Geraldine McCaughrean – The Positively Last Performance

What a gem of a book this is. I picked it up in the children’s/YA section of my local library while hanging out with my toddler; I thought it might be good for a quick, easy read on a day when I was super tired. What I actually got was a clever, poignant, thought-provoking story that I read slowly and carefully to savour every little detail.

Set in the Royal Theatre, Seashaw, the story centres around curious, persistently positive Gracie, whose parents have bought the theatre in order to return it to its glory days. Far from being the empty, mouldering building they believe it to be, the theatre is actually peopled with a rich cast of characters, all of whom have returned in search of a place of sanctuary. And all of whom are dead.

Gracie is the only one who can see them. As well as being the only person who can see their nightly stage shows, led by celebrated actor Roland Oliver and his wife, the ‘songbird’ Lily. These performances have been occurring for centuries and the residents of the theatre are happy with their status quo. Until Gracie bursts into their midst, demanding that they tell their stories and confront why they have come back to the theatre and what is going on outside of its doors.

As each resident tells the story of their life (and death), the history of Seashaw and the theatre are also laid bare. There’s Miss Melluish, who perished alongside her beloved books in a flood that devastated the town, consumptive twins Jim and Joanie, PC Nixon, whose love of order nearly leads to his early death in an incident involving two horses, a bathing hut and a furious lady, right up to Mikey the Mod, who came to Seashaw in search of a fight and got more than he bargained for. There’s even a painter lurking in the orchestra pit who will turn out to be a very familiar figure. The stories are so heartfelt and the gradual unravelling of Gracie’s story, and her own reasons for coming to the Royal, is so deftly handled. There’s a great twist that I didn’t see until just a few pages before and I loved the fact that McCaughrean didn’t shy away from the big questions and the tough answers.

McCaughrean makes no secret of the fact that the main inspiration for the fictional Seashaw is Margate, and its beautiful old Theatre Royal. A tangible warmth and affection for the town comes through in the writing so that you too feel the residents’ nostalgia for its various incarnations and the people who lived their lives there. Such a wonderful book. I’d recommend it to anyone, at any age.

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Jennifer Ryan – The Chilbury Ladies Choir

This book had the honour of being my first read of 2018. I picked it up on a browse through the library, mostly because of these three things:

  1. It’s set during WWII.
  2. The action takes place in a small, very rose-tinted sounding quintessentially Englishy village in Kent.
  3. There was music (in this case, singing).

All of those things are usually winners for me.

It’s 1940 and the village of Chilbury has been rocked by the war. As husbands and sons leave to fight, the Vicar decides that the choir must be disbanded until the menfolk return. But not everyone is happy about that decision. With a bit of pluck, and the help of newly arrived Miss Primrose Trent, previous Professor of Music at Litchfield University, the choir is reinstated and proves to be a powerful unifying force for the village as they experience the joys and the hardships of a life lived in wartime.

Loosely epistolary, the novel is told through letters and diaries of various of Chilbury’s residents. There’s retiring Miss Tilling who will find her feet in quite heroic fashion, sisters Kitty and Venetia Winthrop, struggling with the trials of growing up under a tyrannical father, and the distinctly shady Edwina Paltry, the local midwife. I liked the shift in perspectives very much, although, as ever, there’s a fine line with novels written in this fashion between including the rich descriptions, narrative detail and literary touches the author is capable of, and staying true to the voices of your characters. On balance, I forgave the decidedly literary skills of some of the characters because of the many lovely moments of poignant insight that Ryan brought to the familiar tale of the home front.

The choir itself is described beautifully and acts as a great focal point for both cast and plot – a great example of the transformative and healing properties of music (something I personally believe in wholeheartedly).

Fans of The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society will find much to enjoy here. It has that same sense of community, of strength in adversity. To borrow a cliche or two, it’s one of those gentle books that will warm your cockles. Ryan writes characters that you care about, even if they, at times, felt a little like characters I’d encountered in other stories of this era and type. There’s plenty of surrounding plot to drive forward the story of the choir itself and each of the characters evolves convincingly throughout the course of the book. There’s a very large and unresolved plot point come the end though, which makes me wonder if Ryan has plans for a sequel. I certainly wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time with the Chilbury residents.

