Thursday, 30 August 2018

The Bookshop

I went with a friend to see Isabelle Coixet's The Bookshop on Tuesday. Two people have asked me what I thought of it. So I'm hauling myself out of exile to report.

Looks idyllic, doesn't it? So easy to identify with a lead character who wants to open a bookshop. Don't we all?

It's a very quiet, low-key film which leaves a lingering sense of sadness. It's based on a novel of the same name by Penelope Fitzgerald, which I read a couple of years ago, and it leaves quite a bit out, choosing to place greater focus on an ultimately doomed love affair. You know it must be doomed by the agonising silences.

Florence Green, widowed for 16 years, arrives in a Suffolk village having found a derelict house that she thinks she can turn into a shop (what's she been doing up until then? we never learn, though we are told that she and her husband met in a bookshop). She moves into the house, which has been empty for some time. But there's a problem: the local lady of the manor, Mrs Gamart, wants the house too, to turn it into an art centre; after all, she says, there are other empty properties in the village equally suitable. Florence doesn't hesitate - she marches off to her solicitor and tells him to hurry up and finalise details. If I sound a bit unsympathetic, I'm not really: Mrs Gamart is horrible, I'd have reacted the same way. But looking back, I do find myself wondering why Florence is quite so recalcitrant. If she'd for a moment considered compromise, the subsequent events may not have occurred. But she forges on, with help from the local sea-scouts, and a precocious child called Christine who helps out for 12/6d a week, and with whom she forms a touching relationship. Even though Christine doesn't like to read they find a rapport through their shared work. Her only other real ally is Edmund Brundish (Bill Nighy), a recluse who buys books from her.

So far, so good. There's a lot to admire - the substitution of Co. Down for the Suffolk village works well and offers opportunity for lots of windswept shots of Emily Mortimer sitting on the beach. There are some excellent performances, and Mortimer and Nighy manage a kind of chemistry-despite-themselves which is very tenderly observed. As I've said, there is much from the book which is left out, and from a directorial point of view that's a good thing (it's why short stories make the best adaptations). Sadly though, much of that detail is what makes it such a fine and subtle book, and its loss makes it just a "nice" film.

Driving home after the film we shared our quibbles: immaculate period cars (it's set in 1959) - not a speck of rust in sight. William Morris wallpaper - how could Florence possibly afford it? Despite the film's opening, in which Florence is acquiring a frock for Mrs Gamart's party and ends up looking completely different from everyone else --

all the costumes look as new as the cars. No-one has frayed cuffs, the handmade knitwear is all straight off the needles and Florence's wardrobe is both extensive and stylish. In fact, for a woman who's supposed to be middle-aged and insignificant-looking, Mortimer is altogether too charismatic. Actually, Co. Down is a bit lush for the Suffolk coast, though the late summer trees are made to look faintly oppressive, full of restless movement in the ever-present wind. And whatever happened to the ghost?

To sum up, then - The Bookshop is worth a trip to the cinema, but don't think that, having seen it, you needn't read the book. You'd be doing yourself, and Fitzgerald, a disservice.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Illustrators - a belated Introduction

Don't you love the horse's expression?
I have started an occasional series of posts about illustrated books here. As usual, it's purely idiosyncratic and based solely on what I like myself. As a child I was always surrounded by illustration, and we had copies of various classics - for instance, the "proper" versions such as Alice illustrated by Tenniel: anything else was heresy, although I rebelled later and bought other editions as well. But they are a big part of my heritage, and we still give each other picture books as presents (and my brother has recently brought out a wonderfully illustrated fish book, as much for the pleasure of sharing his delight in them as for anything else, I think, though it still has a powerful conservation message - I should add that the words are his, and the photos by someone else).

Pictures in books have always been immensely important to me and I'm always delighted when I come across an "adult" book which is decorated, even if it's only with pretty swatches or, even better, with little vignettes at the beginning of each chapter. It's one reason why, however convenient it is, and however much easier on the hands, the Kindle will never replace real books for me. Another is cover art, which I also regard as important, even if you can't judge a book by it! We may have the odd post which focuses on covers...

To date in the series I've talked a little about the fashion during the 20th century for woodcuts and lithographs in books, something I'm bound to go back to again, because it was such an important trend. And especially when, as in this Lathrop illustration, it echoes another artform - tapestry - so evocatively. Children's illustration is a major interest, particularly in books for older children - that's in part because there is just so much fantastic art in picture books for little children that it's impossible to keep up (there's a lot of absolute rubbish as well,  but we won't go there...). As for the classics, well, if I could afford Folio Society books I'd probably have a complete library of them for their artwork alone, but I can't, so my look at them will be very selective.  But I'm really glad they are there, and producing illustrated books for people who can afford them. As well as reproducing classic editions, they commission new artwork as well.

Then there are the picture books which are both for small children and for everyone else - the subject of my second post falls into this category. They are works of art in themselves, so beautiful that you go back to them for the sheer delight of handling them, looking at the detail in the pictures, savouring the (usually short) text. I find some of these quite irresistible.

I'm putting a link at the top of the page to this series, and also have a Pinterest board which includes more artwork from the illustrators I've talked about. The board's a bit disorganised at the moment because it's been going for a while, and started before I decided to write about them here, but I'll tidy it up at some stage. And that's it - on with the series, and I hope people enjoy it.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll and Graeme Base

The second in my series of posts about illustrators.

I bought this version of Jabberwocky specifically for the illustrations, having discovered it during a Pinterest trawl. Graeme Base is an Australian artist, and brings an exoticism to the poem which works well with the verbal inventiveness of the text. Strange beasts and birds frolic through the pages (gyring and gimbling in the wabe?), while the beamish young knight sets forth on his charger, eventually to encounter the Jabberwock.

What more can I say? If you love this poem as much as I do, then I think you'll enjoy the colour and vivacity of the artwork, and if you've already got multiple versions, I'm sure you won't mind adding another. If you don't know the poem - well then, you ought to. Go and find it.

 If you've got young children in the family, you might look out for the pop-up version.

Base has illustrated quite a number of exquisite books for children, including a superb alphabet, Animalia, which would enhance any child's learning. It's hard to choose a letter to illustrate just how wonderful it is, but there was a nicely bookish one which seems appropriate for a book blogger:

It's no surprise that Base loves illustrating dragons, too, and has produced a book - The Discovery of Dragons - solely on the subject (answering, I feel, a real and much overdue need for a identification guide to these fascinating creatures - and yes, I know Lady Trent has tried to rectify this omission, but her Natural History is a weighty tome for the field, and has a regrettable tendency to stray into memoir).

Base takes a lot of pleasure in words, too - some of his books are in verse - and I'm rather hoping someone might buy me The Sign of the Seahorse for Christmas, as it looks enchanting. So, too, does The Legend of the Golden Snail. Not all his books are available new, but secondhand copies can be readily found online.

Finally, if anyone wants a preview of some of the illustrators who might come up in this series of posts, a look at my Pinterest board may be informative (at the very least you'll learn that I like pictures of animals!)

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.

There is now a link at the top of the page to Illustrators and all the posts in this series.

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.