Sunday, 16 November 2014

A picture for Sunday

Another teapot, as promised - this time, my own. It's a Booths Blue Dragon teapot, not very old, perhaps 1930s. I haven't used it, which is perhaps a bit sad, but I'm very clumsy these days and it would be so easy to chip it. I'm very fond of blue-and-white transferware and have added to the nice old willow patten that I inherited from my grandmother so that I have a special occasions dinner service; I've also got lots of "everyday" blue-and-white ironstone that survives my clunking it while washing up! I like the mix-and-match ability it offers, and I do think ironstone china is admirable stuff. It was the first mass-produced china, and it made it possible for the middle-classes to have attractive and affordable tableware. The pattern could be applied by transfer instead of hand-painting, and copies of Chinese designs were extremely popular, hence willow pattern in particular. Although blue-and-white is perhaps the most famous, green (that's a green-and-white meat dish in the background), pink, brown and yellow can also be found, as well as several-coloured. Booths is not one of the oldest potteries - nothing like the pedigree of Spode, say, but they produced a variety of handsome designs. I'll post some more next week.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

A picture for Sunday

While I'm unable to type much we'll have some pictures. I have a new photo journal at Blipfoto - link on right. Although it will post new pictures as I upload (the idea is that I post a photo daily, though we'll see how long that will last!), I can also upload backdated photos, and I thought I might share them here.

This is lovely blue-and-white ware at Bamburgh Castle. I have some similar, but not nearly as elaborate. The dragons are appropriate because Bamburgh is the home of the story of the Laidly Worm. I should have posted this on Friday, for Hallowe'en!

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

What I did on my holidays

Actually, this is a post that I wrote some time ago, but I thought I would upload it now, as there's likely to be more on Edwardian clothes and the Great War here in the coming weeks, as they are both featuring quite heavily in my reading.

Early summer got very intense as I became more and more involved in the production my son was in at the local theatre, a new musical about World War I called Sam & Isla Forever. My involvement began when I lent some Edwardian clothes for use in the production -- as advance publicity, and to start to make a record of my mini collection of antique clothing, we arranged a photo shoot with some of the girls from the play:

"Isla" (Photo ⓒ Opuscule Photographic)

One of the scenes from the "home front" takes place on the beach and we felt that all those dark skirts were just a little too sombre for four rather flighty young women, but most of the budget for the production was, we knew, reserved for providing the soldiers with authentic uniforms and guns (and very effective they proved!) So one person volunteered some material and I volunteered to make skirts. Which was all very well until I dug my sewing machine out and discovered some crucial bits seemed to be missing! Happily the provider of the material also offered use of her machine if necessary. Two of the skirts travelled all the way to Devon with me so that I could bast them together completely to save time machining -- on my return I spent one long sunny afternoon completing all but the hemming stage and another in the depths of the theatre doing some final fittings. Two skirts and three belts down, and only one left to make for the heroine, Isla, and, by this time, about 10 days to opening night! Our costume director had rejected the first length of material for Isla's skirt because she wanted her to have a mauve theme throughout, but I sourced some lovely plum-coloured cotton on eBay which very obligingly turned up within two days. I'd designed a skirt based on the suit I'd loaned for Isla to wear as a widow:

By this time I'd got my own machine working -- to my delight because I'd forgotten how much I enjoy sewing! Isla's skirt was finished over the weekend before the first dress rehearsal,  by which time I'd also remembered how much I enjoy being in theatres, so I'd volunteered to dress at least one performance as well - in the event I did all but the last night, when I watched from out front, which was great because I finally got to see how it all looked.

The Sam & Isla girls in rehearsal. (Photo ⓒ Opuscule Photographic)

The play itself, by the way, described by its author Robert Wilkinson as a "kind of fable" was wonderful -- at times funny, at others intensely moving. Audience members were heard sobbing, and my son, who played the incompetent, doing-it-by-the-rules captain, reckoned that the sooner he grew his beard back the better (all the soldiers had WWI haircuts). The action was framed by a campaign in the 70s to have the 306 soldiers who were shot for "cowardice" posthumously pardoned, something that actually only happened in 2007. Seeing the young cast in their uniforms really brought home the horror of that time, and the tragedy of those executions of young men, most of them probably suffering from shell-shock, and some of them only 17.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

My continued absence!

Anyone trying to read my blog may have noticed my rather lengthy absence. There are two reasons for this - most recent is the failure of our broadband connection, which has now lasted nearly a month!! I do hope that normal service will resume soon, but I can tell you, it is extremely inconvenient. Though possibly of benefit to local coffee shops.

The other reason is that not only the broadband is broken - I am too :-(

I'm having problems with my hands, which aren't working very well, and lots of things have got rather difficult. Typing not the least of them. Posts for the time being, always supposing we get out connection back, may be rather brief. Not at all sure about getting the hands back, but my robo-glove is quite entertaining.

