Saturday, 5 July 2014

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

Who knows where the time goes?

I'm convinced that, if you want to find books that are truly original, you have to look at writing for children and young adults – it's not exclusive, but the exploration of ideas seems to be so much more interesting when it's aimed at people whose minds are open to new experiences. Of course, adults can be open to new experience too, but I find it's much less common.

The New Policeman is a glorious example of original writing. What it owes to earlier works is its use of legend, and yes, of course I can see influences there -- Charles De Lint comes to mind, and there feels like a kind of dialogue between Thompson and Jo Walton, whose stunning Among Others I finished recently, but my idol Alan Garner's in there too.

The first of a trilogy, The New Policeman nearly defies description if I'm not to give too much plot away – it's sometimes almost tempting to do what I've seen some other bloggers do, and copy the blurb, but it's not really my style. JJ Liddy is a young musician living in a small town in Galway, on the edge of that area called The Burren which always seems to me to be intensely magical in itself. Despite being a place where the rest of the world often thinks time has stood still, the people of Kinvara are constantly aware that time always seems to be rushing by:
For a while it was all anyone talked about, once the weather was out of the way. Then they didn't talk about it any more. What was the point? And besides, where was the time to talk about time? People didn't call to each other's houses any more; not to sit and chat over a cup of tea, anyway. Everyone was always on their way somewhere, or up to their eyes in something, or racing around trying to find someone or, more often, merely trying to catch up with themselves.
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But JJ thinks it might be time someone did something about it. In the process he finds out quite a bit about his forebears and the music that runs through his family, and meets some truly memorable people, including the mysterious new policeman of the title. There's a dream quality to the story, appropriate to one where time has gone haywire, but that doesn't meant that it lacks pace or excitement, or laughter and tragedy. Woven through the whole book, like a line from JJ's fiddle, is Irish music, with a traditional tune ending each chapter: readers can play the tunes themselves, listen to a set of reels and jigs from the book on the author's website (where you can also hear Kate Thompson reading from it), or even embark on a hunt for them on YouTube. I don't guarantee you'll find them all – I haven't had time to try many myself as the book, sadly, has to go back to the library – but I suspect most will be there.

The New Policeman won both the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize (the 2014 longlist has just been announced) and the Whitbread Children's Book Award in 2005.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Beyond Belief by Helen Smith

Emily Castle investigates future crimes. I’m guessing that when author Helen Smith first thought of this notion it seemed fun and quirky – now, I am certain that I’ve heard our government suggest that it would be a good way to save on public spending. However, I think the government solution would be to lock up all young men in hoodies, whereas Emily thinks about her dead dog, Jessie. 

Now, I have to say that when Helen Smith asked me (quite some time ago – sorry, Helen!) if I would like to read and review her latest book, I hadn’t quite appreciated that it was the third in a series – not that it would really have made a difference to my reply, I’d read one of her books, Alison Wonderland, earlier and found it funny and original. But I must admit that when I finished Beyond Belief I wasn’t entirely clear about the exact role that Jessie played in solving future crimes, given that Emily is quite emphatic that she’s not a spirit guide, or anything like that, but it didn’t in any way affect my enjoyment of the book, and I did, when I finished, download a copy of the short story which begins the series, Three Sisters. Not sure that it entirely cleared up the Jessie question, but it was a good story.

