Between the Pages

Here I shall post reviews of anything I've read and enjoyed - fiction and non-fiction, not necessarily newly-published - and occasional posts about my own work or experiences. I hope you'll enjoy my selections.

Children's Books of the Year

Four really special books here!


Katherine Rundell has quickly made a name for herself with ROOFTOPPERS and THE WOLF WILDER, but this one, THE EXPLORER, is the first of hers I've read. Here she takes us to the Amazon rainforest in the company of four children, survivors of the crash of a light aircraft. With no way of summoning help they must rapidly adapt, finding shelter and food. What starts off as a traditional adventure story takes on a wider environmental significance when the children meet the Explorer of the title, living alone in a ruined stone city. At first indifferent and even hostile, he teaches them the ways of the forest and later, when one of them needs urgent medical treatment, helps them to find their way out - but is adamant that they must never tell anyone about their encounter with him and the ruins, for the sake of the forest and its inhabitants. There's humour alongside the seriousness in this absorbing story.


I've posted separately about Pam Smy's brilliant THORNHILL, which she's both written and illustrated. High production values make the book an object of beauty, words and artwork coming together to mesmeric effect as two stories, centred around an old deserted house, alternate. Mary, unhappy resident back in the eighties when Thornhill was a children's home, communicates with the reader through her journal, while remaining silent; Ella's story, in the present, is told entirely in black-and-white illustrations. So we are following two silent stories. As they merge, the creepy, almost cinematic effect will have you holding your breath as you turn the pages.


Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris have created a treasure of a book in THE LOST WORDS. Taking one creature or plant at a time, they've created 'spells' (Macfarlane) and gorgeous images (Morris) in a book for all ages to hold and wonder at. The 'spells' demand to be read aloud, and are full of vitality, sharp observation and verbal delight: "Should green-as-moss be mixed with / blue-of-steel be mixed with gleam-of-gold / you'd still far short by far of the Tar-bright oil-slick sheen and gloss of starling wing ... " This book has received wide coverage and rightly so, for its celebration of the natural world and its urgings to all of us to look at and appreciate the other lives around ours, whether we live in countryside or city.


Start reading Philip Pullman's LA BELLE SAUVAGE and you'll know at once that you're in the hands of a master storyteller. It's hard to see quite how he does it, but it's the kind of writing that welcomes you into its world with complete assurance. We're in the likeable company of Malcolm Polstead, whose parents own the Trout Inn on the edge of Oxford, and who becomes intrigued by the infant Lyra, who's being looked after by the nuns of Godstow Priory. Someone's trying to steal Lyra - why, Malcolm doesn't know, but soon he, reluctant companion Alice and baby Lyra - and their daemons, of course - are in danger as floodwaters rise and their pursuers close in. A perfect read for long winter evenings.

Thornhill, by Pam Smy

I’ve loved and admired Pam Smy’s work since I first saw it several years ago when she was engaged to illustrate my children’s book Lob. Her reputation has grown since then and her style has matured; she went on to provide beautiful illustrations for my next book The Brockenspectre, Siobhan Dowd’s The Ransom of Dond, and a Folio Society edition of Penelope Lively’s The Ghost of Thomas Kempe.  Following publication of this new book, someone ought to commission her to illustrate The Secret Garden – an inspiration behind Thornhill which is referred to in the book.


Pam Smy’s style combines a classic, timeless feel with a way of drawing the viewer into her worlds. She excels at portraying natural surroundings, especially wild and possibly threatening places, but also domestic interiors rich in detail. Her human figures – of all ages - are expressive, endearing and recognisably ordinary.


But this book is a breakthrough, for Pam and possibly for children’s fiction too. It’s the first she has both written and illustrated, and combines two stories: that of Mary, an unhappy resident of Thornhill Institute for Children in the 1980s, and the wordless illustrated viewpoint of Ella who moves into a nearby house in the present day. Exploring with Ella, we’re drawn into an unsettling story of bullying and negligence, gradually realising that Ella too is a neglected child – living with her preoccupied father and spending long hours alone. Her situation echoes that of Mary, waiting to be fostered, selectively mute, and bullied by another girl in the home who charms everyone into believing that she is guileless. Unable to confide in anyone as her situation worsens, Mary takes comfort in making puppets to provide her with company, and these are used in the illustrations to eerie effect.


