Book Review: The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse is: a work of art, an object of beauty, a story of hope in a world that at times feels geared towards stifling any form of positivity. There is nothing saccharin in the musings. Rather, the story of the titular protagonists offers reflections on the difficulties inherent when living, and how one may try to cope when feeling lonely or anxious. The central message is about the importance of kindness, and that love exists in unexpected places if one is brave enough to let it in. Mention is made of friendship and its importance, and that good friends may be found outside the human race.

 

The story opens when a lonely boy meets a cake loving mole and they strike up a conversation. They exchange views on a variety of topics and the problems they each face.

When the fox comes along the mole is scared, but this does not stop him performing an act of kindness. The underlying feel of the book is that it is beneficial for all if we look out for others as well as ourselves. Self-care is important. In talking of love, this is where it needs to begin.

 

More is said in the illustrations than in the words. They are deliberately messy in places. Imperfections are a part of everything in nature, including ourselves, and beauty can still be found and appreciated. There is no shying away from difficulty in these pages. Accepting that life can be hard but all things pass is a recurrent theme.

In his introduction the author states that he wants readers to be able to dip in and out of the book. It is not necessary to read it in any order, or indeed to read it all – although I suspect readers will, at least first time through. The characters accept each other as they are. They are seeking a home and find it after what feels like a long journey.

 

Just as the book is mostly about the art, so I have tried to give a flavour of what it offers with these pictorial examples rather than in words. There is so much more than I have included here. The story will resonate in a visceral way for those who find their innermost concerns reflected. Its power is in the simplicity with which it represents complex issues.

 

For the lonely, the anxious, the sad and those who feel out of place;
for the worried who look at our world and despair of the careless cruelty and wanton waste;
for those whose worries feel overwhelming, for whom the future looks bleak;
this is a warm hug of a book that I urge you to read.

   

The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse is published by Ebury Press.

Book Review: Planet in Peril

“This anthology was founded upon the belief that words have the power to change.”

Planet in Peril, edited by Isabelle Kenyon, is an anthology of poetry, photographs, artwork and think pieces focusing on climate change, pollution, and man’s impact on Planet Earth. Whilst timely given current interest in the subject matter, it is not exactly cheery reading.

An early poem, Mother Earth by Rachael Ikins, injects early controversy with a possible solution to the humans causing so much damage to their beautiful home and life support system.

“She urges them to genocide, war, the moon;
sends in viruses, bacteria, her fiercest warriors the smallest –
anything to rid
the plague that consumes her”

I was entertained later in the book by a poem written by one of the younger contributors, Niamh Hughes, whose Animals reversed imagines the outrage a person would feel if Earth’s other animals treated people as humans treat their fellow creatures. Throughout the book human actions are shown to be selfish and damaging to all, including themselves.

Early entries explore the importance of trees and the true cost of deforestation.

There is a section focusing on the polar regions – a sanctuary under which people dump their nuclear waste.

Preserved in Ice by Dr Sam Illingworth offers a strong portrayal of man’s grasping invasions. Information provided after the poem explains that researchers have collected and radiocarbon dated samples of ancient plants in the Canadian Arctic continually covered by ice for at least the past 40,000 years, until now. Whilst I understand the concerns about melting ice and rising sea levels, I was curious about the time when these plants grew. Planet Earth has experienced fluctuating global temperatures throughout its existence.

The many photographs included of our world and the beautiful creatures that inhabit it are a joy to peruse. I did wonder at the footprint left by the scientists cited and the artists who captured the images. Habitats and species are best preserved if left to nature rather than adapted for man’s convenience, even when intentions are worthy.

In some ways this book felt like an elegy to the world as we know it today. Life on Earth is constantly evolving. Whilst it appears obvious that modern man is a scourge, our own actions may eventually provide the cure. This is a difficult process to dwell on and one many refuse to contemplate despite their lifestyles bringing it ever nearer.

