Just published: Jean Lee’s new novella.

Night’s Tooth is a fantasy western. Everything we need to know about what this story is going to do is set up in the opening sentence.

Sumac tucks the brass buttons off the last Confederacy coat into his pocket, before tossing it into the dying fire.

Here we have a character with an interesting name. I happen to know that Sumac is a type of tree, known in Britain as Stag’s Horn. Is this relevant?

I always assume names are potentially important, and since I have the botanical reference in my head, every time Sumac is mentioned, I get a momentary memory of the tree. I also know that sumac powder can be bought for cooking with, though I’ve never used it.

But I digress. Why is Sumac keeping the buttons rather than the coats? That’s intriguing, particularly since the next sentence explains something of where he is, and where the coats have come from.

The road up from Bad Axe had been long and cold, and none of the Wanted papers mentioned anything about Slit Mick’s armed companions.

Confederacy coats confirm I’m in America, and the period is some time in, or after the 1860s. It’s winter, and Sumac has travelled a long way. He must be formidable, because in the next sentence we discover not only that he’s killed the whole gang, also that he ‘enjoyed‘ the challenge.

Sumac, then, is impressively ruthless. I won’t say admirably, since the next thing he does is to pick human flesh from between his teeth. In case we’ve misunderstood the significance of that, this section finishes with Sumac thinking about the dead men as part of the ‘food chain‘.

Here is no cosy hero, despite his appearance.

Sumac’s built like a god, a girl told him once, a god of the old country. He asked which country that was. She called it Norway.

Worrying as some of his actions and attitudes are, Sumac is the focus of our attention. The narration is third person, but we experience the world, and events, as he does. The gang, nearly blew Sumac’s ear clean off when he came for Mick, so it was only right Sumac had his fun with those worthless hunks of meat… Did you note that, ‘only right‘?

I can’t say I’m comfortable with the idea that Sumac had his fun. But I’m in the-world-of-story, and Jean is making it easy for me to accept the unacceptable. Besides, with a name like Slit Mick, the outcome was always going to be bloody. But just in case you did begin reading in the expectation of a traditional Western, that’s been rectified.

It soon becomes clear that Sumac is not human. Besides his appetites and attitudes, he is able to transform into a cougar and use natural magic. His observations about the way the world works are intriguingly alternative.

The men’s photographs are so grainy Sumac wonders why anyone bothers with that technological contraption of wood and glass to do what anyone’s done just fine with pencils and paint.

The narrative voice is also interesting. It’s third person, but so close to Sumac that it assumes the oddities of his sentence structures, a distinctive, colloquial, syntax. Look for instance, at what happens when Sumac arrives at the sheriff’s office, with Slit Mick’s body, to collect the two thousand dollar bounty.

Sumac makes no never mind about the bloody handprint he leaves on the knob.

There’s not much time to wonder, though. Slit Mick is small-fry compared to the big prize Sumac is really after, a mysterious character known as, Night’s Tooth.

“Sumac don’t dare lose him, not now, not when he’s so close Sumac can catch his canine scent riding the snow and coal dust.”

The hunt is on. We’ve yet to discover the true nature of any of the creatures roaming the town, or the full extent of what is at stake. This is an edge of the seat, full speed journey, with plenty of unexpected twists.

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Once Upon a Time in the North concludes my #10booksofsummerchallenge

Yes, you have just read my title correctly, I’ve finished the summer reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 Books! Philip Pullman’s novella is the one I kept for last and I finished it in one sitting.

There are still five days to the challenge deadline. No last minute race against the clock for me, I’m calm: I’m sorted. This is unheard of. So, why is it that I don’t feel efficient?

Maybe because I was a little, just a little, disappointed in the book I’d looked forwards to.

As an object, it is delightfully bookish. A lot of thought went into the design and manufacture. For a start, it’s hand-sized. If it had followed standard dimensions, it would have been a narrow volume.

Because it’s short in height, there are more pages, and the spine is wide enough to display the author, title and publisher, comfortably. It looks attractive on the shelf. If I were into interior design, I could imagine wanting a row of them, in matching and contrasting colours.

I wanted to read it. I’ve been savouring the moment of beginning since several months before this challenge started.

The inside reminded me of expensive notebooks, the paper is just that quality that demands such neat perfection I would worry about making the first mark. This is not just a book to own, or to treasure, it’s an artefact that might have come from the parallel universe it describes.

The lovely woodcut illustrations, by John Lawrence are part of the other-wordly charm. The larger ones are footnotes to the action, the thumbnails are story divisions. There are no numbered, or named, chapters. It’s a book that demonstrates how the combination of paper, ink and content can enhance a reading experience.

