• Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield

    This novel, the second from the writer of the thrilling and very popular THE THIRTEENTH TALE is shorter, less thrilling but oh, how much more haunting and moving and altogether more memorable than its predecessor.

    I have been haunted by it since I read it for the first time some weeks ago. I don't often reread books. There are too many new and exciting things being published all the time for me to want to go back to something I already know.

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  • Two Beautiful Books by Jackie Morris

    I am going to review two books written and illustrated by an artist (and writer) who's very well-known but who somehow, in spite of her talents and productivity, seems to me to be not as much appreciated as she ought to be.

    Jackie Morris is on Twitter, where she frequently posts lovely 'work in progress' which delights her many followers and I do urge any of my readers who tweets to follow her. She lives in Wales with many animals and it's perhaps as an artist who both loves and properly sees animals that she's at her best. The first book I'm going to talk about is called I AM CAT and it's not much bigger than an iPhone. While watching her ginger cat, Pixie, sleeping ("curled in warm places, ammonite-tight") Morris was inspired to think of what her pet might be dreaming about. The answer is: other cats. Every kind of feline appears in the unscrolling dreams: cheetah, puma, snow leopard and many others.

    Morris paints each creature in delicate colours that sing to us from the page. Even though the scale of the book is small, she manages to convey the grandeur and beauty of every single cat she describes. And she accompanies each spread with her own words which are both simple and poetic. Here is an example, describing the tiger: "s...bright, flame cat of the forest, striped like the shadows, sun-scorched." I can't think of a better way to spend a fiver. Frances Lincoln have published it most beautifully. This is a gem of a book.

    The second book is SONG OF THE GOLDEN HARE, also published by the admirable Frances Lincoln. It's a much grander production, and it tells a mysterious, entrancing story of a boy and his sister. They come from a family who protect the Golden Hare, because there are others who would hunt and kill it. The story unfolds with all the mystery and suspense you could wish for. The children find the Golden Hare and in the end, the creature is safe for who knows how long on a special magical island, to which it has been carried by an army of obliging seals. It's a lovely tale and again, told in Morris's poetic style, but the art is the real glory of this book. The Golden Hare itself is a wonderful creation, but greyhounds and people and birds and butterflies, not to mention the detailed landscapes, fill every corner of every spread. The colours are glorious and you can spend hours just admiring them and marvelling at the skill of the artist and wishing you could frame certain images and put them up on a wall. As it is, you'll have to be content with turning the pages, preferably with someone young on your lap, listening as you read aloud the story of the mysterious Golden Hare and the lucky children who are called to care for it.

    I AM CAT

    Written and illustrated by Jackie Morris

    pub Frances Lincoln hbk £4.99

    ISBN: 9781847805072

    SONG OF THE GOLDEN HARE

    Written and illustrated by Jackie Morris

    pub. Frances Lincoln hbk £12.99

    ISBN: 9781847804501

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  • Stoner redux

    Last month on normblog there was a post about this book by Norm himself. The post does a good job of saying what the book is about, so I won't go into that again. Norm also outlines many of its excellent qualities. Still, there are things I want to say about Stoner and I'm going to start by quoting a passage from it. It's taken from very near the end, both of the book and of Stoner's life and it's about love.

    In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him - how many years ago? - by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and he had given it to Katherine, as if it had never been given before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life (my italics), and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both...

    There are three things I want to say about this novel. The first is, it's plain and this is one of the best things about it. By 'plain' I mean there is no whizzy, exciting, shocking, mind-blowingly original, postmodern, out of left field aspect to it whatsoever. Writers are often exhorted to think of what's known as 'the two-minute elevator pitch': a summing-up of their novel with which, in an imaginary lift, they will persuade an agent or a publisher that their book is THE ONE. John Williams's elevator pitch would be: 'A man lives a life dedicated to teaching he loves and then dies. This life has lots of unhappiness in it but also some happiness.' I can't see a modern fiction editor being persuaded by that.

    Second, the unadorned and rather formal style may seem old-fashioned for a book written in the 1960s, yet to me it feels as if the prose hasn't been 'composed' or 'worked at' but to have grown organically and naturally. There are no writerly tricks. There is no juggling with time, no first person/present tense, no attempt to make the book more like a film script. There is not the faintest hint of the exotic or the Baroque. What you have is the story of a life and what this book demonstrates (even though Stoner's God isn't the traditional deity but rather Literature) is the truth of George Herbert's lines: 'Who sweeps a room, as for Thy laws / Makes that and th' action fine.' Stoner's life, his unhappy marriage and his failed relationship with his daughter notwithstanding, is a worthwhile one and one, moreover, which has had its share of glory and love.

