4

‘Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank’ by David Gillham ****

Back in February 2017, I had the honour of visiting the Anne Frank Huis in Amsterdam.  I have been aware of Anne’s story ever since I can remember; indeed, one of my first reading memories is of encountering her biography in a written-for-children format at school, and sobbing.  Since I was old enough to read her diary in its entirety, I have done so every couple of years without fail, and am always moved to tears.

I was a little wary of David Gillham’s Annelies: A Novel of Anne Frank when I first spotted it in the library.  It tells an alternative story, of Anne Frank surviving the persecution she faced during the Holocaust in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and moving back to Amsterdam to live with her father, Otto.  However, I do find ‘what if?’ stories rather fascinating; Stephen Fry’s Making History is a prime example of just how good this sub-genre can be.  I decided, therefore, to pick up the paperback edition of Annelies. 45161414._sy475_-1

The opening section of Annelies creates an imagined narrative which relies heavily upon her own diaries.  Events that I have read of so many times in Anne’s own beautiful writing are rendered in a different voice here.  The preface of each chapter contains a quote from Anne’s diary, which I felt was a nice touch.

The first short chapter of the novel really caught my attention, and immediately sets up the alternate twist of history.  Here, Gillham writes: ‘And in that fractured moment, the world that would have been takes a different path: a flicker of the girl she once was makes a last demand for life.  A breath, a flinch of existence…  She coughs viciously, but somethingin her has found a pulse.  Some vital substance.’  We move from here to Anne’s childhood, at a point in time before the Franks had to move into the annexe above Otto’s workplace, but when the situation is becoming grave.  Gillham notes: ‘It’s obvious that things are not good for the Jews since the Hun occupied the city.  It’s even obvious to a child that things are happening.  Anne is not as oblivious as everyone believes.  But why in the world should they dwell on it so?’

On her return to Amsterdam, nothing is as she left it.  Anne feels like a completely different person, whose childhood has been left far behind her.  She struggles to come to terms with the death of her mother, Edith, and her elder sister, Margot, as well as what happened to her in Bergen-Belsen.  Her only way to survive, and to recover, is to ‘transform her story of trauma into a story of redemption and hope.’

Gillham continually asserts the solace which Anne felt within the pages of her diary, each entry of which she affectionally addressed to ‘Kitty’.  He writes: ‘In her diary Anne turns herself inside out…  Splashing ink on the paper, sometimes boisterously, sometimes angrily, often critically, perhaps even artfully.  She has learned to depend on words to see herself more clearly.  Her demands, her frustrations and furies, her unobtainable ideals, and her relentless desires, all a reflection of the lonely self she confesses only to the page, because if people aren’t patient, paper is.’

anne_frank_promo_00000219900048The historical detail here has clearly been well researched, and helps to situate Anne, particularly after her character returns to Amsterdam.  Gillham shows how troubled anyone in her situation would be, and the myriad reasons as to why she is unable to settle back into her old life as though nothing has happened.  The absence of her family is obvious at every point, and Gillham places emphasis on the rather tumultuous relationship which existed between Anne and her mother.  The dynamics between each of the protagonists here have been so well drawn.  Anne’s grief, when she makes the gruelling journey from the concentration camp to her old home, is almost palpable: ‘She no longer knows what home is now.  Her family is dead.  Without them how can such a thing as home exist?’

I have already mentioned that I had reservations about reading Gillham’s book, but I really should not have worried.  He handles Anne’s story – both the real and the imagined aspects of it – with heart and compassion.  Gillham’s version of her is recognisable; the plucky, confident Anne, which is so often shown in her diary, and in the accounts of those who knew her, is visible and apparent.  Gillham writes, for instance: ‘Instead she has a swift desire to misbehave.  She tastes it like spice on the back of her tongue.’

Gillham also shows the other side of Anne, the lonely, longing girl, which is sometimes revealed in her diaries.  In one of the early chapters, the author explains: ‘This is the Anne she keeps a secret from others.  The panicked Anne.  The helpless Anne on the edge of a lonely void.  It would not do for such an Anne to show up in the world.’  The Anne of Gillham’s creation is three-dimensional, sometimes so much so that the loss of her potential – and that of millions more murdered in the Holocaust – feels overwhelming.

