Wednesday, 27 June 2012

'Come Back, Lucy' and 'Black Maria'

These two novels were the first books of the summer for me this year. Two vintage kids' books about ghosts and mysterious transformations - by Pamela Sykes and Diana Wynne Jones respectively - perfect for that start-of-the-hoildays feeling. Especially with the on-off kind of weather we've been having - with blazing sunshine turning suddenly to torrential downpours. A bit of uncanny mystery was exactly what was needed in early June!

Pamela Sykes' 'Come Back, Lucy' seemed familiar straight away - from the tv tie-in cover I felt as if I'd watched it when it was broadcast in 1978. The book bore that out, in those early scenes of the slightly claustrophobic, old-fashioned house that Lucy shares with her Aunt Olive. It all seemed very familiar - as did the displacement and resentment when she is packed off to live with her 'noisy, casual' - and very modern - cousins. It's the story of a girl who has been brought up as if in Victorian times, suddenly having to live with 70s kids, and then being haunted by a genuinely Victorian ghost.

It's set at Christmas, too, which seems perfect for summer reading, to me. I seem to want ghostly, cold stories in the middle of the blaring sun and the muggy rain.

"She swished the curtain as she spoke in order to see better, and for the peering Lucy the light was suddenly changed so that instead of the dark garden she saw only a reflection of the room behind her and of her own face. Yes, of course it was her own face. It had to be. But even as she reasoned, the owner of the face raised a pale hand that beckoned.

"Lucy, with a thrill of fear, shook her head. But the other head nodded. The lights in the room swung, the lights in the reflection swung, wild half-formed ideas swung in Lucy's head. She saw the mouth on the other side of the window frame the words, 'Come with me!'

"For a moment she hesitated.

"Then, unnoticed by anyone else, she slipped from the room and ran out into the snowy night."

Of course, what I'm always looking for is a book that will deliver me that same sense of dark magic and nostalgic mystery that Susan Cooper's 'The Dark is Rising' always does. I think the books most likely to do that are those that defy logic, and that contain gaps and baffling bits and parts of the story that only start to line up and make sense on a second or third reading. And by then, other parts of the story, seemingly straightforward before, start to seem puzzling once more.

Perhaps more by luck that chance, both the Pamela Sykes and the Diana Wynne Jones I picked out in June had that feeling. i want to return to both - because both have that feeling of density and darkness (as if mysteriousness was a quality that you could put a value or a figure to!)

Diana Wynne Jones the more so. 'Black Maria' is a very strange book indeed. On the surface - a holiday-at-the-home-of-an-eccentric aunt book - but one that becomes mythical, macabre and dangerous-seeming as it progresses. This is a book in which nice old ladies reveal horrendous, spiteful inner selves; boys are turned into wolves; mothers are brainwashed and dead fathers are revealed as merely hiding themselves away. Oh, and there's a 'Wild Hunt' in this one, too - just as there is in Susan Cooper, and just as there is in the Penelope Lively i read a little later. And in the Mary Webb I read after that.

I love Diana Wynne Jones' sly, macabre humour. It's the sort of humour that's always pointing at deeper, darker things.

"'Well, dear? Did they get him?'
"'They shot an old she-wolf,' Elaine said.
Aunt Maria fell back into her chair and stared. 'Naomi,' she said, in a feeble gasping voice. 'Not my Naomi!'
"'Well, you told them to shoot a wolf,' Elaine said, and she turned on the heel of her green gumboot and marched out of the house again. I heard her slam the back door through the noise Aunt Maria was making.
"She was screaming by then in a way that made Mum and me feel sick. 'Naomi! Oh, Naomi!' she yelled."

Monday, 25 June 2012

Vintage Video

Last week Jeremy revealed that he'd bought us a vintage VCR through Ebay. It's an amazing machine - wonderfully clunky, with a remote control the size of a page-a-day diary attached by a ten footlong umbilicus. And, though for the past seven years I've been wanting to get rid of the many boxes of hundreds of videotapes in the cellar, this weekend I was glad we hadn't.

Out came the old shows...

Lots of the tapes are pre-recorded ones, and have been bought again on DVD. But there are lots of home-recorded tapes with all kinds of surprising things snuck away on those dark, tightly-spooled reels. Long-forgotten adverts, continuity announcements, strange-looking presenters. Fragments of shows that have dropped out of my memory altogether. Whole episodes of ludicrous reality shows from the 00's ('House Xchange' being the best ever), obscure documentaries about Anais Nin, Marlene Dietrich, Thora Hird. It's going to take a lot of exploring and digging around...

