Monday, 31 December 2007

Short Story Monday - Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield

In this elegant little story, written in 1922, Miss Brill makes her regular Sunday visit to the park, to sit on her regular seat and listen to the band. Her solitary pleasure is to observe the comings and goings around her. We are not told much about Miss Brill directly, but we can infer a good deal; she is a genteel person of limited means who teaches English for her living and doesn't have many friends.

Since almost all the story is told in free indirect speech, we can observe the anticipation Miss Brill has for her day's entertainment. She takes her old but precious fur from its box, strokes and brushes it like a small animal being readied for an outing, imagining its sharp little teeth holding onto its tail. We know her thoughts about her fellow park visitors and her interest in their individual stories. As she watches a sudden thought occurs to her: they are all actors on a stage and she herself is part of the performance. She feels a pleasant sense of importance and imagines herself telling an elderly acquaintance that she has been an actress for a long time. However, when she is joined on her bench by a young courting couple her pleasure is banished; they mock the treasured fur that she has taken so much pride in taking out and brushing that morning. The final two paragraphs describe how – too saddened to buy her usual treat from the baker's – she goes home to return the fur to its box, never, we can guess, to be worn again.

This is a finely honed piece of writing, an example of a story that does exactly what it should. We are given precisely the information we need; the change in mood, from Miss Brill's vicarious pleasure in the lives of others to loneliness and humiliation takes place in a brief exchange in direct speech by the young couple, 9 lines in all, followed by the final two paragraphs of third-person narration which complete our distancing from Miss Brill. Its careful structure is belied by the simplicity and clarity of the writing.

If anyone would like to enjoy this excellent story, the full text is here.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Temeraire by Naomi Novik

It's a good thing I picked this up during the holiday. It's been sitting on the TBR pile for months, untouched, just in case it didn't appeal after all - I can sometimes find alternate realities a bit disappointing, somehow they seem more likely to fail to engage my attention. However, I promised myself that the next read would be something for the From the Stacks challenge, and finally plumped for Temeraire (which was one of my alternative choices, but never mind). I read it at a sitting, straight through, no pauses. And thoroughly enjoyed it.

The period detail (Napoleonic Wars) is fun – where there might have been errors it was easy to ignore them. It's an alternative reality, after all. Perhaps a legitimate quibble would be that, using dragons in warfare would almost certainly have made the course of history diverge quite widely from our own, so the French Revolution wouldn't have happened, or not in that way, but really, who cares? This is an entertaining novel, and I'm a sucker for dragons. Temeraire's blend of innocence and wisdom is appealing, and his relationship with his aviator Laurence develops and deepens as the book progresses. Although it is the first in a series it doesn't, as I feared at one point, leave the reader with everything up in the air: the plot resolves while leaving a clear direction for the sequel. I liked the Appendices on dragons, a nice touch.

Perhaps the fact that it is a first novel shows a little too clearly – there are some rushed moments, and the whole book moves at a pretty brisk pace. I would like to see a little more depth in characterisation and greater leisure in description and scene-setting. These are things, however, which often come with experience and will, I hope, be more in evidence in her subsequent work. The next two are on order, and they won't be sitting on the shelf for long, that's for sure.

Monday, 24 December 2007

Short Story Monday

As it's Christmas I thought we would have something soothing this week, so I've chosen a story from Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson. She's been getting quite a lot of attention recently with the publications of the Summer and Winter Books, but she's been part of my life since I was very young and my aunt - a wonderful source of good books now as then - sent me a copy of Finn Family Moomintroll. I fell in love instantly with all of the characters: the earnest Moomintroll, the excitable Sniff, Snufkin the wanderer, and the redoubtable Moominmamma, whose bag is the fount of all comforts from raspberry juice to tummy powders.

Moominvalley is populated by a wide variety of creatures and this story concerns a fillyjonk. These are creatures of habit with a strong sense of family ties and an innate love of the beauty of nature. In "The Fillyjonk Who Believed in Disasters", the fillyjonk is unable to derive comfort from her surroundings because of her fear that some terrible catastrophe will befall her. Her summer home is no comfort - she moved into it because she'd been told her grandmother had stayed there in the past, but this turns out to be a mistake, and the house itself is dreary and forlorn, defying all her efforts to make it cosy. Her fears become so great that she struggles to convey them to her friend Gaffsie over the course of a very uneasy afternoon tea, but Gaffsie is unwilling to allow her confidences. During the night a storm blows up and the fillyjonk is forced to leave her house. Crouching behind a rock she finds an unexpected sense of peace: there is no longer any need to fear disaster. It has happened.

The story is beautifully told. Jansson brings her delicate observation of the discomforts people feel to bear on the teatime conversation:

"This calm in unnatural. It means something terrible is going to happen. Dear Gaffsie, believe me, we are so very small and insignificant [...] Mrs Gaffsie, have you felt it? Tell me that you kmow what I'm talking about! Please!"

Gaffsie was very red in the face and sat twirling the sugar bowl in her paws and wishing that she had never come.

"There can be very sudden storms at this time of year," she said at last, cautiously.

The fillyjonk fell silent from disappointment.
These may be stories for children, but Jansson always tackles complex feelings in her lucid style. The fillyjonk's liberation from her fears has as much meaning and relevance for an adult as for a child. Indeed, this story makes a companion piece to the previous one in this collection, "A Tale of Horror" in which an inconsiderate child understands for the first time what it means when he frightens others. In all the Moomin books Jansson tackles big themes in a microcosm, and the stories are told with such delicacy and simplicity that you are hardly aware of reading about loss, or loneliness. They are
lovely books to read to children, who love their humour and wonderful characterisation, but their gentle poignancy also offers real pleasure for the adult reader.
Towards morning the gale was blowing itself out. The fillyjonk hardly noticed it. She was sitting in deep thought about herself and her disasters, and her furniture, and how it all fitted together. As a matter of fact nothing of consequence had happened, except that the chimney had come down.

But she had the feeling that nothing more important had ever happened to her in her life.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill

Although this is the second of Susan Hill's novels about Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler, it is the first I have read. It won't be the last, though. Set in an imaginary cathedral town, it follows Serrailler through a difficult patch: the death, previously, of someone he'd cared about, the illness of his disabled sister, and a distressing case. A 9-year-old boy is missing from home, an event which upsets the whole town. There are no leads, and the police must cope with increasingly distraught parents and, inevitably, a hostile press.

