Category Archives: books

The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, Enid Blyton

Really, I was looking to wrap up reading about the O’Sullivan twins at St Clare’s, but Blackwells didn’t have the next volume. But I’d been thinking about the Cherry Tree Farm and Willow Farm books, although I now know I was mixing them up in my head with another book/series that I can’t remember the name of.

Anyway. Who knows how long ago I first read these, but it just goes to show how formative and influential one’s early reading can be. I was brought up on Enid Blyton, from The Wishing Chair and the Faraway Tree, to Mr Galliano’s Circus, finishing up with The Famous Five, Malory Towers or the aforementioned St Clare’s. I read them again and again and again, probably long after I was technically too old for them. I always read a lot and I never had enough new books, so I got very familiar indeed with the old favourites.

I desperately wanted to go on an adventure with the Famous Five and I also desperately wanted to board at Malory Towers. Enid Blyton introduced me to the solid, middle class, mid 20th century life that I definitely wasn’t living. There were lovely Mummies and jolly Daddies, bustling cooks, scary but essentially kind teachers. Her books are easily challenged these days on the grounds of reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes, being xenophobic, racist and privileged, and I’d be hard pushed to defend them. Then again, a fairly wide swathe of literature from the 30s onwards shares some similar traits, so are we supposed to stop reading all of it?

From Enid Blyton, I did learn about some good, solid values. Anyone who wasn’t quite the thing learned the error of their ways, whether they simply wouldn’t try at games or were too boastful, or stole sixpence from the mantelpiece. The important thing to do was to own up and take responsibility for your actions, whether you’d left the farm gate open or almost burnt the whole place down. I also learned about the countryside, a place that up until my 30s I thought was somewhere that you occasionally visited rather than lived. So the countryside was exotic, exciting, a little bit intimidating. I wasn’t quite the city child who had never seen a cow, because when I was 9, I was lucky enough to participate in the Farms for City Children programme and spend a week at Nethercott House. But most of what I knew was gleaned from books like the Cherry Tree Farm series, my first experience of nature writing.

They are very straightforward, plunging straight in with liberating four London born children from their unhealthy city existence into the robust healthfulness of the country. The children’s parents have to go to America (children’s books of this time always seem to pack the parents off to America – see also The Children Who Lived in a Barn) and so Rory, Sheila, Benjy and Penny are sent to stay with their aunt and uncle at Cherry Tree Farm.

They have to learn to help out on the farm at a point when farming was still only beginning to get mechanised, and at least in the Blytonsphere, was still profitable. So they feed chickens, bottle feed lambs, milk cows by hand, churn butter by hand (so that’s how you make butter!) All of this was completely alien to my own experience, of course, but when you’re  young there is so much that’s new that you can take a lot more of it in your stride.

This still leaves the children plenty of time to become friends with the ‘wild man’, Tammylan. Despite living in a cave in winter and a tree house in summer, Tammylan is locally respected for his skill with and knowledge of animals, so the children are given the all clear to spend time with him. Ah, more innocent times.

It’s Tammylan who gives the children the important first lesson of not littering the countryside, when they allow their sandwich wrappers to blow away after a picnic. Subsequently, over the course of the books, he introduces them to a hare, rabbits, a red squirrel that Benjy gets as a pet, and a fox. He shows them a weasel, teaches them to distinguish between a grass snake, an adder and a slow worm and is very clear that bats do not get into people’s hair. It’s down to Tammylan that I found out that hares live in a form; that stags grow their antlers every year and that the covering their new antlers first have is known as velvet. Without having ever seen either, I know how to tell the difference between a stoat and a weasel:

‘The stoat is easily told from the weasel/ By the simple fact that his tail is blacked/ And his figure is slightly the bigger’.

It’s probably down to Tammlyan that I’m anti fox-hunting, because, in one book, a tired, old fox takes refuge from the chase in his cave.

Of course, now I re-read the books I can spot the thin plot lines, lack of exposition, recycled characters and the bits where Blyton is just running out of steam. Even the familiarity is distant, grasped at, a memory of a memory. But there was a little girl, 30-40 years ago, who didn’t hear anyone calling her name because she was reading.

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The Crimes of Winter, Philippe Georget

This is the third Inspector Gilles Sebag mystery, and I have to say, I was worried. (Here be spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out if his wife was cheating on him.)