The blazing sun and what to do about it by Peter Ualrig Kennedy takes a wry look at human attitudes, capturing typical responses to growing but ignored crisis. As is pointed out later by Geoff Callard,

“we humans are incredibly bad at trading off short term gratification for long term gain”

There is suggestion that the speed of current change prevents other species adapting. In the futuristic Specimen by Joanna Lilley, Homo sapien is described as “architect of annihilation”. Our unwillingness to radically alter our behaviour is cleverly captured in Sleepwalking by Amélie Nixon.

“we are tired
put your alarm clock on snooze;
shove your head back under the pillow.
just 10 more minutes.”

Another young contributor, Jenna M, provides a poignant hand drawn picture of Planet Earth and the creatures suffering man’s pollution and incursions.

Automachine by Aviva Rynne Browne brings vividly to the fore how wasteful we are with resources, and how little we seem to care about this.

The contributions may be moving but are somewhat didactic to read. The lack of hope would be my main criticism however realistic the portrayal may be. The purpose of the anthology is to inspire change in human behaviour. The bleak picture painted puts into question how possible this is.

There is talk in the news of tipping points, and perhaps the damage wreaked has already taken us beyond what can be fixed. As a species it is troubling to consider that Planet Earth may only flourish if we are removed.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fly on the Wall Press.

A proportion of the profits from this book will be donated to The Climate Coalition and WWF.

Book Review: The White Heron Beneath the Reactor

Gary Budden, co-founder of Influx Press and author of Hollow Shores (published by Dead Ink), is also an an avid bird watcher. He admits that his love of birds may at times appear incompatible with his other interests.

“heavy and brutal music, clanking beeps and drones, obscure ghost stories, crumbling Saxon ruins, SHARP culture, experimental folk.”

In The White Heron Beneath the Reactor he writes of a visit to RSPB Dungeness to observe a white heron. It is off-peak season, mid-week and the weather is dismal. This pleases Budden as it keeps away tourists, but not him. The few hardy folk he observes are distant. He is free to examine his surroundings uninterrupted.

“Far away, a yellow digger deposits or removes shingle, I can’t tell, surrounded by a whirring halo of screeching gulls. Landscape maintenance; nothing is natural.”

Dungeness is described as scoured by salt winds – a flat, bleak coastline in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Nevertheless, it is here that the great white egret has begun to migrate from across the channel where its population is expanding. Budden suppresses the urge to come up with some sort of contemporary allegory.

“My white heron is not an immigrant, nor an expat, nor a citizen of the world. I will not let it support a political agenda, not even the one I wish to push. […] its world doesn’t have borders.”

The author considers and details the place as he finds it in evocative but never bucolic prose. He has an eye for the surreal – the impact of man’s behaviour.

He takes photographs knowing that the writing he will produce is to be illustrated by the landscape artist, Maxim Griffin. These colourful interpretations, included liberally alongside the text, are wonderful.

In some ways this is a paean to the tenacity of the natural world. Elegiac descriptions are tempered by dry humour. There is much irony but also an undercurrent of hope. Budden’s quick wit and percipient scrutiny are expressed in pared back yet resonant form. The sighting of the heron, in this place, unlocks something for the author.

The writing is reflective and absorbing. The book is a work of art. I recommend you read it. It is a tale for our times.

The White Heron Beneath the Reactor was published using funding raised via Kickstarter.

Book Review: 60 Lovers to Make and Do

60 Lovers to Make & Do, by Sophie Herxheimer, is a collection of metaphorical contemporary love stories – vignettes written in playful poetry. They are presented with associated artwork in collage format which are a delight to explore. Each subject is introduced by their occupation. These women make use of whatever objects are to hand to create their ideal lover. Of course, lovers rarely turn out to be ideal. As in more conventional relationships, some of the pairings work and many do not.

Each poem is short but neatly conveys the complexities of living with a lover – the unexpected turns such alliances can take.

The desire to find a compatible lover is the driving force behind the creative activity. Subjects make the paramour they believe they want but cannot then control what has become a sentient being.

Some of the lovers turn out to harbour interests that were not predicted. The relationships are, very much, reflections of more conventional encounters.

There are a variety of reasons why certain relationships do not last. The bespoke creations turn out to be as varied as those met in other ways.

I mentioned the artwork that accompanies the poems. These collages are cut from a range of sources and it is fun to try to work out connections. They mostly depict the lovers as cutouts and pose them alongside the gap left from their removal.