Mary Stewart – Stormy Petrel

Lots of people whose ‘bookish’ thoughts I regularly turn to recommend Mary Stewart but until recently I’d only read two of her books and hadn’t really got on with them. Back in 2014, I read The Ivy Tree and was largely ambivalent. Then in 2015 I read Touch Not The Cat, which I just disliked, largely due to the odd ‘second sight’ element whereby the heroine falls in love with a man she hasn’t yet met. Or thinks she hasn’t – the details are hazy after a couple of years.

Some consistent themes emerge from my Stewart reading so far – both The Ivy Tree and Touch Not The Cat are concerned with the inheritance of large country estates (usually crumbling ones) and both explore the idea of identity, through mysterious strangers and people who might not be entirely who they say they are.

The Goodreads synopses make clear these overlaps:

The Ivy Tree (1961)An English June in the Roman Wall countryside; the ruin of a beautiful old house standing cheek-by-jowl with the solid, sunlit prosperity of the manor farm – a lovely place, and a rich inheritance for one of the two remaining Winslow heirs. There had been a third, but Annabel Winslow had died four years ago – so when a young woman calling herself Annabel Winslow comes ‘home’ to Whitescar, Con Winslow and his half-sister Lisa must find out whether she really is who she says she is.

Touch Not The Cat (1976): Bryony Ashley knows that Ashley Court, the grand estate, is both hell and paradise — once elegant and beautiful, yet shrouded in shadow. After the tragic death of her father, Bryony returns from abroad to find that his estate is to become the responsibility of her cousin Emory… Still, her father’s final, dire warning about a terrible family curse haunts her days and her dreams. And there is something odd about her father’s sudden death. Bryony has inherited the Ashley ‘Sight’ and so has one of the Ashleys. Since childhood the two have communicated through thought patterns, though Bryony has no idea of his identity. Devastated, she believes, that the mysterious stranger is her destiny… the lover-to-be who waits for her now at Ashley Court…

Stormy Petrel, which was published quite a bit later in 1991, does revisit these themes in the sense that there is a question of contested inheritance and two of the main characters may not be who they say they are. But in many other ways it was a very different kind of story, one I genuinely loved and can see myself re-reading.

Cambridge tutor Rose Fenemore has sought out her own writer’s retreat, renting an isolated holiday cottage on the remote Scottish island of Moila (which isn’t a real place, sadly, but instead reportedly based on a number of islands in the Inner Hebrides). Her brother, who should be joining her, is delayed and Rose finds herself alone in the cottage during a storm. That night, two men turn up in her kitchen; one, Ewen Mackay, claims to have grown up in the cottage while the other, John Parsons, claims to be a geologist working nearby.  Neither man appears to be telling the whole truth and as time passes, Rose becomes increasingly convinced that, while strangers to her, they aren’t strangers to each other.

From that point on, Rose becomes embroiled in the mystery of the two men’s identities and how they are connected to the largest house on the island, Taigh na Tuir.

I’d describe the mystery at the heart of Stormy Petrel as gentle. There aren’t any big surprises and I’d actually ‘predicted’ a huge twist while reading that turned out not to be where the story was going at all but might have been SO much more interesting than the actual plot! What made this book so enjoyable was Stewart’s evocation of place, the pin-sharp descriptions of Moila and its natural inhabitants, and the simple minutiae of a writing life. I don’t remember pausing to re-read descriptions in the other Stewart books I’ve read but there were multiple instances where I did just that in Stormy Petrel:

‘Narrowing my eyes against the Atlantic glitter I could see the line of a path that climbed from the bay and on over the headland to the west. And beyond the crest of the headland, hazy with distance, the shape of a hill, smooth and symmetrical, like a drawn-up knee.’

‘This was not the sort of fog one is used to in towns, but a veil of salt-smelling white, damp and mild, with all the soft brilliance of a thin curtain drawn between earth and sun.’