The omniscient perspective of Annelies, which follows our protagonist at every turn, was effective, and I felt that every aspect of the story was well handled.  It is often chilling – for instance, when Gillham asserts ‘Anne knows that she has no identity beyond the number imprinted on her arm.’  Annelies is both sensitive and immensely readable.  It feels incredibly thorough, and there are so many touching moments woven throughout.  In his author’s note, Gillham writes that he his ‘priority has been to honor Anne’s story with honesty and accuracy’, and indeed, this feels like exactly what he has achieved.

7

Two Short Story Collections: George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill

Today, I have put together two reviews of short story collections which I was expecting to love, but which both somewhat disappointed me.

4157xu1loml._sx324_bo1204203200_Tenth of December by George Saunders **
I had yet to read any of George Saunders’ work before picking up his much-lauded short story collection, Tenth of December.  The author won the 2017 Man Booker Prize for his novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which, on reflection, perhaps would have been a better place to start with his work.

I must admit that I wasn’t really a fan of Saunders’ prose in this collection.  The stories often go off at tangents, and I did not feel as though the different disjointed threads always came together in the end.  The stories here are certainly varied – there are forays into science-fiction, and some writing which verges on the experimental, for instance – but I did not find that a single tale stood out for me as a reader.  Some of the storylines themselves intrigued me, but others ended too abruptly.  The story ‘Sticks’ only covers two pages, and was the tale which I could see the most potential in.

I felt pulled in by very few of the stories in Tenth of December.  I ended up reading the first four pages or so of the tales, and if they had not captured my attention, I moved on.  I was expecting to find moments of brilliance in this collection, but was unable to.  So many people have loved these short stories, so perhaps I’m missing something, but throughout I found so little to connect with.  I’m now unsure whether to read Lincoln in the Bardo based on my experience of this collection.

Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill ** 91j2b2bsthmbl
Mary Gaitskill’s short story collection, Don’t Cry, was first published in the USA in 2009, and in the United Kingdom in 2017.  Gaitskill was not an author whom I had read before, but I’d heard such great things about her writing, and consequently picked up Don’t Cry when browsing in my local library.

Described as ‘full of jagged, lived emotion and powerful, incisive writing’, I was certainly intrigued by this collection, which is made up of ten stories.  Gaitskill’s opening sentences are often quite startling and unusual, and sometimes packed a real punch.  ‘College Town, 1980’, for instance, begins: ‘Dolores did not look good in a scarf’; and ‘Mirror Bowl’ opens ‘He took her soul – though, being a secular-minded person, he didn’t think about it that way’.  They also provide a sense of intrigue. ‘Don’t Cry’, the title story, has ‘Our first day in Addis Ababa, we woke up to wedding music playing outside our hotel’ as its first sentence.

I admired Gaitskill’s skill at creating striking sentences and images, but found that there was perhaps a little too much sexual content, darkness, and grit in Don’t Cry for my personal taste.  I found a few of the stories grotesque, and quite difficult to read in consequence.  Whilst Gaitskill’s stories are largely about everyday occurrences, she twists them around until they seem nasty and unsettling.  Only some of her characters interested me, and I wasn’t that taken by her quite matter-of-fact writing.  The title story in the collection was by far my favourite, but it has not led me to want to pick up any more of Gaitskill’s work in future.

Have you read either of these collections?  Are there any authors whose short stories you would particularly recommend to me?

4

One From the Archive: ‘An Academic Question’ by Barbara Pym ****

First published in 2012.

Virago have recently reprinted several of Barbara Pym’s novels, all with new introductions by a selection of different authors, all avid fans of her work.  The introduction of  An Academic Question, first published posthumously in 1986, has been written by novelist Kate Saunders, who believes the book to be ‘witty, sharp, light as a syllabub… and with a cast of typically Pym-like eccentrics’.  She goes on to say that ‘no other novelist has celebrated our national silliness with such exuberance’.

71ww2biwk9nlAn Academic Question is essentially an amalgamation of two different manuscripts which Pym wrote and was dissatisfied with.  The novel tells the story of Caroline Grimstone, a ‘dissatisfied faculty wife’.  Caro and Alan live in a neo-Georgian house in the ‘provincial’ university sprawled across a nameless town in which Alan lectures.  They have a four-year-old daughter named Kate and a rather flippant Swedish au pair named Inge, both of whom Caro believes ‘in name and appearance, seemed very suitable, I thought, for a modern couple like Alan and me’.

The novel opens with the characters of Kitty Jeffreys and her middle-aged son Coco, both of whom left their home in the Caribbean ‘after the death of [Kitty’s] husband and, more importantly, the election of an all-black government’.  Coco, having been awarded a fellowship at the university, works alongside Caro’s husband Alan.  