    Thirdly, he is not afraid to write about emotions. The women in the book are a contrast with one another. Edith, Stoner's wife, is not a pleasant character. Slightly mad, unpredictable and the exact opposite of a soulmate, she is still fairly and unresentfully depicted. The dealings between husband and wife, the way Stoner's love turns into something else; the way he shoulders the burden that his wife has become: all these become the stuff of real page-turning drama. Testament to Williams's skill is the fact that you are always longing to know what happens next.

    The shining heart of the novel is Stoner's love affair with Katherine. She is the ideal lover: beautiful, kind and able to share fully her teacher's love of literature. The affair ends and the lovers separate, but there is a touching coda to their story, so that the Stoner/Katherine relationship is like a self-contained jewel of a story embedded in the larger book.

    Almost the most tragic aspect of the novel is the gradual souring (because of the malign influence of Edith) of Stoner's dealings with his daughter. They end the book virtually estranged. The fact that Williams can write three such different women into the narrative and bring each of them so much to life, take such care to show us subtle changes and developments in their characters, shows that he's interested in them, pays them proper attention and does not write about them in a perfunctory way. He is careful with even the most unsympathetic of them.

    Some readers have said that the book is depressing, or too gloomy, or that it emphasizes too much the 'lives of quiet desperation' lived by its protagonists. To me, though, it's a story about someone doing the best he can in a profession he loves and is happy in. He deals with the hard things; he suffers. He is stoical in the face of many tribulations, but he has known love and its transcendent power and, more than this, he has delighted in teaching others to love the things which he considers make life worthwhile. In my opinion, as well as being gripping and superbly written, it's life-enhancing, too. (Adèle Geras)

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  • THE SCENT OF DEATH by Andrew Taylor: review and interview by Adèle Geras

    I first came across Andrew Taylor's work when I read one of his Roth Trilogy novels in the 1990s. I was attracted to the cover image of a stone angel. This trilogy of novels so impressed me that I wrote a longish critical article about them in a periodical called BOOKS AND COMPANY, and you can find this if you go to http://www.lydmouth.co.uk/page3/page5/page13/page13.html

    Taylor is a historical novelist of long standing. His book, THE AMERICAN BOY, was chosen for Richard and Judy's Book Club and his THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS is a cracking story set in 18th Century Cambridge, at almost exactly the same time as THE SCENT OF DEATH. He's known as a crime writer and one of his best series, THE LYDMOUTH NOVELS is set in the 1950s. If you look at his books, you'll see he's both prolific and a bit uncategorizable, which is good news for his fans, because there's always something new and different coming from his direction.

    His new novel is called THE SCENT OF DEATH and it's set in Manhattan in 1778. This part of America is still under British rule and it's a place full of soldiers, loyalists, refugees, and a maelstrom of corruption, fighting, and everything you might expect in a country where there are at least three sides to every problem that arises. Edward Savill is our hero and as he arrives from London, almost the first thing to greet him in the New World is a dead body. From these beginnings, Taylor spins an intricately woven plot which not only takes in adventures, such as a memorable journey to the Debatable Ground, outside the city limits, but also a very slowburning, almost Jamesian love story. Savill is billeted on the Wintour family and it did cross my mind to wonder at the name, which nowadays means a lot to fashionistas everywhere but especially in Manhattan.

    Taylor is very good at conveying what interior spaces are like. He manages to make us feel part of the household, and it's a very interesting place in which to spend some time. There are several generations of Wintours living here. Arabella is the woman mentioned in the very good first sentence of a terrific first paragraph: "This is the story of a woman and a city." and she's as beautiful, enigmatic and mysterious as you'd expect of a romantic heroine. We are in the era of slavery, of course and this strand of the narrative is among the most interesting, with several slaves among the protagonists. There is a painting of a house that's part of the central mystery and, as in many of Taylor's books, we also find a child. Savill hears one weeping in the night, and the motif of missing/dead/ghostly children is something Taylor returns to again and again in his work, to good effect.

