A book to read with the changing seasons

A book to read with the changing seasons

28665185Autumn: An Anthology for the Changing Seasons by Melissa Harrison (Editor)

Autumn has always been my favourite season – even over and above that of Spring – the quality of the light, the temperature, and the smells of autumn make it the best ever. Melissa Harrison’s anthology, Autumn, is a beautiful and inspiring miscellany of poetry, prose, and non-fiction both collected from past writings, and specially commissioned for this collection.

We are taken on a series of personal journies that are about, inspired by, or are rememberances of how Autumn is. This is a book about Autumn to be read at Autumn.

There are sister books to this for all four seasons which I intend to read, in sequence as the year progresses.

Adventure on the high seas

Adventure on the high seas

b176a4642a64e80a3c553c20c93fb166Peter Duck by Arthur Ransome

When I originally read the Swallows and Amazons series it was not in chronological order so I am uncertain as to when I read this book. Being a Lowestoft boy (bred not born), I think this book already existed in the family library.

It stands alone from the rest of the cannon because it is truly neither a S&A book and nor a Coots one. It is Peter Duck’s tale, invented by the Swallows and the Amazons during a winter holiday. It is obviously a fictious story, whilst the other invented tale, Missie Lee reads like it is a true story.

I don’t remember much about my first reading of this book except that I was decidedly non-plussed by it. This time round though, I enjoyed it much more, particularly revelling in the descriptions of Lowestoft and the Suffolk coast I know so well. I did still find a jarring disconnect with it, in the speed at which they travelled. The adventurers seemed to reach Crab Island in the Carribean a bit too quickly and easily for a sailing vessel.

Disturbing yet brilliant

Disturbing yet brilliant

26174866The Map of Bones (The Fire Sermon, #2) by Francesca Haig

This is the sequel to the outstanding (if disturbing) Fire Sermon. Unlike a lot of sequels which assume you to have intiminate knowledge of (or have only just read) the previous book, this book picks up the story and gently reminds you of what you need to know. Francesca Haig does not re-explain in an annoying fashion, and nor does she expect to remember but reveals details of backstory as you go.

The Map of Bones is clearly the second in a trilogy and it is by its nature not altogether a story of its own. It is the continuation of something that has come before, and unlike that one which had an end of its own, you can tell that this book is the bridge to the bigger ending.

None of that spoiled my enjoyment of this story though – if ‘enjoyment’ is the right word – for a story that holds a mirror up to own world and shows us what kind of future our descendants could face. Where the first book focussed on the world in which people live as twins who can each only survive whilst the other lives, and where one is healthy and one deformed in somew way, this book takes that idea further. It introduces the idea of an ‘un-twinning’ procedure – genetic modification of us to right the wrongs of the past, except of course there is no way to ‘right’ these wrongs. This trillogy is absolutely all about how we have to live with each other as equals irrespective any perceived superiority.

It’s that mirror that Francesca Haig holds up to our world which makes this book the disturbing read that it is, but is also why it is an utterly brilliant and powerful book.

When fairies are all too real hidden people

When fairies are all too real hidden people

24949940In Darkling Wood by Emma Carroll

A lot of the books that feature can portray as either mischievous and evil, or flights of fancy and fun. This book is neither. When Alice is sent to stay with a grandmother she barely knows who lives in the middle of a dark, foreboding wood, she is at first alone, and the ancient trees only seem to strangle the light and the hope from her.

Then she meets a new friend who seems to be living in the woods and her own modern day drama of her brother fighting for his life in hospital collides with a tragic past revealed in letters that goes back to the war, and also the reasons for her Dad leaving her gran’s house all those years ago.

The fairies connect the stories together, and although we never actually meet one, they seem a lot more real than lesser-fairy fiction and more like the real huldufolk of Norse mythology. With dark woods, fairy magic, and a very twenty-first century threat this is a powerful story to enjoy and make you think about.

The adventure that has everything

The adventure that has everything

13496455Swallowdale by Arthur Ransome

I remember reading this as a child and loving it even more than the original Swallows and Amazons, maybe because it was even more Titty’s story than the first. When John’s recklassness leads to the sinking of Swallow, it is Titty who finds the valley they call Swallowdale, and the stories of Peter Duck – the sailor that they made up over last Christmas but who we won’t meet until the next book – and Titty who makes the holiday that they had originally planned so meticulously even more exciting and enjoyable than they could have planned.