Emily’s thinking about whether to get a permanent job instead of temping when her neighbour Dr Muriel asks her to accompany her to a conference on the nature of belief – Belief and Beyond – ostensibly to take notes. For the first time the attendees will include mediums, hypnotists, and other fringe practitioners, in an attempt to find common ground with academia, and there are rumours that a death will take place at the event, perhaps because a notable stage magician has issued a challenge to delegates to prove the existence of the paranormal and has offered a huge reward. So far, so Jonathan Creek, but without the duffel coat. Dr Muriel hopes that if Emily documents the rumours, a pattern may emerge and prevent a death, if indeed, one is planned.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent a good deal of the last twenty years organising conferences, that I seem to be an absolute sucker for plots which involve them. The weirder the delegates the better.  And here, there is a satisfactory cohort of English eccentrics, complete with floaty scarves, silver-topped canes, wigs and deceased dogs – because Emily is not entirely exempt from charges of eccentricity herself: “Emily had never quite found a job that suited her, a boyfriend who was clever enough for her, or a home that was close enough to the centre of London to make the commute to work tolerable.”  Anyway, to make me even happier, Belief and Beyond will take place in Torquay, memorable largely as the setting for Fawlty Towers – you’ve got to love the Royal Society for Science and Culture’s optimism in choosing such an ill-omened venue.

I’m not going to tell you any more about the plot, because I think you ought to read the book for yourself. There’s so much to enjoy here and my casting list is already underway – I have a very firm idea of who’s going to play Dr Muriel, for instance. She’s probably my absolute favourite character, I love her way of just throwing out ideas because she thinks they are interesting. And Gerald Ayode, the President of the Society (which used to be called the Royal Society for Science and Spiritualism), is very endearing in his efforts to embrace technology and modern life by tweeting from the conference. The conference atmosphere is very convincing, too, take it from me.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Sunday maggot...

 Fuchsia magellanica at Paxton House

Yet again my poor blog is being neglected and I'm afraid the weather is to blame, as one reason is that I've been spending a lot of time in the garden and greenhouse, making up for years of summers when I couldn't leave my desk. I haven't even been doing much reading, in comparison with past years, because it's not just the garden that's been taking up my time. Since I'm no longer travelling to London regularly, the pattern of my life has altered, and allowed some new projects.

I'm doing a course on The Literature of the Country House (the rest of this afternoon will be spent completing last week's work) which, as always with me, has prompted quite a bit of reading round the subject, which nicely dovetails with research for a talk I'll be giving later in the year. A search on the library catalogue yielded very few books which were helpful - so far, I've only found one that I could actually borrow, and one that would have necessitated a journey the length of Northumberland to read, but a trawl on Amazon turned up quite a few, and happily I had a couple of gift vouchers to spend. Okay, my selection was slightly influenced by choosing books priced at 1p plus postage, but one of the acquisitions has been Mark Girouard's definitive Life in the English Country House: A Social and Architectural History, so I'm happy!

Last week a whole day was given over to a costume photoshoot -- we were lucky with the weather and the generosity of friends who allowed the use of their photographic studio (and indeed, much of their house, and provided lunch!). I'll post more about this anon -- we didn't get through everything and still have Edwardian underwear and stockings to shoot, and I don't yet have copies of the photographs. Somewhat carried away by the fun of the day, with lovely models and lots of laughter, I found myself volunteering to make costumes for a production that second son is appearing in. It's funny, at the start of the day I had simply offered to do a bit of alteration to some shirt collars and so on, by the afternoon I'd said that I would cut a pattern and make three skirts for a beach scene. I may be borrowing the same friend's wonderfully equipped sewing room, since the work space on my desk is about 18 x 36 inches. And my sewing machine is at the bottom of a pile of stuff upstairs -- I think!

Despite all this busy-ness, second son and I did manage an afternoon outing to nearby Paxton House, with the express purpose of taking photographs. He has recently upgraded his camera and, along with a zoom lens, it weighs a ton! It's meant that I've inherited the original camera, as long as he's not on a job where he needs a second one, and I've got to learn to use it. Mostly I switch it to Auto and hope for the best, but I'm already frustrated by not being able to focus on two things at once. I was pretty excited, though, to be able to take a picture of a newt. Well, two newts, but there must have been hundreds in the pond.