I did manage a review on the last issue of Shiny New Books, though, and you can find it here, along with lots of terrific reviews by other people.

Looking on the bright side, we had an addition to the family. This is Loki, a 6-month old rescue - wicked, exuberant, affectionate and the plague of both dogs. You'll be seeing plenty more of him,* I'm sure.

* Update: The Animal Rescue got it wrong! Loki is a girl...

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.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

More Than Love Letters by Rosy Thornton

I would love it if you would write to me next time we are apart... It is partly about having the letter to go through again (like Gran always says, you can't re-read a phone call). But it isn't just that, because you can save an email and open it up again whenever you want. or even print it out and keep it. It's also the idea of having the paper that you touched, that you looked at while you thought of the words -- and then the writing itself, telling me how you were feeling by how the words are flowing along smoothly, or scrawled in a great rush, or uneven and halting.
Although this is from a love letter in today's book, it applies equally well to any handwritten letter between friends, and eloquently describes the pleasure I've taken in sending cards and letters in the Month of Letters Challenge (now sadly ended for another year), the ongoing Postal Reading Challenge and now, in Postcrossing, in which complete strangers from anywhere in the world send each other postcards.

More Than Love Letters isn't only about handwritten mail -- the story is told in letters, email, excerpts from the minutes of meetings, even the odd newspaper cutting. It begins with a letter from Margaret, a teacher in her first job, to MP for Ipswich Richard Slater, to complain about VAT charged on sanitary protection -- not a cause he feels immediately drawn to. She follows up with various complaints about lack of bins for dog mess in local parks and so on, and he mentally categorises her as a mad old bat and ignores her, concentrating instead on trying to worm his way into the good graces of the Prime Minister (Ruler of the World, as Richard calls him). All very New Labour. Meanwhile, Margaret is settling into her new home, getting to know her landlady (another letter-writer), joining a local women's collective which runs a hostel for homeless women, and staying in touch with her Gran and with her friend Becs. It's only when Margaret threatens to tell the ROTW -- by now labelled the Rotweiler in Richard's mind -- that he isn't taking his constituents' complaints seriously, that Richard suggests she attend his surgery. And when he meets her, he's smitten.

Although there are moments of high comedy in this very amiable novel, it belies its slightly chick-lit cover. I'd defy anyone not to be moved by the plight of Helen, one of the hostel residents, and there are other sadnesses too. Margaret's Gran is reaching the age when she is finding managing on her own difficult, landlady Cora misses her husband who is absent on the oil rigs -- they all tell their stories through their letters. And if Margaret's idealism and fervour might be too much unadulterated, there are plenty of voices here to vary the tone and pace of the book: for a first novel it's written with a great deal of assurance. Rosy Thornton has gone on to write more challenging books since: amongst others, Hearts and Minds turns the Cambridge academic setting she's familiar with into a thoughtful, Pym-ish human comedy, while Ninepins* focuses on a mother-daughter relationship in an oddly claustrophobic novel, given the wonderfully realised sweep of its fenland backdrop. Both are books to read again.

Although I chose More Than Love Letters as a light (re-)read and with an ulterior motive -- wanting an epistolary novel to finally kick-off my Postal Reading -- it was pleasantly rewarding, not least because Thornton is that rare author, one whose characters can make jokes that are actually funny for the reader!

* Edited later to link to my other reviews of Rosy Thornton's books, just in case people are interested:
Tapestry of Love

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

Pollyanna is published on 28 February

One of the children’s classics I didn’t read when I was a child was Pollyanna. It had been described to me as a story about a pious little girl who was always finding reasons to be glad – it sounded absolutely sickening and I vowed to avoid it at all costs; after all, I was an Anne of Green Gables girl! I had it firmly fixed in my head, Anne was the fun one, Pollyanna was a prissy little miss. However, when the admirable Hesperus Press offered me a copy, I decided it was time to see if my preconceptions had been right – and, at the risk of sounding a bit Pollyanna-ish myself, I’m very glad I did!

Arriving in Beldingsville after the death of her missionary father, Pollyanna meets Aunt Polly, a sour spinster who has agreed to take on the little girl only because she knows her duty. Aunt Polly is a good woman, but a child in the house is unwelcome – consigned to a disappointingly bare attic, however, the first thing Pollyanna does is shin down the tree outside her window in order to explore her surroundings. And she continues in this irrepressible vein thereafter, talking nineteen-to-the-dozen and being so busily glad that she carries the people she meets along with her.

