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‘Travel Light’ by Naomi Mitchison ***

Travel Light is the story of Halla, a girl born to a king but cast out onto the hills to die. She lives among bears; she lives among dragons. But the time of dragons is passing, and Odin All-Father offers Halla a choice: Will she stay dragonish and hoard wealth and possessions, or will she travel light?”(Amal El-Mohtar, NPR, You Must Read This). 

“From the dark ages to modern times, from the dragons of medieval forests to Constantinople, this is a fantastic and philosophical fairy-tale journey that will appeal to fans of Harry Potter, Diana Wynne Jones, and T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.”

9780860685623-us-300I borrowed Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light from my University library for three reasons: firstly, I had never read any Mitchison and felt I should rectify that, particularly as she’s a Scottish author; secondly, its original Virago green spine stood out to me on the shelf; and thirdly, the storyline sounded both weird and wonderful.  I must admit that I don’t ordinarily read books with elements of magic to them (with the exception of Harry Potter, of course), but I read the first page whilst I should have been looking for thesis-applicable tomes, and felt that it sounded rather promising.

I had earmarked Travel Light to be an inclusion in the final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon which I will be taking part in (largely because when in the process of PhD studies, your entire life often feels like a readathon in itself), but ended up reading the first three chapters the night before because I was too intrigued to let it lie until morning.  From the outset, I was reminded both of the Icelandic sagas and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series; it’s a fun and slightly strange amalgamation of the two at times.  There are touches of the general fairytale to it too.

Travel Light is one of those books that continually keeps the reader guessing.  Nothing quite takes the direction you expect, and elements of the plot are therefore quite surprising.  I’m normally very put off with the presence of talking dragons in fiction, but here they just seemed to fit here.  Well written and well paced for the most part (I must admit that it did become a little dull toward the middle, but it did soon pick itself back up again), I have come away wondering why Mitchison’s books aren’t more widely read.   If Travel Light is anything to go by, I feel that they have a lot to offer, particularly for fans of the mythical and mystical.  A strange little book, but a memorable one, which I’m pleased I chose to borrow.

NB. Travel Light might be difficult to get hold of as it looks to not currently be in print, but if you’re after something a little different, it’s well worth the effort!

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One From the Archive: ‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell ****

‘Christmas at High Rising’ by Angela Thirkell (Virago)

The tales collected in Virago’s beautiful Christmas at High Rising are hailed as ‘warm and witty wintertime stories’.  The blurb describes the feel of the stories as ‘charming, irreverent and full of mischievous humour’, and states that ‘they offer the utmost entertainment in any season of the year’.

Indeed, only two of these stories relate to Christmas in any way, and one of them can only be said to rather loosely.  The eight tales in this collection – originally published between the 1920s and 1940s and collected together here for the first time – have titles which range from ‘Pantomime’ and ‘Christmas at Mulberry Lodge’ to ‘The Great Art of Riding’ and ‘Shakespeare Did Not Dine Out’.

Christmas at High Rising is one of the almost thirty volumes which make up Thirkell’s beloved Barsetshire sequence of novels.  It stands alone marvellously, and does not have to be slotted into the series in any particular order.  Each page feels remarkably witty and fresh, and is not at all dated.

Thirkell’s depicts individuals so well, and her characters and their foibles are set out immediately.  In ‘Pantomime’, we meet a man named George Knox, who ‘suddenly felt that as a grandfather he ought to take a large family party to the theatre’, and who, filled with his own importance, has ‘already begun to dramatise himself as Famous Author Loves to Gather Little Ones Round Him’.  Later, he is described as dressing himself ‘in a large hat and muffler as Famous Author Takes Country Walk’.  Her characters are also not at all afraid to speak their minds.  When George Knox tells a female acquaintance named Laura that he wishes to take her and her son, along with two of his friends, to a pantomime, she responds with a, ‘Now, George…  this is an awful treat that you want to give us, but I suppose we shall have to give in’.