Many secondary characters feature throughout the novel, the majority of them academics and lecturers at the university.  Certainly the two most interesting and eccentric characters are hedgehog fanatic and local bookshop owner Dolly Arborfield who spends large chunks of her pension money on brandy, and Crispin Maynard, an ardent collector of Africana.

Caroline’s first person perspective is used throughout.  The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caroline herself is not always a likeable character.  She is a rather self-pitying woman who feels ‘abandoned and neglected’.  She sees her young daughter as a burden and tries to palm her off onto the au pair as much as possible.  She is rather disgruntled with what life has afforded her but she essentially lacks drive to change the elements which she is displeased with.  The only thing which Caro does in order to give herself a sense of ‘self-worth’ is to begin to read to an elderly man named Reverend Stillingfleet, a resident at a local nursing home.  This arrangement seems rather too convenient, as Alan and his colleague Crispin Maynard have been wanting to read Reverend Stillingfleet’s manuscripts for some time but have thus far been unable to get hold of them.

The novel does tend to be rather dark in places.  The majority of the characters have secrets and shames which they try to keep from others, but it feels as though we, as readers, do not know the characters as well as we should.  Even Caroline as a first person narrator seems aloof and elusive.

Pym’s writing shines above the storyline and characters which she has created.  Throughout the novel, her descriptions are sometimes charming and always original.  For example, the wife of the university’s assistant librarian ‘seemed never to have recovered from the worries of card indexes and bibliographies in the days when she too had worked in a library’, and Coco and Kitty ‘always made a point of arriving last at everything, like royalty’.  Despite this, the prose does sometimes feel a little repetitive, which is a shame.

The writing style of the novel works well but there is little wit and amusement involved.  Whilst the two manuscripts have been merged together relatively well, it feels as though An Academic Question is lacking in something – whether a more likeable narrator, a slightly more in-depth storyline or an ending that does not feel so rushed, it is unclear.

2

One From the Archive: ‘Needlework’ by Deirdre Sullivan ****

First published in October 2019.

I do not tend to gravitate toward young adult books, but Needlework by Deirdre Sullivan sounded quite original.  Whilst I had not read any of her fiction before picking up this tome, I have heard a lot of positive comments about her writing, and was eager to sample it for myself.  Fellow Irish YA author Louise O’Neill, whose fiction I enjoy, writes: ‘Reading Needlework is similar to getting your first tattoo – it’s searing, often painful, but it is an experience you’ll never forget.’
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Our protagonist, sixteen-year-old Frances, is known as Ces.  Ces wants to become a tattoo artist, so that she can ’embroider skin with beautiful images.  But for now she’s just trying to reach adulthood without falling apart.’ She lives in Ireland, and has to work at a local newsagents in order to make ends meet.  She and her mother have left her violent father, and her mother often does not leave her bedroom during the day.  ‘She is a good mother,’ Ces tells us, ‘or she can be.  It’s just that she is broken and she knows I am as well but that doesn’t stop her breaking me even more.’

We learn, throughout, about Ces’ ‘meditation on her effort to maintain her bodily and spiritual integrity in the face of abuse, violation and neglect.’  She ruminates on the horrors which have been done to her, and the fear which she has of being seen as a victim.  She has a sexual relationship with the boy that lives next door in a house ‘mostly made of plywood and fag ash’, Tom, and recognises the deep-rooted problems at its heart: ‘There is something wrong with it, amoral even.  Not on my part, or on his, but kind of both.  I’m using him while also being used.’  Indeed, there is a volatility to each of the relationships in her life.

Sections of present-day narrative have been interspersed with poetic, rather mesmerising prose, which details tattoos and artwork. Ces is continually concerned with the body and the skin, and how it can be transformed into something beautiful, or just different.  The novel opens in the following way: ‘First prepare the skin.  Not the room, the tools you’ll use.  The skin itself, a mental switch to open you to something…  Needles, things that fascinate me always.  Much kinder and much crueller than are knives, a spindle-pierce through filaments and fingers.’  This continues throughout, pulling the whole story together, and often adding a little light relief to the dark subject matter.

The prose has some really gorgeous, textured writing to it, particularly when Sullivan explores tattoos, art, and marking oneself with something as permanent as a tattoo: ‘Your needle is a pen, and ink your pigment.  Fish-scale silver, saucy ketchup red.  Mute or lurid colour.  A whisper or a scream.’  The imagery which Sullivan creates is sometimes quite haunting.  She writes: ‘I drew an angry eye inside my book.  A woman made of snakes.  A crown of bones upon a kingly head.  A woman holding up a mirror to her decapitated neck.  A jar of honey filled with many bees.’