This story has adventure, shipwrecks, mountain climbing, epic trails, charcoal burners (again), dastardly great-aunts, secret caves, and of course sailing in the Lake District. And yes, we still get pales of milk, fresh eggs, shark meat (perch), bun loaf, and (indestructable) seed cake.

26 Miles of Trekking

So, one year after we decided to do it, and nine months after signing up to the challenge, Emma and I completed our Stonehenge Trek – 26 miles of trekking marathon. Last night we headed down to Salisbury with my parents to stay in a B&B nearer to the start, and then must after 6am with the sun only starting to rise over a beautiful misty September morning, we arrived at the start, nervous for our day’s adventure.

At 7.08am we set off and passed through the starting gate on a route that took us down through posh houses – who must have been wondering what 500 people were doing walking past their front doors early on a Saturday morning – to the River Avon, and on through centre of Salisbury right through the Cathedral close. At one point, all we could see of the cathedral spire (the tallest in England) was the very pinacle, appearing Cheshire Cat-like out of the morning mist. It truly was hauntingly beautiful.

Then came the long walk up hill to Salisbury Racecourse in the sunshine, and the 6-mile mark and first water-stop. Refreshed, we went on along old Drover’s paths, up hills and through woods, another 8 miles to the lunch spot. We were carrying plenty of water and energy-rich snacks but we really needn’t as the organising had all laid on. The sandwiches weren’t so special, but there were tray bakes to die for.

After luch we just about reached the Stonehenge viewpoint before the good weather broke, so our our view of the stones was somewhat faded into the background. The rain then set in big time all the way back to Old Sarum.

Possibly the strangest thing of the day, was just a mile from the finish we arrived at a layby where two cars were parked up. In one car, there were some small, children with binoculars looking out for family and friends. As I passed the other, a man got out as I was waiting to cross the road and took my hand, and pressed a small square of paper into my hand and folded my fist over it. He said, “You’re doing well, you’re almost there now. Put this in your pocket and don’t look at it until the end.” I thought that it was just some random stranger who saw the event happening and was picking on random people to pass on a donation, and thought nothing more about it after thanking him kindly.

We rounded Old Sarum and crossed the finish line to be presented with our completer’s medals. It wasn’t until my Mum and Dad joined us in the tent that I took out the small square of paper. It proved to be a neatly torn off piece of a paper bag containing £26 and a note asking me to tell Debbie (my Mum) to call a mobile number and that this was a donation for Team Shepherd. He must have recognised me enough to pick me out from all the other sodden walkers, but not be known to me but be more a friend of my mum than my dad. We have called the number but so far are none the wiser as to our anonymous benefactor…


My true desert island read

My true desert island read

2384505Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

This was the first full-length novel that I read on my own as a boy (much to the disappointment of my Mum) and I have read it periodically ever since. It is, to me, a truly timeless classic. Yes, they communicate with telegrams, spend pounds, shillings, and pence in the shops, and involves four your children sailing off to camp alone on an island for the summer holidays – but it reads just as much as the now as I think it ever did.

Probably because of her imaginative, story-writing side, Titty has always been my favourite character, and it is through her that most of the exotic place names and fantasical portrayals of actual events come about. They get lost on a desert island, fight pirates, discover buried treasure, and solve crimes, and all without needing to rely on the help of the ‘natives’.

With all it’s grog, eating shark meat, magical charcoal burners, seed cake, bun loaves, and pales of fresh milk, this is an adventure to savour, to enjoy, to remember, and to come back fondly.

Swallows and Amazons forever!

Better Drowned Than Duffers If Not Duffers Won’t Drown

Better Drowned Than Duffers If Not Duffers Won't Drown

onesheetSwallows & Amazons has always been, and has remained, one of my favourite books through my life. Maybe its because it was the first full-length novel that I read on my own (I still remember my Mum’s disappointment when she came up to read the next chapter to find I’d already skipped on ahead), but partly I think it’s the timeless nature of the book.