    This is the kind of thriller you can recommend to people who are not normally readers of crime fiction. I mean this as a compliment. Absent from its pages are a)frenetic pace b)hideous torture and evisceration and c)overly explicit 'scenes of a sexual nature' as they're called on Sky tv. Andrew kindly allowed me to ask him some questions, and here they are, together with his answers.

    1)This book is set in a very familiar place in a most unexpected time: New York in 1778. What was it about both (the time and the place) that attracted you?

    I was reading a book about the American War of Independence - Barnet Schecter’s The Battle For New York - and one detail stuck like a burr: that embankments on the North River served as the last resting places for the corpses of rebel POWs. It’s one of those historical details that carry a lot of metaphorical weight. For most of the War, New York was the military and administrative capital of the British Empire in America. It seemed a perfect setting for a novel because it showed somewhere we know so well in other guises, New York City, from such a a different angle - and that always appeals to me. The germ for The American Boy was very similar in that sense - Poe, such a quintessentially American figure from the Victorian age, seen as an English schoolboy in Jane Austen’s London.

    2)This book is at the same time a) a historical novel of a traditional kind, b) a thriller and c) a slowburning love story. Were you conscious of the difficulties of blending these three kinds of book together?

    No - but perhaps I should have been. I don’t really structure my novels before I begin. I knew a lot about the characters and the setting. I knew that for me it was going to be a book about loyalty, both personal and political, and whether or not it’s an absolute value. (The working title was in fact The Loyal American.) I had vivid pictures in my head that I wanted to find a way of realizing - the ice on the North River, for example, the shanty-town slums they called Canvas Town, the burned-out wreck of Trinity Church, the double portrait of master and slave, etc. I also knew that there would be a corpse or two - I am, after all, usually labelled as a crime writer - and that there would be a woman... For the rest - it emerged, in the way that stories do, a way that I still find quite magical.

    3)The question of slavery is important in the novel and yet you write about such matters in a low-key but devastating way. Was it your intention that your readers should learn something as they read? In other words, is there any didactic intention behind the book?

    No. It goes without saying that slavery is a revolting and unacceptable practice. But in the eighteenth century they saw such things very differently, particularly in some of the American colonies where it was woven into the texture of all levels of society. What interested me was slavery’s normality: and what this might have meant for those who were slaves and those who were free citizens. Personally I don’t think it’s the job of a historical novelist to impose his or her modern views on the past; the reader provides that perspective in any case. But I do think we can write as honestly as we can about it - and how it seemed to people at the time. Perhaps that helps us towards a better understanding of the present, and how it seems to us.

    4)You're a very convincing 18th century gentleman and speaking for myself, I was delighted to see a book in the past tense. Do you have views about the use of the present tense in so many books written these days?

    Thank you - I’m glad the voice was convincing. In a historical novel, I try (within reason) to create a plausible pastiche of how people might have spoken and thought in a particular period. The narrative fell naturally into the past tense - I had an image in my mind of the central character writing it after the event. In general, though, I’m not a huge fan of the wholesale use of the present tense in fiction unless it serves a very definite purpose; I agree with Philip Pullman that, as a writer, you can achieve more if you have the full range of tenses at your disposal. Having said that, I’m at present writing a novel with two narrative voices - one of which is present tense. Horses for courses...

    5)I read about your RSI on the website. Can you tell us a bit about how you manage this?

    I’ve had chronic RSI for nearly twenty years, the result of writing too much, too fast and in unergonomic positions. So I began dictating everything, and my wife would type it up. Then she got RSI herself - and far worse than I have it. We have tried - and tried and tried - voice recognition software. I can’t get on with it at all - it doesn’t like my voice, my vocabulary or my method of writing. My wife copes better, though it’s very frustrating for her. I dictate the first drafts of most books into a machine; my wife transfers it to the computer via voice recognition, adding her comments etc on the way, and then I revise on screen to make a second draft. RSI comes in many shapes and forms, of course, and varies enormously in severity. If you get it as badly as we have it, you never get rid of it entirely. But you can learn to manage it and to reduce its impact.