I found the narrative quite beguiling.  Ces is an unusual character in her outlook, and the way in which she tackles things.  She seems, in many ways, older than her years; she tends to be quite wise.  There is no real naivety to her, due to the situations which she has found herself in, and the way in which the agency of her body has been taken by others.  She is not always a loner, but she often feels alone.  She comments: ‘I am not liked.  People who do not know me automatically assume that I am a cold bitch.  That is the phrase they use.  Maybe it is true.  I find it difficult to warm to people.  I always assume that they pose a threat and gird myself accordingly.’

Ces’ observations of herself are suffused with pain; they are sometimes brutal, and often hard to read.  She does not hold out a great deal of hope for her future, either: ‘I sometimes see my life as a series of doors shutting loudly, one after another.’  I found her narrative voice entirely convincing throughout.  When she talks about her difficult past, and how it has affected her, she does so with a kind of gloomy beauty: ‘I thought Dad was the source of all my problems.  And now he is removed and things remain the same within my head.  I wish my brain was metamorphic rock.  Dark blue limestone changed to purest marble, wiping clean the dirt that lurks in pores.  Like a phoenix, rising from the heat, all new and perfect.’

Needlework is described in its blurb as ‘powerful, poetic and disturbing’; it is all of these things.  Its beautifully written prose is often bleak, and there are such vivid descriptions of violence and abuse within it that it should not be read by the faint-hearted.  Needlework is more hard-hitting than any other young adult novel I have encountered; there is so much within it that seems more suited to gritty adult fiction.  Sullivan has certainly tackled some difficult subjects here, particularly with regard to sexual abuse, and I would suggest that it is not an appropriate novel for those under the age of fourteen to read.  I, somewhat older than the novel’s intended audience, found myself wincing at points in the narrative.

Sullivan presents a raw, unflinching portrait of the real troubles that so many young girls are forced to go through, and Needlework is all the more unforgettable and striking for it.  This coming-of-age novel is painfully observed, and well worth picking up if you’re looking for something challenging to read.  Needlework did so much more than I was expecting, and I imagine that its powerful story will stay with me for a long time to come.

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‘Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life’ by Will Schwalbe ****

Some years ago, I was on a cruise around the Mediterranean.  On a day spent at sea, I devoured Will Schwalbe’s moving debut memoir, The End of Your Life Book Club, much of which has stuck with me to this day.  I requested his second book, Books for Living: A Reader’s Guide to Life from my local library with high hopes, and settled down to read it amidst the mounting pre-lockdown panic which Covid-19 brought with it.  Books for Living proved to be a wonderful piece of diversion from current events.

The New York Times deems Books for Living ‘inspiring and charming’, and Publishers Weekly comments ‘Schwalbe’s tremendous experience with reading and his stellar taste make for a fine guide to the varied and idiosyncratic list of books for which he advocates.’  Publishers Weekly also promises that ‘By the end of the book, all serious readers will have added some titles to their to-read lists.’  (I certainly did this.)  The book’s blurb describes it as a ‘magical exploration of the power of books to shape our lives in an era of constant connectivity’ – or, as I found, in the midst of a pandemic. 37831664._sy475_

For Schwalbe, as indeed is the case for most of us, I expect, reading is a way ‘to make sense of the world, to become a better person, and to find the answers to the big (and small) questions’.  In Books for Living, he has therefore compiled a list of books ‘that speak to the specific challenges of living in our modern world.’  He has chosen to split the book into quite a few different sections, entitled in such ways as ‘Searching’ and ‘Trusting’ to ‘Quitting’ and ‘Disconnecting’.  Each of these sections focuses on a specific work.  Books for Living opens with a recurring dream of Schwalbe’s, in which ‘the thought of being bookless for hours… jolts me awake in a cold sweat.’

The books which he selects are wonderfully varied; he considers running and napping with the aid of Haruki Murakami; the enduring characters in Dickens’ David Copperfield; the core message of the delightful Stuart Little by E.B. White…  There are books here which were originally written for children and adults, and which take place in fictional worlds.  There are gems of non-fiction, and even the odd self-help book. He writes of ‘crowd-pleasers’, and of those books which he feels have been unfairly forgotten, or have slipped under the radar of the reading public.