Does that sound unbearable? Truly, it’s not – because even though Pollyanna could talk the hind legs off a donkey, she can listen, too, and she tailors the reasons to be glad to the circumstances of the person she’s persuading to join her in the Being Glad Game. She tells her game to all and sundry – the only person she doesn’t tell is Aunt Polly, because that would mean explaining that her father had invented it, and Aunt Polly has forbidden talk of her father, who married Pollyanna’s mother against the wishes of her family. Pollyanna, who has opened her heart to Aunt Polly, despite the disapproval with which all her actions are met, sees this ruling as being intended to save her from painful reminders that she's now an orphan: “It’ll be easier, maybe – if I don’t talk about him. Probably, anyhow, that is why she told me not to talk about him.”

The charm, and what stops it being unbearably smug, is that Pollyanna has discovered for herself the Aristotelian “good life”, and her living of it is exemplary. Her resolute cheerfulness is full of bravery and goodheartedness, and she wins over townsfolk and reader equally. There’s nothing prissy or goody-goody about her – she’s exuberant, candid, full of imagination and compassion, and, above all, lovable. She knows it isn’t easy to see occasions for gladness in everything that life throws at people and, indeed, even her indomitable spirit wavers heartbreakingly when she faces her greatest adversity.

The writing is a surprise, too, in a book first published in 1913. Porter has a lovely direct style with none of the prosiness that characterises many children’s classics. The dialogue is lively, the other characters memorable, and the plot really zings along. I read it over two evenings, looking forward to it all the second day and quite determined that I wasn’t going to stop reading before the end. The Hesperus edition is lovely too, with an attractive cover and a real feel of quality – I did appreciate the binding that makes it easy to hold the book open comfortably. This is a book that really deserves its classic status, and equally deserves to find a whole new readership. Rejoice greatly, and welcome Pollyanna into your lives (and onto your bookshelves)!

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland... by Catherynne M. Valente

The full title of this book is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and I have been meaning to read it since I first read about its publication. Now, thanks to Lovereading, I have finally got round to it. And I was enchanted. I knew within ten pages that I was entirely happy and going to love it.

You are swept away from the start very much as young the young heroine is. Young September, a 12-year-old living in Omaha, is fed up at home - her mother is never there (she's busy making airplanes for the war effort), her father has gone to be a soldier, and she's lonely. But the Green Wind takes pity on her and arrives on the Leopard of Little Breezes to take her to Fairyland, where she finds everything is not just lovely, because the wicked Marquess has imposed stringent laws which mean that no one is allowed to fly and witches can't work their witchcraft properly -- in short, what is needed is a girl who is willing to go on a Quest to put things right. And despite discomfort and difficulties and even enormous setbacks, September is prepared to take on the task. After all, she reasons, why else was she brought there?

I love the way in which the storyteller addresses the reader directly and says things like "you must remember from your own adventuring days how harsh a task lies before her"... I love the way everything isn't explained all at once, even though we have an all-knowing narrator. I love the names of the characters: September who was born in May, the Wyverary A-Through-L whose father, he thinks, must be a Library, the frightening Glashtyn...

I found myself thinking a lot about the literary influences behind this delightful book -- I detected, I think, a soupcon of The Wizard of Oz (not, I admit, my favourite book), a little smattering of Lud in the Mist (practically required reading for Fairyland aspirants), a suggestion of Thurber (a glorious teller of fairytales) and more than a hint of The Phantom Tollbooth, a book which should be an admission ticket to Faerie in its own right.

This is only the first of September's adventures in Fairyland and I'll be reading the next one very soon.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Martyr by Rory Clements

Elizabethan England is probably associated in most people’s minds with dark deeds, notorious spymasters and religious strife – although things were better under Elizabeth than they had been under her sister Mary, being Catholic was still dangerous and recusants were expected to demonstrate their allegiance to the new church. Conspiracy was rife – England was surrounded by Catholic countries and, with her cousin Mary Queen of Scots* awaiting execution for plotting against Elizabeth, there was a very real danger of invasion. A plot to murder Sir Francis Drake would, if successful, throw the English fleet into disarray and open the way to England’s enemies. John Shakespeare (brother of the more famous Will) is chief intelligencer to Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen’s spymaster, and it is his task to uncover the plot. It must be a Catholic conspiracy, but could it be linked to the murder of a young woman who is known to have Catholic sympathies? Thwarting Shakespeare’s efforts is the brutal torturer Richard Topcliffe, a man who enjoys his work and despises Shakespeare.

Although I thought the plot moved a little slowly at times, there are some gripping moments and loads of period atmosphere, which bodes well.  Historical crime is rather fashionable at the moment, and a well-written series is always welcome. There are already two sequels to Martyr, exploring the darker corners of the period, and it’s good to have an author’s website with some nice pictures of Elizabethan houses, a lexicon, and information about some of the real people who appear in the books. 

The third in the series, Prince, has just been published and both it and I like the look of the plots for both it and the second book, Revenger. But I have to admit that I'd order them from the library rather than buy them.

My copy came courtesy of Lovereading.

* Apologies to anyone who read my original version in which I made a most egregious error!