After the story ends, there is an appendix. Newspaper clippings, letters, year-book extracts, rules for a game and an academic certificate are included. While this book is a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy for the readers in this universe, in the universe it describes, What we’ve read is an historical document.

It wasn’t only the quality of the paper that kept me turning the pages. The story was nicely paced, right from the opening line.

The battered cargo balloon came in out of a rainstorm over the White Sea, losing height rapidly and swaying in the strong north-west wind as the pilot trimmed the vanes and tried to adjust the gas-valve.

It’s a pretty spectacular entrance for Lee Scoresby and his daemon, Hester. They’re drifters, in the best American western tradition. Having won his balloon in a poker game, Lee is ‘blown by the winds of chance‘ into Novy Odense, in the Arctic, a place that ‘looked like a place where there was work to be done.’

The first thing he establishes on landing is that the work he’s looking for is not about striking it rich in the expected manner. He’s not there because of the ‘oil rush‘, even if he does look to the locals like ‘a roughneck‘. The question at the opening of the book, then, is what does Lee Scoresby want?

The journey to finding that out includes a few false starts, and blind alleys. Tension builds, shifts and rebuilds. There is a neatly plotted rise in tension.

There is a ‘but’, for me, though.

His Dark Materials were also books of ideas. Soon after they were published discussion began on what was happening below the surface of the action. The story included, if the reader chose to look, additional layers to interpret. It was perfectly acceptable to race through the adventure without recognising anything else happening, of course. But for some of us, the icing on this cake was recognising references, and identifying how they worked.

Although the Dark Materials trilogy was sold in the children’s section, most reviews claim it was written without a specific audience in mind. If I’d checked some other reviews before starting this novella, I would have realised that despite the film references, Once Upon a Time in The North is a book for children. It wasn’t a disappointment, this is beautifully written and paced.

But I probably won’t be tempted by any more of the spin-offs, despite the tactile design.

Prisoners, escapades and histories: my #10booksofsummer.

This week I’ve finished three more books from the ten I chose for the reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 books, Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, Coraline by Neil Gaiman and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I’ve little to say about Coraline. It’s a competent novel, but I don’t think it would have appealed to me as a child. There were nice moments, and it wasn’t a struggle. Other reviewers have been positive and Henry Selick made it into a film, in 2009. I just didn’t feel any magic.

Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, grabbed me by the heart and pulled me into his story. I wished I’d read it when I was young. Though I probably would have missed some of the humour.

That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mostly.

I loved every moment until Tom Sawyer came back in and took over. Why, of why did Twain do that? Oh, I know it made commercial sense, and that he thought of Huck as a spin off from the highly successful Tom Sawyer, but I so much preferred honest Huck. As, I’m sure, the long suffering Jim must have, too.

I’ve passed Huckleberry to my fourteen year-old nephew, to while-away the hours of a long journey. I’m looking forward to finding out if it works for him, too.

It’s a good job Tom Sawyer is not part of this challenge. I’m not sure I can face him, yet.

I first heard about Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart on the BBC Radio 4 book show, A Good Read, in 2013. I bought a copy, but it stayed on my TBR shelf.

Then last year, it won the Cheltenham Booker 1958 debate. As Claire and I drove home, I said, ‘I’ve got to read that novel, now.’ But somehow, the time has never been right.

When I gathered books for this challenge, Things Fall Apart was the first I decided on. So I was sorry when I couldn’t engage with Okonkwo, the main character. It’s what I expect to do when the opening paragraph seems to offer a hero.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten…

There’s a lovely description of the wrestling match. But, as soon as Okonkwo has won the story jumps forwards, ‘That was many years ago, twenty or more...’ Now, Okonkwo has a ‘severe look‘, and he walks ‘as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often.‘ In case, like me, you thought that sounded a little playful, the next aspect of this character portrait reverses that:

He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men.

There are no parallel descriptions of how he behaves when happy. Instead, it is clear that Okonkwo is a repressed and repressive character, who doesn’t allow even his family to get close. If they couldn’t, then why should I be allowed to do so?

The narrator did his best, providing me with influences and events that could explain Okonkwo. ‘Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.‘ Respect, then is his goal, and we’ve already been shown that to earn that, he must be, ‘a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father...’

I could understand, but I struggled to empathise. ‘Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.‘ My sympathies were with them, fleeting though the glimpses of individuals were.

Yet, I read on. I began to think about why that was.

Every detail counts. It feeds the story. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, reclines ‘on a mud bed in his hut playing on his flute.’ He’s a lazy man, ‘a failure‘ with huge debts. Okonkwo, on the other hand, ‘stretched himself on his bamboo bed‘. It’s night-time when he goes to rest.