What is quite wonderful and brilliant here is the suspense Pam Smy achieves in Ella’s wordless sections, divided from the text by plain black pages. The feeling is cinematic, the tension crackling from the page as we move closer to Thornhill’s garden and then inside the abandoned house. And there are surprises which will make you catch your breath.


I’ve always thought that Pam Smy deserves to win the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration. With this moving and strikingly innovative book, she ought to be in contention for the Carnegie Medal as well.


See more, including sketches and insights, on Pam Smy's blog.

Longbourn, by Jo Baker


Subtitled Pride and Prejudice - the servants' storyJo Baker's captivating novel takes us behind the scenes of Jane Austen's world to the routines of toil and effort which allow the Bennet family to live in leisure and comfort. To Mrs Hall, the housekeeper, the arrival of Mr Bingley at Netherfield Park, which gives Pride and Prejudice its famous opening sentence, "meant a flurry of giggly activity above stairs; it meant outings, entertainments, and a barrowload of extra work for everyone below." Elizabeth's boldness in crossing the fields to Netherfield to visit her stricken sister is seen in Jane Austen's novel as demonstrating her lively independence: here, to Sarah, the housemaid, suffering from painful chilblains that flare and crack at every exposure to cold and wet, "If Elizabeth had the washing of her own petticoats ... she'd most likely be a sight more careful with them." The smooth running of the household means that housemaids must be up before first light, emptying slops, fetching water and lighting fires; an evening out requires the footman, James, to wait out in icy weather with horses harnessed ready to convey the ladies home.


If you read this hoping for romantic encounters between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, you'll be disappointed; Jane Austen's key players are in minor roles here. Mr Darcy barely appears in person, and he is certainly not Colin Firth. We see the Bennets' acquaintances only as they affect the servants: Mr and Mrs Hall, Sarah, and the younger, pre-pubescent girl, Polly. When Mr Collins arrives in search of a likely wife, we see the insecurity of the servants' livelihoods, for it will be in his power to dismiss them all, should he wish, when he takes ownership. Mrs Hall is relieved when he settles for the homely Charlotte Lucas. A servant like Sarah - an orphan taken in by the stern but kindly Mrs Hall - has nothing to call her own beyond the wooden box in which she keeps her few possessions; not even space, as she shares a room, and a bed, with Polly. Moments of privacy can only be snatched between chores. When she and Mr Bingley's footman are mutually attracted, she's surprised at "the dawning revelation that pleasure was possible for her."


The plot hinges on the arrival and later disappearance of a young manservant who joins the household, James Smith. The secrets of his past are revealed partly through the machinations of George Wickham, the predatory charmer. Jo Baker picks up on the small detail in Pride and Prejudice that a soldier of the visiting militia has been flogged; here Sarah witnesses the brutal act while on an errand to Meryton, later connecting it with James's story. A middle section takes us back to his army service during the Napoleonic wars, and into territory which ranges far from Longbourn and middle-class Hertfordshire. Mrs Hill, too, has a back-story which throws an intriguing - and plausible - new light on the Bennets' marriage.


While this is a compelling novel in its own right, it closely parallels the events of Pride and Prejudice, with the fairly safe assumption that readers will be familiar either with the novel or with one of the many adaptations. But there is no attempt to imitate Jane Austen's style. In fact readers may find more similarities to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, in Sarah's passionate love for James, her fierce loyalty, and in particular in the descriptions of landscape and weather. Here is James, alone on a beach (you'll never find anything like this in a Jane Austen novel, where landscape is seen only as evidence of status, taste and good management). "He slipped away to the shore, and walked across the low headland; it fell away into a spit of sand, the grasses thin and fine as old men's hair, the sand drifting and scattering and settling; and white shells and then bleached bones, and then a sheep's skull, picked white, which made him catch his step a moment, not at what it was but at what he thought it might have been. Then skipping sand-fleas, and trails of dried seaweed, and he was out to the edge of the world."