‘Gold, scarlet and blazing flame I had seen before, but never like this, washing over the low clouds from below, and backed by the most delicate and limpid green which faded to primrose and then into the shadowy greys of the upper sky.’

‘But here, in a clear arch of pewter-grey air, the stars were low and bright and as thick as daisies on a lawn.’

Just lovely. Something about the way that Stewart uses colour, shape and sound creates the most perfect impression of the Scottish islands so that, plot or not plot, you get completely drawn into Rose’s experience.

Other reviews:

Helen Dunmore – Your Blue-Eyed Boy

Helen Dunmore is one of my favourite writers and her early death, last year, was so very sad. If there can’t be more books, then it is a small comfort to remember just how robustly her works stand up to re-reading and I’ll be savouring those that I’ve still not yet read for the first time.

I read Your Blue-Eyed Boy late last year and it’s one of those books where the pages turn themselves. I remember where I was because it’s an unusual thing these days – I was solo on a train bound for London. I normally struggle to read on the train because of the joys of eavesdropping but I remember nothing else about that journey apart from this book.

Simone is a newly-appointed District Judge living with her husband and two boys in a large, stone house, isolated on the coast in the East of England. The house is cold because to install central heating would involve adding to the family’s mounting debts. Simone’s husband, Donald, is unemployed and on the verge of a breakdown. Then, like a door from the past opening onto the present, a letter arrives for Simone from a man she thought she had long left behind.

I don’t usually quote at length, but I’m going to do so here because this is a truly fantastic opening section. By the end of it, I can’t imagine what would have needed to happen to get me to put the book down. I can say ‘read it read it read it’ over and over, but it’s probably best left to Dunmore to convince you:

‘There are things you should know about blackmail, in case it comes tapping at your door. There’s what it does to you, and then there’s what it makes you do. I used to think I knew what I could be made to do.

Blackmail doesn’t work the way I always thought it would, if I ever gave it a thought. It doesn’t smash through the clean pane of a life like a stone through a window. It’s always an inside job, the most intimate of crimes. Somebody in the house has left that little window open, just a snick… From outside a hand reaches up into the gap, and the window creaks wide. Cold air comes rushing in. I see that hand now, each time I shut my eyes to sleep. Sometimes it’s heavy and alien, the hand of a stranger. I can count the hairs on the knuckles. But on other nights I feel the fingers move and I know they are my own.’

I haven’t read many things that dissect intimacy in quite the way Dunmore does in this book, whether it’s the foggy intimacy between a husband and wife who are drifting apart, or the way in which the memory of intimacy means that someone who was once so close they were practically an extension of your own skin can be suddenly rendered profoundly terrifying in their strangeness. With a plot that had me holding my breath on occasion, I thought this was also an excellent exploration of human nature and the way in which shared experiences bind.

Read it read it read it.

#TheDarkIsReading – a write up of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising

The recent The Dark is Rising readalong on Twitter was hands down one of my favourite collective reading experiences. It couldn’t have been a more perfect example of how art inspires art, how creativity begets creativity. And that fuzzy feeling you get when you discover a whole army of like-minded people just can’t be beaten.

I was one of the readers discovering the books for the first time.

I did read Over Sea Under Stone first, back in mid-December, and loved my trip to the fictional Cornish village of Trewissick, and the opportunity to meander around the Grey House. A relatively simple story of three children who discover an Arthurian map in the labyrinthine depths of their holiday house, I so enjoyed Cooper’s ability to conjure place, atmosphere and the breathtaking excitement of being on an ‘adventure’. There’s also a strong sense of threat throughout (Cooper doesn’t hold back on the scares, which I always admire in good children’s writing) and Barney, Jane and Simon quickly discover that they’re not the only ones searching for the prize, and that the forces against them might be darker and less human than they imagined.