Domestic detail is threaded through the dialogue and action without explanation. Gourds were filled with palm-wine when Unoka ‘made merry‘; a kola nut disc was broken and shared by two men beginning a discussion; prayers were said and the talk was of yam growing, or the threat of heavy rain. Wives kept to their own huts in the compound, cooking meals and raising their children. I was not a stranger being shown something unusual, I was taking part in something ordinary.

I became involved in the domestic, social and spiritual realities of Okonkwo’s community. I had a place in the village. I shared the struggles and dangers, the everyday routines and expectations.

That’s clever. Achebe has taken the advice to ‘show, not tell’ to another level.This is a fine and powerful story. It cut through what I thought I knew about history and civilisation.

I’m not in a physical prison, but the tribute from Nelson Mandela, quoted on the cover, made me think about how complacent-thinking can fence us in. He said, ‘The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.

A lot of ‘things‘ have been shaken, for me. I don’t say anything will ‘fall apart‘, but it’s good to be able to turn a story round and think again about the values of what has been lost.

Reading Akunin and Pratchett for the #10BooksofSummer challenge.

Putting Boris Akunin with Terry Pratchett feels like the clue to a cryptic crossword, or perhaps a literary riddle. They’re novels five and six from my Ten-Books-of-Summer challenge and, on first sight, an unlikely pairing. Not that I read them together, but the second did follow close-on-the-heels of the first. Given the way the month is slipping by, I felt I needed to make more effort with my reading schedule.

Let me start by being shallow. What drew me to Pelagia and The White Bulldog was the cover. I liked the colours, and the firm lines, as well as the details. It suggested setting and period. I’ve been caught out before by inaccurate book covers, but in this case, my instinct was true. Every detail is relevant, though I didn’t understand quite how cleverly D. Rink had interpreted the story until I’d finished the novel.

As an aside, here’s a hint for any publishers who might stumble across this post: there’s more than one advantage in employing an artist rather than trawling through out-of-copyright images for something that’s vaguely appropriate.

The story opens in medias res (that’s the technical term for ‘in the midst of things’) with a long sentence. I know there’s a lot of valuable advice out there about brevity and simplicity. I agree with it. I’ll go further – I try to abide by it, especially on my blog.

But occasionally, I stumble across a piece of writing that demonstrates how to break that rule. I didn’t itch to un-cap my red-correction pen when I read this opening sentence:

…But I should tell you that, come the apple festival of Transfiguration Day, when the sky begins to change from summer to autumn, it is the usual thing for our town to be overrun by a genuine plague of cicadas, so that by night, much as you might wish to sleep, you can never do it, what with all that interminable trilling on all sides, and the stars hanging way down low over your head, and especially with the moon dangling there only just above the tops of the bell-towers, for all the world like one of our renowned ‘smetna’ variety apples, the ones that the local merchants supply to the royal court and even take to the shows in Europe.

I hadn’t even realised just how long it was, until I started copying it out.

To have interrupted this flow with stronger punctuation would have broken the lyrical dream I was entering. The world presented is a different continent and historical period to mine, but the delivery draws me in.

The narrator is close beside us, ‘I should tell you...’ It’s confidential. He trusts us to understand and share his view. ‘You‘, he says, again and again. I do feel that this is a male voice, though I’m not sure why. A male author doesn’t have to signify a male narrator.

There are references to Sherlock Holmes and, apparently, Akunin was influenced by Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose. This novel, however, feels like magical realism, though the set-up is quirky rather than fantastical. Sister Pelagia, a nun, is sent by His Grace Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolzhie, to discover who is trying to ‘murder’ his aunt’s valuable white bulldogs. As she investigates this crime, Pelagia stumbles across a whole host of additional situations.

This is a book that deserves careful reading. What can seem like inconsequential rambles into back-story will be key to the resolution. At its heart, this is a traditionally styled crime novel, with neatly deployed smoke and mirrors.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents also uses a range of clever miss-directions. Maurice, a talking cat with questionable moral values, leads a clan of talking rats and a ‘stupid looking kid‘ who plays the flute. They’re travelling from town to town pulling a tremendous Pied Piper scam.

But, the rats, who used to live on the rubbish heap at the back of the University for Wizards, have begun to struggle with their recently acquired senses of individual identity. In doing so, they force Maurice, and us, to share their examination of actions and attitudes, and enter into philosophical and ethical avenues of debate.

The older clan member, Hamnpork, would rather ‘the Change‘ hadn’t happened. He thinks that ‘setting fire to a candle is a waste of perfectly good food.’