Not all of the books which Schwalbe addresses and comments upon in Books for Living are his favourites, but each has either spoken to him, stuck with him for a particular reason, or allowed him to see things from a perspective other than his own.  Some of these books helped him through incredibly difficult periods in his life, primarily the death of friends from HIV, and the passing of his mother.  One of the most touching chapters, I felt, is ‘Giovanni’s Room’, where a beloved librarian in his hometown quietly selected a lot of LGBTQ+ literature for Schwalbe to read, to help him realise and come to terms with his homosexuality.

Schwalbe continually asserts how the reading process of any book changes him as a person.  He writes: ‘I’m not the same reader when I finish a book as I was when I started.  Brains are tangles of pathways, and reading creates new ones.  Every book changes your life.’  He goes on to comment: ‘I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain.’

Schwalbe wonderfully demonstrates the power which books hold over all of us.  It is a joy to encounter a book like this, written by someone who reads so widely.  Not all of the individual tomes appealed directly to me as a reader, but I read Schwalbe’s own commentary with a great deal of interest.  I appreciate his honestly and openness throughout.  So much of Books for Living was relatable for me as a fellow bookworm.  It is a book which is as entertaining as it is full of heart.

I shall end this review with perhaps the most enduring message from the book: ‘When I most enjoy reading, I’m not really conscious that I’m reading.  It’s at those moments when I’m so wrapped up in a book, so engrossed, so moved, so obsessed, or so fascinated, that the part of my mind that is watching me read – maybe keeping track of the pages or trying to decide how much longer I should keep on reading – that part of my mind has gone away.’

 

4

‘Agatha’ by Anne Cathrine Bomann ***

I had not heard of Danish author Anne Cathrine Bomann’s debut novel, Agatha, before spotting it in my local library.  Bomann’s 2017 novel became an international bestseller by word of mouth, and has been translated into over twenty languages to date.  Its English translation has been nicely handled by Caroline Waight.

50774470._sx318_sy475_Set in Paris during the 1940s, Agatha focuses upon a crotchety unnamed psychiatrist and one of his patients.  The psychiatrist is counting down the days until his retirement, quite literally marking the hours of consultations off from one day to the next: ‘Retiring at seventy-two meant that there were five months still to work.  Twenty-two weeks in total, and if all my patients came that meant I had exactly eight hundred sessions to go.  If somebody cancelled or fell ill, the number would of course be fewer.  There was a certain comfort in that, in spite of everything.’  He laments being old, and the myriad ways in which his body has altered: ‘And just as the record came to an end and the silence left me alone in the front room, came the fatal blow: there was no way out.  I had to live in this traitorous grey prison until it killed me.’

Throughout, he continues to reflect on the following, the fear which he feels in finishing work and being at a loose end: ‘Imagine if it turned out life outside these walls was just as pointless as life inside…  It occurred to me that I’d been imagining my proper life, my reward for all the grind, was waiting for me when I retired.  Yet, as I sat there, I couldn’t for the life of me work out what that existence would contain that was worth looking forward to.  Surely the only things I could reliably expect were fear and loneliness?’

His plans to wind down, however, are disrupted when a woman named Agatha Zimmermann, who has a history of rather severe mental illness, walks into his practice and demands to be seen.  Agatha is a young German woman, who has suffered from ‘severe mania after a suicide attempt a few years ago.’  She is striking to the psychiatrist; he notes that ‘Her brown eyes shone fever-bright and her gaze was so intense it felt as though she’d grabbed my arms.’

There is a moral element at play in the story.  Bomann has focused upon the ways in which the psychiatrist and Agatha help one another – the psychiatrist in terms of alleviating Agatha’s symptoms, and Agatha with regard to helping him out of his shell.  Until he met her, he kept a distance from everyone, choosing to have no friends, and to live entirely alone.

I did like the focus upon the psychiatrist, and his own foibles and problems, here.  As novelist Rowan Hisayo Buchanan writes, ‘it is with pleasure that we find ourselves analysing the psychiatrist rather than his patient.’ One gets the impression, from very early on, that the psychiatrist, who has been practicing for almost fifty years, has no passion whatsoever for his profession, or for his patients.  In his rather grumpy, almost offhand narrative, he tells us: ‘Many years’ training helped me to murmur in the right places without actually listening, and if I was lucky I wouldn’t have registered one single word by the time she left the room.’

I also enjoyed the structure of the novel, split as it is into very slim chapters.  The narrative is interspersed with Agatha’s patient records, a simple yet effective tool.  Agatha is a novella, really, standing at just under 150 pages.  This length does lend itself well to the story;  the compactness of the book, and what has been left unsaid, perhaps makes one consider more about Agatha than they might otherwise.