Palmate newts

Great crested newt

For what felt like the first time in about a hundred years, I taught some Playford dances. For the uninitiated, these are the dances that turn up in film and TV adaptations of Jane Austen -- the six-part version of Pride and Prejudice used some of my favourites including Mr Beveridge's Maggot (a maggot is a piece of whimsy, and not something the newts above might eat). They are called "Playford" because in 1651 the first edition of The English Dancing Master was published by John Playford. It proved so popular that it was followed by a number of editions up to 1728, with over a thousand dances being described and other publishers cashing in on the enthusiasm for country dance. Some dances have wonderfully fanciful names -- Gathering Peascods, Mutual Love, Pleasures of the Town and Indian Queen to name a few, and there are lots of maggots. They are lovely to dance, often flowing and graceful, sometimes riotous, but even the Morpeth Rant needn't be too demanding for new dancers. Our group laughs a lot and we sometimes abandon a dance until next week when we might summon the collective brainpower to work out a tricky figure.

Funny, there were several things I meant to write about today and I don't seem to have got to any of them. Next Sunday perhaps...

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Song of the Quarkbeast by Jasper Fforde

The reason Kevin always slept fully dressed on the sofa when he had a perfectly good bedroom was because he had foreseen that he would die in his bed, and reasoned that if he stayed away from it he wouldn't die. That might sound daft until you consider that the Remarkable Kevin was our precognitive, a breed of sorceror who had tuned their attention to shuffling through the millions of potential futures and occasionally picking out a winner. But, as with all oracles, his visions could be vague and misleading.
Kevin has, in fact, received a hint that the Great Zambini might be due for another appearance. Not, as you might think from the name, a stage appearance, but a brief materialisation during which his employees at Kazam (the employment agency for sorcerors and soothsayers) might be able to catch up on his instructions:
The last time this happened, Kevin had us all staking out a village in the weekends-only Duchy of Cotswold, where Zambini reappeared for a full fifty-seven seconds before vanishing again. Despite fifteen of us dispersed around the village with eyes peeled, we missed Zambini when he turned up in a jam cupboard belonging to a Mrs Bishop.
The sixteen-year-old acting boss of Kazam, Jennifer Strange, really needs Zambini's help. Magic has faded to the point where it barely works at all, but despite this rival firm iMagic is currying favour with King Snodd IV of Hereford by promising that overall control of Magic will be his -- all that's needed is the appointment of iMagic boss the Amazing Blix to the new post of Court Mystician, and hey presto! the mobile telephone network that the king wants so badly will be reanimated. Jennifer knows that this is pure opportunism -- there simply isn't the magical power to draw on, and practitioners are in short supply too. Nonetheless, Blix manages to manoeuvre Kazam into a sorcerous dual with iMagic, and then starts playing very dirty indeed.

As with Fforde's adult novels, this one for younger readers has all his usual trademarks -- punning names, corporate-speak, subversions of familiar names and places, footnotes, and so on. My favourites here are the Transient Moose, who drifts around materialising and disappearing again and, of course, the Quarkbeast itself, proof, if any were needed, that Fforde must have grown up revelling, as I did, in the pursuit of the Questing Beast in T.H. White's The Once and Future King. The Song of the Quarkbeast is actually a sequel to The Last Dragonslayer, which I haven't read -- I didn't really have any difficulty picking up the ideas and jokes, but I have read several of Fforde's other books, which might be an advantage. Thursday Next fans will find themselves in familiar territory. If Fforde's humour works for you -- and it doesn't for everyone -- then I don't think it matters very much where you dive in. You'll be in for a lot of fun, some of it very silly indeed, and you'll almost certainly find that you start to care quite a lot about the characters. Happily, there is a third to come.

* I forgot to say that this is a review for Once Upon a Time VIII!

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Shiny shiny shiny

I meant to do a review post this weekend but other things keep interrupting. So I'm simply going to say that on Monday Shiny New Books: what to read next and why launches. Edited by four fantastic book bloggers, Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book, Harriet from Harriet Devine's Blog, Annabel from Annabel's House of Books and Victoria from Tales from the Reading Room, it's going to bring us reviews, recommendations, articles, even competitions. You can sign up for the newsletter on the website, like on Facebook, follow on Twitter, and follow on Feedly or Bloglines or Google + or whatever.