I was worried because I’m tired of the usual middle-aged, miserable, hard drinking, loner detective thing. Which is not to say that I’m not still partial to a bit of Rebus, but even Rebus has a dog and a girlfriend these days. Sebag has seemed to buck the trend and go happily home at the end of the day. But alas, in book 2 (Autumn, All the Cats Return) he suspects Claire has had an affair, and at the beginning of this book, that’s confirmed by a text message that Sebag intercepts.

So Sebag goes off the rails a bit, keeping  cheap whiskey in his desk drawer, sleeping in the office, racked with jealousy. His partner guesses but, in a rare and expected display of tact, Molina doesn’t say anything. It’s terrible timing that the cases Sebag has to deal with are all concerned with infidelity, reflecting his own situation back at him. A mysterious ill-wisher is contacting cuckolded husbands with photos of their wives with other men. In one case, this provokes a murder, when the jealous husband shoots his wife; in another, a suicide as the betrayed husband kills himself. A third incident is avoided, when Sebag manages to talk the man down from setting fire to his wife, his house and the neighbourhood.

With all this going on, what’s mostly occupying Sebag’s mind is the future of his own marriage. Oddly, or perhaps, Frenchly, there’s not a whole lot of moralistic debate going on. The novel avoids the banal simplicity of whether infidelity is right or wrong by acknowledging that marriages are not that straightforward. The more interesting question is what happens afterwards. The book presents various alternatives, from the violent to the accepting and by the end, Gilles too has found a way forward that he can live with. And caught the bad guy, of course.

So I’m relieved, because I hope for more Gilles Sebag novels and he’s more interesting as a happy family man than a bitter sot.

 

Slightly later than mid-year reading roundup

After  a rocky start to the year when I thought I’d try not buying any new books for a bit and promptly read nothing, this reading year hasn’t gone too badly. I’ve read/listened to 59 books so far and there’s been some good stuff in there. So, in no particular order…

Best re-read/listen

A Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell. I mixed this up so I could read a volume, then listen to a volume, which worked really well. For fans of Audible who also have long drives, this sequence is a great listen. Although I’ve just looked up who some of the characters are based on, and I’m somewhat distressed to find that St John Clarke is based on John Galsworthy, because I really like The Forsyte Chronicles. I hadn’t realised, either, that X Trapnel is based on Julian MacLaren-Ross. Anyway, I don’t care who Widmerpool is based on, he’s too monstrous.

Best new translated fiction

Summertime, All the Cats are Bored and Autumn, All the Cats Return, Philippe Georget. These are French police procedurals, set in Perpignan and starring Inspector Gilles Sebag and his sidekick, Molina. Sebag is a good detective who is madly in love with his beautiful wife, Claire, but begins to suspect that she is having an affair. His personal concerns then run alongside his investigations. He’s mildly tortured by his doubts about his marriage, but beyond that he’s a good cop so not another hard-drinking, rebellious outsider. They are not about cats.

Best Australian novel

The Dry, Jane Harper. I listened to this but I’d be tempted to read it as well because it was proper gripping and astonishingly accomplished for a debut novel. The brutal murder/suicide of the Hadler family in the small town of Kiewarra draws Aaron Falk  back there. Luke Hadler’s family want him to investigate, because they don’t believe their son murdered his wife and children, then shot himself. Luke was Aaron’s boyhood best friend, but Aaron himself was run out of town 20 years ago for a supposed murder and has hardly seen Luke since. As Aaron gets drawn back in and starts to investigate, all the old secrets and tensions start cropping up again.

Best book about the madness of WWII

A Good Clean Fight, Derek Robinson. I’ve previously read A Piece of Cake, which introduces Hornet Squadron, but I hadn’t immediately realised this was a sequel of sorts. The squadron is now in North Africa, being sent out on ridiculous missions to try to lure the German airforce out by strafing low level targets in Libya. The tactic doesn’t work and the squadron gets shot to hell, but their batshit commander, Barton, keeps sending them out.

Meanwhile, Lampard of the SAS is leading near suicidal missions across the desert, behind German lines, to blow up aircraft while still on the field. There’s an horrific scene where the Germans, attempting to follow suit, set out in motorised vehicles across the desert but are so totally unused to its ways that vehicle after vehicle launches itself from the top of a sand dune and crashes on the other side.