I was relatively interested in the characters, but for me, what let the book down was the sheer lack of setting.  We are told in the book’s blurb that it is set in Paris during the 1940s, but this does not come across at all in the prose.  There are very few descriptions of the world beyond the psychiatrist’s office, and no mention whatsoever of the Second World War, or the Occupation of Paris; to me, these are major historical events which should at least be touched upon, or mentioned.  The novel feels rather ‘everyman’; it could, really, be set in any historical period, or any place, as there is so little detail within it that is not focused upon its characters.  There is, consequently, very little atmosphere to be found within Agatha.  For me, this let the whole down somewhat, as did the way in which the book felt far more modern to me than it should have.  I would have liked Agatha to be better rooted in history.

Agatha is certainly readable, and I flew through it, reading it in just a couple of hours.  The story is quite a heartwarming one, and there is much reflection as to how each protagonist changes over time.  At times, though, the prose is a little light.  Agatha is sweet enough, but since finishing the book, I do not feel like I have taken a great deal from it.  It lacked a little substance for me as a reader.

3

‘The Twelve Birds of Christmas’ by Stephen Moss *****

I adored Stephen Moss’ The Wren: A Biography, which I read quite recently, and was keen to get my hands on a copy of The Twelve Birds of Christmas.  The idea behind it is rather charming; Moss tells ‘the enthralling story of twelve iconic British birds’ by ‘playing on one of our best-known carols’.  Like The Wren, this proved to be another firm favourite of mine, and it was the perfect tome to kick off my Christmas reading with.

In The Twelve Birds of Christmas, Moss has given an avian interpretation to the famous Christmas carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, which first appeared in its written form around 1780.  He personally describes it as ‘endlessly parodied, highly memorable and occasionally infuriating’.  Together with his own commentary, ‘he weaves history, culture, bird behaviour and folklore into a compelling narrative for each species’, and traces their fortunes over the centuries since the carol first appeared.

To anyone who knows the carol already, birds feature heavily, but Moss asked himself whether the entire carol could really be about our avian friends.  He muses: ‘… I look beneath the surface of this familiar carol, and reveal what I believe is an alternative meaning to the verses.  For in my view, every single one of the carol’s dozen lines could plausibly be about a particular species of bird.’
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The birds which Moss focuses on here are both rare and common in the United Kingdom.  In turn, he writes about grey partridges, turtle doves, domestic chickens, blackbirds, yellowhammers, geese, mute swans, nightjars, cranes, black grouse, sandpipers, and woodpeckers.  In each separate chapter, he weaves in observations made throughout history about his chosen birds.  These largely come from naturalists who have influenced Moss’ own career.  He links each species rather cleverly to the original carol; the crane, for instance, has been selected to represent ‘nine ladies dancing’ because of its entrancing mating dance.

Focus has been placed upon the effects of individuals determined to reverse the decline of bird species, many of which have a current status which looks rather bleak.  Of the turtle dove, for instance, Moss writes: ‘Once so common that observers didn’t even bother to send in records of the species, by the turn of the millennium it had disappeared as a breeding bird from the county’ of Somerset, where Moss’ home is located.  Some of the birds featured in The Twelve Birds of Christmas have thankfully fared better; the blackbird, for example, is the fourth most numerous bird in Britain, and is ‘present in 96 per cent of all the 3,862 10 kilometre squares in Britain and Ireland, in both summer and winter.’

Throughout, Moss touches upon so many different elements of bird life: the domestication of birds by humans; the migratory patterns of different species; folklore; and the effects of climate change and the destruction of habitats on bird numbers.  The chapters are relatively short, but the book itself is undoubtedly thorough.

The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a darling book, even lovelier than it sounds.  Gloriously illustrated throughout, and impeccably researched, Moss gives such attention to detail.  His enthusiasm for nature shines through on every single page.  His prose is rich and captivating, and it is so easy to read.

The structure which Moss has fitted his twelve birds around works wonderfully, and he certainly makes an engaging argument.  The Twelve Birds of Christmas is a really great, and slightly alternative, book to pick up for Christmas, from a man who is fast becoming one of my favourite nature writers.

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‘Reindeer: An Arctic Life’ by Tilly Smith ***

Tilly Smith’s Reindeer: An Arctic Life, which has been recently reissued in a lovely hardback edition, was a book which I wanted to incorporate into my winter reading.  Thankfully, I found a copy whilst browsing in the library, and settled down with it on a chilly Sunday afternoon.  The book was first released in 2006, and was originally entitled The Real Rudolph.

