Monday, 27 March 2017

Guest review by Dianne Hofmeyr: ABOUT GRACE by Anthony Doerr

Dianne Hofmeyr is the author of many novels for young people. A keen observer of the natural world, she has also written picture books mostly set in Africa. Zeraffa Giraffa, illustrated by Jane Ray, was selected for The Sunday Times Top Hundred Children’s Books in the past ten years and The Magic Bojabi Tree, illustrated by Piet Grobler, is the subject of a piece of music specially composed and played by the Worcestershire Symphony Orchestra. My Daddy is a Silly Monkey, illustrated by Carol Thompson, and The Glassmaker’s Daughter, illustrated by Jane Ray, will be coming out soon.

If grace is an elegance and charm of movement, or of proportion, or of expression, or even the divine power given to man for spiritual rebirth, you will certainly find it in Pulitzer prize-winner Anthony Doerr’s novel, About Grace. And if you were swept away by All the Light you Cannot See, his first novel About Grace will be a fascinating insight into what makes him such a force as a writer. The same moving compassion and intense attention to detail shines though.

It opens with Winkler. Doerr keeps a distance from his protagonist by seldom using the man’s first name, David, so the narrator seemingly becomes a mere observer of events. Winkler is on a plane setting out on a journey to find his daughter. He has run away from his previous life and abandoned both his wife and daughter and has been living on a remote Caribbean island for more than two decades. Why?

Winkler has strange premonitions, or dreams as he calls them – he can clearly see what is about to happen before it happens. He falls in love with his wife in Anchorage, Alaska (clever choice of city as it anchors him to his past) as if it has already been predetermined. They have a child, Grace, but because of his premonitions, he fears the future and what it holds for her. Twenty-five years later he finally has the courage to return to Alaska to discover his daughter’s fate. But the reader is left guessing right until the very end to know whether Winkler’s dream comes true.

The story is both about grace and redemption. Winkler is a flawed character and a reader might be frustrated at his refusal to face his fear of going home. But in abandoning his family, he has committed an unforgivable transgression and Doerr makes him work hard to regain grace, both in the concept of what true grace is and also his daughter, Grace.

The most striking aspect of the book is Doerr’s ability - rather like Annie Proulx's - to turn the natural world into a magical, almost mythical place. Icy cold is never colder than in Doerr’s hands. And the intensity of his landscape both in Alaska and on the tropical island turns landscape into character. Clearly Doerr has been influenced by his ecology teacher mother and everything from the fascinating detail of snowflake formation to the hibernation habits of insects is written about in such a way that one is sensually drawn into the world of David Winkler. 

And if you are looking for another dip into the world of Anthony Doerr, try his collection of short stories, The Shell Collector.

Monday, 20 March 2017

THE FACTS OF LIFE by Paula Knight, reviewed by Linda Newbery

"The charm, skill and wit of the drawings, recalling Posy Simmonds, and the cleverness and variety of page design, fully involve the reader in a tale that is very personal but never self-pitying."

Linda Newbery won the Costa Children's Book Prize with Set in Stone, a young adult novel set in Sussex in the late 19th Century. She is the editor of Writers Review.

I don’t have children, and am sometimes expected to account for that to inquisitive strangers. “Oh? Is that from choice, or …?” is a frequent response to what seems to be taken as an admission, rather than a statement, of my childless state. These casual questioners seem unaware that that innocuous “or … ?” might possibly plumb depths of grief or loss (though not in my case) which no stranger has any right to probe. As for the idea of choosing not to have children … such a decision is often viewed as peculiar or selfish. Last year, indiscreet remarks from Andrea Leadsom, then a contender for the Conservative party leadership, prompted explanations from her rival Theresa May about why she’s childless: explanations which no male politician would ever be required to give. Yes, we’re in the 21st Century (where, as Paula Knight points out, the world hardly needs more inhabitants) but still it seems that women are required to be wives and mothers by default; or, if not, to have some good excuse ready for those demanding to know why not. 