Dangerous Beans, though, was born after ‘the Change‘ happened. He is clear about why candles should be burned rather than eaten.

‘We have to be able to control the fire, sir,’ said Dangerous Beans calmly. ‘With the flame we make a statement to the darkness. We say: we are separate. We say: we are not just rats. We say: we are The Clan.’

It’s a pacey, character driven story. For those who care to look, it’s threaded through with satirical observations. Cultural myths about plague and rats are central. In the Author’s Note, at the end of the novel, Pratchett says:

I have read, in the past few months, more about rats than is good for me. Most of the true stuff… is so unbelievable that I didn’t include it in case readers thought I’d made it up.

There’s more than biological detail, though. He visits the Pied Piper, Dick Wittington, Puss-in-boots, Alice in Wonderland, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, plus Beatrix Potter and the legion of anthropomorphic story-writers who followed her.

As for James Herbert – remember his horror story about a pack of mutant rats that threaten human life? Pratchett turns that upsides-down. His rat-Clan have eaten the discarded ‘dribbly candle ends‘ and ‘green bubbly stuff‘ that are thrown so carelessly on the tip the rats knew as both ‘home‘ and ‘lunch‘. The result is the evolution of an heroic Clan, as keen as Sister Pelagia to think carefully about doing the right thing.

Improbable or not, the pairing of these two novels began to seem like a happy accident, with a lot of valuable writing practice in common.

Pastors and Masters, & The Guest Cat – two from my #10booksofsummer list

In case my title has you saying, ‘hashtag what?’ I’ll quickly remind you that back at the beginning of June, I volunteered to join the summer reading challenge set by 746 Books.

Still lost? Here’s the recap: I listed 10 books I intended to read, and review, before September 3rd. So far, I’ve completed one.

I know, I’m woefully behind. I’ve got six more Mondays between now and the end of the challenge, and next week I’m planning to do the Six Degrees one, instead. So even my dodgy maths confirms I’ve got to do some doubling-up, if I’m going to fit nine books into five posts.

Hence, this week, Ivy Compton-Burnett gets paired with Takashi Hiraide. The combination results in a title that seems to me suitable for an intriguing leap into magical realism. Perhaps I could have read alternated chapters from each. It’s a fleeting thought, probably indicative of hysteria. I have come through the other side of the combined 238 pages feeling a little disorientated.

I began in the suburb’s of Tokyo, in the late 1980s. My unnamed narrator led me quietly around the home he and his wife rented, explaining in great detail what it looked and felt like, and how they came to live there. I learn a lot about them and their lives, even before Chibi, the cat of the title, appeared.

This is a gently paced, reflective tale. When I checked up on the author, I was not surprised to find that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. The shaping of the story, the attention to detail, the presentation of key images seemed to lead me into areas of quiet contemplation. Even the opening, a description of a window in their kitchen, intrigued.

The small window in the corner of our kitchen bordered on a tall wooden fence, so close a person could barely pass by. From inside the house, its frosted glass looked like a dim movie screen. There was a small knothole in the wooden fence and the green of the bamboo hedge – which was about ten feet wide, to the north of the alley – was always projected on to the crude screen. Whenever someone walked by in the narrow alleyway, a figure formed, filling the entire window. Viewed from the dark interior of the house, sunny days seemed ever more vivid, and working perhaps on the same principle as a camera obscura, the figures of people walking past were turned upside down.

That window, it seemed to me, was the key to the way the narrator presented his world. There were backstories, digressions, contemplations and forward movement. It was one of the most relaxing and yet entertaining reads I’ve ever had. I read slowly, savouring the scenes.

What slowed me up with Pastors and Masters, on the other hand, was the need to concentrate. With hardly any description at all, and no scene-setting hints, I had to pick up my clues from a series of sharply observed dialogues between a challengingly large cast of characters for a small book.

It opens with a tirade that sets a pace, tone and style that never relents.

‘Well, this is a nice thing! A nice thing this school-mastering! Up at seven, and in a room with a black fire…I should have thought it might have occurred to one out of forty boys to poke it…’

The school remains unnamed, and so does the English university town. I finally pinned the period down during the dinner party that concludes the novel.

‘Well, we were certainly classed by the state with paupers and idiots and children, before we had the vote,’ said Miss Basden. ‘I mean we women were.’

Women in England who were householders, and over the age of 30, got the vote in 1918. But I got closer than that when a little later Miss Basden says:

‘I think these changes in the divorce laws will do a great deal towards equalising the position of women’…

I looked that one up and found The Matrimonial Causes Act of 1923. The novel was published in 1925.