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  • IN ZODIAC LIGHT by Robert Edric

    IN ZODIAC LIGHT tells the story of Ivor Gurney, while he was a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford. That's not the only story it tells, however. Robert Edric plaits the narrative about an English composer who's not nearly well-enough known with that of the narrator of the novel: the doctor in charge of his care at the asylum. Many of the characters are taken from real life and Edric has not as far as I know played fast and loose with the historical record. Gurney was abandoned by his family and his friends and admirers in London didn't quite realize what effect his service in France had had on him in every way. For anyone who doesn't know Gurney's music, here is his song 'Sleep.'

    And for anyone who doesn't know his verse, here is a short poem that I like very much.

    Ballad Of The Three Spectres As I went up by Ovillers

    In mud and water cold to the knee,

    There went three jeering, fleeing spectres,

    That walked abreast and talked of me.

    The first said, 'Here's a right brave soldier

    That walks the dark unfearingly;

    Soon he'll come back on a fine stretcher,

    And laughing for a nice Blighty.'

    The second, 'Read his face, old comrade,

    No kind of lucky chance I see;

    One day he'll freeze in mud to the marrow,

    Then look his last on Picardie.'

    Though bitter the word of these first twain

    Curses the third spat venomously;

    'He'll stay untouched till the war's last dawning

    Then live one hour of agony.'

    Liars the first two were. Behold me

    At sloping arms by one - two - three;

    Waiting the time I shall discover

    Whether the third spake verity.

    The book begins with a trip by some of the inmates to see the body of a beached whale and it's easy to make the link between this creature and Ivor himself. We meet some of the characters who are going to be important in the story, especially Cox the orderly who turns out to be a very nasty piece of work

    The narrative moves from the present to the narrator's childhood and youth and this means that the story has some air let into it, which has the effect of lightening the claustrophobia of the asylum and also providing the contrast of glimpses of ordinary life in a story which would otherwise be depressing.

    Edric tells in a very understated and unhysterical way a story of great sadness and suffering. Not all the doctors are as benign as our narrator. His background as the son of a very careful and diligent and scholarly apiarist is important. There are beehives in the grounds of the asylum which have gone to rack and ruin and the way these are restored is a parallel with the way the hospital works to restore its patients' minds, with greater or lesser success. The nurse, Alison, is the main force driving the beehive rescue and she is the representative of all that is good and kind and loving. She stands for caring women everywhere, whose job is to help repair matters after a war, and look after those who have lost their minds in the fighting of it.

    The bees provide a respite and another focus of interest in a novel which follows a slow and yet fascinating path to its climax. This is a concert, given in the hospital, by Ivor Gurney and others. Tragedy strikes even as the music is played. It's a terrific climax to a very fascinating and unusual book which didn't make a great stir when it appeared. Robert Edric is not well enough known and I hope I've persuaded some people to try his novels. I loved this one, which in its quiet way says a great deal about war and nature and all the things that are worth preserving.

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  • A Treacherous Likeness by Lynn Shepherd.

    Before you go on reading, do click on this link and especially on the little film at the end of the description of the book. Lynn Shepherd herself speaks for 8 minutes and tells us very well and engagingly all that we need to know about the book before we read it. It's a much better way of discovering what it's about than any synopsis I could provide.

    http://www.constablerobinson.com/?section=books&book=a_treacherous_likeness_9781780331676_hardback

    Also before I begin, I will show you the three main protagonists. First, Percy Bysshe Shelley himself, Romantic poet, husband, lover, father and all round...well, I'll leave you to decide for yourselves and won't try and influence anyone. As a poet, he was one of the truly greats. "Ozymandias" I regard as one of the best poems ever. I love "Ode to the West Wind." I love "The Skylark." But one thing Lynn Shepherd's book brought home to me was that because we never studied him at school, I know very little about him and have actually read very little of his work.

    Last year, a very good novel by Lynn Shepherd, called "Tom-All-Alone's" introduced us to a late nineteenth-century detective called Charles Maddox. He's everything you could wish for in a hero and when I think of him, I have someone like Benedict Cumberbach in my mind. (Actually I have BC in my mind when I'm doing a lot of my mental casting but that's another story!) She wove a tale of murder into the spaces left by Charles Dickens in "Bleak House" and the whole concept struck me as a brilliant idea.

    Here the writer takes the well-known facts about the composition of "Frankenstein" (the ghost story telling night in the villa on the shores of Lake Geneva, everything that's documented about a ménage à trois that makes modern sexual mores look like a vicarage tea-party) and she manages to inject into the material an element of enormous mystery and suspense and a hypothesis that is both startling and plausible for everything that happened to these real people.

