The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston

It is almost April, just one night to go and then a third of this year will be behind us. Where has it gone? January and February didn’t appear to be flying by, but March seems to have done just that. It doesn’t seem that long since I was turning the calender and looking forward to spring. The old saying is that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, or March comes in like a lamb and goes out like a lion. Well, the wind has certainly been doing some roaring and growling today. There’s been hailstones, driving rain and a cold north wind. Not the sort of weather for being out and about. Just the right sort of weather in fact to curl up and read a good book.

It is many many years since I first learned about ‘The Children of Green Knowe’. I remember it being read to us at primary school. I think it was autumn, and for a long while afterwards I could never look at trees in quite the same light. It was a book that stayed with me for quite some time. But I grew up and discovered other books and interests, and this remained a memory of childhood, along with looking at a very tall old poplar tree near our school with deep suspicion.

Things change and the old poplar tree, and the oatcake bakery it stood next to have both gone. Progress and development seem to involve so much destruction. The school that I once thought was so big and terrifying now seems very small, and the playground where battles and epic cup finals were fought is a small square of tarmac.

This all sounds very nostalgic, which is more a reflection of the mood I’m in at the moment, rather than this book although perhaps it has added to my current mood. This is a book that belongs to my twin brother, and I saw whilst browsing his book shelves. I’m glad he let me borrow it for a while because it has been a pleasure to read. It is possibly the most charming story about ghosts a child (or adult) could wish to read.

Some children’s books do not age well, or end up showing their age. As a child I enjoyed ‘The Famous Five’ and ‘The Faraway Tree’ by Enid Blyton but now reading them with my son, I feel they are dated. Not so much the language as the attitudes. As a child it was much easier to see things in black and white and accept bad characters and good characters. Now, it seems too simple and un-fair.

The Children of Green Knowe however has aged well, and I would say can be enjoyed by all ages. As a child I found it very atmospheric and it certainly caught my imagination. As an adult I appreciated the same things, perhaps being more aware of the quality of the writing, and the deftness of the plot. The story starts with a boy, Tolly, travelling by train across the fenlands of East Anglia through heavy rain and floods to go and stay with his Great Grandmother at her ancient home, that is now called Green Noah.

Tolly soon finds that he isn’t the only child at the house but unlike himself the other children were alive many years ago. He learns the history of his family and the children, his ancestors, from tales his great-grandma tells him. Unlike Enid Blyton the language in this book, whilst somewhat old-fashioned is perfect in that it helps set the scene. Tolly learns about his past, and I am learning about his past, it is only right that the language reflects the age he lived in. But the language is not condescending, the author addresses the reader in terms that both child and adult can understand.

Rather than talk too much about the plot and the writing, the best thing I feel is to write the first paragraph.

“A little boy was sitting in the corner of a railway carriage looking out at the rain, which was splashing against the windows and blotching downward in an ugly, dirty way. He was not the only person in the carriage, but the others were strangers to him. He was alone as usual. There were two women sat opposite him, a fat one and a thin one, and they talked without stopping, smacking their lips in between sentences and seeming to enjoy what they said as much as if it were something to eat. They were knitting all the time, and whenever the train stopped the click-clack of their needles was loud and clear like two clocks. It was a stopping train – more stop than go – and it had been crawling along through flat flooded country for a long time. Everywhere there was water – not sea or rivers or lakes, but just senseless flood water with the rain splashing into it. Sometimes the railway lines were covered by it, and then the train-noise was quite different, softer than a boat.”

I enjoyed reading and re-discovering this book so much that I think I might read it again before handing it back to my brother. I hope you enjoy reading it too.

Duncton Wood by William Horwood

Another book that I re-read recently was Duncton Wood by William Horwood. I seem to remember reading my Nan’s copy soon after reading Watership Down and enjoying it. Now, reading it many years later my view is somewhat changed. Not necessarily for the worse but I can find more faults in it.

The first fault is the length. It seems as though William Horwood was adding in extra things just to delay getting to the end. The Lord of the Rings is a much longer book and so is ‘The Tale of Genji’ but both of them felt more complete. Duncton Wood could have finished quite nicely after 500 pages. The principle characters in the book Rebecca and Bracken after a great deal of travelling and separation finally get to be together but their end is downright peculiar. It just doesn’t make sense to me at all.

There are though some very good points to this book, the first is William Horwood’s description, and obvious love, of the British countryside. It is no surprise that he was able to write the sequels to the Wind in the Willows. It’s a great strength and thoroughly enables the reader to be next to the characters feeling the wind in their fur, smelling the damp leaves under the trees. The other strength are the characters, they are believable and their actions by and large feel right.