What I liked about this book is that it's not really a detective story - it's a novel in which the protagonist happens to be a detective. Actual crime detecting is a relatively small part of the story, and I finished The Pure in Heart wanting to know much more about Serrailler's relationship with his family. His parents marriage is a - convincing - combination of chilly and close; was it always like that? Was it, even in part, the result of having a severely disabled child? One of the pleasures of writing a series must be that you don't have to reveal everything at once. As long as a character is rounded enough to be convincing, shaping that person can take place at a much more natural pace, and the author has leisure to say of Serrailer's sister Cat that she didn't feel she knew her brother. And while we are party to some of Simon's thoughts, it can be made clear that he doesn't necessarily know himself why he behaves in certain ways.

I found the portrait of the mother of the missing child rang particularly true, notably in the ways in which her attempts to cope with her pain actually manage to exacerbate it. Early on, she runs herself a hot bath and then adds cold water to it because she cannot be allowed to enjoy anything while her son is lost. Her husband, on the other hand, cannot even begin to deal with his grief and withdraws from his family to bury himself in work, so we only see him through others' eyes. One of the tragedies of this family is that, although they had seemed content on the surface, they quickly prove to have no resources for coping with disaster. I remember complaining when discussing one of the Midsomer books that the juxtaposition of the detectives' families with the victim family offered no real insight into either; here there is nothing extraneous about the separate threads.

A satisfying book, therefore: I liked the characters, and the story was absorbing. I see from Susan Hill's blog that she has just completed a fourth book in the series. I look forward to reading it and the other two.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Short Story Monday

"The Ladies of Grace Adieu" by Susanna Clarke. After a quote from a female magician about the nature of magic, the opening of this story seems at first to be familiar territory. We are firmly in the Regency world of Jane Austen or, as it seemed to me, Georgette Heyer: "Cassandra Parbringer at twenty was considered an ideal of a certain type of beauty to which some gentlemen are particularly partial."

If this were Heyer, we would confidently expect that, by the end of the story, Miss Parbringer will be well on her way to happy-ever-after marriage. Instead, however, the story moves swiftly into Gothic territory with a description of the house in which Cassandra's friend Miss Tobias is governess, and to her small charges' fear of owls. With the arrival of a wicked and dissolute guardian and his entourage we are in a sinister world where all may not be not as it seems.

The final characters to arrive are Jonathan Strange and his wife, familiar to readers of Clarke's superb novel, Jonathan Strange and and Norrell. Here I have a slight quibble about this story, in that it could just as easily be a missing chapter from that book. Indeed, I am not certain how successful any of the stories in this collection would be if the reader is not already familiar with the novel, since a great deal of the background about the nature of magic in Clarke's alternative England comes from that source. For the prepared reader not much scene-setting is actually needed. However, in the structure of its plot this does work as a enjoyable standalone, and the world she has created offers a wonderful vehicle for a modern and original take on the fairy tale.

Clarke's style of storytelling is very quiet and unshowy, the details dropped in quite limpidly, but those details combine to create a vivid setting, and a good deal of information is conveyed in short conversations. The village setting is atmospheric and convincing. The wicked guardian calls to mind Helen's husband in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall most effectively.

I enjoyed this story very much - part of my comfort with it derives, I think, from its adherence to the conventions of the fairy tale, a genre I grew up reading avidly. I haven't read the rest of the collection yet, but I look forward to them.

This week I am hosting Short Story Monday. If you have posted about a Short Story today and would like to leave a link to it in the comments, please do so!

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Struggling with short stories

John at The Book Mine Set has very kindly invited me to host Short Story Monday here next week. I wrote last week that I have reservations about short stories, which are regarded by some as the perfect art form. Despite being brought up on the stories of O. Henry and, late, Guy de Maupassant, my attitude to most short stories tends to be, "Okay, so what?" even when I've read some critical appraisal telling me how good this particular gem is. And I do enjoy some: I quite like the stories of Alice Munro (more so after a friend told me to read them straight through as a novel), and enjoy those of Neil Gaiman. I even have a favourite, Herman Melville's "Bartleby, the Scrivener", which I find intriguing.

I meant to persevere, however, and will be reading a variety of classic short stories, writers to include Chekhov, Borges, Lovecraft...not Hemingway, I had to read him at school and he's not my cup of tea. It shouldn't be hard to find material - a quick check on my Library Thing catalogue tells me I have 14 collections of short stories amongst the books I have already listed there. Suggestions will be welcomed, especially if you tell me why you're recommending the story.

Monday's post, I've decided, will be on the title story from Susannah Clarke's collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu, which I've been looking forward to for some time. If you feel like joining me on Monday, find a short story, settle down and try to enjoy!

Thursday, 13 December 2007

The Man Who was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K.Chesterton

"The work of a philosophical policemen," replied the man in blue, "is at once bolder and more subtle than that of an ordinary detective. The ordinary detective goes to pot-houses to arrest thieves; we go to artistic parties to detect pessimists. The ordinary detective discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed. We discover from a book of sonnets that a crime will be committed. We have to trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime. We were only just in time to prevent the assassination at Hartlepool, and that was entirely due to the fact that our Mr Wilks (a smart young man) thoroughly understood a triolet."

Thus is Gabriel Syme introduced to the investigations of the Secret Police Service into the Central Council of Anarchists, an organisation he infiltrates to become The Man Who Was Thursday. Led by its vast and terrifying President, Sunday, the Council of Seven Days plans an atrocity, and despatches one of its members to Paris with a bomb. Syme must avoid exposure as a spy while in pursuit. But all is not as it seems and, amid contradiction and confusion Syme must learn to distinguish what is real. Are other members of the Council friend or foe? And, most urgent of all, who and what is Sunday?

Throughout this absorbing fantasy, Chesterton turns expectation on its head. One of the ways in which he achieves this is by a subtle reversal of normality: if I were to ask you what is a hornbill, you would probably answer "a bird with an enormous bill". Thus Chesterton: "he remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it." The reader's viewpoint is that of Syme, and such strange reversals confuse and obfuscate so that reality is impossible to pin down and safety looks a forlorn hope.