    To do this as effectively as she does, Shepherd makes use of a technique that is a bit post modern, and which, it must be said, might annoy some readers. I loved it, though and I think it works in a very clever way. She's chosen to be there, in her own person as the writer of the novel, in a way alongside the story, commenting on various things; remarking on what is going on from a 21st century perspective. She does this unobtrusively and somehow the warp and weft of the narrative manages to hold and sustain these interjections.

    There are a lot of letters, documents, accounts by one character or another at the beginning of the book and this, in addition to the 'case' that Charles Maddox is undertaking, makes the start of the novel one in which you have to keep your eye on the ball. But once it gets into its stride, there's no stopping it and the whole thing is a roller coaster of a ride. Both the characters from the past (Shelley's youth) and the present of the novel, set much later, are right there with you, and you care about every single one, especially Charles's elderly great-uncle, the first detective in the Maddox family.

    On page 250 of the book, I found these words and because they describe everything so well, I am quoting them here. "He (Charles) thought he had the measure of these three - thought he had understood the coils of attraction and repulsion that threatens to drown them all in a wreckage of hearts, but it seems he is wrong: there are darknesses here for which even his experience cannot find a like."

    I hope that lots of readers who visit this blog will enjoy "A Treacherous Likeness". I loved it.

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  • TORN by David Massey.

    This novel by David Massey has won the 2103 Lancashire Book of the Year Award. The prize is almost unique in being judged by Year 9 pupils chosen from schools in Lancashire. Adults are part of the process, of course. The librarians in the county distribute the books to the schools taking part; the teachers give the books to the pupils who then read them and by a very complicated system that I don't quite understand, a short list emerges. Then there's a meeting where much debating and discussion goes on and a winner is chosen. All the shortlisted writers are invited by UCLAN, the sponsors of the prlze, to a slap-up meal and next day the award is made (£1000 and a very handsome trophy) at a ceremony in County Hall in Preston.

    I've been the Chair of the Judges for 6 years but this time I've had to cede my place at the debating table to Helen Day, a lecturer at UCLAN and someone whose knowledge and love of Young Adult novels is second to none. She and her students read such texts all the time and I was very lucky that she was able to stand in for me. I had to withdraw from my position this year because of the ill-health of my husband, who is undergoing a series of treatments for cancer, and I'm very grateful to Helen. Her willingness to step in at short notice means a great deal to me. I also know she'll have chaired the meeting in the best possible way and will be a wonderful speaker at the Award Ceremony itself.

    I didn't have time to read all the books, but I did read TORN, by David Massey. He's not a writer I know, but on the internet I found out that he has had a much more adventurous life and background than many writers. He actually sounds like someone who knows something about war zones of one kind and another.

    TORN is told in the voice of a young female squaddie in Afghanistan. Ellie, known as Buffy since the day she was observed in the shower by some young men on the base, is a sympathetic and brave heroine and it's easy for a teenage audience to identify with her. The book follows her adventures and is a marvellously wide-ranging and immediate glimpse into life in a war zone. I liked it because the voices seemed authentic and Massey is careful to describe the truth of such hard and desperate situations in a way that's honest without at any time being gratuitously violent. the whole novel is in Buffy's voice, in the first person and it sounds convincing at all times. She's both sensible and sensitive and the element of the supernatural that's included in the book is perfectly believable.

    Above all for me, Massey succeeds in the most important thing a writer has to do: create a whole world for the reader.Thankfully, turning the pages of this novel is the nearest thing many teenagers will get to actual service in the Armed Forces and I particularly appreciated the way the landscape comes to life: dust, heat, sand and the day to day conditions of camp life are recreated in a most economical way, with not too much description but more through an accumulation of telling details.

    Buffy's comrades-in-arms and the young man she falls for leap off the page. It's easy to see why modern teenagers in Lancashire responded to this story of young men and women not much older than they are living through difficult and dangerous times and coming out triumphant. The ending is all you could wish for, even though there are tears on the way there.

    I'm very sorry I won't be meeting David Massey at the Award Ceremony in June, but I'm sure it'll be a grand occasion. It always is. Meanwhile congratulations to the young judges for picking another winner.

    Publisher: THE CHICKEN HOUSE pbk.