61sblxjsxjlI love books about animals and the natural world, but have never read anything specifically about reindeer before.  The blurb describes Smith’s memoir of sorts as follows: ‘In this enchanting book, self-confessed “reindeer geek” Tilly Smith leads the reader through the extraordinary natural history of the reindeer with charming anecdotes about her own Scottish herd.’  Smith is the owner of Britain’s only ‘free-living’ herd of reindeer, which roam in the Cairngorms in Scotland, an area which provides ‘Britain’s only sub-arctic habitat’.

Reindeer have lived in the Cairngorms since 1952, as part of a move to reintroduce the species into Scotland.  The country ‘offered a habitat very similar to their homeland [of] Lapland’, and as a result, the herd thrived.  One of the really interesting elements of Reindeer: An Arctic Life is the information about the couple – Sami Mikel Utsi and his wife, Dr Ethel John Lindgren – who were responsible for reintroducing the animals.

Reindeer: An Arctic Life has been split into 15 chapters, which feature details about Smith’s reindeer.  It also, quite sweetly I felt, includes a reindeer family tree, with not a Rudolph in sight.  In her first chapter, Smith writes of the adverse weather conditions about to hit the Cairngorms, complete with 100mph winds.  She then comments: ‘In Alaska, one of the countries where caribou are naturally found, they say there are only two seasons, “snow” and “no snow”, and caribou thrive there.  They are lowly Arctic animals, totally at home in the coldest places in the world.’  During the wintry storm, therefore, the reindeer are quite in their element.  Reindeer, Smith tells us, ‘are amazing creatures; their coat is so well insulated that they can lie on the snow without melting it.  Also, snow that lands on their backs doesn’t melt – it remains frozen and can itself add to the insulation…’.

Reindeer: An Arctic Life is peppered with lovely woodcut illustrations.  Interesting facts about reindeer – called caribou in some countries – have been placed into small grey text boxes, and placed throughout.  Whilst I did enjoy reading these, their random placement was a little off-putting, and it was a little difficult to concentrate on the main body of text in consequence.  These facts could have easily been incorporated into the narrative, and did sometimes repeat details which had already been written about.

Smith’s writing is fine, but at no point did I feel blown away by it.  She does include a lot of information and detail – different species of reindeer and their habitats, as well as the way in which the creatures have adapted over time; how different seasons affect the herds; how reindeers socialise with one another; and the human influence upon reindeer, from the destruction of vital habitats, to the close bonds which can be formed between human and reindeer – but I felt that there was a strange lack of emotion throughout.  Some of the chapters end very abruptly too.

Whilst Reindeer: An Arctic Life is a nice enough wintry read, it lacks a little something – perhaps due to the overall detachment of Smith’s commentary.  I would recommend it for anyone keen to learn more about reindeer and their reintroduction to the United Kingdom, but it is by no means the best written book which looks at a single species.

5

‘The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words’ by Tom Mole ***

I am drawn to books about books, and Tom Mole’s The Secret Life of Books: Why They Mean More Than Words really caught my eye. It is marketed as ‘the season’s ultimate gift for bibliophiles’, and certainly holds a lot of appeal for the more bookish members on this year’s Christmas list.

The Secret Life of Books is about ‘everything beyond the words on a page’, and focuses on the book as a physical entity. Mole has explored ‘how books feel and smell, books defaced by lovers and books in art to burned books and books that create nations’. He is concerned with how books and printing processes have evolved over time, along with their readers, and ‘about how books still have the power to change our lives.’

This book, written by the head of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for the History of the Book, is described as a ‘stylish and thought-provoking exploration of the book as an object.’ Mole confesses that he is ‘not all that interested in books as things to read. Instead, I want to talk about all the other things that we do to books – and that books do to us.’ They are, he goes on to say, ‘part of how we understand ourselves. They shape our identities, even before we can read them.’

First published in 2019, The Secret Life of Books is filled with reminiscences of Mole’s own reading life, as well as anecdotes about books. It opens, for instance, with one of Mole’s university professors, whose books were rapidly taking over his room: ‘Every time I visited the professor’s office, it seemed a little harder than before to navigate a route across the room on the decreasing area of visible carpet… when I opened the door there was no professor to be seen – the room was full of books, but apparently empty of its occupant. For a moment, I would think perhaps the professor had been crushed under a toppling pile of hardbacks. Then his head would appear from behind a ziggurat of volumes on a bewildering variety of topics.’