The book reminds me both of The Magic Flute, with its theme of trial by ordeal, and of the writings some twenty-five years later of Charles Williams, which share similar elements of a peculiarly English kind of mysticism. Yet Chesterton denied the revelatory interpretation, drawing attention to the book's subtitle "A Nightmare". In an article published the day before he died in 1936 he says,

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

Reading The Man Who Was Thursday 100 years on, in a world of equally characterised by wild doubt and despair I, for one, find the "gleam of hope" quite comforting and was happy to interpret the ending as revelatory and mystical. The book is also a classic, witty and elegant while remaining a fantastical adventure, and deserves prompt reinstatement as part of the canon.

Cross-posted from Outmoded Authors.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Short Story Monday: The Gospel According to Mark by Jorge Luis Borges

Borges in the Hotel Beaux, Paris, 1969

This story exemplifies the problem I have with almost all short stories, in that I tend to find them inherently unsatisfactory, while demonstrating those qualities which intrigue others. In the introduction to this collection Borges states "I have done my best – I don't know with what success – to write straightforward stories." Further, he refutes the necessity for surprise endings, preferring instead, he says, to meet the reader's expectations. Although he denies that this makes his stories of necessity simple, the effect is nonetheless to create the effect of simplicity, as also his practice of setting his stories in the past, thus creating a sense of distance and objectivity.

This quiet little story is of a young man, lacking in application and direction, who finds himself stranded at a ranch in the owner's absence. Surrounded by floods, the young Espinosa makes at first unsuccessful attempts to communicate with the gaucho family who work the land. None of his efforts really succeed until he begins to read St Mark's Gospel to the illiterate family. This apparently catches their imagination, and they begin to hurry their meal in order for the reading to start. They also begin to pay attention to Espinosa, following him around, and even picking up crumbs that he has left on the table.

At the end of the gospel he offers to continue reading with the next, but the family requests that he repeat that one, in order that they may understand better, enquiring whether Christ had allowed himself to be killed in order to save all men. "Espinosa, who was a freethinker but who felt committed to what he had read to the Gutres, answered, "Yes, to save everyone from hell."

At which point the reader, who has carefully read the Introduction before beginning this first story in the collection, knows what is to come. And, in Borges' laconic voice and understated but elegant prose, that is exactly what does happen, though we are offered no more Espinosa's realisation of what is to come.

I've said I find short stories unsatisfactory and I do, though to be truthful I cannot express what I could possibly find lacking in this one. We are given all the information we need, the scene is set sparingly, but effectively, there is no "baroque" (Borges' word) extraneous detail. I am afraid the lack is in me, that this is a world in microcosm and that Borges, an acknowledged master of the form, has created a small gem.

So I shall persevere – I shan't set in stone an undertaking to read a story a week, but I shall do my best, and take stock in perhaps six months' time, to see if I have learnt to appreciate, if not necessarily to love this art form.

Friday, 7 December 2007

A Friday Poem

I've always been fond of the poems of A.A. Milne - they were read to me when I was small, I read them first to younger brothers, and then to my own children. The combination of Shepherd's wonderful drawings and Milne's characterisation create perfect stories and present complex human (or bear-ish) behaviour in a way that is accessible to small children while remaining engaging to adults. I would be at a loss to decide which was my favourite of his poems (although it's the long ones I like best) but, indulging the Christmas spirit (I've just posted my responses to the Christmas meme here) I thought we would have this one. The phrase "a hopeful stocking" is so poignant!

King John's Christmas

A.A. Milne

King John was not a good man —
He had his little ways.
And sometimes no one spoke to him
For days and days and days.
And men who came across him,
When walking in the town,
Gave him a supercilious stare,
Or passed with noses in the air —
And bad King John stood dumbly there,
Blushing beneath his crown.

King John was not a good man,
And no good friends had he.
He stayed in every afternoon ...
But no one came to tea.
And, round about December,
The cards upon his shelf
Which wished him lots of Christmas cheer,
And fortune in the coming year,
Were never from his near and dear,
But only from himself.

King John was not a good man,
Yet had his hopes and fears.
They’d given him no present now
For years and years and years.
But every year at Christmas,
While minstrels stood about,
Collecting tribute from the young
For all the songs they might have sung,
He stole away upstairs and hung
A hopeful stocking out.

King John was not a good man,
He lived his life aloof;
Alone he thought a message out
While climbing up the roof.
He wrote it down and propped it
Against the chimney stack:
And signed it not “Johannes R.”
But very humbly, “JACK.”

“I want some crackers,
And I want some candy;
I think a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I don’t mind oranges,
I do like nuts!
And I SHOULD like a pocket-knife
That really cuts.
And, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man —
He wrote this message out,
And gat him to his room again,
Descending by the spout.
And all that night he lay there,
A prey to hopes and fears.
“I think that’s him a-coming now,
(Anxiety bedewed his brow.)
“He’ll bring one present, anyhow —
The first I’ve had for years.

“Forget about the crackers,
And forget about the candy;
I’m sure a box of chocolates
Would never come in handy;
I don’t like oranges,
I don’t want nuts,
And I HAVE got a pocket-knife
That almost cuts.
But, oh! Father Christmas, if you love me at all,
Bring me a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John was not a good man —
Next morning when the sun
Rose up to tell a waiting world
That Christmas had begun,
And people seized their stockings,
And opened them with glee,
And crackers, toys and games appeared,
And lips with sticky sweets were smeared,
King John said grimly: “As I feared,
Nothing again for me!”

“I did want crackers,
And I did want candy;
I know a box of chocolates
Would come in handy;
I do love oranges,
I did want nuts.
I haven’t got a pocket-knife —
Not one that cuts.
And, oh! if Father Christmas had loved me at all,
He would have brought a big, red india-rubber ball!”

King John stood by the window,
And frowned to see below
The happy bands of boys and girls
All playing in the snow.
A while he stood there watching,
And envying them all...
When through the window big and red
There hurtled by his royal head,
And bounced and fell upon the bed,
An india-rubber ball!


Monday, 3 December 2007

Not buying books! well, nearly...