Over Sea Under Stone also introduces Great-Uncle Merry. Pay attention to him. He’s important. Not that you can easily gloss over him, of course. I loved this introduction:

‘Nobody knew very much about Great-Uncle Merry, and nobody ever quite dared to ask. He did not look in the least like his name… In his grim brown face the nose curved fiercely, like a bent bow, and the eyes were deep-set and dark. How old he was, nobody knew. ‘Old as the hills,’ Father said, and they felt, deep down, that this was probably right. There was something about Great-Uncle Merry that was like the hills, or the sea, or the sky; something ancient, but without age or end.’

I can see why more people connect with the second book, The Dark is Rising, as it really is the kind of book that creeps under your skin and pulls you into its world. There is a clever connection between the books but you really don’t need to have read one to enjoy the other, nor does the order in which you read them matter particularly, I’d have thought.

The Dark is Rising takes us to the Home Counties – Buckinghamshire to be more specific – moving between the Thames Valley and the Chiltern Hills. The book opens on Midwinter’s Eve, with Will waiting for his 11th birthday to begin. There’s an unsettling sense of something strange and evil massing outside his cosy family home and, although Will doesn’t know it yet, the gathering forces will pull him into a life-changing adventure in which he will discover that he is one of the Old Ones and must learn to harness their ancient power. What follows is a story of awakening, history, magic, knowledge and the awesome force of the natural world.

TDIR is such a wonderfully primal book. I so love stories, and writing in general, that plants its roots so deeply in the natural world. Cooper weaves a fabulous extended pathetic fallacy out of the weather so that it comes to feel like a character in its own right. And the gathering forest sentinels outside Will’s front door become powerful symbols of place and time. There’s a strong sense that the natural world acts as a gateway between time present, past and future, via pathways – or old ways – that can still be walked by those with instinct or intuition enough to know where their feet stand.

I think that idea of instinct or trusting to one’s senses is one of the things that makes the book resonate so well with readers today. In a world where so many people feel a sense of disconnection between their lives and nature, where screens take us out of a place where we can indulge in what it means to smell, touch and fully engage with the world around us, it’s so reassuring to feel like the natural world can still exert such a big influence on our lives. Of course, that ended up being truer for some than others when England saw some unusual (these days, anyway) December snow both before and after Christmas, and some American readers, including Cooper herself, were affected by the snow bomb cyclone.

It’s probably not a coincidence either that a book about dark forces should reassert itself in such a public way at the end of a particularly gloomy year and at a time when many people feel there are dark forces at work in the wider world. Funny how reviled politicians always seem to have shameful environmental policies too – that link between evil and the destruction of the natural world is a strong one.

If you’re thinking of reading TDIR, I’d say do it. I suspect I’ll become one of the many who re-read it around Midwinter each year.

And if you haven’t yet caught up on the Twitter discussion, it’s well worth a look using the hashtag #TheDarkIsReading (or #TheArtIsRising). Some admirably in-depth discussion of core themes, given the character limits, excellent photography, and some atmospheric and inspirational original artwork in a huge variety of mediums. @EmmaJGrey collected together some particularly good pieces of thematic art and for original works check out @RobinsonKH, @claireddean, @marlinhoister and @rudivanetteger.

Plus – SUSAN COOPER REPLIED! Which I’m still smiling about.

What a way to begin a new reading year.

Beth Underdown – The Witchfinder’s Sister

A lot of people have heard of Matthew Hopkins. The self-styled Witchfinder General was responsible for the deaths of an estimated three hundred women in just over two years, from 1644 to 1646. Wikipedia helped to put that into context for me by pointing out that around 500 people (mostly women) were executed for witchcraft over a period of about four centuries, making Hopkins and his cronies responsible for some 60 per cent of the total figure in that time.

Hopkins’ activities helped to make him a famous and enduring historical figure, despite being largely absent from the record before he began his witch-hunts. He is now largely remembered, in print, for the records of the various trials at which he presided and for his book The Discovery of Witches, published in 1647, which detailed the various witch-hunting methods he ‘pioneered’ such as searching, pricking and watching.

Underdown’s book is a, to some degree, fictionalised retelling of Hopkins’ most well-documented years but told from the perspective of his imagined sister, Alice, who has come back to live with him at the Thorn Inn, Manningtree, following the death of her husband. As Alice adjusts to her new home and status, she becomes increasingly aware of what Matthew is doing and the influential local figures with whom he now mingles.