Yesterday we were looking at obvious things to transfer to dvd. First of all, for me, was a tape that turned out to contain seven episodes of the 2001 Crossroads revival. Now, you can laugh all you want, and history has it that the second iteration of the Midlands soap as a resounding failure. Not round our house it wasn't! I thought it was marvellous - with the perfect mix of oldstyle Crossroads and a bit of Home and Away and Dynasty. The seven episodes I've kept in the cellar for eleven years are from March 2001, only a little way into the new show and they are the ones where the star of the original show - shareholder and dipsomaniac Jill Mortimer-Chance-Harvey - goes on an almighty bender, attacks all the new characters and tries to do herself in with a mixture of vodka and pills.

Then, last night, it was time to see if my single remaining tape from Live Aid in 1985 was still working. It was! And, luckily, it seemed to cover about five o'clock to eight o'clock in the evening of that long-ago Saturday. It was so sunny! Everyone looked so happy to be there - on stage and in the crowd. They all looked so young! And there was a real feeling - that still comes off the screen - that they were doing something new and revolutionary and important. Just that little, battered videotape is like a time capsule from a more optimistic era.

And there was Freddie Mercury, giving it his all. And David Bowie - fabulous in a lilac suit and quiff.

So - I'm hoping to dig a bit further through the cardboard boxes of tapes this week, if I get some time. I'll let you know what other treasures I unearth...!

Saturday, 23 June 2012

In the Post...

Lovely things in the post this week!

Just this morning I received my batch of notecards and postcards from Rosie Anthony. I've loved the nature photos on her blog for ages, and I was so pleased to hear she was going into the card-making business, I put an order in at once. Look at this lovely set I got in the post!

Rosie's website is here -

And then there were the inevitable Amazon parcels - which brought me the new Carlos Ruiz Zafon, 'The Prisoner of Heaven', which is the next part of his sequence of novels to do with that strange book depository in Barcelona. He writes what I'd called spooky - mystery - literary - pulp and I look forward to each of his books hugely. It might be what I get on with next, actually.

Also came the new Wordsworth Classics edition of E.F Benson's Spooky Stories, which have long been hard to get hold of. It's a mammoth, closely-printed tome - very welcome at the amazing price of £1.99 - but let down by that hideous, rotten cover. Even Benson's ghostly tales have the same period elegance of his Mapp and Lucias, I think, and the cover should give that away.

And then, also this week, I got sent a most welcome proof copy of Jane Sanderson's sequel to 'Netherwood', 'Ravenscliffe.' It's a chunky and enticing volume. Readers of this and my previous blog might remember me raving about 'Netherwood' earlier this year? (I should dig out and repost my review, actually.) I'm looking forward to going back into that Edwardian world.

So here we are on Saturday morning - and it's teeming down in Manchester. The milkman's been for his money and told us how his sixty (!) frogs are doing in his back garden pond, and asked after ours (we have one over-confident frog and about a million tadpoles). Fester the cat is have a late lie-in and feeling a bit sickly this morning - which might be down to the high (low?) pressure in the air, or maybe from staying up late to watch Bowie Night on BBC4. And we've got 'Doctor Who and Silurians' on the telly, in tribute and to remind us of the wit and brilliance of Dr Elizabeth Shaw, as played by Caroline John, whose death was reported this week.

Friday, 22 June 2012

More from the Russell Harty Book

RUSSELL: You don't go to the theatre as much now. What do you do to occupy your time in other ways? Do you watch the box?

DAME SYBIL THORNDIKE: Oh, I do. I watch it tremendously. But I don't like it like the theatre. Don't you think I do.


DAME SYBIL: Oh no, I miss the theatre awfully. I do go to the theatre sometimes, but I'm finding it difficult to hear.

RUSSELL: What about watching television? What are your favourite programmes?

DAME SYBIL: My favourite programme? Basil Brush.

(audience laughter and applause.)

DAME SYBIL: Oh, I simply love him and...

RUSSELL: Why do you like Basil Brush?

DAME SYBIL: Oh, because he's so awful. That terrible laugh, and I'm afraid I get like him sometimes, and I find myself going 'ha ha-ha ha!'

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Russell Harty Plus (1974)

Here's one of the books I've loved recently - and it belongs to an unusual genre: the interview book. It's a genre I wish there was more examples of. In this one, the late Russell Harty gives us chapters spent in the company of people like Barbara Cartland, Elton John, Edna Everage and Molly Parkin. He quizzes them with genial, lightly mocking persistance. He's sympathetic but gently dogged.