Duncton Wood begins very well and the plot for the first part of the book is very good. It’s just that towards the end it all felt a bit too drawn out. In the early stages I devoured chapters eagerly but towards the end I was getting tired. Especially after Bracken and Rebecca’s end. I think the telling thing was I picked up the sequel, which pretty much picks up where Duncton Wood finishes but after the first few pages put it down. I’ve not felt any desire to pick it back up.

Would I recommend Duncton Wood? It’s hard to say. I do remember enjoying it when I was younger, and again re-reading it was good fun for the most part. There are further five books in the series so evidently many people have read them and enjoyed them. I just found the end too much.

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

For a number of years I’ve had books in three locations and slowly but surely I’m getting them altogether in one place. In some cases I’ve gone through my shelves sorting out those books I intend keeping and parting with those books which I know realistically I will never read again.

In my mother’s loft there are a number of boxes containing my books and recently I brought a few boxes back home, unpacked them and re-discovered the Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. Now, I’ve never read a lot of science fiction, nor for that matter a lot of fantasy, but I do remember the Foundation Trilogy and I do remember how impressed by it I was. Only the other month I recommended it to a colleague. I can imagine a few people dismissing the books because of its genre but I feel they are missing out. These are great books.

I re-read all my Isaac Asimov books, the first three and then the subsequent sequels written many years later. I must admit that whilst I enjoyed the last two: Foundation’s Edge and Foundation and Earth they cannot compare to the first three. The first three are superb stories: tight plots with great characters, the last two unfortunately are a bit too full of the sort of stuff that turn people of science fiction, a lot of arguing over minor details and a lot of techie info-dumps rescued though by a good imagination and clever thinking. Perhaps you can’t have one without the other, but if you read the first three I would argue that you can. Maybe the first three books benefited from being written as short stories for magazines and maybe the last two suffered because the author was given free rein.

 

Jazz by Toni Morrison

I have been reading rather a lot of books recently, which is a good thing. For most of February and March I’ve been working very long hours and reading has been a fantastic way to un-wind and relax. I enjoy writing and am in the middle of writing another novel but what with my work-load and stress I’ve found it very difficult to just switch off from work; unless of course I pick up a book.

I devour books, not literally I should hasten to add. What I mean is that when I start a book I tend to devote myself to it; reading late into the night, reading it whilst I have breakfast; in fact finding any spare moment possible to read. I enjoy reading. Always have done. I remember as a child being told off for reading when there is work to be done but to me if you are reading you are working. You are learning.

The only problem I had with Toni Morrison’s book, Jazz, was me to be honest. I race through books I want to know what happens. Books, that I enjoy I quite often re-read because now I know what happens I want to enjoy the journey. With Jazz the point is to enjoy the journey, not race to get to the destination. There isn’t really a destination because in the first few pages you already know where that is.

Now, I’ve never read anything by Toni Morrison before although I’ve heard and read a great deal about her; and knowing that she has been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature makes me suspect that she can write a bit! And I’m pleased to say that after reading Jazz I’m still of that opinion. One thing that struck me was her writing style. Young writers are often told that they must find their voice but I wonder about Toni Morrison. I’ll try and explain. When I write I need to write often to stay focussed on the story and to keep the same style and the same flow. So, with my (admittedly limited) experience of writing I wonder how Toni Morrison has managed to write this book.

The quotes on the copy of Jazz that I have talk about Toni Morrison’s poetry and I must admit I rather dismissed them as hyperbole – I better praise this Nobel Laureate! Well, it turns out I was wrong. Jazz does feel like a very long lyrical poem and it might be interesting to know if anyone has compared Toni Morrison’s Jazz to Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf. The voices are very different and the songs they are singing are also very different but both still sing, which not many books do. This brings me back to wondering about how Toni Morrison wrote this book. I think she must have entered a sort of trance every time she picked up her pen to write this book.

The fact that she keeps her unique voice, never missing a note as it were, is remarkable but far better than that Jazz is a good story. It talks about people, their lives and how their experiences shape their actions. It is a song of loneliness and redemption; a song of pain and loss, a song of hope and forgiveness.

I was rather fortunate when reading this book to realise quite quickly that I needed to slow down and take the book on its terms not mine. I really enjoyed this book and I’m looking forward to reading it again one day soon.

The Flat Earth series by Tanith Lee

For many years I did not read much fantasy. I had read ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and didn’t think that it could be bettered. Part of the reason for this was having encountered books that were pale imitations of Tolkien and also having read the book so many times I’d had my fill of fantasy. So, I read history books and discovered Thomas Hardy, who I like immensely although I would love to write a happy ending for ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’.

The thing is with fantasy and by that I really mean good fantasy is that it should challenge our thinking. It should ask ‘what if’, it should make us think and look at our own world differently. Fantasy, which by its very name suggests it can be anything it wants to be, all too often it ends up being exactly what you imagined it would be. Sometimes popular works of fantasy get over-looked. Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock was pretty ground-breaking for its time having as it’s main character an anti-hero and being first and foremost great fun. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ also broke new ground, there wasn’t any fantasy before that it could be compared too, although some tried ¬†with ‘The Worm Ouroboros’ by E.R Edison.