What’s always so startling and depressing about military novels, and in fact military history, is how character driven it is. Which is fine when those characters are sane, sensible types and not so fine when they’re megalomaniac nutters who absolutely don’t care about the men whose lives they hold in the balance. A Good Clean Fight is heavy on the megalomaniac nutters, as I suspect WWII was in real life.

Best action hero

I am so firmly on the Jack Reacher bandwagon that I am glued to my seat. I’ve read Die Trying and Tripwire so far this year and I doubt that’ll be the end of it. Reacher has only been out of the army for a while, he’s travelling around, living off his savings and whatever work he can find, but trouble keeps finding him. He doesn’t talk much, he’s built like a brick shithouse, handy in a fight and a sharpshooter to boot. You’d think trouble would know better. Fortunately for my reading future, criminals and low lifes are dumb-asses, so there’s plenty more Reacher ahead of me.

Best novel that everyone else is recommending as well

I’ve written separately about The Power, so I’ll go with Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman. This was a real journey as I got to know Eleanor. It’s written from her perspective and she’s weird. Not defiantly weird, but she lives a life of such solitariness that she simply doesn’t understand normal human interactions. She is incredibly lonely, although this is something she has to realise for herself as the novel progresses and her realisation and reaction to that is utterly compelling. At the beginning of the novel, Eleanor has no reason to comply with social norms because she’s simply not aware of them, or of any acts of transgression. But this means that her responses are often very funny, particularly because she’s intelligent and articulate. She is gradually revealed as a joy of a character.

Easter reading

‘Cos fer I have a long weekend and the only event planned is Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic on Saturday. I saw Daniel Radcliffe in Equus on Broadway not long after he finished being Harry Potter. Richard Griffiths out-acted him simply by being there, and Daniel was rather shouty. But still, there was something. So I’m interested to see his performance on Saturday.

Until then, I have reading planned. Today I finished In the Woods, by Tana French, which I’ve read at least a couple of times before but not for a while. It was a great debut and I realised that she’s very, very good at describing those halcyon moments, the marvellous times that you want to capture and put in a bag that you can always carry with you because you know they won’t/can’t last. She does it with the evenings between Rob, Cassie and Sam in In the Woods and it’s also part of the set up for The Likeness.

Next up is Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington. This is a Persephone book that I’ve been waiting to read because Persephones are always such treats that I didn’t want to waste it on an ordinary day. I’ve been saving Mick Herron’s Spook Street for the same reason. I really want to read it but then there’ll be no more Jackson Lamb books until he writes the next one. I feel I have to keep it until I need Jackson Lamb to save the day.

Next choice is a tie between Summertime, All the Cats are Bored, by Philippe Georget and Good Clean Fight by Derek Robinson. No one does better WWI RAF than Robinson as far as I know, which of course means it’s heartbreaking. But then, French noir is also pretty tempting. The eventual choice may depend on the weather, I might keep the Georget until it’s sunny again and feels like summer.

My latest delivery from Blackwell’s was Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica. It’s been on my TBR list from so far back I have no idea why, but it looks like that interesting blend of travelogue and memoir that I enjoy. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Diski, so this will be a first.

I think those will keep me busy but I have re-reads as back ups. Since I listened to vol 1 of A Dance to the Music of Time, I dug out Vol 2 in print. And I thought The Gone-Away World might stand up to a second try.

The only thing I’m not sure about is if there are enough hot cross buns to sustain me.

 

The Bird Tribunal, Agnes Ravatn

Sigh. So I haven’t even finished this and although it’s basically a pamphlet, it’s touch and go whether or not I will. It’s supposed to be tense and chilling, but my fundamental problem is that the heroine is such a pathetic dweeb I want to smack her one.

And this is, in fact, is my problem with an entire set of books that are ultimately predicated on the fact that the heroine is spineless. There seem to be all too many of them around at the moment. She says, now unable to think of a single title. But you know  the type of thing I mean. The wounded heroine who gets into difficult circumstances that were avoidable or could have been resolved if she’d only actually said something. Like a normal person would have done.