The Facts of Life confronts this head on. I met Paula years ago on an Arvon course and have tracked her progress since as a successful illustrator of children’s books.  This is a new departure: a memoir told and shown in versatile comic-strip form. Referring to herself as ‘Polly’, though it’s clearly her own experience she draws on, Paula traces her early and adult years, from her awareness of bodily functions and sex, on through career opportunities, relationships and friends’ pregnancies (exclamations and congratulations followed swiftly by a sense of inadequacy – this shown so neatly in talking heads and speech balloons, no commentary needed) to conception, loss and finally resignation and adaptation. It’s striking how little the Swinging Sixties and the arrival of the contraceptive pill affected the advice given to teenage girls in the 1970s: ‘Polly’, born in 1969, got from parents and teachers the clear expectation that marriage and motherhood were to be her destiny.

Post-viral fatigue syndrome and the break-up of a relationship take Polly into her thirties, when a new man, Jack, offers a new chance. Flexible page layouts animate her dilemma. While an hourglass trickles down the centre of one page, two Pollys face each other from either side: one a paint-spattered artist, the other smugly pregnant, her baby-bulge counterpointing the inward curve of the glass.  On another page, a Janus-headed Polly looks left and right at the pros and cons of being a mother. “’Sometime later’ was here now … “  While examinations and tests continue, a well-meaning acquaintance tells her, “You’ll never know love quite like it unless you have children,“ – a familiar statement that pushes other kinds of love into second or third place. The excitement of conception is followed swiftly by miscarriage, more than once, and we accompany Polly as she cocoons herself against the platitudes offered so kindly by friends. The graphic approach works brilliantly here, as we see her assaulted by music, noise, words and visions. Finally, when the barrage of tests and the whirlwind of expectation and disappointment become too much, Polly and her very supportive Jack begin to examine their future without children.

In one drawing a crack in the wall behind two talking heads widens and splits as Polly counters the assumptions of a former friend preoccupied with childcare. Facing a campaign poster image of the clichéd ‘hardworking families’ beloved of politicians, Polly reflects, “As a person without kids, you must prepare to be effaced in a society where ‘family’ means ‘children’.” But compensations are to be found in the natural world and in new friendships – and, self-evidently, in art. The decision not to persevere is not an ending, but the start of new explorations and a reassessment of values.

There’s quite detailed medical information throughout, but also humour and a light touch. In one drawing, a deceased Polly sits upright in her wicker coffin to ask, “Um, do you have ‘Farewell Regality’ by Rachel Unthank and the Winterset?” If she doesn’t have children, who will be around in her old age to take care of such things? The charm, skill and wit of the drawings, recalling Posy Simmonds, and the cleverness and variety of page design, fully involve the reader in a tale that is very personal but never self-pitying. This is a tricky balance to strike, and Paula Knight is to be congratulated for producing a book which will be of particular value and comfort to people of both genders whose experience is similar to Polly’s and Jack’s, but should also have wider appeal for its insight into the lives of others and for its exploration into the big questions of life: why are we here? What difference can we make in the world? 

The Facts of Life is published by Myriad Editions.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Guest review by Amanda Craig: TRAITOR'S BLADE by Sebastien de Castell