Jo Baker writes with complete assurance, bringing her characters and settings vividly off the page. Her story isn't unique in being a spin-off from Pride and Prejudice - Emma Tennant, in Pemberley, and P D James, in Death Comes to Pemberley, have also drawn on this much-loved classic. But in my view Longbourn, with its shift of focus, outshines both.







Release, by Patrick Ness

I hold a small grudge against Patrick Ness. As a child, when I dreamed of being an author I used to imagine a book with my name on it on shelves in bookshops and libraries, rubbing shoulders with the great E. Nesbit. Occasionally that does happen; more often Patrick Ness is in between, taking up a lot of space. But my new next-door neighbour is as illustrious as his predecessor.


His latest book acknowledges its debts to both Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and Judy Blume’s Forever: the former, because the novel follows the events of a single day; the latter because of its frankness about teenage sex. 


Adam Thorn, a gay teenager from a deeply religious family in Washington State, is instantly engaging: an immensely likeable blend of boldness and vulnerability, loyalty and cynicism, certainty and self-doubt. This decisive Saturday is to end (echoing Mrs Dalloway) with a lakeside party to see off Adam’s former lover, Enzo. But before the evening is reached, Adam is jolted by revelations from best friend Angela, brother Marty and his predatory employer, while his new boyfriend Linus seems likely to end up being hurt. Adam’s father, a small-town evangelical preacher, hasn’t yet managed to move into the twenty-first century where LGBT matters are concerned; it’s with good reason that Adam has so far kept Linus as a secret. When he does risk confiding in his father about the uncomfortable situation at work there are shocks and let-downs for both. The witty but searching banter between Adam and Angela shows that she is the one person he always trusts, but she too is about to leave.


When it comes to sex, Patrick Ness is emphatically not a writer to duck out with a coy row of dots and an evasive “Afterwards … “ He is quite clear about what and how. Enzo, with whom “there were moments of what Adam could only describe as desperation. They had to do it …” is compared to the endearing Linus, who was “enlisting Adam in the funniest, funniest thing two people could do together.” A bedroom scene with Linus is tender and touching as well as explicit, but Adam, while aware of the contrast to the more assertive Enzo, hasn’t yet recovered from the hurtful end of the earlier relationship.


Patrick Ness excels in portraying teenage friendships, passions, fears and doubts in a way that doesn’t in the least write down to his readers but carries the intensity of real experience. In this he reminds me of Aidan Chambers, a pioneer of fiercely intelligent young adult fiction. I was far less engrossed, though (in fact not at all) by the alternating supernatural sections, in which a girl recently murdered by her boyfriend at the lake haunts the place in a kind of limbo, accompanied by a giant naked faun. The two stories do eventually come together in a moment of release for both characters, but I felt that this strand was simultaneously too much and not enough, and am unsure what it adds to the novel. Perhaps I’ve missed something.


Release is published by Walker. This review is a slightly adapted version of a piece written for Armadillo online magazine.


Helen Dunmore, poet and novelist, 1952-2017

I never met Helen Dunmore or heard her speak, but somehow feel that I have, through the impact her books have made on me as both reader and writer. 


She died just two days before the announcement of the Baileys Prize for Women's Fiction, of which she was the first winner (in its original incarnation as the Orange Prize) for A Spell of Winter. In her last few days she wrote a poignant poem about the approach of death, Hold Out Your ArmsShe was a poet as well as a novelist, and it showed in everything she wrote: in the precision and sensuousness of her language and the seductiveness of her rhythms.

Her first novel, Zennor in Darkness, was widely praised for its freshness and immediacy and the luminosity of its prose. I read that on publication and have read most of her books since. Her subjects were wide-ranging: the First World War and its aftermath, the Siege of Leningrad, the French Revolution seen from England, domestic life with its tensions and rivalries. In The Greatcoat was a novella for Random House's Hammer series in which a haunted figure brings back the terrible losses of aircrew in the war (a subject which resonates with me, as my father was a navigator in Bomber Command). She could be deeply unsettling, as in the relationship between brother and sister in A Spell of Winter and between sisters in Talking to the Dead. Everything she wrote had her distinctive stamp of honesty, insightfulness and lyricism. 

