Bone Jack by Sara Crowe

Bone JackPerhaps it’s something to do with my grey hair, but I don’t often read Young Adult books. I started Bone Jack out of curiosity, intrigued by a tale about ancient, rural traditions that have their roots in a pagan past. Within a page I was reading for pleasure. The opening is masterful; a boy willingly teetering on a cliff edge, held from falling only by the uncertain push of the wind. From that point on you know you’re in the hands of a great storyteller.

Central to the book is an annual ‘stag run’ in wild, mountainous country, a slice of local folklore which pits a young man, the ‘stag’, to outrun the pursuing ‘hounds’. The protagonist, 15-year old Ash, is to be the stag, and Crowe builds the tension steadily so you know he’s going to be running for his life. The setting of a drought- and disease-ravaged countryside is well crafted, and even the supporting characters are finely drawn. Ash has to contend with plausible human relationship issues such as a war-damaged father and a best friend who goes off the rails in the aftermath of tragedy. He also has to face Bone Jack, a shadowy figure who may be a hermit, or perhaps something much more sinister. Such supernatural elements are introduced progressively and subtly, and in a way that tightens the pace towards a climax that is as fulfils the promise of the first pages.

Above all, Bone Jack is extremely well written. Some passages I found myself re-reading purely for the pleasure of the prose. A stunning debut and highly recommended.


Deer Island by Neil Ansell

Deer IslandI started Deer Island thinking I’d just read for thirty minutes before bed. I put it down in the early hours, when it was nearly finished and all hopes of a full night’s sleep were gone, and I’m still trying to define its appeal. The quality of the writing certainly has something to do with it; the prose is clean and bare, yet wonderfully descriptive, but there is something more than style.

I’m also trying to define the book. It doesn’t fit easily with convenient labels. ‘Memoir’ is probably the closest fit, since it structured as personal recollections. Ansell has lived and worked with the destitute, has himself been a squatter, and has wandered the wild places of the earth. This slim book could also be seen as a series of vignettes; of poverty, of lifestyles, of places, all of which are articulated with sharp clarity.

I think I was hooked by the way he writes with such respect, even love, for the kind of people most of us hurry past in the street; the alcoholics and homeless beggars, Ansell’s friends and companions during his years serving with the Simon Community. There are also descriptive passages of intense beauty; it’s worth buying the book just for the paragraphs where he emerges from a freezing rainstorm in the Kalahari desert to see a scimitar-horned gemsbok standing under an extraordinary, purple sunset. His descriptions of Jura, the ‘Deer Island’ of the title, could inspire me to shoulder a backpack and start walking North.

I’m left with the impression of a man whose life is richer for carrying so little with him, ‘Memories,’ he says, ‘are the only things we truly own, and even they slip from our grasp if we don’t handle them with care’.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The magic of a great ‘fantasy’ writer is to make the reader forget that they are in a fantasy world. The concept of The Time Traveler’s Wife, in which a man travels through time involuntarily and unpredictably, is intriguing, but Niffenegger draws you in so that you become part of this improbable world. In my humble opinion, she earns 5* on two counts – the sheer brilliance of the ‘architecture’ of the story, and the beauty of the writing.

By ‘architecture’, I mean the ability to stitch together scenes where the chronology is scrambled – for example a man who meets his future wife when she is 6 and he is 36 – in such a way that the book masters the complexities of who understands what at any given date. This plot design is a masterpiece.

At its heart, TTTW is a love story, beautifully told. In places, it is profoundly moving, in others funny, and always engaging. For me, it is probably the best book I’ve read for a year.

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

This rewarding book is the story of a Scottish family with their complex inter-relationships, seen primarily through the eyes of a young man. Note ‘primarily’; at first I found the multiple points of view and multiple time-periods confusing. If hadn’t been so well written, he’d have lost me about 1/4 of the way through, but Banks has a way of pulling the reader in. The Crow Road is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, confusing, but builds a sense of real lives. Characters are very sharply, sometimes brutally drawn; picture the middle aged aunt at a wedding, ‘dressed in something which looked like a cross between a Persian rug and a multi-occupancy poncho, [who] moved with the determined grace of an elephant, and a curious stiffness that made the experience a little like dancing with a garden shed’, and who had ‘the same effect on the dance floor as a loose cannon manned by hippos’.

It is worth persevering through the initial confusion. Plot lines and dominant characters do emerge, and I finished the book well satisfied, and wishing I could capture characters as well.

