Monday, 24 September 2007

Drifting Along

Drift by William Mayne

With 516 pages read of David Copperfield and 274 to go we are dependent on our evening reads for variety. Drift by William Mayne couldn't have offered a much stronger contrast to Dickens.

I found the title recommended on a bibliography of historical fiction for children and, although I'd never heard of the author before, had soon secured my copy for a matter of pence second hand from Amazon. Whilst waiting for it (and a few other irresistable purchases) to arrive I looked up William Mayne and found that he had written over 60 books, so that if we enjoyed this one, there would be plenty more to enjoy.

Drift promised to be an adventure story about a european boy and a native american girl floating on an ice floe somewhere non-specific in North America. So the blurb promised, accurately enough, but there is far more to this story. The characters and their stories soon diverge. After Tawena flees, we are left to hear the adventure from Rafe's perspective as he is captured or saved by two native american women who are either taking him to a settlement to sell as a slave or to return home safely.

The writing style is sparse to say the least. Mayne is very clever at giving us the character's thoughts in a realistically erratic, confused way. There were times when I was not quite sure what was happening. Initially I thought it was simply badly written, but I came to feel that it was quite the inverse as we shared Rafe's confusion as he struggled to adapt to the harshness of his environment and companions.

Just when you've given up on Tawena, her voice returns and we turn back the clock to hear how she has survived in the freezing wilderness. There is little sentimentality on the part of either child and no attempt to explain every term used or belief held, such as Tawaena's encounter with Bigfoot. It is just accepted as we are seeing this from her point of view and she doesn't question the existence of the reclusive figure. There is certainly no glossary to explain local terms, most of which we can understand by context, or guess at, much as Rafe has to.

It seems that, not for the first time, my kids were less confused than I was by the plot or at least less bothered by any confusion. We will be looking out for other such titles by Mayne. Through his clipped style he manages paradoxically to at least suggest a depth of character in contrast to Dicken's minutely observed detail of speech and highly nuanced interactions. I wouldn't put him on a par with Dickens but it is interesting to see how authors use such different means to convey convincing, compelling characters.

Whilst searching for an appropriate bibliographical link on Mayne for this blog I came across information about his conviction and jail term for child abuse in 2004. All references to this raised the issue of whether one should continue to read the work of such a person? Does the work stand alone, apart from the creator? I wouldn't avoid reading his books now that I am aware of this, however I must admit that I wish I didn't know. Sorry as I have now brought it to the attention of anyone reading this, but I felt it was likely to become apparent as soon as anyone searched for further information about William Mayne. There is further discussion on this issue in the following Guardian column which seems to raise the key points.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Books for Bedtime

When I send the girls upstairs to get ready for bed my main aim is, not surprisingly, to get them to sleep as quickly as possible. I berate them for lingering over the teeth brushing or huff and blow when I get up there only to find that Georgia has made a bed in the bath and Sally is busy telling a story in the next room. This being the case one would assume that the most appropriate bedtime books would be short of chapter and slow of pace – the equivalent of a prose lullaby. However as soon as I have actually got them into their respective beds I open the current bedtime book and the priorities shift in an instant. Now it is all about the reading, even if I am desperate to get downstairs to watch a film, go to sleep or heaven forbid actually read my own book (back to that later).

The bedtime book in our house can’t be boring because I have to read it at the time of day when I am most likely to fall asleep myself, frequently achieving a strange combination of reading and dozing which tends to muddle the storyline somewhat as my dreams sneak into the plot of Professor Branestawm or The Borrowers.

However it can’t be too emotionally charged either for obvious reasons. Many a book has lain abandoned on the bedside table for a few days until the chapter with witches could be read during the day, or indeed the entire story completed during daylight hours if necessary. The strong emotion doesn’t have to be fear to be outlawed at bedtime. Any kind of upset is obviously incompatible with sleep so even strong empathy is to be discouraged.

The historical fiction of our daytime book for the most part doesn’t cross over into the evening. The risk here is that daughter number two will fall asleep and miss a crucial scene, or perhaps more honestly that the reader will do likewise and everyone will be left wondering why Napoleon is driving a car with faulty breaks down a steep hillside.

So what I’m really looking for is a quality work of fiction with lively, possibly funny, characters, probably with a contemporary setting and preferably with short chapters to help me feel that I’m making progress, and have an easy exit strategy if by chance I do want to spend some time with my husband before we both fall asleep.