Even though these are edited transcripts of TV interviews from the early seventies, reading them in print gives them an extra resonance, somehow. The words mean more, stark on the page than they do on telly. For instance, the encounter with Frankie Howerd is available to view on Youtube and, when you do, you find a fairly standard, mildly-joshing, borderline grumpy conversation that seems typical of its type.

But read it in print and it's like something out of 'Waiting for Godot':

RUSSELL: I sometimes spend my lunch-hours in Hyde Park.

HOWERD: What you do in Hyde Park's your affair.

(screams of laughter)

RUSSELL: Now, I know from time to time you've mentioned in odd articles that you've done that it's a bit of a strain...

HOWERD: What do you mean - odd articles?

RUSSELL: The odd article...

HOWERD: Oh, that's better.

RUSSELL: ... that has been written about you, that you find it a bit of a strain wandering the streets, walking as you said, you like walking...

HOWERD: I do not walk the streets.

(audience laughter)

RUSSELL: When you're walking the streets...

HOWERD: When... yes.

RUSSELL: ... that people sometimes think that they have proprietorial rights over you, that you're not being a funny man in the middle of the street, doing whatever you do in the middle of the street.

(audience laughter)

HOWERD: The man's a twit, isn't he?

(audience laughter)

HOWERD: I was with you until you got to 'proprietorial'. After that I lost you. Now what did you mean by that? Be more explicit.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Needing to Catch up...

I've just finished Mary Webb's 'Gone to Earth'... realising that I'd been holding my breath for the last several pages. What a stunning ending for a novel!  Somehow - stupidly - I always thought I'd never need to read Webb's novels - having read and reread Stella Gibbons' 'Cold Comfort Farm' which demolishes them so funnily and brilliantly. But 'Gone to Earth' is fantastic.

I realise I've fallen right behind with telling you about what I've been reading. I've been showing you snaps of where I've been, but not doing reviews at all. I don't feel much like writing long, serious reviews anyway... but i do need to tell you about reading Pamela Sykes, Diana Wynne Jones, Monica Dickens, Paul Gallico, etc. I've had such a wonderful adventure in reading, recently. You know when you hit those stretches of picking up one great thing after another? Will you bear with me, while I catch up?

Monday, 18 June 2012

Penguin Shopping

Last week in the Lake District, one of the things we did - alongside tea-drinking, sight-seeing, and remote-and-sinister-mountain-pass visiting - was Penguin-buying. One of the things I love about the old, numbered Penguins is their eclecticism. I was looking at the full list of titles that were published back in the Thirties and Forties, up to the Fifties and Sixties - and what struck was that you'd get Camus and Nabokov published alongside Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh; or H.E Bates alongside Paul Gallico and Mary Webb and D H Lawrence; H G Wells and P. G Wodehouse. Books of crossword puzzles next to travel guides. I love that because that's how I like to read, too. It struck me that things these days seem rather stratified and organised and specialised, compared with the old heterogenous jumble of the Penguins.

It also made me think - that if there were three thousand or so numbered Penguins published over thirty years between 1935 and 65 - that's about two a week. A good reader could have kept up with that pace. Imagine that thirty years of reading! What an education that would have been. A lovely zigzagging line through the years. I wonder if anyone read them all..?

There was only one place on the web that I could find a list of those first 3 thousand Penguins, and that was a nice blog called 'A Penguin a Week', which is here -

I wonder if there's a similar list of Puffins available anywhere?

Anyhow, in the bookshops and junkshops and charity shops of Keswick, Ambleside and wherever else we went last week, it was the Penguins I was rescuing and taking back to the car.

Here's a pic of me at Holker Hall. Which has amazing gardens. It's a house that looks just like the Book Tower (or so it did last Wednesday); has dark, Victorian, E Nesbit gardens, an ominous stone sundial set in a sunny meadow; a statue of Neptune at the top of cascading fountains and a giant, ancient lime tree. Plus, a labyrinth of standing stones. Being there was just like being in several kids' adventure serials all at once.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Back from the Lakes!

We've been away in the Lake District for the past week, so this blog's been a bit quiet lately. We stayed in Hawkshead, right in the middle, and had a wonderful time. Next week I'll post some pictures and tell you what we got up to, and about what I was reading - and what the book-hunting was like in Lakeland!

Hope everyone's well..?

Friday, 8 June 2012

Whitby Event for Brenda 6!

Looks like there's going to be a reading and signing for 'Brenda and Effie Forever!' at the Whitby Bookshop, Saturday 3rd November at 7pm. Bang in the middle of Goth weekend - as has become traditional!