I think I may have mentioned elsewhere that I buy most of my books online. This week I received an email asking if I would post about a new site, the UK version of, which offers comparisons on book prices. I thought for some time about this, since it isn't a site I've used, and I would be most reluctant to recommend anything I hadn't tried myself. And in the run-up to Christmas, I am trying very hard not to buy any books!

So, with my teeth nobly gritted, I conducted a number of searches on the new site, to see if it would be useful. I tried to look for a representative selection, searching on Murakami, Barbara Pym and Michael Innes, as well as for a couple of young adult books I am looking for. And I very nearly didn't buy a book! (Only I found that The Book Depository now has copies of a book I've been looking for unsuccessful
ly for a couple of months, that I need for the YA Challenge...)

Readers will have gathered from the above that my book searching experience was a positive one. The comparisons took me to several of my regular sites, on which I would have had to conduct separate searches, but also widens the scope, since it covers sites I don't normally look at. The user interface is particularly straightforward, and lets you, should you wish, search on new books only, as well as offering the price in your chosen currency. Searches can be performed on Author, Title or ISBN and multiple ISBN searches are possibl
e. A price comparison allows you to look at several books and then gives you the price for ordering from one bookseller or several.

All in all, I think is a useful site, and worth taking a look at if you regularly buy online. I've bookmarked it, and rather hope that I'll be able to add it to the search box in Firefox before too long.

And I'd better come clean: here's the book I bought. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

November's booklist

This month hasn't been a good one for posts - there are quite a few unreviewed books in this list. The Madeleine l'Engle books will all be reviewed together when I've finished the quintet that make up The Wrinkle in Time, so I don't feel too guilty about those, but I do want to catch up on some of the others, which are too good to pass over. I may have to do a very untidy batch review, and try to Do Better in December - but then everyone knows what December is like!
  • The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson (Canada Challenge)
  • Snail Eggs and Samphire by Derek Cooper
  • Lunatic Villas by Marian Engel (Outmoded Authors)
  • The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel (Canada Challenge)
  • Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
  • Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
  • The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding
  • The Young Unicorns by Madeleine l'Engle
  • In the Country by Kenneth Allsop
  • The Wind in the Door by Madeleine l'Engle
  • Dark Fire by CJ Samson
  • Nine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams
  • The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  • The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill
  • Diary of a Victorian Gardener: William Cresswell and Audley End
  • Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith
  • Untold Stories by Alan Bennett
Canadian Book Challenge (ends 1 July 2008): 3 of 13 completed
Outmoded Authors Challenge (ends 29 February 2008): 4 of 9 completed
Young Adult Challenge (runs 1 January-31 December 2008)

October's Books are here
September's books are here
August's books are here

Links are mainly to reviews on this site; the occasional book on country topics (including novels) is reviewed on Cat Musings.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

The Perils of Minn

The opening chapter of The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel is a tour de force: not many years intervened between the birth of Minn’s fourth child and my own first, so I found it easy to identify with our leading lady. From her first appearance, ex-starlet Minn is vulnerable: “Minn was in the bath, and filled the bath.” Heavily pregnant, she is alone in her decrepit rented house (despite the presence of her other three children and various hippy lodgers in the attic), preparing for a festival to celebrate the life of her now-dead lover (and minor Svengali-figure), the film director Honeyman. Her vulnerability is what first grabs the reader; her deliberations on the perils of pregnancy (of positively Penelope Pitstop proportions) made me laugh out loud.

Overall, however, this is not an entirely comfortable read. The setting is the end of the 1960s, when women were only just beginning to battle their way out of what seemed a predestined role: education was to get you a good but suitable job such as teaching or clerical work – “helpmeet” roles – until you met a man and settled down to have a family. Intelligent women were starting to rebel, but they were frequently unhappy and occasionally vilified. Minn is just put-upon. Her husband Norman is in Katmandu because it pays the rent. When he does come home to the kind of mess that three very small children can create, he regards it as reasonable to go out to the pictures. The rent is exorbitant because he likes the huge, crumbling house with fourteen-foot ceilings, but he doesn’t have to deal with the bugs or the mould under the lino. The hippies can’t always pay their rent, and Minn would welcome help with the children and around the house instead, but it is not forthcoming, and she doesn’t seem able to insist. Her children are food-throwing monsters, as small children tend to be.

Brooding on the risks to these infants brought about by her hugely-pregnant and exhausted state, Minn takes her only positive action to improve her situation: she demands the services of a social worker. Unfortunately Jane-Regina turns out to be an old enemy from school, who can offer no more constructive assistance than to come and talk about herself. Yet while the reader cannot help but sympathise with Minn in the face of the “mincing” and ghastly Jane-Regina, one is at the same time conscious of frustration at Minn’s inertia. She doesn’t want this baby; she is 37, she conceived while wearing a contraceptive loop, and she has grown up with a (much-loved) Downs syndrome sibling. She wanted an abortion, but her family doctor is condescending and unhelpful, and she has made no move to insist.

We follow Minn through the course of the day of the festival, struggling with preparations, fighting exhaustion to fulfil her role as hostess. By the end of the day (and the book) Minn has scored a minor victory, and has heard from her husband to say he is on his way home, but nothing has really changed. You suspect that her internal monologue will go on around the next baby (and you hope that, unlike the protagonist of The Glassy Sea, she will have a normal child). You feel it would take an upheaval like desertion by her husband to kick Minn into real action, and happily, Engel wrote the book for us to savour: Lunatic Villas, a joyous book about a woman who – even if she hasn’t got it right in the past – is trying to take full control of her own life.

The power of Engel’s writing is in its vividness and immediacy. Minn’s thoughts are compelling and convincing, and a dry humour weaves through the story. The house is as much a character as the people, and all are seen through Minn’s eyes, with irritation, love, despair. So tired by the end of the day that she can’t sleep, Minn wakes next morning in a mood of mild optimism, and it is impossible not to share with her the small hope that she will break through the inertia, or at least that things will get brighter in the future.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Another Reading Meme

I found this meme at Stefanie’s blog, So Many Books but I’ve seen it at a number of other places. While I’m still having connectivity problems it seems a good time to use it, while I prepare myself for battle over the weekend!