So, to The Bird Tribunal, in which Allis, who fucked up her life with some accidentally public extra-marital shagging, has run away to the middle of nowhere and taken a job as a gardener-cum-housekeeper for some mysterious, grumpy bloke called Bragge. His wife is away. Or is she? At first Bragge says she’ll be back in the autumn; then he disappears for four days and comes back saying she died and was buried. In between, he hangs around being mysterious, dictatorial and unpredictable, which apparently is all Allis wants in a man.

Based on nothing whatsoever, she goes to pieces while he’s away, over-reacting to noises and her own imagination and completely terrified. So terrified, in fact, that she goes out of the house and into the dark garden and to the dark shed, where she picks up a hammer so that she can protect herself when the imaginary enemies come to get her. Because god forbid she should switch a light on, put the radio on and make a cup of tea or anything.

I think there was supposed to be some sense of brooding menace. But there was just a sense of Allis being a bit of a tit.

The only mysteries so far are why she’s still there being emotionally abused by a virtual stranger, and why for the love of all the gods she can’t call him out on his bullshit. He’ll probably turn out to be a nutter who murdered his wife, or Allis will get the wrong end of the stick and accidentally murder him, or whatever. At this point, I’m hoping for a nice suicide pact and the introduction of better characters.

In which I’m reading nostalgically

Back when I was a romantic slip of a thing, so roughly the dawn of time, I discovered that Jilly Cooper had written a whole series of books with girls’ names as titles. They’re all short romances and I galloped through the lot of them. They are literary Fondant Fancies – pretty, sweet but too many at once and you feel sick. Still, they seem to have been republished since last time I looked, and so I gave in and bought Harriet.

The eponymous Harriet is almost too naive to be true, but for the fact that I wasn’t far short of being precisely that sort of idiot when I was her age and first at university. In short order, Harriet gets seduced and then knocked up by a generic university golden boy bastard. He then promptly kicks her out and dumps her when his real, glamorous girlfriend comes back, and Harriet goes to pieces. Of course, she’s pregnant.

Golden boy bastard writes a cheque and pops her off to the doctor where he sends all his pregnant women. You get the impression that one more stamp on his loyalty card and the next woman will get a freebie. Harriet decides to cash the cheque and keep the baby.

Cue the hero, a grumpy writer whose vile-but-beautiful actress wife has just left him and their children. He needs a nanny, Harriet needs a job and a home. Of course, in the end the grumpy writer realises that Harriet is really the woman for him and, presumably, they all live happily ever after.

Obviously this is total nonsense, but Jilly Cooper’s style is perfect for it and she does have some nice touches. She was also one of the first writers I read who really dealt with some of young women’s reality: washing your tights in the sink, washing your hair with washing up liquid when you’re broke, scrabbling through a wardrobe of misfit items desperately trying to put something together that will reveal you as the elegant sophisticate you want to be as long as no one notices that you cut your leg when shaving with a dodgy old razor. In this one, when grumpy writer is being extra grumpy one morning, Harriet turns the waste disposal on so she can’t hear him. I do like novels in which people behave like people.

So hurrah for Jilly Cooper.

I also re-read Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurtz. It’s the first of a fantasy trilogy set on the world of Midkemia, which featured previously in Feist’s Magician trilogy.

So, Mara is the young daughter of a noble house, about to enter a religious order.  At the last minute, messengers arrive to announce her father and brother have both died in battle, and she’s now head of the house.

Midkemian politics, the ‘Great Game’ is of the intricate, bloody sort that makes Tory party backstabbing look like spring lambs gambolling in a field. Mara is immediately vulnerable, as a near miss assassination attempt makes clear, so she has no option but to become a skilled player very quickly. And that’s basically what she does in this book, surviving a brutal marriage, and a couple more attacks on her life to end up triumphant.

What strikes me this time round is how fast things move and how sketched in it all is. No wonder Game of Thrones was such a sensation, with its cast of thousands, protracted timescales and plot lines that are impossible to predict. I really hope GRRRR Thompson finishes the set because I haven’t watched the TV series and have no clue how he’s going to bring it all together.

But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Daughter of the Empire. I read it almost overnight, and I remembered more than I’d expected to. It was like watching a rerun of an old movie that you know isn’t that great but have residual fondness for anyway.