The children which Thirkell creates are particularly vivid.  Each and every one is shrewd and rather hilarious.  Tony, one of the recurring child characters who appears in the majority of the stories, says such things as: ‘Mother, did you hear me laughing at the funny parts [in the pantomime]?  I have a good kind of laugh and I expect the actors liked it’.  There is a real sense of Thirkell’s understanding of her young charges throughout, and she clearly takes into account the disparities which just one or two years can make within childhood.  The young brother and sister in ‘Christmas at Mulberry Lodge’, for example, ‘lived in London (which Mary knew was the capital of England but William was too little to know about capitals)’.

Do not be put off by the specific seasonal title, as Christmas at High Rising is just as appropriate to read over a summer holiday as it is the festive season.  Here, Virago have printed a great little collection of stories, which provides a great introduction to Angela Thirkell’s wealth of work.

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

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’.

9781844087235An 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.

Caro’s first person perspective is used throughout. The narrative voice works relatively well with the story but Caro 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.

Whilst the writing style of the novel works well, the wit and amusement involved seems sparse and uncharacteristic of the author. 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.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Ballad and The Source’ by Rosamond Lehmann ****

So far, Rosamond Lehmann’s books have been a little hit and miss for me.  I very much enjoyed Invitation to the Waltz, but its sequel, The Weather in The Streets, was nowhere near as enjoyable as I thought that it would be.  I had high hopes for The Ballad and The Source.  The novel was first published in 1944, and is part of the Virago Modern Classics list.

‘The Ballad and The Source’ (Virago)

The Ballad and The Source tells the story of a ten-year-old girl named Rebecca Landon, who is living in the country with her family when an ‘enigmatic and powerful old woman’ named Sibyl Jardine returns to the neighbourhood.  The premise of the novel intrigued me as soon as I read it: ‘The two families, once linked in the past, meet again, with Rebecca gradually becoming drawn into the strange complications of the old lady’s life’.

Sibyl Jardine has been called Lehmann’s ‘most formidable literary creation’, and it is certainly true that she has been fabulously created.  The elements of personality which she consists of are worked beautifully into the novel, and she is not a protagonist whom I will forget in a hurry.  The Ballad and The Source is beautifully written, and Rebecca’s narrative voice is spellbinding.  I did feel that it waned a little at the end of the book, but the rest of it was so very good that I feel unable to award it any less than four stars.

I really enjoyed Janet Watts’ introduction to this volume, but it did give rather a lot of the plot away (something which I have consciously tried not to do in this review), which was a shame.  The plot is so rich; layer upon layer has been added in order to create a very engaging and satisfying whole, and it is a novel which I will happily recommend to everyone.

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One From the Archive: ‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns ****

First published in July 2013.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels.  The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop.  She describes how,  ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase.  It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent.  I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’.  She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’. 

The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman.  She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and cried.  In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’.  After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past.  She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios.  They soon decide to marry in secret.  Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations.  I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets.  One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm…  She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby…  Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’  Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents.  Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.

As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone.  Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable.  From the outset, she is a quirky heroine.  She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’.  She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her.  On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.

Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly.  Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page.  As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down.  She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet.  It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead.  So I cried about that, too.’  Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner.  Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.

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‘The King Must Die’ by Mary Renault ***

Mary Renault is one of the authors whom I chose for mine and Yamini’s wonderful 50 Women project.  I have read a couple of her novels before, and must admit that I was a touch disappointed.  I had heard that her work set within Ancient Greek was marvellous, however, and when I discovered that Hilary Mantel is also an advocate of her work, I wanted to give her another go.  I decided to choose a book which I already owned, The King Must Die, which is the first in a series about Theseus.

First published in 1958, the gorgeous new Virago reprint (#684) has an introduction by Bettany Hughes.  The book’s blurb states that within the book, Renault has focused upon ‘weaving legend and historical research… [and] breathes new life into the Theseus myth’.  In The King Must Die, Theseus’ paternity is ‘shrouded in mystery’.  His mother eventually reveals to him that he is the son of Aegeus, King of Athens, and his sole heir to boot.  Theseus then ‘undertakes the perilous journey to his father’s palace, escaping bandits and ritual sacrifice in Eleusis, and slays the fearsome Minotaur’.

It is clear from the outset that Renault has a passion for the Classics; she takes already well-known myths, puts her own spin on them, and makes them her own.  Everything here – from the history of the Athens to her descriptions of the setting – has been well considered, and the novel is both rich and easy to read.  Places and scenes are nicely evoked, and the personification of the elements particularly is a definite strength.