There are also cut out words and phrases put together to add a further layer of interest.

As well as the poems – the occupations – the index lists the items needed to make the lovers detailed. This was a quirky addition that amused me.

The collection is entertaining throughout but raises serious issues about desire, control and expectation. A distinctive collection of art and poetry that is well worth perusing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Henningham Family Press.

Book Review: The Weighing of the Heart

The Weighing of the Heart, by Paul Tudor Owen, has undercurrents of romance, crime thriller, and dark mystery, yet it defies the conventions of each of these genres. The author’s deft touch in presenting his protagonist’s thoughts and actions encourages questions about reasoning and veracity – glimpses into the shadows of mostly ordinary behaviour.

The story opens with a statement I disagreed with – something that turned out to be a valid reaction.

“Sooner or later, everybody comes to New York”

Thus we are introduced to Nick Braeburn, a self-centred yet apparently likeable English artist who has made his home in America. He has recently broken up with his girlfriend, Hannah. Through a fortuitous set of circumstances he is offered a compact room in the well located home of wealthy sisters, Marie and Rose Peacock. Nick is looking back on this period of his life, narrating what happened. The voice employed is vaguely regretful.

The elderly but socially lively Peacock sisters own a number of properties in the city. One of their tenants is another artist, Lydia, who rents a tiny apartment next to the Peacocks’ generous space. Lydia has recently separated from her husband, Hector. The sisters view this development with regret.

Early on Nick explains why he came to New York City.

“What appealed to me about New York was what appealed to me about art itself – it was a place where I could pretend that the gloomy half-light of my hometown, the exhausted indistinguishable streets stretching out endlessly into the void, had quite simply never existed; where I could decide who I was and who I wanted to be and nobody would ever be able to challenge it.”

To reinvent himself in this way requires funds which he sets out to acquire by whatever means necessary. Although capable of empathy – he intuits when he breaks simple if unspecified house rules – he appears to lack certain moral boundaries. If an opportunity presents itself he has no scruples about following through to gain personal advantage.

Nick observes Lydia as she goes about her day to day activities and, over time, they become friends. Growing more at home in the sisters’ apartment, occasional behaviours he briefly mentions appear out of kilter. Casual actions raise questions but so slight as to leave a residue of doubt that something may be amiss. Was I looking for intrigue where none existed?

Lydia meets Hannah; Nick meets Hector; Lydia is offered opportunities in her artistic career. Warnings flash briefly as jealousy raises its ugly head.

The art created by both Nick and Lydia is inspired by stories and beliefs from Ancient Egypt. These affect Nick particularly. He looks out for his ba and is calmed by his scarab. He is disturbed by the appearance of bees – the tears of a king.

Nick’s behaviour remains elusive despite his good fortune in so many areas.

The various threads and suggestions are woven together with just enough occasional background to provide explanation. The taut prose and skillfully employed metaphors add to the lure and tension.

Cleverly constructed and hard to put down, this was an intriguing and satisfying read. I will be recommending it widely.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

The Weighing of the Heart is published by Obliterati Press.

Book Review: The Book of Alexander

The Book of Alexander, by Mark Carew, is a slow burn that is well worth persevering with. What may in the first half feel protracted is shown to be necessary to reel the reader in. Once the pace picks up sinister elements add to the tension. The trope of unreliable narrator is harnessed masterfully.

The story opens with a personal investigator being contracted to observe and write a report on a young arts student by the father of his girlfriend. Having ascertained where the young man lives the PI gains permission from a business opposite the house to use a disused showroom as his observation base. He watches. He follows. He makes notes on what he sees. As the days pass the reader will become aware of a growing number of inconsistencies in the narrative. Although somewhat discombobulating this will likely be accepted until understood for what it is.

The student, Alexander, socialises with beautiful women. They visit his house and the PI grows intrigued by what is happening inside each room. Eventually he gains entry and the reader learns of Alexander’s art project. Aspects of the backstory that have already started to shift become ever more unstable.