I haven't looked forward to anything so much for ages! I've been going round humming the Velvets' song all week: "Shiny, shiny, shiny books of leather...."

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Oh dear, I know I shouldn't but... Once Upon a Time VIII

It's spring, there are flowers in the garden and friends are posting their lists for Once Upon a Time VIII run by the indefatigable Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings. His dedication in running this and other challenges is hugely impressive, and he always finds the most superbly seductive and beautiful artwork. How can I possibly hold out against the temptation to join in?

Well, you've guessed it, I can't. I'm signing up.

The Once Upon a Time VIII Challenge has a few rules:
Rule #1: Have fun.
Rule #2: HAVE FUN.
Rule #3: Don’t keep the fun to yourself, share it with us, please!
Rule #4: Do not be put off by the word “challenge”.
I'm going to be circumspect and only go for the lowest level, though, The Journey, so I'm not posting a "proper" list. (Isn't the little fox a darling...)

This is really as simple as the name implies. It means you are participating, but not committing yourself to any specific number of books. By signing up for The Journey you are agreeing to read at least one book within one of the four categories during March 21st to June 21st period. Just one book. If you choose to read more, fantastic! 

In a new venture -- for me at least -- I'm going to include audiobooks. It took me a long time to even remotely consider that an audiobook counted as a book -- after all, I'd never counted books adapted for the radio, or for film, as books, but I took to audiobooks to combat insomnia a couple of years ago and, unlike radio adaptations, I actively listen, and I don't buy abridged books. So, I guess, they are books!

It so happens that I've just started listening to Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It's a "re-read" -- I like rediscovering books I already know -- and it's being an absolute joy. The witch Anathema Device has just appeared. Oh, I so want to change my name to Anathema Device... no doubt one or two of my acquaintances might think it appropriate.

Last month Audible seduced me with a cheap offer, and I found two books by Charles de Lint, Memory and Dream and Widdershins. I've complained here before that some of de Lint's books are quite hard to get in the UK, so I'm really pleased to have these two.

Finally, I still have last year's Christmas present on my bedside table, and all I really needed was an excuse to get started. Not only is it full of fascinating essays, it's beautifully illustrated, in colour. The frontispiece is a double-page spread of the original cover of The Hobbit.

Magical Tales was produced to go with an exhibition at the Bodleian Library in Oxford last year. I couldn't go to that, but I am going to savour every single word of the book. So it will be my "official" read for The Journey, and the audiobooks will be extras.

So, to everyone taking part in Once Upon a Time VIII, I wish you a very happy three months of reading/listening/watching!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

The Runaways by Elizabeth Goudge

I wrote recently about the new Hesperus Press edition of Pollyanna, but what I didn’t mention at the time was that it wasn’t the only children’s classic they reissued in February. The other was one of my childhood favourites, Elizabeth Goudge’s Linnets and Valerians, which they have republished under its American title, The Runaways.

Regular readers of Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf will perhaps have inferred something of my great love for the British countryside, and my resulting enthusiasm for books which portray and celebrate it. And here we have a book which glorifies a very special place, Dartmoor. Elizabeth Goudge lived within sight of the moor for some twelve years, and her writing of Devon is redolent of the rounded, wooded hills of the county, with its glowing sunsets, lush green fields and rich red earth, and the looming tors of the moor ever-present in the background (although they are often present only in the imagination, since it rains pretty frequently).