Taking all these criteria into account, my recent choices make no sense whatsoever but as usual were a case of, ‘This looks like a good book, its 8:30 and I can’t see anything else I fancy reading tonight.’

Firstly The Children of Charlecote by Philippa Pearce and Brian Fairfax-Lucy. It began life as the semi-fictionalized memoirs of Brian Fairfax-Lucy, describing what it was like to grow up in ‘the big house’ in the years before the First World War. By collaborating with the accomplished Philippa Pearce his story was shaped into a genuinely moving account that, as my girls remarked is both ‘brilliant and sad.’

If this novel had been written by an outsider it would have been a predictable romp about four children having jolly japes during the holidays at their big house in the country; stealing birds’ eggs, sneaking into the kitchen garden, forging forbidden friendships with village boys. All these things occur in this book but this is not a book about jolly adventures. It is about the isolation that dominates the children’s lives. Only the boys have outside acquaintances; Tom at his hated boarding school and Hugh a short-lived friendship with the local schoolmaster’s son. The girls have no friends as they have a governess and are virtually prisoners in the house grounds with little prospect of real choices in their adult lives either.

If this were an E. Nesbit novel the children’s parents would be physically distant, providing the space necessary for adventures, but distant in a fond, understanding way. Based as this is in reality rather than fantasy, the Hatton parents are primarily emotionally distant in their own self-interested ways; the father wishing to save money and gain political position for himself, the mother, although intermittently affectionate, always placing Charlecote, her house, before all else.

The Children of Charlecote also has a sense of authenticity on both sides of the baize door as the servants, whilst not central, are fully fleshed out characters rather than simple caricatures of the working class such as one might find in Nesbit or Blyton. The relationship between Hugh (the second son) and Walter (the butler) constantly threatened to bring a lump to my throat as Walter is emotionally the closest to a father Hugh will ever have.

As the main body of the book leaves us at the outbreak of war, the epilogue brings us up to date, filling in the ‘what happened next’ to the central characters. Although sad, my girls certainly approved of this device and liked that it hadn’t been given a false happy ending.

Having finished The Children of Charlecote we embarked upon The White Wolf by the marvelous Henrietta Branford. Having previously enjoyed an audio tape of her Fire, Bed and Bone which is told from the perspective of a dog during the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, we knew she could write as an animal and The White Wolf was another great example. I began it with a little trepidation, presuming we would enjoy it but concerned about it’s appropriateness for just before dreaming. Following a wolf as it does, I assumed there would be plenty of hunting and bloodthirsty ripping and rending. I was right although such scenes were described authentically, rather than being sensationalized so there were no complaints from the girls, even the squeamish one.

Branford shows how all the humans that the white wolf encounters want to use him for their own purposes whether that be companionship, protection or sacrifice. All feel that they are justified but by taking the wolfs’ part Branford shows us just how their wishes run contrary to the white wolf’s instinct for freedom and the company of other wild wolves.

As with The Children of Charlecote it was the sense of reality that impressed itself upon my girls. The White Wolf is quite a short book. At 84 well spaced pages we finished it in about four nights so it didn’t embed itself upon us as some novels have but they felt it was excellent and will be recommending it to a wolf-loving friend of theirs. It would probably appeal to anyone who likes action over description, although character and landscape are richly evoked, something is always happening and there is no sense of words wasted, despite frequent passages when as a reader you feel the poetic take over for a while.

I’m just about to send the girls upstairs to get ready, and then we’ll be reading the next installment in Drift by William Mayne. Last night we left the protagonists in a broken down hut adrift on an ice flow, with a bear at the door. Not exactly sticking to the bedtime book rules but at least I’ll get them into bed, if not asleep.

P.S. The Children of Charlecote has the added advantage that if you enjoy the book and happen to be in the U.K. you can visit the house. See the National Trust website for details.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

We Love the Penderwicks

The Penderwicks
by Jeanne Birdsall
pub. David Fickling Books
ISBN: 0385610343
234 pages

We love The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall!

After our last bedtime read, I for one was ready for something easy and fun and so picked up this attractive new hardback from the library (I am easily influenced by a cover and always attracted to a crisp new copy). It looked like it would be light and fast paced, as it was subtitled " A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits and a Very Interesting Boy." Well it certainly moved along quickly but it was too well written for 'light' to do it justice. When Mum is volunteering to read an extra chapter, even though it looks a bit long, you know you're onto a winner.

At the core of this books' success are the four Penderwick sisters with their well defined characters; Rosalind: the eldest and most responsible, though at an age to have her head turned romantically; Skye: headstrong, outspoken and mathematically inclined; Jane - future novelist and romantic in the literary sense and Batty, the adorable youngest who wears wings and is devoted to Hound the family pet.