I enjoyed the repartee, though after getting lost twice in the first chapter, I wrote myself a character list. I was still using it at the end of the book for the dinner party.

How glad I was only to be an observer at that feast. It was littered with snide asides, direct and indirect personal verbal attacks. Whoever repeats that old saying about sticks and stones should check out the interplay between these characters. Part of the power of their exchanges is created by the absence of authorial comment or explanation.

Compton-Burnett has been described as dangerous. She’s been compared to Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker and Pinter. I’m inclined to agree. Maybe I’ll track down another of her novels and see how they compare. But when I do, I’ll set myself a gap from any other kind of reading.

Tom Hanks, short stories.

This week I’ve been reading the seventeen stories in Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. I’ve been curious about what kind of writer he might be ever since reading a selection of the mixed reviews he picked up when it was published in 2017. Obviously, not curious enough, because I didn’t buy it. But a couple of weeks ago Mike offered to lend me his copy.

I’ve just finished it, so this is my mixed review:

Top of my likes is Alan Bean Plus Four. It was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and you can still read it online. It begins:

Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop. 

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

The style is light, the concept is fun, and there’s enough confidence about the technical details to convince me that in some Heath-Robinson manner, the narrator, Steve, MDash and Anna do construct a rocket, in the narrator’s back-yard.

We’d have no Mission Control to boss us around, so I ripped out all the Comm. I replaced every bolt, screw, hinge, clip, and connector with duct tape (three bucks a roll at Home Depot). 

I like science fiction, and I like absurd. I also like economy – it’s not just the thriftyness of the duct tape I’m referring to, this story wasted no words on backstory. I wonder if one of the reasons for that was because it picked up characters from an earlier story, Three Exhausting Weeks.

This was the opening story. I liked the characters, once I’d got into the story, but I found it a slow, slightly confusing, start.

Day 1

Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash – the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theatre.

MDash, it turns out is Mohammed Dayax-Abdo, who is ‘about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen…’ I’m still not clear about the definition of a ‘swap meet‘. I began to feel it wasn’t necessary to, which might suggest that segment could have been cut. However, the narration does reflect the narrator’s personality.

Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school… We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my licence and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while.

He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy. He’s not daft, he’s been to college, remember. But not ambitious either, so I allowed for the odd sideways ramble.

Anna, on the other hand, has a ‘keen eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing.’

By page three, I’d warmed to them both, and become intrigued by their contrasts. I wasn’t skipping past words, I’d tuned-in to the delivery style, and stayed with them for the full three weeks. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, but that’s fine. It felt true, and I was glad to have shared their journey.

With the third story about these four characters, Steve Wong is Perfect, I did skim lines and even paragraphs. Maybe it was just too much detail about bowling – though I didn’t have a problem with that when I watched The Big Labowski.

Top of my dislikes, were the four Hank Fiset stories. They were set out as newspaper feature pieces. Hank being a journalist who is struggling with modern life. Everything about them seemed cliched. One of them includes a section that Hank writes on his phone to demonstrate how predictive texting will affect the way he writes, surely that’s a very old joke, now.

I also failed to stay with Stay With Us, which is a short movie script. It opens with a complicated collage of scene-setting shots, and a montage of character names, some famous. Maybe, if it had been filmed, I’d be writing a rave review: on paper, I was soon confused and lost.

Overall, I did like the collection. The stories are not high-literature, but most of them have a clear dramatic arc, strong characterisation and include some lovely moments.

I thought the idea of using typewriters as a means to link the stories together was fun. In some it’s central, in others it’s a throw-away line. At times I forgot they were significant, even though they were central to the plot.

Will I be buying my own copy? Well no. Interesting as they were, and I am glad I’ve read them, I think once was enough.

Journeys into fiction

When a friend loans me a book, I know it’s important. It’s not unusual for books to visit my house fleetingly, but generally they’re on a journey without a clear destination. They might land up at the charity shop or with another friend, and there’s no time-frame for when that happens.

I’ve several shelves carrying that kind of load. I can only rarely tell you where any of them came from, or how long they’ve been there. In fairy tale terms, they’re passive, Sleeping Beauties, waiting to be woken.

A loaned book needs to be a different kind of heroine. She’s got a purpose.

‘You really ought to read this,’ my friend says, drawing a paperback with an understated cover from her bag. ‘I think you’d find it interesting.’

I’m intrigued by the binding. It’s expensive looking, made from thick, textured, cream-coloured card. The title jumps out at me, The Murderess. Beneath it a ribbon of stylised drawings of a woman’s face, in crimson and grey, half in cross-hatched shadow, are repeated across the cover and onto the spine.