The four Linnet children have been sent to live with their grandmother in Devon, while their father is abroad with his regiment, and they are Not Happy about it:
They had no wish to live with her, for she was a very autocratic old lady… She believed that children should be instantly obedient and she did not like dogs. She said that Absolom had fleas and must be given away, and if that was not enough, she had arranged for Robert and Nan to go to boarding school while her companion Miss Bold taught Timothy and Betsy at home. The children were in despair.
So they decide to escape.  Over the garden wall, with Absolom, of course, and off towards the sunset, and the moor – though they don’t know that’s where they’re headed because they don’t really have any idea about where they are or where they are going. After a long and tiring uphill walk, they “borrow” a horse and cart from outside an inn, and the pony very obligingly takes them straight home – his home, that is – where they are greeted by an irascible elderly gentleman who announces that there is only one thing he dislikes more than a child, and that’s a dog. Fortunately for the children, this presages their move to High Barton and their discovery of a wondrous, and sometimes frightening, new world.

It is also a world where the presence and absence of boundaries is paramount. The children’s lives are bounded by the necessity to learn – self-discipline and formal education are equally insisted upon by their new-found uncle – but in observing the boundaries they are free to roam the unbounded moor and to discover new experiences and people. This juxtaposition of discipline and freedom is a common theme in  Goudge’s books and leads to beguiling imagery of portals and labyrinths, reminiscent of Aslan’s “further up and further in”. In The Runaways, the maze/labyrinth image of the early Christian mystics links to the theme of being lost, both physically and psychically. Goudge’s Christianity verges on nature mysticism (there’s an illuminating chapter in her autobiography, The Joy of the Snow) and, as in Lewis’s work, animals often play an important, and sometimes nearly omniscient, role, although less so in The Runaways than in The Little White Horse – here, the “wise animal” role is allocated to the bees, who guide the children in moments of extremis; there is a difference, too, in that not all the animals in The Runaways are good (Monsieur Cocq du Noir’s rooster in The Little White Horse might be said to be bad, but to me it seems more neutral than actively wicked like its master).

Although Christian mysticism runs like a silver thread through all Goudge’s books, I don’t think that in The Runaways it will impinge on the enjoyment of the modern reader. It’s true that her books are very popular with Christian readers – though I was intrigued to find one reader who’d abandoned this one, considering the nature mysticism and magic a step too far – but here, the children's adventures will surely captivate the young reader. For the adult reader, it’s only necessary to believe that spirituality of some kind is a fairly fundamental part of the human condition, in order to share the hopes and fears of Goudge’s characters and to wish for a fulfilling conclusion.

And the characters in Goudge’s novels are always memorable. Her children are lovable, but rarely without faults. Robert is wilful, Timothy is inclined to nerves, Betsy is complacent – only Nan is quiet and thoughtful, and even she will have grown immeasurably as a person by the end of the story. The adults are equally striking: wise Uncle Ambrose, wonderful one-legged Ezra Oake, the sad, withdrawn Lady Alicia and her servant Moses, the oddly sinister Emma Cobley… even the animals are unforgettable – Andromache the cat and Hector the owl, Rob Roy and sad, lonely Abednego. And, at the heart of it all, the almost animate, glorious Dartmoor:

“...along the eastern horizon lay the range of blue hills called Dartmoor” 
(E. Goudge, The Joy of the Snow, 1974)
She stood and looked abut her and she wondered if there was any place more lovely and strange than this, poised here halfway between the world of the trees and of the clouds. It was a miniature green valley, almost like a garden, held in a cleft of the rock. The two spurs of rock that contained it on each side were both the same shape, like the paws and forearms of a huge beast, and viewed from this side they were not menacing but protective, as though the beast held the garden in his arms. A small stream ran down the centre of it and fell over the edge of the cliff down to the trees below, and the banks of the stream were thick with water forget-me-nots and green ferns. There were flowers everywhere in the grass and more ferns and little rowan trees grew up the sides of the valley. Nan put her flowers into a pool between two stones at the edge of the stream, to get a good drink, and she had a drink herself, lifting the water in her cupped hands. Then she sat down to rest and for the first time looked up at the rock at the head of the valley and saw it shaped like the chest of the beast and up above it, against the sky, was the huge shaggy lion’s head. Now she knew where she was, between the paws of the lion who kept guard beneath the tor.

What Nan finds below Lion Tor is at the heart of this enchanting book.