Whilst Enid Blyton – that other perennial children’s favourite – has dated to the point of uncomfortableness, the Arthur Ransome books have survived. Yes, they mention old money, eat pemmican, and drink grog, and if you tried to recreate the stories today it could never happen thanks to GPS tracking and mobile phones if indeed the children were allowed to go sailing out to, and camping on, an island in the middle of one of the biggest lakes in the Lake District on their own. Yet none of this seems to matter. You read past these things in a way that makes the books a timeless joy to read.

I’ve loved the 1974 film for years – indeed my much-loved paperback happens to the the Puffin books film tie-in, and I was enthusiastic to to see the 2016 remake. I had heard about the spy sub-plot addition but was unfazed by it – Arthur Ransome himself was a spy, and Captain Flint always seemed like the author in disguise so this seemed like an interesting development. What we get though is a brilliantly acted farce of a subplot that tries to take-over and make th story of Swallows and Amazons something that it is not.

It is a loving adaptation. There are a number of moments that are lifted straight from the pages from the book and skillfully played out for us. Titty (her name aside) is one of the most faithfully reproduced of characters which is good as she was always my favourite – probably the writer/daydreamer in her, and I think it was these moments that made me enjoy the film despite the farce of the spy sub-plot.

Summer days, Olympics, and writing progress

Summer days, Olympics, and writing progress

After a weekend in which Emma and I completed another 12 mile training walk I’ve used up a couple of last days of annual leave to make a nice 4 day weekend, and some genuine me time to get back to the novel. I’ve spent most of the last three days outdoors on the patio, writing, and reading, before heading indoors in the evening to watch some more Olympics.

31303 / 80000 words. 39% done!

A story will become one of my treasured favourites to read, and re-read, again and again

A story will become one of my treasured favourites to read, and re-read, again and again

29088586The Other Alice by Michelle Harrison

If 13 Treasures was the story that brought Michelle Harrison to us as a storyteller, and Unrest was the book to show how powerful, scary, and disturbing a storyteller she could be, then her latest novel, The Other Alice, is the book that shows she has truly come of age.

There can be no doubt that Lewis Carroll’s classic was in Harrison’s mind when she named the title character as the threads of the real, the unreal, and the might-be-real run through this book. With characters coming to life out of people’s imaginations I was always going to love this book, as it shares so much with my own stories, but Michelle’s approach is as always unique.

I loved the sneaky references to her 13 Treasures series, during a story that kept you guessing right to the end. There might be no fairies in this, Michelle Harrison’s sixth book, but it is a world in which fairies and fairy magic could exist. Indeed a writer who has their world’s come real, and and a musician who can lure people in with his music owe much to the ballads of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, and the fairy magic thereof.

If I could have rated this book 6 or 7, or even 10 stars I would, and I feel sure that this story will become one of my treasured favourites to read, and re-read, again and again. Magic.

Dark, twisted, and always uncomfortable

Dark, twisted, and always uncomfortable

26046346The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon

Mark Haddon writes honest, often uncomfortable, but faultlessly accurate portrayals of how human nature is. This collection of short stories is no different. However anthologies of short stories are by their very nature a rattlebag and miscellany of ideas, styles and success, and this collection is no different.

Where it works, it works brilliantly. The title story, The Pier Falls is outstanding in its conception and delivery, and other stand-out stories: Bunny, Breathe, and The Weir are all really powerful. The others for me, didn’t work so well, but even if these were the only four stories you read it would still be a worthwhile investment.

These are dark, almost-twisted stories, that focus on death, dying, grief, and loss. They are powerful and immediated, and, like all Haddon’s books, leave you feeling just a bit awkward about yourself.

From city life to island ways

From city life to island ways

29073465The Outrun by Amy Liptrot

I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this book – the autobiography of a young woman struggling to overcome her alcholism. Within the first few pages I was proved wrong. This is a beautiful, poignant, funny, and thought-provoking story that moves between city life in London to island ways on Orkney like the sucking sea on the distant shore.

It’s the story of how nature and a simpler way of life can reconnect with what is important; a story that captures that feeling that lots of us who grow up in out-of-the-way places have at times during our lives. We might strive to leave the place but only We are allowed to criticise it.

You don’t have to know Orkney to be able to picture the environment that Amy Liptrop finds herself suddently back in, making sense of her life. With evocative descriptions of landscape, forna, and flora, I fear that by reading The Outrun I am going to have to travel to the Orkney Islands.