My friend tells me no more. I thank her, and open the book, wondering if it can be short stories.

It’s a translation of a novel first published in 1903. The author is Alexandros Papadiamandis – a new name to me, but a glance at his biographical notes tells me he is ‘one of Greece’s most important writers‘. If the first hook was a recommendation from someone who’s judgement I trust, the second is this offer of getting insight into the literature of another culture.

All these years I’ve been dipping in and out of Greek myths, and I’ve not really thought about what was written after them. Starting with a modern classic seems like another good reason to get on and read this.

I skip past the introduction, no tour guide necessary, thank you. I’m looking forward to sharing this journey with the narrator. I promise to come back later, though. It’s always interesting to share notes, afterwards.

She half-sat, half-lay beside the fireplace, her eyes shut and her head propped against the hearthstone, but Aunt Hadoula, often called Yannou or Frangissa, was not asleep. She had given up sleeping to watch beside the cradle of her little sick granddaughter. The baby’s mother, who had given birth less than forty days previously, had fallen asleep a short while ago on her low sagging bed.

A good narrator is a joy to travel with, even when the tale is dark. This one knows exactly how to draw me in. The story is neatly intersected with snippets of information about how life is on Skiathos, at a time when education is only just being offered to girls, and men are emigrating to America.

A Social Tale’, says the sub-title. Even when I was involved in what was happening, but especially in the gaps when I put the book down, I thought about the whole title. The first part foreshadowed every event. While reading, I was tense, wondering who would die, how, and when. At the same time, the story brought me back, again and again, to the way the described society was organised. It was local, personal, global and absorbing.

It was about how big questions impact on a personal level. It could be read simply as the first half of the title suggests, or it could lead the reader to think. It could make you look again at that cover, that line of cross-hatched faces, and wonder why they are repeated. Other copies have opted for different images. I like the subtlety of this one, by Nikos Akrivos.

This book will complete it’s own journey and get back to its owner in good time, not because I saved it from languishing on my TBR shelf, but because it more than delivered on its promise, and I made some unexpected discoveries along the way.

The first book from my Summer-of-Reading list.

I’ve had a busy week, so I decided to start my ten-books-in-three-months challenge with something easy. Everyone knows that books for children are light, and short, particularly when they’re described as ‘especially good for reading aloud‘. Charlotte’s Web seemed an obvious choice.

My first surprise was to discover that it’s illustrated. How could I have forgotten that about books for the under twelves?

Possibly because I rarely notice pictures in text. Unless I’m reading a comic-strip, or graphic novel, illustrations are an interruption. As my family will tell you, it takes a lot to break me out of a book. This one hooked me from the opening.

‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

‘Out to the hoghouse,’ replied Mrs Arable. ‘Some pigs were born last night.’

‘I don’t see why he needs an axe,’ continued Fern, who was only eight.

If my jaw didn’t physically drop, my mind leapt. We’re talking violent death, and the realities of farm life and food production, in a book for children, quite small children. There surely wasn’t any way back from this. As Fern ran out, in tears, to confront her father, I had to turn the page.

I’m not spoiling anything by telling you she saves the piglet, only simplifying the beautifully concise and convincing argument she has with her father. That conversation is a fine demonstration on rounding out characters. I loved this.

I loved all of it. It was the attention to detail, as much as the power of the story that continually surprised and pleased me.

Forward movement never pauses. Fern names the piglet, Wilbur. She feeds him from a baby’s bottle, and for two months he follows her nearly everywhere. In the process, there are some lovely descriptions of what Spring means for children. There’s no time to get complacent about the outcome, though. By the end of chapter two, Fern’s father insists Wilbur must be sold.

I knew what that meant, but I wasn’t sure if a child would. White makes it clear that on the farm, and in nature, the issue of death is never far away. He uses that understanding to build tension, and foreshadow the moment when an old sheep tells Wilbur: ‘…they’re fattening you up because they’re going to kill you...’

There’s a surprising amount of detail to come on that subject.

‘Almost all young pigs get murdered by the farmer as soon as the real cold weather sets in. There’s a regular conspiracy round here to kill you at Christmastime. Everyone is in on the plot…even John Arable.’

‘Mr Arable?’ sobbed Wilbur. ‘Fern’s father?’

‘Certainly. When a pig is to be butchered, everybody helps. I’m an old sheep and I see the same thing, same old business, year after year. Arable arrives with his .22, shoots the…’

‘Stop!’ screamed Wilbur. ‘I don’t want to die! Save me, somebody! Save me!’