There are a few other events before then, though -

I’m going to be reading at Manchester Central Library on Saturday 14th July at 6.30pm. It would be lovely to see you there.

I’ll also be at Blackburn Library on tuesday 10th July at 7pm; Tameside Central Library in Ashton on Wednesday 11th July at 6pm; and then Oldham Lees Library on Saturday 18th August at 1.30pm.
Come out and support your libraries – and me!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Ray Bradbury

This is the cover of the very copy of 'The Silver Locusts' / 'The Martian Chronicles' that I've had since I was sixteen, and that I've treasured ever since.

He taught me that science fiction can be poetic, that prose can be musical, that everyday speech can be about impossible things, and that ordinary lives can be all about magic. And that the essence of good fiction is all to do with the ability to empathise with even the most outlandish beings. Also, that novels can be built out of stories, and be pomegranate-shaped.

And that it would be wonderful if we could write one great story a day forever!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Fester the Cat's Facebook Fan Page

Our cat Fester now has his own Fan Page on Facebook!

Please join here -

We really don't know when Fester was born. He adopted us in September 2006. He kept popping by our garden and then nipping up the back steps into the kitchen to get fed. He was in a shocking, malnourished, mangy state. He'd clearly absconded from somewhere. We fed him up and took him to the vets. We got his sore, almost toothless gums sorted out. And we were told that, at that point, he was probably eight or ten. He was soon fine and healthy and the amazing cat we've known ever since. He's older and sleepier now and he's on a daily tablet for his thyroid, which he takes each morning with pate. He likes to sit on a chair outside the Beach House at the bottom of the garden, or sit on Paul's lap when's reading, or on the laptop when he's writing. He knows how to keep busy and he's never bored. Ungow!!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

1977 Jubilee

This is from Woodham Burn Junior School's Fancy Dress Parade in 1977 - when I was Charlie Chaplin - and won!

Friday, 1 June 2012

'The Ninnies' are here!

This photo just in from Stuart Douglas in Edinburgh - where a boxful of THE NINNIES has just arrived at Order your copy now! It's a strictly limited run! (illustrated by wonderful Bret M. Herholz

'The Tale of Holly How' by Susan Wittig Albert

I just read the second in this Cosy Mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert and I adored it. The series takes place in the early twentieth century, near Hawkshead in the Lake District - and amongst its cast of characters of farming folk, villagers and talking animals is the classic children's author, Beatrix Potter.

Now, this ought to be twee as the twee-est thing in the world. Cosies are almost always slightly twee - that's the point, I think. And I happen to like a little tweeness in my murder mysteries - as long as there is a touch of acid in there, too, to offset the sweetness. And that's very true of these 'Beatrix Potter Investigates' books - there is a very dry wit at work.

Besides the human cast of ladies, paid companions, school teachers, farmhands and housekeepers - there is a parallel cast of anthropomorphised animals. Beatrix arrives at her beloved Hill Top Farm with her own animals, who she names and talks to - but she never hears (or never expects to hear) - word back from them. Yet the reader does. We slip sideways into a parallel world where her cats and horses and rats give lots of backchat and crucial clues - always in italics. And, in this volume, we visit the Brockery, where the aged Bosworth Badger watches over the countryside and operates a kind of halfway home for waifs and strays out of his sett. He has age-old furniture and is dressed up like an Edwardian gent - exactly like someone out of a Beatrix Potter tale. But Beatrix and the others are seemingly unaware of this secret world of the wildlife around them - and there's a delicious irony in that. (As there is when we hear of Bosworth's correspondence with his gruff relative in the distant Wild Wood...!)

Beatrix is intuitively in tune with the animals, of course - and that's apparent in the lovely sub-plot to do with Tuppeny the Guinea pig, who goes missing, and turns up incongruously during the Great Raid by the police and all the animals on an illegal badger-baiting. Tuppenny's characterisation is one of the triumphs in a book that absolutely teems with brilliant character moments.

There is brutal murder and an amateur investigation, an attempted poisoning and dark deeds afoot - but there's also lots of lovely nature - and gossip - and historical detail - and a genuine warmth and affection for the time and the people. I love this series, and I'm delighted to find the author has written one per year since 2004. I really hope there's a wintry and a Christmassy one coming up in the list!

Reading this has made me think of the other Cosy mystery series i love - and that it's about time that I got back to them. Rita Lakin's 'Gladdy Gold' series, and Elizabeth Peters' 'Amelia Peabody' and Nancy Atherton's 'Aunty Dimity.' They are endless, of course - and that's one of the great things about them.