This shift in perspective is such an interesting way to come at the story. Alice is simultaneously one of Hopkins’ victims and removed enough from them to become the object of their ire and pleas. Everything detailed in the book is frightening, from the witch-hunts themselves to how powerless and dependent Alice has become as a result of her circumstances. It makes clear that any power or autonomy she had was illusory, or due to her previous position as ‘wife’.

This examination of the position of women in society and within their own homes felt particularly timely, given I was reading it at a time when women’s voices are being raised all over the world in protest at the forces that continue to silence them. And perhaps at a time when our status as ‘equals’ is being exposed as somewhat fragile.

Another interesting aspect of Underdown’s story was Hopkins’ motivation for doing what he did. Some commentators supposed that money was a possible motivator, of course, as Hopkins was compensated for his efforts, but there’s little insight into what his inner feelings may have been. In this area, understandably, Underdown has used considerable artistic license to guess at what might have formed him into the man he was. But I was pleased to see that she didn’t seek to excuse or explain away his actions, just put them into a possible context. He is still presented as a man who made conscious choices, the outcome of which resulted in the deaths of many innocent women.

Books like Underdown’s help to give voice to women who were silenced or misrepresented by history and I found it a bleak but enlightening read. It’s imaginative, measured, sobering and tightly plotted. Definitely one I’d recommend.

Reading Bingo 2017

Given that I’m still catching up on 2017 reads here on the blog, I thought it might be fun to take part in the 2017 Reading Bingo. I spotted this on Susan’s A Life in Books, where the idea is credited back to Cleopatra Loves Books. I think I might have cheated slightly so I’m probably not deserving of a full house, but it’s a nice way to wave a flag for some good reads that didn’t make my Best of 2017.

A book with more than 500 pages: A few contenders (surprisingly, given the amount of short and YA fiction I read last year), but I’m plumping for Donald Sturrock’s Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl because it was genuinely huge and didn’t just have big, generously spaced print! Worth a read if you’ve even a passing interest in Dahl and his work.

A forgotten classic: It’s hard to know for sure if a classic is forgotten, especially when it might just be an example of your own ignorance. But I read Dahl’s Esio Trot this year for the first time and thought it was so sweet. This tale of unrequited love and 140 tortoises seems to be much less well-known than many of Dahl’s other books.

A book that became a movie: I did read Murder on the Orient Express for the first time this year, although not because of Branagh’s adaptation. I ended up watching the film a few months later and thought it was quite fun, although the opening section is just madness and I really only got ‘on board’ (ha! puns!) when it calmed down a bit, stopped trying to do ‘all the things’ and focused on the characters and the train. Would definitely pick book over film. [For an example of film over book, I also read The Sword in the Stone this year and was a bit underwhelmed…]

A book published this year (2017): Quite a few contenders, given I’m usually late to the party, but I’m picking Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister – a tense account of Matthew Hopkins’ witch-hunt of 1645 told from the perspective of his (imagined) sister – because I haven’t yet had a chance to write it up and it’s definitely one I’d recommend.

A book with a number in the title: Angela Thirkell’s sort-of memoir, Three Houses, about three significant houses from her childhood that shaped the adult sensibilities evident in her writing. Two of the houses belonged to her grandfather, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Edward Burne-Jones.

A book written by someone under 30: Ooh, this was a hard one to figure out. Eventually I sussed that Amy Sackville’s The Still Point was published when she was just 29. You can read my review here.

A book with non-human characters: Lots of options here given that I re-read a lot of Dahl in preparation for Sturrock’s biography. I’m going to flag three of them, because two are only very short… 😉 – Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants, Rob Ryan’s lovely A Sky Full of Kindness about two birds embarking on parenthood, and Marie Phillps’ Gods Behaving Badly, which takes the Greek Gods and sticks them all into a 21st-century London house-share.

A funny book: I particularly enjoyed Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce novels this year for their cosy, gentle, rose-tinted humour (ignoring the death, bodies and motherlessness for a second…). Also funny was Lemony Snicket’s series All the Wrong Questions.