The cause, the point of this story, is finally out in the open. It’s been there all the time, in one form or another, but it’s been easy to forget or ignore the death references because we’ve been concentrating on Wilbur. He is, as the goose tells us, ‘a very innocent little pig’, and charming.

We’re about a third of the way into the book. The stakes are as high as they can get. Wilbur, who has already failed to run away; who has realised that he is too young to survive alone, will die, unless someone comes up with a plan.

Although Fern saved him from the first threat, she’s become increasingly passive. She agreed to sell Wilbur, and on her visits to his new pen, stays on the other side of the fence.

Luckily, she’s been replaced by an interesting range of new characters. Wilbur’s invited every animal on the farm to play with him, and if death is the ’cause’ in this story, friendship is the big theme. His overtures have provided a range of responses and justifications. Only when he touches the depths of disappointment does he find success, and it’s not what he expected.

‘Well,’ he thought, ‘I’ve got a new friend, all right. But what a gamble friendship is! Charlotte is fierce, brutal, scheming, bloodthirsty – everything I don’t like. How can I learn to like her, even though she is pretty and, of course, clever?’

Wilbur was merely suffering the doubts and fears that often go with finding a new friend…

Rusty and I settled to read this in a chair by the window, yesterday evening. There was still daylight. As I came to the last few pages I was leaning forward, tilting the words towards the sunset, rather than break my connection with Wilbur and Charlotte by rising to switch on the lamp.

I’m sorry I missed this book as a child, it would have resonated on so many levels, but I’m glad to have found it now. I dismissed it as a light read, earlier, I won’t make that mistake again.

* All illustrations by Garth Williams.

Hotel life.

This week Elizabeth Bowen took me to the Italian Riviera. It was 1927. There, I watched a group of seasoned travellers fritter their lives away in aimless drifting.

The start of the story had promise.

Miss Fitzgerald hurried out of the Hotel into the road. Here she stood still, looking purposelessly up and down in the blinding sunshine and picking at the fingers of her gloves. She was frightened by an interior quietness and by the thought that she had for once in her life stopped thinking and might never begin again.

I was prepared to like Miss Fitzgerald. All kinds of situations were possible. I rarely read the blurb on the back cover. It’s usually either wrong, or gives away key moments. So I had no expectations.

Inside the hotel, Miss Pym responds to the same situation.

She, after a short blank pause of astonishment up in her room, had begun to creep down the stairs warily. She listened; she clung to the banisters – tense for retreat at every turn of the staircase.

Something momentous has happened. Miss Fitzgerald has made a ‘violent exit’ from Miss Pym. She has said something terrible, ‘discharged with such bitterness of finality‘. The phrasing hints at secrets shared in trust, and weaponized in moments of crisis.

What I admire about Bowen is her economy. She moves the story forwards and backwards at the same time.

‘At this crisis of ungovernable agitation Emily (how well they knew each other!) would have taken to the hills. Miss Pym could see plainly her figure stumbling up in the glare towards the shade of the olive-trees, breast to breast with the increasing slope. She must be given a little longer to get away.

If only we could have stayed with these two women. By the second page, though, Mrs Kerr enters. She ‘stood beautifully, balanced either for advance or immobility‘. Who is she? What is she? It’s hard to say.

Though she is a focus of the attention of most characters, we’re not allowed access to her thoughts. Occasionally she tells someone about her emotions, but I’m not sure I always believe her.

Her profile did not commit her: it expressed an ironic indulgence to fashion in the line of a hat-brim, the soft undulation of hair, an earring’s pendulous twinkle, the melting suave lines of a scarf round the throat. Mrs Kerr took fashion in and subdued it and remained herself.

That’s as close as we get. I read on because I trust Bowen. She’d presented me with a group of repressed Brits sharing bathrooms, dining rooms and tennis in a sultry foreign landscape, surely something must break.

Theo Champion (1887 – 1952)

There were moments when I was interested. Passion is suggested and characters behave badly. There was comedy and some farce. But the truth is, I didn’t care. I tried to, but I began to feel that really, Bowen didn’t want that.

The guests at the Italian Villa mostly kept mannered distances from me, as well as each other, even in moments of tension. In our previous meetings, Elizabeth Bowen’s been a wonderful hostess. She’s introduced fascinating people, who’ve shared their joys and heartbreaks, and I’ve been sorry to reach the last pages of their stories.

I began to question whether this disconnect was a problem with me. Was I meant to be so conscious that these characters have too much money and luxury? A lot of literature produced up to this point in the twentieth century focused on the rich and privileged, and I don’t usually complain about it.