Whilst all of the above elements are positive, the problem I had with The King Must Die was solely with regard to Theseus’ first person perspective.  His voice did not feel quite realistic to me, and I do not believe that he was quite masculine enough.  Renault’s control of his voice was good, certainly, but I feel as though it perhaps could have come across a touch more believably.  I rarely say this in reviews, fan as I am of first person narratives, but I believe that a third person omniscient perspective would have worked far better in this instance; in using Theseus’ voice, there is an unmistakable tinge of modernity which does not quite ring true, or suit the overall tone of the piece.

Sadly, The King Must Die was not as engaging as I had hoped, either; I had a feeling before I began that I would probably love the book, what with its use of mythology and history, but I simply did not, and this disappointed me somewhat.  The pace is nice, as is some of the phrasing – ‘My heart paused in its beating.  A secret as long kept is like a lyre – string stretched near breaking, which a feather will sound, or a breath of air.  Silence held me, as it had before the earthquake’ – but I am afraid that it just did not grab me quite enough to warrant a more positive review.  The King Must Die is an admirable work, and I can certainly understand why Renault wanted to add depth to the myth of Theseus, but I must admit that I far preferred Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles.

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‘Mossy Trotter’ by Elizabeth Taylor ****

The 633rd book on Virago’s wonderful Modern Classics list is Elizabeth Taylor’s only book for children, Mossy Trotter.  First published in 1967, the new edition comes with lively Tony Ross illustrations, and an introduction written by Taylor’s son, Renny, who says: ‘… some of it is based on my childhood…  She must have made notes of  things that I got up to because you’ll read about some of my adventures in Mossy Trotter‘.

The blurb of Mossy Trotter – which has been praised by prolific children’s authors Jacqueline Wilson and Kate Saunders – says that within its pages, Taylor ‘perfectly captures the temptations and terrors of a mischievous boy – and just how illogical, frustrating and inconsistent adults are’.  It then goes on to compare the book to such classics as Richmal Crompton’s Just William, and Clive King’s Stig of the Dump

The premise of the book is almost Roald Dahl-esque, and it is sure to appeal to both adults and children: ‘When Mossy moves to the country, life is full of delights…  But every now and then his happiness is disturbed – chiefly by his mother’s meddling friend, Miss Silkin.  And a dreaded event casts a shadow over even the sunniest of days – being a page-boy at her wedding’.

Mossy is a curious, likeable and amusing child, whose inquisitiveness often gets the better of him, and leads him into sticky – sometimes quite literally – situations.  He is particularly fond of tar, and finds himself playing in it when the workmen have been, despite knowing that his mother will be cross with him: ‘… to begin with, he would stand in the tar-splashed grass at the side of the road; then he would drop a few stones on to the tar to see if they stuck; then he would put out his toe and prod an oozy patch, and in no time at all he was stamping in it, picking bits up and rolling them into rubbery balls, and his legs would be smeared, and so would his jeans and his shirt’.

An understanding Taylor bestows the role of confidante upon her young audience almost immediately: ‘Where things had been was what grown-ups worried about all the time.’  She outlines, in the tale’s very beginning, the vast differences which exist between children and adults.  The character of Miss Silkin opens proceedings by talking about her concept of paradise: ‘Standing where she was she could not possibly see the beautiful rubbish dump among the bracken.  This had been his private paradise from the moment he discovered it.  It was a shallow pit filled with broken treasures from which, sometimes, other treasures could be made…  If he could only find two old wheels, he could build himself a whole bicycle, he thought’.

I was reminded throughout of Astrid Lindgren’s charming Pippi LongstockingMossy Trotter feels almost as though it was written by the same author, just with a more masculine young audience in mind.  Mossy’s adventures, much like Pippi’s – a birthday party, a visit from his grandfather, and being a page boy, for example – are lovingly relayed by Taylor, and are certain to leave children wanting more.  The whole has been so well crafted, and interlinking tales wind through from one chapter to the next.  Mossy Trotter is rather a charming read, which is sure to drum up childhood nostalgia in the adults who come across it due to Virago’s reprint.

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