The Flat Earth series by Tanith Lee is pretty unique. It asks questions about religion. Did the Gods exist before religion, or does religion make Gods? It asks questions about humanity. How would being immortal affect humanity? Is being in love a form of madness? Is there life after death, and if so how does that affect Death himself?

There are currently five books in the series with rumours/hopes that there might be two others sometime in the near future. I’ve just paused during typing to search for Tanith Lee’s website but it no longer seems up. This website¬†http://www.norilana.com/norilana-taleka.htm seems to be relatively up to date. Anyway back to The Flat Earth series.

There are many things I like about this series. Firstly, the language. It is rich, descriptive but not overblown or long-winded. There’s plenty of humour. Tanith Lee enjoys language but she doesn’t lose sight of telling a good tale. Secondly, there are stories within stories and tales within tales. I know there are some reviewers who found this a bit much. It was complicating things too much but for me I liked the fact that it breaks the books into distinct sections. Thirdly, and this follows on from the second point, these books remind me of ‘The Arabian Nights’ perhaps that is why we have stories within stories.

In many of the books I’ve read by Tanith Lee (and I must confess I’ve not read a lot) she seems to have a fascination with the desert. Perhaps it’s the contrasts. Extreme heat in the day-time, freezing at night. Perhaps it’s the fact that the stars shine very brightly at night in the desert so heaven is closer. It is worth mentioning that these books are fantasy for adults. There is sex in these books but it isn’t gratuitous.

There is so much I’d like to say about these books but to do so would involve me divulging many of the plots and wonderful characters. I might do that in other posts but for tonight I shall simply finish by saying if you want to read books of wonder that make you think then give The Flat Earth series a try.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson

There are some books that when you read them you say ‘I could do better than that’. There are some books you read where you say ‘I wish I’d written that’, and then there are some where you only have a longing. You wish you could but you know you can’t. There is no way that I could have written ‘The Shipping News’ or ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’, not because I’m a bad writer but simply because that idea (or related ones) have never entered my head.

The wonderful thing about ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ is the pictures it paints. When it’s a really good book you immerse yourself in it. A really good book is much better than a film simply because it lasts longer and is not so intimidating. A lot of films are full of huge crashes of sound, long drawn-out action sequences. After two hours you start feeling numb. Two hours reading is a quieter experience but the emotion roller-coaster can be just as tumultuous.

I love the description in ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’. From the opening scene where I can picture the damp warmth of the courtroom, the caretaker cranking up the radiators, to the dry dusty prison camp where I can taste the dust and feel the discomfort from the heat and insanitary conditions. One other thing worth highlighting about the description is that it doesn’t get in the way of the plot. The plot keeps moving but as it does we get a deep understanding of the characters. They come alive.

I could never have written ‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ because my life experiences have never really brought me into contact with Japanese Americans and their experiences in the war. I grew up in a mill-town in the north-west of England. The closest I ever got to a fisherman was watching Captain Birdseye on television commercials. However,. I certainly can relate to Hatsue and Ishmael. The intensity of feelings that happens in youth. The over-whelming blinding feeling of being completely smitten. I can understand and appreciate all the different characters, why they act as they do. I can sympathise with Ishmael. I feel very sorry for him.

I first heard about this book via a podcast by the World Book Club on the BBC World Service. It was a great way to be introduced to it. To listen to David Guterson describe his influences and how he came to write this book.

I haven’t yet watched the film. Part of me doesn’t want to do so. Some adaptations can be very disappointing. Perhaps though, it’ll be interesting to see how the adaptation has been made, what parts have been kept, which parts added.

Anyway I was writing this entry whilst baking a cake for my son to take to school tomorrow. It’s out of the oven now and making the house smell rather nice. I almost feel like sampling some of it!

What makes a great novel?

In my last post I talked about ‘Thursbitch’ by Alan Garner and I want to continue talking about that a bit more, in particular with regard to what makes a great novel. Now, I wouldn’t claim Thursbitch to be great. Not because I dislike it, mainly because as I said before I think there’s a lot in it that will put people off.

In music, or so I’ve heard, there is the idea of the Blue note, the gap between notes, the bit you fill in yourself. For me a great illustration of this is ‘Neptune’ by Holst in his Planet Suite. The closing part is superb I can imagine being in a spacecraft at the edge of the solar system drifting deeper and deeper into space. There’s hardly any music in the closing bars (or at least not to my un-trained ears) but there’s so much atmosphere or rather feeling.

Great novels also have this. That time when you’ve read the final page, closed it and sit thinking about it. Thursbitch has this, as do many others.