maxwell's remarkable charisma comes through on every page. Some of his attitude to life appears to have infected Dan during his solitary sojourn too - while not on the scale of Maxwell's sometimes hair-raising exploits - even in my teens I was horrified by the sheer fecklessness of Harpoon at a Venture - I did feel that a little more heed could have been paid to the treachery of the waters around the island.

Eilean Ban's status has changed since Maxwell's day - no longer an island since a road bridge was built across to Skye, it's easily reached by all and sundry. You can even stay in the lighthouse keeper's cottages in the shadow of the bridge, with most mod cons, or visit it on a guided tour through the Brightwater Centre.

This is an engaging book if you're interested in Scotland, or the solitary life, or otters, or Gavin Maxwell. Dan Boothby has a delightfully easy style, and the book is very nicely presented, perfect present material. It was one of my clear favourites last year.