Do you remember learning to read? How old were you?
I can’t remember not being able to read. I’ve loved books as long as I can remember, and I think I probably got impatient waiting for people to read to me, so I had to do it myself.

What do you find most challenging to read?
Textbooks, unless I am completely immersed in the subject. If I’ve got caught up by, or disagree strongly with the argument, it’s fine but, if I am not fully engaged with the topic, it can be a tremendous effort to stay focused.

What are your library habits?
Most of my life I’ve visited the library regularly. These days when I arrive I head for the SF/fantasy shelves and browse there; then I drift down non-fiction through gardening to the various crafts in case there are any new or interesting books, then on to the Crime section. By the time I’ve finished there I have usually picked out four or five books, which I’ll then supplement with three or four general fiction. I had a phase of reading very fluffy chick lit (the kind with pastel covers) a while ago, but now I can’t read it at all – I think it was because I was suffering quite badly from anaemia, although I didn’t realise it at the time, and I just didn’t have any energy for serious reading. A course of iron pills and my reading returned to normal!

Have your library habits changed since you were younger?
When I was growing up I lived in a very small town and the library was open most evenings. I spent a lot of time there, so that, when I later lived in a city and was out of work, the reference library was where I spent my days, reading folklore. Soon afterwards, however, and married, we moved to the country, and visiting the library is no longer a spur-of-the-moment decision. Now I go once or twice a month.

How has blogging changed your reading life?
Instead of reading whatever the library has to offer, I am much more selective, looking for titles that have been reviewed by other bloggers, and requesting books if they are not available on the shelves. I also read more attentively, and make notes. And, because I’ve joined a number of reading challenges, I plan my future reading in much more detail. In the past I’ve only noted titles of books I want to buy, or particularly enjoyed; now I am keeping a list of everything I read.

How often do you read a book and not review it on your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about a book?
I’d rather be reading than blogging about a book that I didn’t find particularly engaging, although I originally set out to review everything. I do try to write brief comments about books I’ve enjoyed, but time often overtakes me. I’m hoping to achieve a balance somewhere along the way.

What percentage of your books do you get from new book stores, second hand books stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other?
I think I probably buy about half my books from online secondhand sites. The library supplies the next largest chunk, I guess, then most of the rest come from online retailers, though a small number come from secondhand bookshops and high street bookshops. Online exchange sites aren’t much use to me, since I re-read nearly all of my books – once I’ve bought it, it’s a permanent part of my library.

What are your pet peeves about the way people treat books?
I’ve blogged before about the thing which really upsets me: defacing library books. I think it’s unforgivable. Apart from that, I don’t really mind what people do to their own books, but I like my secondhand copies to be unmarked if possible.

Do you ever read for pleasure are work?
I’ve always read during coffee and lunchbreaks; since I started working from home for most of the month, I quite often read for 15 minutes after lunch, to give my brain time to unknot (though sometimes it has an unravelling effect).

When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them?
I generally only give books to people I know very well, and bear in mind their preferences. I think there are few things more disappointing than receiving a book you don’t really want, so I try to avoid putting people in that position.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Birthday books

I’m delighted that, following a series of broad hints (could printing out details from Amazon be broader?) this year’s birthday netted the book I most wanted: Mervyn Peake: the man and his art, compiled by his son, Sebastian Peake, and Alison Eldred. Peake has been one of my favourite authors, artists and poets since I first read him aged 14 or so, and fell in love with Gormenghast and its gruesomely captivating inhabitants. The new book is beautiful, lavishly illustrated, and contains 11 chapters with contributions garnered from Peake’s friends, family and others. The book arrived in the same week as a much-longed-for DVD of Mr Pye, perhaps these days one of Peake’s lesser-known works; filmed in 1986 as a series by Channel 4, it starred Derek Jacobi as Mr Pye, and is a delight. More on both anon – although so much has been written on Peake since I first dreamt of owl-infested towers that I feel unqualified to utter a single word.

The birthday also brought Roger Deakin’s Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees. This is another work I have wanted to read since it came out, and should provide much food for posts on Cat Musings, where I am now restricting myself to “country matters”, although perhaps not quite in the sense which Hamlet meant.

Finally, sheer indulgence, in the form of a comic book: from my younger son came the first instalment of Joss Whedon’s sequel to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. As in the television series, overall control will remain with Whedon, ensuring the integrity of the series. Apparently Buffy and the Slayers are now based in Scotland – I can’t wait!

Please note: this is currently an image-free - and almost post-free - zone, since my broadband connection will allow me only the most limited and fragmentary contact with the outside world. Full details of my woes on Cat Musings.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

A Deathful Ridge by J.A. Wainwright

In 1924 George Mallory was a member of a British expedition to climb Mount Everest. Following two failed attempts to reach the summit, Mallory and Andrew Irvine made a final attempt, intending to use oxygen to help them. The last time they were seen was on 8 June 1924, when climber Noel Odell reported he had seen them “going strong for the top”. For much of the twentieth century the question was, did they make it? And what happened, since their bodies were not found.

New Brunswick author J.A. Wainwright takes an unusual angle on the story. In a novel which seeks to examine the mythologising of Mallory’s attempt at Everest and of his life in general, he suggests that Mallory did not, in fact, die on Everest. In this version, Mallory – horribly scarred - is found by his fellow-climbers, and tells them, “I killed him.” This is the last thing he says. Believing he may indeed be responsible for Irvine’s death, a small group hustles him back to England in secrecy, where they decide to hide him in a Welsh cottage. Decades later, the unnamed Canadian narrator follows the story to Wales, where he finds a 104-year-old climber who says he has Mallory’s journal.

The strength of this book is not in the mystery of Mallory’s death or his possible survival – the back cover tells you that this is the plot. The interest is in its consideration of the nature of what we now call “celebrity”. Mallory and his colleagues were heroes before they left for Everest – the climber who led a successful attempt on the summit could be certain of a knighthood on his return. Well-educated and well-connected, they were the cream of their generation but, significantly, they had were also survivors of the horror of the First World War. Amongst his contemporaries Mallory was known as “Galahad” and they held a chivalric code of bravery in the face of impossible odds. Wainwright suggests that his colleagues convinced themselves that their golden boy could not return as a murderer; he would be better dead. So they hid him away and returned instead to a glorious failure. Mallory and Irvine had “stepped through the veil” – a recurring image in the Grail legends – leaving this symbol of the fading British Empire unsullied.