“The happy couple, and they did look happy, passed at a good distance from where I stood, partially hidden as I was behind a lamppost in the side street. I could see their faces, Melanie still wearing her trademark blue beret. I gave them a one-minute head start, enough time for them to cross the river and reach the other side, and then I climbed out of the car and followed them.”

Who is the PI? Who is Alexander? Who has asked for the report being written?

As the answers to these questions are revealed more complex mysteries bubble to the surface. Alexander wishes to reveal to his subjects how other’s see them. He asks that they observe themselves as a third party would. He is most interested in understanding himself in this way. He acts out roles to observe their effect.

His art is at times destructive. There are also suggestions of a more sinister history. Human skulls are mentioned as is an acquaintance who survived a fall from a great height. Parental support may be welcome but is not always benign.

From a gentle, at times sluggish beginning this tale develops into a disturbing, self-reflective chiller. The shifting perspectives demonstrate how filtered any observation of people will be. Alexander seeks subjects for his art. Readers may find themselves captured by his gaze.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Gig Review: Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

On Friday of last week I travelled to Bath for what I expect to be my final book event of the year (I avoid festive season crowds). It proved to be well worth attending. Held in the Maven Gallerywhere the original artwork for The Blue Salt Road is currently on display, Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins gave a fascinating talk on their collaboration for both this latest work and its predecessor in the series, A Pocketful of Crows. The setting added to the pleasure and interest. Bonnie’s art is exquisite.

  

The two books were inspired by Child Ballads – indigenous stories of the British Isles. These dark and challenging folk tales, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, exist in different versions and have been sung by musicians such as Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. As a folk musician Joanne knew the stories – she believes they ought to be our Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The draft version of A Pocketful of Crows was written in two weeks – much faster than Joanne normally writes. She was on a deadline to finish The Testament of Loki and attending a book festival on the Isle of Skye. The journey to and from the festival, the landscape, inspired her to start writing something different. She gave herself a day, then two, then a week, and realised that the story was almost complete. She then had to persuade her publisher that the idea was worth pursuing. She envisaged a beautifully bound hardback – illustrated fairy tales for adults – with illustrations by an artist who would produce detailed work such as would have been common in books published in Victorian times – vignettes, an almanac feel. When it was agreed that three stories should be written she needed to find an illustrator.

Joanne’s publisher provided a huge dossier of potential artists but none seemed quite right. Then, unexpectedly, Joanne received a drawing through the post from Bonnie.

Bonnie told us that, at the time, her daughter had recently been introduced to Ted Talks at school. Bonnie listens to the radio while she works so started listening to some of these talks. Most were from people explaining how wonderful they were and how much money they had made. In her Ted talk Joanne focused on her family and the power of stories, how important it is that we share things together, that we value people more than money (you may listen to the talk here). Bonnie hadn’t read any of Joanne’s books but was inspired to get in touch with this speaker.

Joanne added that narratives are about making connections. This was a perfectly timed connection – like magic.

Bonnie told us that it almost didn’t happen. The letter from the publisher asking her to create the drawings was binned as she thought it was junk mail – Look! We can put your drawings in a book! Luckily the publisher sent a follow up which she read.

By this time all the words had been written and the art was needed quickly. Bonnie had 8 weeks to produce 24 illustrations. Nevertheless she loved working with Joanne as she was given free rein. She knew that the publisher wanted the illustrations spaced. The prose was so poetic she could have illustrated everything.

Joanne introduced us to The Blue Salt Road by talking about the Child Ballads. They reflect real events such as rape, abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The selkie story is a Scottish legend, often of a young girl bound into slavery by a man. She wished to subvert this and consider: in a patriarchal society how can women gain empowerment? In her story a young woman, Flora, is living on an island with a limited gene pool. She has an agenda.

Joanne gave a reading from where Flora first meets her selkie.

The Blue Salt Road is a love story but one of entrapment. The selkie is tamed and must find work. The limitations of island living mean he ends up a whaler, killing sea life. Unlike the other men, it feels wrong to him and he doesn’t understand why.

Flora also has limited options and convinces herself she has done the selkie a favour. Their environment is harsh. Life is about survival. Joanne wished this to be reflected in the illustrations but also to show the beauty of the sea. In its rawest sense, this is a story about where we have all come from.