Resistance, Owen Sheers

I thought it was about time I tried writing about books again, to see if it will make me a better reader.

So, I heard about Resistance years ago, on Front Row, because it had just been made into a film. For all I know, the film sank without trace, but the premise sounded interesting and I made a mental note to find the book. I then didn’t and had mostly forgotten about it, until  I found a copy on the bookshelf in the cabin we’d rented for a long weekend in the Brecons. So I picked up my own copy.

Now, counter-factual history is usually not my thing, but the small scale setting of this appealed. It’s set in a 1944 where Germany is very close to winning the war, the D-Day Landings were an epic failure and German troops are now encircling London. The broader context has the Axis powers wrapping up elsewhere in the world, America returning to a more isolationist policy and an inevitability that Britain will fall.

That’s the situation at the beginning of the novel, when all the men from a small village buried in the Welsh mountains leave their farms overnight and disappear. They have probably gone to join some resistance movement, but that’s never made really clear because they are more important in their absence. Their wives wake up in the morning with no idea where their husbands have gone, and gradually figure it out together. They are disbelieving and fearful, because the German reprisals against the families of resistance members are well known and brutal. But, in the absence of other options, they settle to the hard business of keeping their farms running.

For Sarah, her husband Tom’s absence is a sort of bereavement. She misses him, she’s angry with him, she tries to remember the details of how they first met. So that she can tell him her story when he returns, she starts to keep a diary. At first, she struggles because the act of writing is unfamiliar; later, she struggles because she’s writing her own counter-factual story.

Because, a five man patrol of Germans arrives in the valley, tasked with finding the Mappa Mundi which has been moved from Hereford for safety. They are all battle weary, and finding that no orders follow them and they seem to have fallen into a bureaucratic hole between two local commanders, they agree to stay forgotten. They should report the missing men, but they don’t. All Captain Albrecht Wolfram really wants to do is to sit out the rest of the war in this beautiful, tranquil spot.

So life goes on. The men live at the hall and mostly keep themselves to themselves, while also keeping an eye on the women. The women, with Maggie as their unofficial leader and spokeswoman, tell the Germans that they won’t help them or give them food. It’s a mutually agreed truce, while beyond the valley, out of sight and finally out of radio contact as the BBC gets taken over, the war transitions into occupation.

Not until winter lands suddenly do the German soldiers (and really, I never distinguished between them and their individual identities don’t seem that important) start to help with the farm chores. This is where you expect that the story will turn into a romance, with likely a tragic ending. It’s more unexpected that it doesn’t. So while one of the soldiers does start to develop a fondness for the young daughter of one of the women, that never amounts to anything beyond a daydream on both their sides. Wolfram does create a better sense of connection with Sarah, but that’s driven more by his need than hers. She still believes Tom’s coming home.

The relationships above all are practical. After all, digging out sheep from a snow drift, or killing a pig are tough, physical jobs. But, of course, this is still war, and tacitly everyone knows that even that is too much. Wolfram accidentally intercepts a stand in postman one day, and scribbles over all the letters coming in that the recipients are deceased. He reckons that if the women are already thought dead, no one from either side will come looking, and he doesn’t want the women dead or his men found.

Sarah’s diary meanwhile, continues in it’s record keeping vein but without any mention of the Germans at all. So with each day’s writing she fabricates the day’s activity. It’s too complex a situation otherwise to explain that the enemy isn’t really the enemy, particularly to the possible return of a husband who’s been involved in the last line of defence.

The hard winter means that the valley is held as if between moments, but time catches up. Maggie has a promising yearling, the last raised with her husband William before he left, to take to the country show. She takes one of the soldiers with her, but he’s overheard whispering to the horse in German, and then recognised.

And that’s that. The inhabitants of the valley are back on the radar, tarnished respectively with collaboration and disobedience. The yearling is shot, which shatters Maggie. Wolfram  tells Sarah they must get away, now. His radio operator goes off to radio in, and as Sarah leaves, more Germans are coming.

We don’t know that the women’s husbands are dead, but it’s likely. We don’t know that the women themselves will be punished, but that was always the most probable outcome. We don’t know if Sarah does or does not meet Wolfram at the appointed place, or if she gets away. But in the family Bible, left behind, Sarah has added her own date of death.

Resistance Movie Poster 2011