Amy’s story is not always an easy read, weaving her alcoholism with her father’s mental illness, but it is inspiring and uplifting too with well-observed insights into human nature. I chanced on this book in a local bookshop having heard nothing of it before, but I am so, so glad to have discovered such an engaging read.

The lies of and confusion of a woman in danger

The lies of and confusion of a woman in danger

26050850The Killing Files by Nikki Owen

For anyone who has read the first book in the Project Trilogy, The Spider in the Corner of the Room (now Subject 375), it is not a surprise if this is the very next book that you read. For me, the finishing of one, dove-tailed with the publishing of this and like this, the story follows straight on from where the first installment leaves us.

This is a fast-paced, explosive, thriller never lets up as it flits between a recent past and an uncertain future. Dr Maria Martinez might have thought that she had escaped from the twin threats of MI5 and the mysterious Project, but as she continues to piece together the mysteries of her life to discover that she has not been more in danger.

Maria has been lied to – all her life. She also is a high-functioning adult with aspergers and she really can’t deal with lies. Hers is a world where truth is everything, and when she is robbed of that it only serves to confuse her.

Nikki Owen succeeds in bringing a main character with aspergers into our lives, and as both a writer and reader with aspergers I know how hard a thing this is to do successfully. Whilst at times I find Maria’s own dialogue around a condition a little too self-aware, the theme works best in the narrative description of Maria’s journey as you find yourself plunged into a world which seems only out to confuse and baffle you as the lies keep mounting up right to the very end.

My Family and Other Animals for a new generation

My Family and Other Animals for a new generation

27993267Fingers in the Sparkle Jar: A Memoir by Chris Packham

This is a stunningly written memoir from one of the finest wildlife presenters and naturalists working today. This is a book that flits forwards and back through memory, mixing encounters with wildlife, music, and childhood angst in a story that reads at times like a novel. The words are at times poetic, lyrical, and at all times honest. Anyone familiar with Chris’ presenting style can hear his distinctive voice in the words.

The shorter memories are grouped together into a eight sections that each conclude with reports from later visits to the counsellor. Even the concluding Acknowledgments to the book are part of the story of this fascinating, emotive, heart-rending tale of growing up on the outside of ‘the norm’. For anyone interested in the ‘difference’ in all of us this is a must-read.

From the very beginning to the very last page this book is the making of a modern classic – a My Family and Other Animals for the new generation.

An amuse-bouche to Rex Whistler’s life and work

An amuse-bouche to Rex Whistler's life and work

 Family, Friendships, Landscapes: Rex Whistler: Inspiration Read My rating: 1 of 5 stars 2 of 5 stars 3 of 5 stars 4 of 5 stars [ 5 of 5 stars ] Family, Friendships, Landscapes: Rex Whistler: Inspiration Family, Friendships, Landscapes: Rex Whistler: Inspiration by Hugh Cecil

This small book is an amuse-bouche to Hugh and Mirabel Cecil’s 2012 book, In Search of Rex Whistler, the publication of which coincided with a fantastic exhibition at the Salisbury Museum that I was fortunate enough to see.

This book focuses more on the Cecil’s family’s personal connection to Rex Whistler and his brother Lawrence. A small book it may be, but it makes for a perfect companion to their earlier, major retrospective, or Lawrence Whistler’s own, The Laughter and the Urn and provides us with a complimentary take Rex Whistler’s short but fascinating life and work.

Labyrinth if with more blood, guts and gore

Labyrinth if with more blood, guts and gore

22624338Day of the Vikings by J.F. Penn

It wasn’t until I started to read this novella that I realised it was the fifth part in J.F. Penn’s Arkane series. Not that this matters as it is a standalone story in its own right. I was attracted to it my the mix of Norse mythology, Vikings, and the present day, and it did not disapoint.

Day of the Vikings is a fast-paced, enjoyable romp (the author’s own confession) that made me with think of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth if with more blood, guts, and gore. Some scenes are not for the faint-hearted, much like Game of Thrones, but none of it is gratuitous with it all having a place in the story.