She wrote wonderfully about landscapes and weather, especially in the coastal settings she loved. Here is Daniel, in The Lie, looking down from a cottage roof. "There was the brown, bare, sinewy land running down to the cliffs. There were the Garracks, and Giant's Cap, and the Island. There was the swell, like a muscle under the sea, moving in long, slow pulses to Porthgwyn. I looked west and saw rainclouds, damson-coloured and making a bloom of shadow on the sea." She was always good on food, as here, when Nina in Talking to the Dead makes a tart: "the apples must be cut evenly, in fine crescents of equal thickness, which will lap around in ring after ring, hooping inwards, glazed with apricot jam. The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black, but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once." It's enough to make you salivate. Food is abundant in this novel, while in The Siege she wrote powerfully and unforgettably about hunger and cold, desperation and survival.


Completing her final novel, Birdcage Walk, she knew of her terminal cancer. In its Afterword, she wrote: "The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel. While I finished and edited it I was already seriously ill, but not yet aware of this. I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm."

I'm glad now that there are Helen Dunmore novels and poems I haven't yet read. I will ration them out to myself, in order not to use up the new reading experience too quickly. She was an exhilarating, generous talent whose words sing from the page and will ensure that she is remembered.


(This is part of a joint tribute posted by Adele Geras, Celia Rees and myself on Writers Review.)


Struck by a Duck

Yesterday I went into the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to look for something that proved to be less interesting than I'd expected. But as I wandered into the Mughal India section I saw this duck painting across the room, and had to take a closer look.


It's one of several bird paintings by a Mughal artist called Shaikh Zain ud-Din, who apparently lived in Calcutta in the 1780s. He was commissioned by Lady Mary Impey, who moved to Bengal with her husband Elijah when he became a Chief Justice there. Interested in natural history, she appointed artists to paint various creatures, including those in her own menagerie.


In the Ashmolean, this Male Nukta or Comb Duck is one of four paintings by Shaik Zain ud-Din, who is described there as the most gifted of the artists employed by Lady Impey. All four are engaging and endearing, but it was the duck that caught and held my attention.


This reproduction really doesn't do it justice, though you can see the realism of the pose, the heavy tread of webbed feet and the intent gaze on (probably) something interesting to eat. The original - gouache on paper - shows the texture and iridescence of the plumage, the plump featheriness, the purposeful, busy duckishness. Almost you can feel what it would be like to stroke those back feathers and feel their firm springiness, or to pick the bird up and feel its weight and the sway of its neck as it turns to look at you.


I like the thought of Shaikh Zain ud-Din watching this duck so closely, observing its behaviour, and focusing closely on his painting. His nose must have been positioned precisely where mine was as I looked. He must have worked and paused and stood back to assess, wondering if he had captured the essence of this duck, and surely - justifiably - he felt pleased that he had. There must have been a moment when he put down his brush and thought, "Yes, that's it. Got it." Maybe he was anxious that his patron should approve, and surely she did. And also there's the duck itself - this duck that lived and pecked and bred and died almost two hundred and fifty years ago, full of life and presence in an Oxford museum today. That freshness of vision has survived into the twenty-first century.  


It's the week of the Manchester bombings. (This week, too, with far less press coverage, eleven refugees drowned in the Aegean Sea.) In response an acquaintance posted this Tennessee Williams quotation on Facebook, and it was widely shared:


"The world is violent and mercurial - it will have its way with you. We are saved only by love - love for each other and the love we pour into the art we feel compelled to share: being a parent; being a writer; being a painter; being a friend. We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love."


Those words were in my mind as I looked at Shaikh Zain ud-Din's characterful duck. Art and love. The giving of devoted attention, which is perhaps what love is. Art, love and lives that have somehow reached across the centuries and across continents.