There was one exchange that offered an alternative explanation. On a rainy afternoon, as Joan, one of three pretty sisters, is writing a letter, Colonel Duperrier, who is a little younger than her father, starts a conversation about one of the few eligible young men in the hotel.

‘Can’t young Ammering get a job?’

‘No he can’t,’ Joan said defensively. ‘It worries him awfully. The War’s come very hard indeed on our generation. I don’t think people understand a bit.’

‘Perhaps they don’t,’ said Colonel Duperrier, who had also fought.

‘We have to make allowances for ourselves,’ continued Joan. ‘You see, nobody makes them for us. I know young people are always supposed to be fearfully idealistic and that sort of thing, but I suppose we can’t help feeling that, considering how hard things are on us, we aren’t really so bad.’

Perhaps, then, the novel intended me to feel uncomfortable. In this 1927 view life has not changed for the better, for the privileged at any rate. There is an emptiness at the heart of their comfortable lives. Behaviour, sex, class, marriage, careers and education all come under the spotlight.

I stuck it out to the end of the novel, and I’m glad to have read it. But it’s not one I’ll be keeping.

I’d like to recommend ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’

This, Maria Donovan’s first novel, is good. I’ve been enjoying reading her short stories ever since I discovered ‘Pumping up Napoleon‘, in Mslexia magazine, some years ago.

If the truth be told, I’ve looked out for her. I’ve not been disappointed. She’s taken me on an interesting range of short, but often resonant, journeys. What I’ve liked is her humour, humanity and inventiveness. Brevity, I’ve thought, was her forte. So when I stumbled onto her blog site, and discovered she had recently written a novel, I wondered what to expect.

I’m always a little nervous when writers shift from one form to another. It’s a long time since I believed that authors who produce short fiction are practising, building up to the moment when they will write their novel, or that novelists turning to the short forms are clear about how they can work.

It’s true there are some shared skills, in the two forms. Could I list them? Certainly, though if I tried to now, you, or I, would immediately name some short story or novel that refuted my proof. Since I’d rather not set myself up to fail, I’ll get back to talking about this novel.

Let’s start with the first line. It should be good. It should interest/intrigue the reader.

The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

I’m hooked. Apart from the murder, I want to know how anyone can be poisoned using a cheese sandwich. Who is this narrator? Almost as that question is forming, it’s being answered.

Break time he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic? George Bull: he’s George to the teachers, Georgie to his dad, but to me he is just Bully. He let me nod, and breathe, and walked me off to a corner of the field.

The first page of this novel is a master class in how to deliver information without stepping to one side and entering lecture mode. Our narrator, the voice that we have to decide whether to trust or not, is that of a twelve-year old boy, Michael. Reading him, I was thrown right back to my junior school days again. His interests, his questing connection to the world, even his reminiscences seemed true. Had you forgotten that children have a view of the past too?

Janey’s birthday is in April and mine is October so she started school before me. Sometimes her mum looked after me, and I would curl up in an armchair on rainy afternoons and doze and dream, waiting for Janey to come back in her uniform smelling of pencils. I was happy when I first started school, because I knew Janey would be there.

Creating an authentic child-voice is tricky. The author must hold firmly to the sight and understanding that belongs in the age group. Their vocabulary might be fairly sophisticated, but it cannot imply an adult understanding of all that they see. Though it can ape an adult view, as in Michael’s idyllic description of how his life used to be:

Photo from Newsflare

You could knock on anyone’s door, open it, call out hello and just walk in. Sometimes I used to climb through the dog flap in Irma’s kitchen door and help myself to biscuits. If she came home and found me sitting at the kitchen table she didn’t mind. When the dog died she still kept the dog flap and though Janey said it was for the dog’s ghost, so he could come and go, I knew it was for me.

The beauty of using a child narrator is that it forces the reader to become involved. The other day, one of my students was asking about unreliable narrators. This novel is a lovely demonstration of how naivety can create that effect. The view of a child is, generally, limited, not always because of their lack of size. Adults have shaped their world, for good or bad reasons.

Ted is the only thing I have that was my dad’s. Before he met my mum and ‘went to the bad’. I’m not really sure what bad they went to. Nan won’t talk about it.

I’m not going to tell you much more either, in case I give the game away. This is one of those novels that both is, and isn’t, what it seems to be. It’s called The Chicken Soup Murder because there is chicken soup, and Michael believes that a murder has happened. There are moments when lives hang in the balance.

There are also revelations about various types of death and lives and, even, sex. It’s a story about growing up, family, love, grief, friendships and determination. It’s set in 2012, on a Dorset street, and visits Cardiff. There, that should be enough to wet the appetite.

Bridport Boxing-Day swim, photo from Bridport News.