Like many readers, I’m an omnivore; but I have quite specific requirements for different states. When ill, my drug of choice is fantasy – not because it’s always an easier read, but because I want to be taken out of myself and into another universe.
At the start of this year, and thanks largely to London pollution, I had weeks of chronic asthma. What luck, then, to be sent a YA novel, Spellslinger, by Sebastien de Castell, a Canadian author whom I liked so much that I immediately ordered his adult fiction.
Tyrant’s Blade is the first in the Greatcoats quartet, and it’s so good that even if you think you hate fantasy, try it. I’d bet good money you couldn’t put it down after one page. Its hero and narrator is Falcio Val Mond, master swordsman and formerly the King’s First Cantor – a kind of travelling magistrate who gives judgements and restores order to the chaotic land of Tristia. Each magistrate, or Greatcoat, has a special skill in fighting, and each man and woman  is equipped with an extraordinary leather coat, which both protects the wearer from most weapons and hides numerous survival tools. (You will, I promise, long for one yourself.)
The King, the first decent ruler for centuries, is an intellectual and an invalid bent on improving the lives of a people which has been monstrously misruled by previous kings, and the nobility. Falcio saw him as a friend and saviour. Unfortunately, he has also had to kill his King, for reasons which slowly become clear. In consequence, Tristia is once again falling apart. Together with his two best friends Kest and Brasti, Falco has become little more than a mercenary, mocked as traitors and “tattercoats”. Then he gets hired by a rich noblewoman to guard her on the journey to the capital, where treachery, conspiracy and violence await them. There’s a faint chance that something may be salvaged from the ruins, but only if they keep the King’s last gift safe from their enemies.
Clearly inspired by Dumas’s Three Musketeers, these are gorgeously exciting stories with more wisdom about friendship, courage, mercy and truth in them than any Game of Thrones fan could desire. They are definitely not for children (the foul language, and scenes of torture and rape make them unsuitable for under-12s) but they preserve the sense of natural justice which children’s books display, and the female characters are as strong as the male ones.
Several aspects make them special. The first is Falcio himself. His mixture of cockiness, sorrow and determination to do the right thing make him the kind of old-fashioned hero who has been absent from books for too long. He succeeds in protecting the weak from the strong, sometimes and most movingly when he manages to inspire even the cruellest gaoler to letting him go free by singing the Greatcoats’ credo about freedom. His joshing relationship with Kest and Brasti is altogether more earthy and rude, but they each have the other’s backs. De Castell, a former fight manager, imbues the fights in his books with completely credible action and reaction. When Falcio describes how he fights with two blades (or none), you can see it all. For this reason, among many, the Greatcoats series would make compelling TV drama. (HBO, please note!)
The second thing is that the world of Tristia is not obviously magical apart from one thing: Saints are real, and people can (if unfortunate) become one. What seems to be comical invective (“Saint-Laina-who-whores-for-Gods” etc) is a fact of life, and Saints possesses Saint’s Awe, a power to make humans feel whatever strong emotion they embody. This detail, which seems minor in the first book, has by the penultimate novel Saint’s Blood, become something that threatens the whole population. 
The third aspect is that this quartet – the fourth, Tyrant’s Throne is out next month – is very funny. Fantasy often contains moments of comedy, but even the best tends towards portentousness. Here, the interweaving of personal disaster and tragedy is there right from the start when the noises Falcio and friends believe to be those of their noble employer having sex turn out to be those of death. Rude, rebellious, indomitable and vulnerable, Falcio is the kind of hero we all wish we could have in our lives. He got me through one of the worst asthma attacks of my life, and I am breathless all over again while waiting for his last adventure.

Published by Jo Fletcher Books. £8.99 pbk.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Guest review by Katherine Langrish: THE THREE ROYAL MONKEYS by Walter de la Mare

As far as I'm aware this is Walter de la Mare’s only novel-length book for children. It was first published in 1910 as ‘The Three Mullar-Mulgars’, a title so unhelpfully baffling even by early 20th century standards that by the time I read it in the 1960s it had been rechristened. Even as ‘The Three Royal Monkeys’ I think it’s not particularly well known. Which is a great pity.  As a child I was entranced by it, and I still am.

To explain the impression it made on me, here’s a bit of personal history. I began seriously to write stories when I was ten. I’d just finished all the Seven Chronicles of Narnia and CS Lewis was dead, so I knew there wouldn't be an eighth.  (‘The Last Battle’ was such a betrayal. The end of Narnia?  Nooooooo!  And I wasn’t fooled by all that ‘heaven is Narnia, but better’ stuff, either. There was no better place than Narnia.)

Aged ten therefore, my first 'book' was called ‘Tales of Narnia’: fan-fic before the term was invented.  My second, a full-length effort, was an historical novel which owed at least something to those of Mary Renault whose ‘The Bull From the Sea’ I had discovered in Ross-on-Wye public library. Then, aged 13 or so, I wrote another ‘book’ of short stories which I called ‘Mixed Magic’ (truly mixed: some not bad, some terrible) mainly derived from two more beloved writers, Edith Nesbit and Elizabeth Goudge. When I was 15 or 16 my fourth handwritten manuscript was heavily influenced by early Alan Garner (children encounter mysterious stranger in dripping English woods, pursued by minions of the triple Moon Goddess: standing stones and indifferent golden-faced elves figured largely). But my fifth effort, written in my late teens and early twenties, by which time I was beginning to find my own voice, owed a great deal to the enchantment I found in ‘The Three Royal Monkeys’.  I called my story 'The Magic Forest' and went on to write a sixth full-length ms (also unpublished) before eventually getting myself into print with ‘Troll Fell’.  And I enjoyed every minute of all of it.