This novel has so many of the age old devices that can contribute to a successful children's story. Dad is widowed and though very loving and caring towards his girls he is distracted by his work and interest in the plants on the estate, leaving Rosalind to do much of the practical nurturing of her sisters, especially Batty who needs bedtime stories and special toys in her bed. There is a resident meany in the big house, Mrs Tifton, who plans to marry the slimy Dexter and send her son Jeffrey away to a military academy against his will. She is also obsessed with the perfection of her garden, thereby creating out of bounds areas for the children to transgress. Will the girls be able to save Jeffrey from this fate worse than death or will they be evicted before they get the chance? So far so Enid Blyton, potentially.

The other side which could have been played up is the emotional landscape of the story. The girls are motherless, Jeffrey is fatherless, Rosalind is on the edge of romantic angst and seems alot older than her twelve years. She also shoulders alot of the day to day responsibility for her siblings. Jeffrey's potential step-father is cold and disinterested in him, yet a bit slimy round the girls. I hear Jaqueline Wilson waiting in the wings, issues at the ready. Yet in Birdsalls' book these 'issues' sit comfortably within the more exciting elements of the story such as Batty in a field with a bull or Skye and Jane's three storey descent from Jeffrey's bedroom window.

As in all satisfying novels the central characters show signs of development. Rosalind comes down to earth in regard to Cagney the likeable gardener, yet still with a thumping heart; Skye begins to control her temper; Jane values her writing without needing the approval of a jumped up magazine publisher and Batty is getting old enough to think of others and give away precious possessions. Even Jeffrey learns bravery and his mother learns to listen. All of this without a drop of saccharine or moralising.

To be honest the two rabbits don't play a very big part in the story and Jeffrey isn't exactly 'very interesting' he's just a nice boy that's fun to play soccer with and is having a hard time from his mum but this is very much 'A Summer Tale of Four Sisters' and has the energy and excitement of a memorable summer holiday. Also, according to one daughter, it has "a good baddy", what more do you need?

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

The Valley of Secrets

The Valley of Secrets by Charmian Hussey

Simon & Schuster ISBN: 0689878621 400 pages

The opening chapters of this novel excited me with their tantalisingly Dickensian style. It was heavy on the description but this was offset by eccentric characters such as Postlewaite the lawyer, surrounded by lush undergrowth in a tucked away office. There was a level of intrigue as the central character, Stephen, had no idea what awaited him, firstly as he was summoned to the lawyers' rooms, subsequently as he travelled to the Cornish coast to discover the nature of his inheritance. The mysterious atmosphere was maintained as Stephen encountered gates that locked and unlocked at his convenience, obscure objects placed as if waiting for him, hammocks slung in unlikely places and the constant sense of being watched.
At around this point the writing became bogged down and I felt as though I needed a machete myself to cut through the undergrowth of description. Stephens' discovery of his great-uncles' journal is an effective device for recounting past adventures in the Amazonian rainforest and introduced a new voice. It's always challenging to have one character without anyone else to bounce ideas / conversations off but many of the linkages seemed self-conscious.
Another plus was the introduction of Tig, whom we later learn is a Bugwomp, the species a souvenir from Uncle Theodore's South American adventures. Tigs' arrival gives Stephen someone else to talk to and care for, backing up his ecologically aware credentials with practical nursing. As we meet more of the creatures they provide some comic relief and a few 'aaah' moments.
Stephens' concern for the environment, both Amazonian and closer to home, is worthy and certainly topical but veers towards the preachy at times. It would have been interesting to see some other aspects of his character.
As the reading moved on I became increasingly irritated by the repetition of words within paragraphs and even sentences that didn't seem to be used to any conscious purpose, rather simply a matter of poor editing. I wonder if this was due to the book being written many years before it was published. Perhaps it was difficult to revisit and rework 400 pages.
The Valley of Secrets had so much potential and I guess I just wanted more - more excitement, more conflict. Stephens' practical concerns for the financial future of his property and it's inhabitants are understandable and realistic but given the unusual nature of Lansbury Hall it's surprising that the local community didn't pay it more active attention. Some local kids could have tried to get over the wall or perhaps a small boat could have paid Stephens' beach too much attention.
Having said all this my children were keen for every installment and gave the following opinions once we'd finished. "It was great - every aspect" and " It was brilliant, apart from the sad ending." What do I know.