    Price: £6.99

    ISBN: 9781908435170

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  • Rafi Brown and the Candy Floss Kid by Sue Stern.

    Once again, I have to start a review with the admission that I know the writer of this book. In fact, I feel as though I'm a kind of godmother to the story, as Sue showed me an early version ages ago and I liked it then. I like it even better now in its new manifestation as a well-produced paperback with excellent illustrations by Heather Dickinson and I applaud Sue's decision to publish the book herself and try and get it to as many children as possible. I'm happy to help in this process as I think there are lots of boys, especially, out there who would both identify with and enjoy this book.

    It's about what happens when Rafi, (who has problems with reading and writing and even worse problems with his teacher Horrible Hegarty) meets a girl in the park. She has pink hair and she's the Candy Floss Kid. She shakes up Rafi's thoughts and opinions about everything. She has even worse problems than Rafi, and the two of them have a series of adventures which not only take them round various parts of Manchester (all of which was very nostalgic for me!) but also teach them much about subjects as disparate as the Russian Revolution, cartoons,voodoo, and the way the Social Services work.

    Stern is good at dialogue. The boys and girls you'll meet here sound normal and unbookish. She's also good at conveying the many different relationships that exist in young people's lives: with parents, siblings, teachers, friends, enemies and so forth. The place comes to life very well and I can vouch for the accuracy of many of the descriptions, especially that of the park where Rafi and the Candy Floss Kid meet. The horrible teacher is well done and we get a reason for her horribleness towards the end of the book which doesn't quite excuse the way she acts towards Rafi but which at least explains it.

    I think this would be a good addition to any school bookshelf and I would urge anyone who has what's called "a reluctant reader' in their family to buy it too. It's enjoyable, well-written, entertaining and about serious things that matter. I'm happy to be able to recommend it in this review.

    Published in paperback by RED BANK BOOKS. From Amazon or from the publisher (80 Fog Lane, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6AG) Price: £5.99 ISBN: 9780957400 The book is also available on Kindle.

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  • THURSDAY'S CHILDREN by Rumer Godden.

    Rumer Godden is a writer who, it seems to me, deserves to be rediscovered. Imagine my delight, therefore, when I learned that Virago were reissuing some of her children's books in the Virago Modern Classics series. THURSDAY'S CHILDREN and LISTEN TO THE NIGHTINGALE are due out in April this year and DARK HORSE and AN EPISODE OF SPARROWS in 2014. Godden's books which I reimember best are IN THIS HOUSE OF BREDE, THE GREENGAGE SUMMER (which is a perfect YA book) and for children, MISS HAPPINESS AND MISS FLOWER and the wonderful THE DOLLS' HOUSE, which has in it Marchpane, one of the most fascinating of all fictional dolls. A quick check on the internet reveals that Pan will be publishing THE GREENGAGE SUMMER this month, but the children's books mentioned above are only available as Kindle editions or expensive second hand copies. So hats off to Virago for striving to bring this writer back into the limelight she ought never really to have left.

    When I was young, this kind of book was what I really wanted to read: a family story, with lots of siblings living under one roof. I wanted a tale about ambition, preferably theatrical or balletic and I wanted lashings of detail and emotion. I wanted to be able to believe in the characters, and if I could identify with the main protagonist, so much the better. I wanted conflict. I wanted drama. In fact, I was looking for what I think a lot of children look for in books: something that's both aspirational and also exciting and moving. A book that was a mixture of the familiar and the exotic was always going to be a winner. In every one of these respects, Rumer Godden has fulfilled my dearest wishes and I enjoyed reading this book enormously. It took me right back to being ten or so, without at any point upsetting my adult self.

    A word of warning: this is an old-fashioned book. It was first published in 1984 but even with the mention of television and supermarkets and what Godden calls 'ballpens', you get the feeling reading it that you are going back into the past. Which is fair enough. The 80s is the past and the speed of change in the last decade has been greater somehow than in the thirty years from 1970 to the end of the century. So young readers will be deprived of mobiles, texting, Ipods and all the accoutrements of a 'connected' childhood. They will not find the ubiquitous first person present tense but rather a straightforward, third person narrative which still manages to convey well the point of view of Doone, the young boy at the heart of the story.