Mallory’s body was, of course, discovered on Everest in 1999, though the question of whether he made it to the top remains unanswered. None of this affects the book, since it is about an idea, rather than the facts surrounding his death. The Canadian viewpoint is, I think, necessary – some British ideas of Empire are entrenched whether we like it or not. I found it a little difficult to read a book set in Britain but written in Canadian English, and I wish it had been better proofread. However, those were minor irritations in a book I’ve been meaning to read for some years, so I’m grateful that the Canadian Book Challenge provided the incentive to do so.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

From the Stacks

"Last year, as a result of enjoying Carl's RIP Challenge so very much, Overdue Books created the From the Stacks Reading Challenge. We had an amazing response! So this's back. The rules are the same: If you are anything like me your stack of purchased to-be-read books is teetering over. So for this challenge we would be reading 5 books that we have already purchased, have been meaning to get to, have been sitting on the nightstand and haven't read before. No going out and buying new books. No getting sidetracked by the lure of the holiday bookstore displays."
I have to admit that this does seem like the perfect challenge in the approach to Christmas. The "to be read" pile is threatening to take over on my bookshelves (all double stacked, oh horror) and, while I shouldn't really need an added incentive to start working my way through it, I have made in the last year or so a rather alarming discovery about my book addiction: I begin to feel quite panicked if the height of the pile sinks too low. I lie awake at night wondering what I will do if there isn't an unread book waiting for me. Or, more exactly, a choice of unread books. I don't think this is entirely healthy, though I do make excuses about the difficulty of getting to the library and the inadequacy of choice when I get there. One of the problems is the internet, of course - giving me access to the largest second-hand bookshop in the world is dangerous; combining it with book blogs, author sites, complete bibliographies and advance warning of new books is fatal. The government worries about online gambling, but they should be looking out for me. Where will the dogs sleep when I replace the pile of books I'm reading now? Will the chickens have to share their coop with the overspill of gardening books?

Here is my selection of books for the From the Stacks challenge:

The challenge requires five to be read, but I've included Austerlitz, Stamping Butterflies and Temeraire as alternatives, not least because I may get stuck with Cloud Atlas for a second time. However, I plan to tackle most of the reading over Christmas, when I have every intention of being utterly self-indulgent and doing nothing but read for two weeks. The wonderful thing about having grown-up sons is that they don't require entertaining (they will spend their spare time playing with and on computers), they help with the washing up, they will cook lunch if no-one else feels like doing it, and they regard reading and writing about books as relatively normal activity. So, if the dogs and I really apply ourselves to leisure, we may get through the whole pile. I've just realised, there should have been a box of yoghurt drops atop the stack.

The only thing wrong with this scenario is that, if I read these eight books, plus books for Outmoded Authors and the Canadian Book Challenge, and I start my first book in the Young Adult Challenge on January 1st - which is quite likely - that will have made a significant dent in the TBR pile. "Hurrah," I hear you cheer. Not so, Jon Courtenay Grimwood's
butterflies are stamping away in the pit of my stomach, and I can feel the urge to have just a quick look at Abebooks. I've been thinking of adding to the Barbara Pym collection, and I haven't got any Agatha Christie - oops, watch that pile of books, it's tilting alarmingly...

Sunday, 11 November 2007

The Country House by John Galsworthy

Prior Park, Bath

I was interested to read something by Galsworthy that wasn’t part of The Forsyte Saga, which I am also reading, so that I had a comparison.

I can’t exactly say that The Country House has been an enjoyable read, because it – intentionally, I hasten to add - made me angry, but it has been interesting. Although not part of The Forsyte Saga, it shares one of the themes of the first book of the saga, Man of Property, in that it is about a divorce. Here, it is the main focus of the book and the legal ramifications of divorce, and its effect upon the three people most closely involved, and their wider family circle, is anatomised.

The country house of the title is inhabited Mr Horace Pendyce, with his wife Margery and their two youngest children. The eldest son, George, lives in London, where he divides his time between his Club and his racehorse; his father considers that he should be a home, learning to manage the estate, but George’s attentions are fixed on Mrs Jasper Bellew, a woman of great beauty with an alcoholic husband. Helen Bellew is a distant cousin of Mrs Pendyce, and is the ward of another cousin, Gregory Vigil.

The book begins with a shooting party given by Mr Pendyce, and the arrival of his guests. Mr Pendyce himself is originally of yeoman stock, his family having married into money and, we are given to understand, his wife is rather better bred than he is. He is an old-fashioned landlord: “It was his individual conviction that individualism had ruined England, and he had set himself deliberately to eradicate this vice from the character of his tenants.” To entertain their guests Mrs Pendyce gives a dance, and it is at this event that the vicar, the Reverend Hussell Barter, sees George kissing Mrs Bellew in the conservatory.

This is 1891, and Mr Barter immediately decides Mrs Bellew is no better than she ought to be, “no more than a common baggage”. So when some time later Vigil suggests that she should divorce her husband, from whom she has been living separately, Mr Barter officiously decides that it is his duty to intervene, on the grounds that Jasper Bellew is one of his parishioners. Helen finds herself being served with divorce papers, with George cited as co-respondent; however, if George will promise never to see Helen again, proceedings will end. George immediately announces that he will deny there has been anything between them, so that the divorce may proceed; the expectation of his family is that, if it does, George and Helen will marry. From this point, the complacent security of the Pendyces is shattered. Horace announces he will have nothing more to do with his son, and cannot bear the though that “that woman” should ever live in his house. Margery, the perfect wife, who has nonetheless never really loved her husband, leaves him to go to London and support her son through the ordeal.