Strandloper by Alan Garner

Alan Garner’s Thursbitch was such a delight that I opened Strandloper with rare excitement.  I was not disappointed.  Garner writes with brilliant, bare precision, even if he can demand much of his readers.

As the cover tells us, the essence of the plot is the true story of William Buckley, a Cheshire bricklayer who was unjustly deported to Australia in 1801, escaped, and lived for 31 years with the Aborigines.  Garner weaves together Cheshire folklore and Aboriginal spiritualism in separate melodies that blend to create a single harmony.  This beautiful and moving tale is not always an easy read; old Cheshire dialect is as obscure as Aboriginal words and the reader sometimes has to look for meaning in the context rather than the words themselves.  In a way, it is like looking at a landscape through a stained glass window; there are layers of beauty that reward the eye that is willing to concentrate.

Garner says, in The Voice That Thunders, that a writer has to have a sense of the numinous.  That single word probably sums up Strandloper.


Emma Darwin: The Mathematics of Love

I ‘discovered’ this book by accident, while browsing the author tables at the Historical Novel Society conference in London.  I was intrigued by the blurb; I have an instinctive interest in debut novels, even though this one has been out for several years, and my work-in-progress is also set in two time periods.  Enough hooks there for me to buy a copy, and it proved to be an intelligent, beautifully written book that kept me reading late into the night.  I found myself re-reading some passages purely to appreciate the prose.

Both main characters are finely drawn.  The book opens in 1819 as the Peterloo massacre is witnessed by a crippled officer, a survivor of the Napoleonic wars.  The story of his wartime traumas, and of his lost and secret love, is interwoven with the story of a rebellious, teenage girl in 1976.  She has been parked with an uncle in the crumbling mansion that was once the officer’s home.  Both characters are written in the first person, a technically challenging approach that works well in this book.  Ms Darwin has also managed to write very convincingly from a male as well as female point of view.

There are one or two minor implausibilities that somehow added to my enjoyment of the book.  The officer is much more explicit in his memoirs than, I suspect, any Regency gentleman would be, even in private, and the 1976 teenager is wonderfully articulate for a girl of her background.  The character of Lucy is probably more fiercely independent and liberal than any Regency lady would be allowed to be, given the restrictions of that era, but her character is delightful for those traits and by the end of the book I was perhaps a little in love with her myself.

However, some of the interactions in the 20th century sections would today be given the label of ‘abuse’, even though they are written with immense tenderness through the eyes of a willing ‘victim’.  That conflict was the only discomfort that remained as I finished a thoroughly satisfying read.

I shall certainly look out for more of Emma Darwin’s work.

Thursbitch by Alan Garner

This is the first book that I have begun to re-read immediately, i.e. turned directly from the last page back to the first. It needed that second reading to understand its nuances.  I enjoyed it even more, and found its ending more deeply moving, on the second reading.

Thursbitch is a beautifully written story of a present-day couple and an eighteen-century community whose lives echo across the centuries near the remote valley of Thursbitch in  Cheshire.  At times it seems that the landscape itself is sentient, aware, and interacting with the people passing through it.  It is written in a clean, pure style that sometimes reads more like poetry than prose, and like poetry, you need to think about it and over-read it before the layers of complexity can be appreciated.

Garner has written some of the book in eighteenth-century Cheshire dialect, which presents some challenges to the modern reader.  The challenge is not as great, say, as reading Chaucer in the original Middle English, and there is an almost-musical cadence to the language, but you still need to think.  Most meanings are logical given their context, for example a ‘four-went-way’ is clearly a crossroads, but I had an occasional need to resort to a dictionary.

Garner makes no compromise for the modern reader, which I suspect is deliberate.  In using the old language of the fells, without a glossary, he puts the reader into that place and time rather than simply telling us about it.  However that may mean that some richness is deeply buried.  I live in a semi-rural community, so I could guess that a ‘second bite off his head’ meant a second hay crop, but I’m sure I missed other meanings.

Similarly, there is an exquisitely-written scene where couples jump through the flames of a bonfire, drive their cattle through its ashes, and take the smoldering turfs to their homes, but their actions are not explained.  It took my own, separate research for Saxon’s Bane to teach me that this was a pagan betrothal and fertility custom.

For all its challenges, I’m now a convert to Garner.  I’ve already ordered another of his books and will undoubtedly read more.  Thoroughly recommended for anyone who likes atmospheric, quality writing.