I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but I used to live in Durham. I worked both there and in Newcastle and would happily spend my days off exploring the bits of the coast you can reach via the Metro network. This means I now have quite a weakness for books and stories set in the North-East (and always make an effort to watch the Great North Run on the tv – although, since Rob is running it this year I will also hopefully get my first real life view too). I’m even considering a box-set of Byker Grove…Anyway, I do find myself gravitating towards books with a Tyneside setting and then, at other times, it creeps up on me. I loved the chapters of the Mirror World of Melody Black where the main character rebuilds her life on Lindisfarne – which I didn’t expect until it happened – and now I find I have picked up another books which features the glorious North-East coastline.
Chloe Daykin doesn’t come right out at the start of the book and say that the waters her main character, Billy, swims in are the chilly ones of the North Sea but it becomes clear that they are. But even before that point I was captivated by Billy and his family. His Dad is loving and funny (even if all his jokes are definitely in the ‘awful dad joke’ category), his Mum is caring and warm. The problem is that his Mum is loving, warm and suffering with a mysterious illness which means she spends a lot of her time in bed. School contains bullies but no actual friends until a new boy, budding magician Jamie, joins his class – the only thing that seems to keep Billy grounded is swimming. Grounded, that is, until a mackerel swims right up to him and says his name…
I don’t really want to say much else about the plot – there are plenty of developments but they are not very easily explained. This is a story full of wonder and magic – the fact that Billy’s invisible friend is David Attenborough is part of the charm of this book – but it doesn’t shy away from difficult issues. Billy has to learn how to deal with the often difficult and confusing world of school and with his Mum’s illness – swimming with a shoal of fish may not seem the best way to achieve this but, with twists of language and some interesting new friendships, anything is possible. I loved the way the way that the magical and the real were woven round each other and, in particular, I found the ending very satisfying. It is a happy ending because, by that point, Billy feels happier and more confident about his situation but it doesn’t solve all the problems. It just shows that, with love, friendship and self-belief we can cope with so much more than we think we can.
Ah November! Season of fireworks, moustaches and complaining that Christmas has come too early! And, of course, the season when humour books breed faster than rumours on t’internet. Honestly, every time I have a day off I walk back in the shop and we’ve had to swap the stock onto a bigger table (and then a second table, and so on…). This year we’ve a whole new set of adult Ladybird titles (including Cats, Dogs and the Zombie Apocalypse), spoof Famous Five and I-Spy books and many perennial favourites. The Broons are back, as well as Viz and Private Eye annuals and, thank goodness, my personal favourite – a new QI fact book. Yes, those elves have been busy once again (because they have to have something to do between series, obviously).
The elves (Alex, Mandy, Andrew, Anna and Dan – not a Twinkletoes or a Snowflake amongst them) have done another great job. My head is now full of important facts about the word ‘Czech’*, the Tanzanian name for a roundabout** and the names of flies in the genus Pieza***. I have discovered the name for one of my phobias (the one about running out of something to read – which is abibliophobia) and that I share my other one (a fear of buttons) with Steve Jobs. For those who are counting the toll of 2016 we have the fact that the lifespan of a rock star is 25 years shorter than the average (which makes Keith Richards even more remarkable) and for those worried about inflation we discover that, for the last 70 years, the average price of a small car has maintained itself as being that of 20,000 Mars Bars. Although one of the facts that makes me happiest is knowing that the Statue of Liberty was designed as a Muslim woman guarding the Suez Canal.
As ever this is an amusing and informative volume. Something for the stocking of your favourite know-all, perhaps? (Although if I’m your favourite I already have a copy…)
*it is a Polish word
** a kipilefti
***Pieza kake, Pieza pie, Pieza rhea and Pieza deresistans – never say scientists don’t have a sense of humour!
Like most people, it seems, I first came across Sebastian Barry when I read the Secret Scripture. I must have read it in about 2009 – a year after publication, but I was probably a little bit put off by the title (and the thought that the book might be rather more about spirituality than it actually is – I’m not saying this is a bad thing, it’s just not my thing…) – and by the time I finished it I was mentally kicking myself for leaving it so long. It was a beautifully written book with a very unusual storyline and I think it could still be one of my top 10 books of all time. Barry has touched on members of the McNulty family in other stories so my interest was piqued when I saw that one of the main characters in his new book, Days Without End, was called Thomas McNulty.
Thomas finds himself in the American West after escaping the results of the potato famine in his native Sligo. He joins forces with another lost youngster, John Cole, and together, after a time working as dancing-girls (pre-puberty) they join the army. They are involved in the brutalities of the Indian wars, although they do end up rescuing a young Indian girl, and then the American Civil War. There is violence, humour, friendship, camaraderie and a very touching love story. We see the horrors of the massacre of whole tribes of native americans, the dark days of Andersonville (a Confederate prison in the Civil War which, rather oddly, I had been talking about with my step-dad only a week or so ago) and the curious lives of miners so starved of female company they will pay good money to dance with young boys in drag. We touch on the experiences of the Irish, escaping the famine-induced death at home, through terrible conditions on board ship to even worse ones in what were, effectively, internment camps on their arrival in the New World. Nor do the Native Americans or freed slaves have any easier a life. I do trust Barry’s research on all these things – these levels of squalor and degradation were real – but the book is about more than this.
What I remember about the quality of Barry’s writing from the Secret Scripture holds true here too. It is lyrical, poetic – he writes with the lilt of an Irish accent. Not in dialect, although Thomas and John’s turn of phrase is very home-spun and uneducated, but just in a way that makes me think of the musical nature of the voice of a true son of Ireland. I have always thought of myself as one who reads for plot not language – but when words are used this well even I am drawn in by them.