If anything, my own criticism with Penn’s story is that, with its clever plot, sharp writing, and fast-pace, I actually wanted more … lots more. Ragnarok is a big event in the Viking calendar – the biggest you could say – and this could have an been an epic of a story to match that bigness. As it is, it remains a small, and perfectly – formed story.

A Thriller that has to give you Too Much Information

A Thriller that has to give you Too Much Information

23561190The Spider in the Corner of the Room (The Project, #1) by Nikki Owen

I was recently fortunate enough to share a platform with Nikki Owen at the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival. As well reading from our books, we both appeared on a panel discussion concerning writing about or with ‘difference’. I am a writer with aspergers, who’s characters are often similarly affected. Nikki’s Subject 375 is a woman – a doctor – with Aspergers convicted of killing a Catholic priest.

She’s also a former member of the sinister Project, and much of the book is made up of layers or dream, reality, and alternate-reality which leaves you grappling, just as Maria does, with the truth about who she really is and why she is in prison and in fear of her life from different government and non-governmental organisations.

The Spider in the Corner of the Room is the original title for what is now published as Subject 375. For me, the story really came alive when you discover the identity (and existence of) Subject 375. Things start to get clearer, and fast-paced. Not that the preceding novel doesn’t clevery illustrate what its like for someone with Aspergers to face being in prison (and life in general. In a world of Too Much Information (#AustismTMI) this really does work to show how different people see the world, and maybe realise the difference in all of us.

Why you should love doorways

I love doorways. Always have. Based my A-Level art piece on doorways…


I said I liked doorways, didn’t I? They always lead somewhere…


Who would have thought there would be a lake on the other side of a doorway in a city centre?


Doorways are just great, aren’t they? Love them!


If the lake wasn’t enough, how about a world where there’s a whole cricket pitch on the other side of a college wall in the middle of a city?!


Windows are cool, too…


…and the #reflections you get in windows, especially when there are #contrasts


Doorways though. They always lead somewhere…


Yup, doorways…


Tea and Books

Yesterday, after finishing our epic 12½ mile walk, Emma and I went with Helen, Nick and Lily for lunch at the new Wee Bookshop and Cafe in Chinnor. It’s purpose is to raise money and awareness for bladder cancer but it is the most perfect kind of place. Inexpensively priced paninis and sandwiches, and teas and cakes can be enjoyed at tables amongst bright surroundings and surrounded by secondhand books. What’s more, if you position yourself right at the table (as I did) you can peruse many of the shelves from the comfort of your seat! Perfect!

There’s even a steam train that runs round the top of all the bookshelves. This place would truly make a fine location for a local book club to meet, or for a writer’s group to hold meetings.

The Ridgeway part 3: the training continues

Today is May Day, it’s also National Dawn Chorus Day, and both Emma and I need to do another section of The Ridgeway as training for our Stonehenge Trek in September. So, for some reason best known to ourselves we decided to get up at 3am to have breakfast, feed the cats, and leave the house by 4 o’clock(!). By 5.02am we had parked the car at Wendover Station and were setting off pre-dawn (just) on the start of our 12.5 mile walk of the Ridgeway to Chinnor.


Striking straight up from the station, we reached the monument on Coombe Hill just as the sun broke over the hills and onto the Oxfordshire plain, and the birds were in full song. On the steps of the monument we sat and ate a bacon sandwich, listened to the birds, and watched the sunrise. There was not a single other soul in sight. It was blissful and perfect.


Only one mile into our walk, we continued on our way, across the hill through bluebell woods and down into the valley in front of Chequers (with the CCTV cameras that follow you…) and up again round the front of Pulpit Hill. It took until the halfway point as we came down to the back of Princes Risborough before we saw the first other person our walk.

By the time we reached Bledlow we were still at a time when most people (it being a Sunday) would not yet have had their breakfast. I imagined people inside the houses we passed just opening the Sunday papers and pushing down the plungers on their cafetieres, and we were nearing the end of our walk. It was such a good feeling.

We reached Chinnor Post Office just before half past ten, and were ready for a nice sit down at Emma’s sister’s house. They were primed to give us a lift back to our car.

On 3 September 2016, Emma and I will be walking the 26 mile Stonehenge Trek in aid of the Alzheimer’s Society. Neither of us have ever attempted anything like this, so it would be great if you would like to sponsor us for this great cause, and inspire us on our way!