The quality in ‘The Three Royal Monkeys’ which I endeavoured to reproduce in my fifth opus was a rich, exotic beauty tinged with pathos and melancholy, relieved by sure touches of comedy.  De la Mare tells the story of three monkey brothers who, upon their mother’s death, discover they are heirs to a great kingdom. This is how it begins.

On the borders of the Forest of Munza-Mulgar lived once an old grey Fruit Monkey of the name of Mutta-Matutta.  She had three sons, the eldest Thumma, the next Thimbulla, and the youngest, who was a Nizza-neela, Ummanodda.  And they called each other for short, Thumb, Thimble and Nod.  The rickety, tumble-down old wooden hut in which they lived had been built 319 Munza years before by a traveller, a Portugall or Portingal, lost in the forest 22,997 leagues from home.

The comic exactitude of this, and the strange names, entranced me. After the ‘Portingal’ dies, a monkey comes to live in the hut. He finds:

... all manner of strange and precious stuff half buried – pots for Subbub; pestles and basins for Manaka-cake, etc; three bags of great beads, clear, blue and emerald; a rusty musket; nine ephelantoes’ tusks; a bag of Margarita stones; and many other thing, besides cloth and spider-silk and dried-up fruits and fishes.  He made his dwelling there and died there.  This Mulgar, Zebbah, was Mutta-Matutta’s great-great-great grandfather.  Dead and gone were all.

But one day a royal traveller arrives, Seelem: ‘own brother to Assasimmon, Prince of the Valley of Tishnar’, accompanied by his servant.  Seelem becomes Mutta-Matutta’s husband. After thirteen years of marriage he leaves her to return to his heritage in the beautiful valleys of Tishnar. Seven years later on her deathbed, she urges her sons to follow their father.

“His country lies beyond and beyond,” she said, “forest and river, forest, swamp and river, the mountains of Arrakkaboa – leagues, leagues away.”  And as she paused, a feeble wind sighed through the open window, stirring the dangling bones of the Portingal, so that with their faint clicking, they too, seemed to echo, “leagues, leagues away.”

The rest of the book follows the brothers’ difficult and magical journey. Nod, the youngest, is ‘a Nizza-Neela, and has magic in him’: he is the possessor of the marvellous Wonder-Stone, which if rubbed when they are in great danger will bring the aid of Tishnar to them.

And who is Tishnar?  There are many mysteries in this book and she is one of them, with a whole chapter at the end dedicated to her.  She is ‘the Beautiful One of the Mountains’; ‘wind and stars, the sea and the endless unknown’.  She it is who instils in the heart a sense of longing; she brings peace and dreams and maybe, in her shadow form, death.

At any rate, the brothers’ journey is precipitated when Nod accidentally sets fire to the hut. In the fairytale tradition of the foolish yet wise younger brother, he makes many mistakes, but he is also the one who saves his brothers from the predicaments in which they find themselves as they trek through the deep moonlit snow of the winter forest – escaping the flesh-eating Minnimuls, tricking the terrifying hunting-cat Immanâla, riding striped Zevveras – the ‘Little Horses of Tishnar’ – finding friends and losing one another, quarrelling and making up.

It’s a deeply serious quest, an epic journey with no hint of tongue in cheek despite the fact that the protagonists are monkeys.  Delicately, de la Mare explores the transience of beauty, the poignancy of loss, the immanence of death: and his characters blaze all the more brightly in their course across this impermanent world. There’s a lovely chapter in which Nod meets and loses his heart to a beautiful Water Midden (water maiden) to whom he entrusts his Wonder-Stone.  Here is the song he overhears her singing ‘in the dark green dusk’ beside a waterfall:

Bubble, Bubble,
Swim to see
Oh, how beautiful
I be,

Fishes, fishes,
Finned and fine,
What’s your gold
Compared with mine?

Why, then, has
Wise Tishnar made
One so lovely,
One so sad?

Lone am I,
And can but make
A little song,
For singing’s sake.

If you haven’t read this book before and you’re looking for something at least as good as ‘The Hobbit’, this is for you.