Mole certainly presents a lot of interesting ideas about books within the pages of his own. These have been largely collected in vignette form, and gathered together. He writes that ‘to the careful observer, the book can be excavated like an archaeological dig, revealing layer upon layer of information about its previous users from the material traces they left behind them.’ He goes on to discuss holy books, book signings, book clubs, and bibliomancy – the rather unpredictable practice of using a randomly chosen page in a book to predict the future – and gives nods to many authors.

I was particularly taken with the musings he makes over the ownership of books, and what a privilege it is to be able to build a personal library. He writes: ‘Buying books, reading them, organising them and referring back to them – all these things seem to be distinct and different kinds of pleasure.’

I did find The Secret Life of Books became rather repetitive at times, but perhaps this is an inevitability given the subject matter. I enjoyed all of the bookish facts which the volume was peppered with, and found that the general approach took an interesting angle, but on the whole, it failed to captivate me entirely. The prose is consistent, as is the thematic structure, but on some level it did not quite work for me as a reader.

I will end my review with this rather prescient quote from The Secret Life of Books, concerning inheritance. Mole muses, as, I imagine, do many readers in possession of their own libraries: ‘What will become of my books? Not the ones I write, but the ones I own. No doubt, I have too many, and there will have to be some winnowing over the years ahead as I inevitably acquire more. But I’m equally certain that I’ll never get rid of all my books, and that when I do I’ll still own some of them. The paperbacks will probably be falling apart by then, but some of the hardbacks will easily survive me by many years. Books endure. And so – whether sold, gifted, donated or bequeathed – my books will find their ways to other owners and readers.’

2

An Abandoned Book: ‘Golden Child’ by Claire Adam **

I had been intrigued by Claire Adam’s debut novel, Golden Child, since its publication.  There is very little literature set in the Caribbean – one of my favourite regions on earth – which I have found readily available to date, and thus I was pleased when I found a copy of the quite delightfully designed hardback in my local library.

39731604._sy475_Golden Child is set in Trinidad, and deals with the disappearance of a thirteen-year-old boy.  The book’s blurb does not give a great amount away; it simply says that its protagonist, Clyde, has to come to terms with what it means to be the father of twin boys, and is made to discover ‘truths about Trinidad, about his family, and about himself.’  Whilst I enjoy familial sagas and mystery novels, and was intrigued by the blurb, I found the novel itself very difficult to get into.

The descriptions within the novel were not as I was expecting.  Rather than drawing attention to the lush landscapes and tropical weather of Trinidad, I found Adam’s prose rather plain.  For instance, when Clyde begins to go and search for his son, she writes: ‘Shorts and slippers are no good for that bush across the road.  Before, when Clyde was small, he used to go in there barefoot: by daylight you can easily pick your way along, avoiding ant-hills, sharp stones, prickers and whatever else.  But it’s a long time since he’s been in there, and also – who knows what will be out now, at night?  Snakes, frogs, agouti, all the night-time creatures, or spirits, or whatever they are.’  There is so little beauty within the novel, even with regard to the natural world.

When I examined the thoughts of other readers on Goodreads, I found that Golden Child has very mixed reviews; some have absolutely adored it, whilst others have either abandoned the reading process, or given it just one star.  This is, of course, markedly different to the reviews adorned on the book’s cover, which laud it variously as ‘intensely moving’, ‘quietly powerful and compelling’, and draw comparisons between Adam’s writing and that of ‘icons of her tradition like V.S. Naipaul’.

To me, Golden Child felt like something of a missed opportunity.  The novel did nothing to draw me, as a reader and observer, in; rather, I found its characters two-dimensional, and its settings rather drab.  The dialogue between characters is dull and repetitive, and the pace is plodding.  So little atmosphere and tension have been built, which I find peculiar for a novel which sees itself as a mystery, almost a thriller.  There is a real lack of emotional depth here, and too much superfluous detail; Adam focuses more on what characters are wearing and drinking than how they feel.  There is very much a ‘tell, don’t show’ mentality in place, it seems.

I read several chapters of Golden Child, but found myself reluctant to return to the novel whenever I put it down.  The story did nothing to draw me in, and I could not get on with Adam’s very matter-of-fact writing style.  I did stop reading before I found out what happened to the missing teenager, but a mixture of disinterest and the hint at disturbing elements which other reviewers mentioned put me off.  I am sure that there will be readers who really get on with this novel, but I, alas, am not one of them.