What made me angry while reading this book, perhaps not surprisingly, is the reminder of the injustices perpetrated by our divorce laws until comparatively recently. Helen, who wants a divorce, must dissemble, her lawyer tells Vigil:
“We shall want evidence of certain things. Have you got any evidence?”
Gregory ran his hand through his hair.
“I don’t think there’ll be any difficulty,” he said. “Bellew agrees – they both agree.”[…]
Mr Paramor drew his breath between his teeth.
“Did you ever,” he said drily, “hear of what’s called collusion?” [. . .]
“Two unhappy persons must not seem to agree to be parted,” he said. “One must be believed to desire to keep hold of the other, and must pose as an injured person. There must be evidence of misconduct, and in this case of cruelty or of desertion. The evidence must be impartial. This is the law.”
So Helen, who is desperately unhappy with her husband, cannot seek a divorce unless she is able to demonstrate that she is the injured party (and there is a reason, which reflects well on her, why she cannot), but her husband, citing George, can start proceedings.

I can’t imagine very many people reading The Country House unless they have a particular interest in the period. It is, of course, well written (Galsworthy won the Nobel prize for Literature in 1932), but it lacks some of the beauty of structure evident in the Saga, although it was published a year later than Man of Property. In fact, I find myself wondering if he felt he had glossed over the miseries of divorce in that, and wanted to present a different viewpoint. If so, he succeeds, both in presenting the hypocrisies of the law, while also drawing a picture of three very different marriages. The novel’s characterisation is good, particularly in displaying the pomposity and inflexibility of Horace Pendyce and the loathsomely self-righteous vicar. Even so, while exposing their faults, he allows some humanity and vulnerability to creep in from time to time, as when the vicar’s wife is giving birth to their eleventh child. I have to admit to nearly giving up quite early on when a (condemnatory) comment on hunting made me wince sharply, and wonder if casual brutality towards animals might be a feature of the book. The carelessness of Pendyce’s love for his dog – and his wife – does indeed emerge: he continually trips over or treads on his poor spaniel, who is unswerving in his love for his master. The pace, just a little slow at first with the introduction of the dramatis personae, picks up, and offers a rewarding read.

Cross posted from Outmoded Authors.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Traveller's Prelude by Freya Stark

Robert Stark, Freya's father, painted by his wife, Flora

Traveller’s Prelude is, the author Freya Stark tells us, “a bare jumble written with no arrangement of words or style or matter”, written in haste during a lull between her travels in Cyprus and published in 1950. Although she admitted that she had subsequently tidied it up for publication, much of her beautiful prose must stand as originally put down. She writes candidly and fluently, relating the story of her childhood and young adulthood in Devon and Italy.

Born in 1893, Freya was the elder daughter of cousins Robert and Flora Stark. Robert and Flora were never, by the sound of it, ideally suited; Robert was happiest outdoors, building houses, landscaping gardens, and tramping the moors, while the charming 19-year-old Flora basked in London society, playing the piano for polite charity events and moving with ease amongst the artists of St John’s Wood. Raised in Tuscany, when they moved to a series of houses on Dartmoor she was ill-equipped to cope with cold, and wet, and Victorian attitudes which endlessly constrained the actions of young women. Freya said of her parents’ marriage:

Half the marriages that go wrong are destroyed by too much amiability at the outset; each human being has things that in the long run he cannot assimilate or forgo – and to try to do so only means a slow accumulation of disaster. It is far better to know the limits of one’s resistance at once and put up as it were a little friendly fence around the private ground.

The adult Freya expressed her sadness at remaining unmarried, despite all the efforts of family and friends to find her a suitable man. She said that the men concerned didn’t get round to proposing until she had lost interest in them; the impression, perhaps, is that, having observed the pain and loneliness of her parents’ marriage, her own “little friendly fence” might have been too readily obvious to her suitors. Her beloved sister, Vera, entered somewhat reluctantly into the married state with her mother’s business partner. Although this relatively brief marriage was not entirely happy (Vera died very young), and was marred by Vera’s mother living with the couple, it was nonetheless clear that her husband loved her, and tensions eased when Freya finally managed to persuade her mother to leave.

By the time Freya was eight her parents seem effectively to have drifted apart and, while Robert remained at their home near Chagford (in a house which holds a special place in my own life), Flora took herself and the girls to Asolo in Italy, a place which was to be important to Freya all her life. Here, though fortunately provided with a governess who undertook to deal with the gaps in their education, the girls seem to have lived an idyllic existence, with freedom to wander and explore at will. A serious accident at 13 brought Freya close to her mother, a relationship they managed to maintain despite, at times, severe tensions between them.

When Freya was 21 World War I started, and she trained as a nurse. Working at a field hospital close to the Italian front line, she talks in matter-of-fact tones of the horrific injuries she saw, and of a frantic escape retreating in front of the German artillery. She celebrated the end of the war by indulging her passion for mountaineering with her old family friend, W.P. Ker, but peace left her at a loose end, and without an income. Although money was a constant worry she bought a house on the Italian Riviera, near Menton, and moved there with her mother. She established a small vineyard and gradually began to earn a living, but illness dating back to the war began to tell on her. A serious operation followed and, during the time she had to spend convalescing – a very slow business, and full of setbacks – she started to learn Arabic, with a view to eventual travel. Her love of adventure is evident throughout the book, from childhood escapades which would have been the death of most mothers, to traversing icefields, and to smuggling household goods into Italy from France on her shopping trips. When her bank balance reached £300, she decided, she would leave; and so she did, setting sail for Beirut in November 1927.

This is probably the most neglected of Stark’s books, her later travel writings being better known. Here, Freya’s candour about her family and herself shine out of every page. Letters from family members and friends offer a different viewpoint from time to time, but Freya’s intelligent voice seems to speak directly to the reader throughout, capturing the events of the past with a freshness and clarity which is immediately engaging. I recommend it as a fascinating record of a period more often documented by men, but also as a work of literature, and would like to end with another quote which, I hope, shows the quality of her writing:

At night the fishing boats set out into this quiet sea with strong lanterns at their prow to fish for anchovies and later sardines, which both made an annual progress eastwards from Gibraltar round all the Mediterranean coasts. Word of their coming would go round before them. Each lighted boat had a dark sister ship that laid a net around it, enclosing the crowd of flickering fish that danced in the green water below the lighted prow. Gradually the two ships neared each other, the circular net drew in, and the catch was lifted up between them. I always thought of these two ships, the light and the dark, as life and death, working together.
Cross-posted from Outmoded Authors

Thursday, 1 November 2007

The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

Because it was Halloween on Wednesday I decided that I would mark the occasion in an appropriate fashion. Part of the previous week's library haul was The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. There seemed to be an unusual amount of hype about this book, until you realise that Joe Hill is the son of Stephen King, but what really persuaded me was that it came with enthusiastic comments, both on the book cover and his blog, by Neil Gaiman who, in my eyes, can do no wrong.