Bonnie talked about stories being a way of understanding ourselves long before psychologists offered their services. They provide a means of talking about dark and difficult subjects.

She based several of her drawings on people she knows. In A Pocketful of Crows she drew a 14 year old whose personality seemed to fit. Flora is also based on a real person – a girl who has wild hair and a dissatisfaction with life. When asked, the teenager was blasé about her likeness appearing in a book. Bonnie did change certain features as she wished Flora to look a little sly.

Bonnie had longer to produce the drawings for the second book than the first. She wanted to include rock pools, crabs, to show the folds of the walrus’s skin. Drawing waves was a challenge so she made them stylised. Each seal that is a selkie has a little spiral tattoo. Bonnie would have liked to draw the scene on the beach where Flora and her selkie are nude but the publishers weren’t keen.

  

Joanne told us that often author and illustrator don’t work so closely together. She talked of the view that illustrated books are only for children. One hundred years ago many adult works were lavishly illustrated. The drawings enhance the story providing a visual mood board.

There is to be a third book and Bonnie has seen the initial words even before the editor. Bonnie is working on another project and sent Joanne one of her works in progress. Joanne was so impressed that she decided to adapt her story that this wonderful, evocative picture may be incorporated.

Questions were opened up to the audience.

Q: Will there be more books after the third is published? These beautiful books look so good on a bookshelf.

It depends on how the first three sell. Joanne would like to write more. She is fond of the novella with its linear format. Time constrained people appreciate books that are quick to read and offer even more when reread.

Bonnie added that reading a book in one go is like eating a big slice of delicious cake. She reads the manuscript from start to finish to get a feel for the story and then rereads particular chapters to think of possible illustrations. Each chapter is a little story in itself.

Q: How do you tease a story out of a ballad?

The ballad is a starting point. It introduces themes, such as entrapment (man), agency (women). These are perennial concerns. Ideas are then built on, such as how would the selkie feel and react when offered seal stew which the folk often eat. The ballads are springboards.

Q: Why did you include your initial in your author name?

Joanne writes mainstream novels as well as fantasy. Some readers who enjoy psychological thrillers may not wish to read magical realism. It allows them to better understand what to expect.

Q: When you write how do you keep control of your imagination to get things down on paper quickly enough?

Joanne doesn’t wish to keep her imagination under control. She writes each day, even if only 300 words. She will start by revisiting the previous day’s efforts, reading it aloud to judge if it works. As a musician and linguist as well as a writer vocal patterns matter to her. Reading aloud also makes obvious what is superfluous.

Q: Do you have a structure to your working day?

Not so much as many other things are going on. When at home Joanne will start at 8.30am and work to lunchtime by which time a break is needed. When on tour she keeps working, writing in hotels or on trains. If she goes for more than three days without writing, the book goes feral. Even 20 minutes a day maintains the headspace of the narrative. As a full time writer there are many non writing tasks that fill the time she used to filled with her job as a teacher.

Bonnie has no particular structure to her day. She often works early in the morning and late into the evening with her day consumed by other demands. When she has deadlines the work just has to get done. She knows what she wants to draw but each piece takes a long time to complete.

Joanne talked of her dislike of deadlines. She is always aware that others are waiting on her work – editors and so on – but finds deadlines cause panic which isn’t conducive to the creation of art.

  

Q: What does a publisher’s art department do to the work – does Bonnie retain any control?

Bonnie scans her drawings at an ultra high resolution and submits this. Afterwards she has no further say over what will happen to the work.

There was some discussion about illustrated books and how children also appreciate more complex drawings – there is no need to simplify.

The jacket design was done by someone else as this is a different skill, requiring consideration of the placement of words and sales stickers. Bonnie would not wish to have to think of this when drawing.

As the evening drew to a close many books were purchased from the hosts, Toppings Bookshop. Joanne and Bonnie signed copies on request. The opportunity to have my book signed by both author and illustrator was too tempting to resist so I waited in line before heading home.

Joanne was kind enough to chat to me before the event. Both author and illustrator made this event even more special by being so open and friendly throughout.

The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows are published by Gollancz (Orion Books).