A book by a female author: Oh. So many. I’m going to flag three women writing about their own inspiring lives – Kate Adie’s The Kindness of Strangers: The Autobiography, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped: A Memoir, and Judy Fairbairns’ Island Wife: Living on the Edge of the Wild.

A book with a mystery: In order not to repeat titles already used, I’ll highlight Michele Roberts’ Daughters of the House about two young girls growing up in post-World-War-II Normandy. Guilty silences and secrets abound – what is the mystery of the broken shrine in the woods and how does it relate to their own cellar?

A book with a one-word title: To highlight a book I read back in March and never wrote up, I’m choosing Eleanor Wasserberg’s atmospheric debut Foxlowe, about a cult called The Family. Told from a child’s perspective, the chillingly innocent ‘Green’, it has a sucker punch of an ending.

A book of short stories: Although I’ve been working my way through Daphne du Maurier’s novels, I’d only ever read her short story collection The Birds. This year I added The Breaking Point and they were just as gripping and unsettling.

A book set on a different continent: This category highlighted a reading weakness of mine. Most of my books were based in Europe with a scattering of American locations for flavour. So I’m choosing the book set furthest away, Lily King’s Euphoria, which I wrote up here.

A book of non-fiction: I decided to ignore memoirs, collections of letters and biographies for this one, which narrowed the NF field. I choose Tracy Borman’s Witches: A Tale of Sorcery, Scandal and Seduction for it’s well-researched exploration of the witch-hunts of the 15th-18th centuries, focusing on specific events at Leicestershire’s Belvoir Castle.

The first book by a favourite author: I’m not sure whether this counts as it’s a repeat AND it’s tricky to justify a favourite author based on just one book, but I’m desperate to read Amy Sackville’s Orkney based on how much I enjoyed The Still Point.

A book you heard about online: All of them? Honestly, book blogs pretty much dictate my reading life. But I’m going to highlight Sophie Divry’s short, sweet, humorous novella The Library of Unrequited Love because you’ll motor through it in one sitting and you won’t be sorry. I know more than one blogger highlighted this but I’m ashamed to say I don’t remember who in particular.

A best-selling book: It’s hard to know for sure as I certainly haven’t verified my figures(!) but I’d be surprised if Dahl’s The BFG wasn’t one of the best-selling novels on this year’s list of books read. A re-read but one that never gets old and I’m so looking forward to reading it with my daughter.

A book based on a true story: I remember being shocked at the time that Judy Blume’s book In the Unlikely Event, a story about three plane crashes in three months in a small American community, was based on true events. And not just true events, events that Blume herself lived through.

A book at the bottom of your TBR pile: The book that had been on my TBR list and in my collection unread for the longest was Penelope Lively’s Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. I can’t begin to think why. She’s one of my favourite authors and it was, predictably, wonderful. Maybe I was saving it up for the sheer pleasure of reading it. It made my Best Reads of 2017.

A book your friend loves: They’re sadly not my ‘in real life’ friends, but the twitter community of #TheDarkIsReading are united in their love for Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, which I read for the first time this year in the readalong.

A book that scares you: I mentioned Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions here, but I’m choosing Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved because it was easily the most chilling thing I read this year. It would be presumptuous to suggest I reviewed it, but I captured some thoughts here.

A book that is more than 10 years old: Lots of options, but I choose Jon Krakauer’s Into The Wild, a harrowing story and a great example of extended journalism.

The second book in a series: I read all four books from Lemony Snicket’s All The Wrong Questions, including book two – When Did You See Her Last?

A book with a blue cover: Helen Dunmore’s page-turner Your Blue-Eyed Boy. I’ve promised to write this up already and I will definitely do so.

Free square: I’m going to flag Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch here because it nearly made the cut in so many other categories. It’s a really interesting examination of George Eliot’s life and best-known novel through the prism of Mead’s own life experiences and the perspectives brought by re-reading the book at different ages.

Now to start looking ahead to some 2018 goals…