    The Pennys run a grocery shop. Ma Penny used to have ambitions of appearing on the stage herself but then she married Pa and proceeded to have lots of children, mostly boys.Crystal, the only girl, was a nice surprise and when Doone arrived the family were truly expecting another girl. They had the name 'Lorna' all lined up from one of their favourite novels, so when a boy appeared, 'Doone' was the only option. Beppo, an ex-circus performer who works in the shop, takes Doone under his wing as childcare is a bit hard to come by with so many children, but he's sent packing when Ma discovers that he's been teaching Doone circus tricks, such as tightrope walking. Doone is very upset at Beppo's dismissal. Ma Penny has ambitions for her only daughter and sends her to ballet lessons. Doone has to go with her...there's no one else to look after him. So from an early age he's exposed to music, and dancing and he falls in love with that whole world.

    The novel tells the story of Doone's transformation into a ballet dancer and musician. It takes in conflicts with his sister, who is jealous of him and sometimes very unpleasant to him; a gravitation towards adults who understand him better than his parents, his progress through a school clearly based on White Lodge in Richmond, (the school for young ballet dancers who want to join the Royal Ballet,) and his eventual triumph over all the odds that life has thrown in his way. It's a constant roller coaster of events, people, highs and lows, successes and disappointments and there's a great deal of detail about dance, music, and the customs of this wonderful school. I've done events there as a writer and I recognized it at once. I do recommend this novel to anyone who's interested in dancing, of course, but also for every child who's wanted to be appreciated for him/herself and not pushed into some pre-ordained role in the family. It celebrates independence, hard work, discipline and cooperation. It encourages those who regard themselves as not quite the same as everyone else. It's hugely enjoyable and I hope that lots of aspiring ballet dancers will buy it. I suppose with all those ballet shoes on the cover, it's not going to be immediately picked up by boys, but if you have a possible 'proper little Nooryev'* in the family, they would love it too.

    My review of LISTEN TO THE NIGHTINGALE will appear on this site on March 14th, 2013.

    *For anyone who doesn't know it, A PROPER LITTLE NOOREYEV' by Jean Ure is a wonderful book about a boy who wants to be a dancer. Also highly recommended if you can find it. Publisher: VIRAGO MODERN CLASSICS Price: £6.99 Format: Paperback. ISBN: 978 1844088485

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  • THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONNECT by Susan Maushart. Reviewed by Adèle Geras

    This book was lent to me by Yvonne Coppard, a member of the SAS whom a great many of the readers of this blog will know. She said it was funny and interesting and she was quite right. I thought it worth drawing to the attention of ABBA readers because it addresses a problem that a great many people share. The author, an American by birth but a longtime resident of Perth, Western Australia, tells the story of a six-month period when she pulled the plug, as she puts it, on Ipods, Iphones, laptops, computers, games consoles etc....everything that connected her children and herself to the world of the Internet.

    Inspired by Thoreau's On Walden Pond she took a decision to go 'screen-free' as an experiment. To see if she, a very wired journalist, and her three teenage children, could survive without the help of the World Wide Web. The short answer is: they could and they did. The long answer is the book itself, which is full of careful research into the effects of being plugged in to such things as Facebook, Twitter IMS etc as well as an account of the daily lives of this family and how they reacted, individually and collectively to being without their precious devices.

    If that makes it sound dry and dusty and boring, nothing could be further from the truth. It's a hilarious read at times and Maushart has a wonderful way of turning a witty sentence. She describes a world where everyone is so hooked on their phones, Blackberries etc that the real world has practically disappeared. And Maushart is as bad as her children. Away from her home in the USA, she still, after many years, feels not quite at home in Australia and the internet brought her nearer to people and places she longed for. The family was still able to access the internet at school or college or a cafe... just not at home.

    To say the changes wrought in the teenaagers were miraculous would be putting it a bit strongly but the progress she charts in each of her children is amazing. The changes are brought on by having to deal with BOREDOM. It's a salutory lesson to all parents, I think, that being bored and learning how to deal with it leads often to great creativity. We are all, she says, too anxious to ensure that every minute of our children's lives are full of things to do. Maushart's son, for example, moved from being someone who barely exchanged a word with his family and stared at a screen for hours in a day to becoming a whizz on the saxophone and a Haruki Murakami completist. Do give yourselves a treat and read this book. It may very well change your life. The message, though, is one of the oldest in the world: everything in moderation.

    Published in hardback by Profile Books. Price: £11.99 ISBN:9781846684647

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