Now, I have to say at the outset that I think it was vastly over-hyped, but perhaps expectations are lower when we're talking horror novels? I don't read many, but some of those I have read have been excruciatingly badly written. I'm certainly not saying that's the case here, but it does read like a first novel. There is too much action and not enough explanation, and it is hard to fully engage with the characters.

It's about cynical, ageing rockstar Jude Coyne, who, disaffected and beyond the need to earn an income, decides to add to his collection of "noir" memorabilia by buying a ghost. I expect if Jude hadn't had an unhappy childhood (see American Gothic) he would have thought twice about the whole question, and, of course, when the ghost does show up, it turns out to be a set-up anyway. This ghost was all for him. A car chase ensues, with Jude, his girlfriend Georgia (he has the endearing habit of calling his goth girlfriends by their home state) and his two German Shepherds, fleeing south away from the ghost, who is rather handy with a razor. For about half the book I was hampered by the fact that only characters I liked were the dogs, but things did look up a bit towards the end.

It's not possible to say much about the plot without giving anything away, but unhappy childhoods do feature. There's not much explanation offered for them, some folks is just mean, I guess. The action has too much gore for my taste, but it doesn't really make you care much. Pacing is better, it's a fairly quick read anyway but, because so much is action, you do find yourself turning over just one more page. On the other hand, if someone had taken it away when I was half-way through, I am not sure I would have been desperate to finish it.

I did like the relatively leisured ending, which reminded me of Gaiman's writing, as did some earlier moments, and I wondered whether that was why Gaiman had been so positive about it. My response is distinctly lukewarm but maybe this is one for horror fans only?

October's booklist

Canadian Book Challenge (ends 1 July 2008): 1 of 13 completed
Outmoded Authors Challenge (ends 29 February 2008): 3 of 9 completed
Young Adult Challenge (runs 1 January-31 December 2008)

September's books are here
August's books are here

Links are mainly to reviews on this site; the occasional book on country topics (including novels) is reviewed on Cat Musings.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Young Adult Challenge

I was so tempted by this challenge when I first saw it, and then swithered rather over undertaking another. After a further week's deliberation I thought, why not? Twelve YA books in the course of 2008? I read at least one a month so I'd be reading and posting about them anyway. And the two other challenges I'm doing don't run the whole year. So, here goes (in no particular order):
1. Frances Hardinge, Verdigris Deep*
Garth Nix, Shade's Children*
3. Madeleine L'Engle, An Acceptable Time*
4. Julia Golding, Cat Among the Pigeons
5. John Wilson, The Alchemist's Dream
6. Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian
7. Catherine Fisher, Incarceron
8. Amanda Hemingway, The Poisoned Crown*
9. William Nicholson, Seeker
10. Patricia McKillip, Winter Rose

11. Adele Geras, Voyage

12. Patricia C. Wrede, Sorcery and Cecelia

  • Stephen Hunt, Court of the Air*
  • Angie Sage, Magyk
  • Kate Thompson, The New Policeman
  • Sherman Alexie, Flight
  • Charles de Lint, Little (Grrl) Lost
  • Geraldine McCaughrean, The White Darkness
I shall quite possibly have finished the first book by midnight on January 1st!

* these are books that I already have

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark

“Though Aurora rarely spoke of her origins, Tom thought that by filling her wander books with talismanic bits and pieces, she might be celebrating the miracle of having been rescued from the ice.”

Thus a young husband watching his wife record her wanderings around their lighthouse home at Cape Race in Newfoundland. And Aurora’s origins are truly miraculous: in 1912 she was found floating on a piece of ice off the Newfoundland coast, and rescued by two fishermen, who learn on reaching shore of the sinking of the Titanic. Her details are posted at the White Star Office but, unclaimed, she is taken into the family of Francis St Croix and his wife. Aurora is a quiet baby with one blue eye and one brown and white hair. The other local children consider her a changeling, not least because before she has even started school she has ordered a bear from the family home.

Aurora’s story unfolds, told partly in her voice. We learn of her marriage, the arrival of her two children (named Nancy Rose and Stanley Joseph after local shipwrecks), and her need for solitude which leads her to escape from her family from time to time to wander around her old family home. We see her children grow up and start their own wanderings, Nancy to England and Stan to Italy, and their marriages. Finally, Aurora’s grand-daughter, Sheila, makes her own journey to learn of Aurora’s origins and the ill-fated Titanic voyage. Meanwhile the ageing Aurora has again been drawn back to the sea and coast of her childhood, where she creates and tends a fairy garden and watches the stars.

Ice is always a player in these wanderings, a threatening presence. Stan, aware of it throughout his childhood, chooses to make ice his life’s work. There are some lyrical passages about the sight and sound of ice and even the smell of it. Another constant is the folklore of Newfoundland: even though Nancy rejects the story of her mother’s rescue from the ice, she becomes a folklorist, and records the beliefs and crafts of the local people.

The unifying thread, though, is that of wandering. Throughout we are aware of the passage of ships backwards and forwards, the passage of the ice. Stan’s trip to Antarctica reminds of the lines of latitude and longitude, imagined lines on the globe, while the story of Marconi’s message sent from Cornwall to Newfoundland is another imaginary line inscribed on the ocean. Meanwhile, the detailing of family comings and goings, often through letters, create further series of lines, Cape Race to St John’s, to Trepassey, to England, to Ireland . . . while weaving through all the comings and goings, backwards and forwards, is that dotted line of Aurora’s footsteps across the peninsula where she spends all her life.

This is a book of considerable beauty. It spans 80 years effortlessly, the timelines crossing – wanderings again – without confusion: we always know exactly where we are because, lyrical though it may be, it is nonetheless firmly rooted in the everyday, and the lives of the Newfoundlanders whose story it tells. It’s made an excellent start, for me, to the Canadian Book Challenge.