The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne. Being an account of their daring exploits and audacious crimes. by Jonathan Stroud.

Sometimes you come across a book completely by chance and for the flimsiest of reasons you decide to give it a go. I had spotted the book before and there was something about it that caught my interest, but I had done nothing about it.The deliberately archaic style of title and the cover design combined to give the book an air of left field interest. Then when the sequel was being heavily pushed I made a snap decision to catch up with the first one and ordered it from the library.

Reader, I married him. After the first chapter, I realised I was dealing with something very good. After 30 pages, just looking at the book gave me a frisson of excitement. After 50 pages, I wanted to have Mr Stroud’s babies. If you know what I mean. The cover carries a quote from Rick Riordan, proclaiming “Jonathan Stroud is a genius”. When I picked it up I dismissed this as publishing froth. By the end, I was of the opinion that Mr Riordan was underselling Stroud a little. 

So what was so wonderful about it? First of all, it’s a rollicking read. An exciting adventure, Stroud expertly handles the twists and turns of an adventure narrative. He is a master of the end of chapter cliffhanger, whether it be an entirely unexpected development, or a smooth transition to the next phase of the story, he generates a story with fantastic forward propulsion.

The setting helps immeasurably with this. The story takes place in a future England, many years after some cataclysmic,  climate disaster that has plunged England into a  mediaeval  Mad Max type scenario. Much of the country is under the rising sea, where the higher grounds are controlled by regional warlords and groupings of the church and agricultural producers and trades people. There are uneasy truces between the different regions, each of which has their own set of rules for controlling their people and demonising anyone who is a little different. Throw into the mix some wraith like creatures, The Tainted, and a whole menagerie of  strange, dangerous animals.

This catapulting of society backwards gives Stroud the opportunity to show off his lyrical gifts. The descriptions of the various rural settings the two protagonists pass through is absolutely beautiful and compelling, and, even better, completely fitting and essential for the plot. In this way, the flowery descriptions are not a literary indulgence, but integral to Stroud’s realisation of this new world.

But the real joy here are the characters Stroud has created. The heroine, Scarlett McCaine, is one of the finest, feistiest female characters since Dido Tweete in the incomparable Joan Aikens Wolves books. Funny dialogue, intriguing hints at her back story and exciting exploits undertaken with real physical bravery all five the story forward. The reader is also motivated by the wonderful relationship that emerges between her and the waif she discovers early in the book, Albert Browne,  whose opening sections of dialogue are joyfully, and unexpectedly literary and verbose. 

At the beginning of course, Scarlett, a determinedly free spirit loner, cannot wait to get rid of him, as she journeys through a dangerous and inhospitable country, trying to escape her pursuers. But it’s clear that this will be the story of the two characters, McCaine and Browne growing closer to each other as their mutual respect and affection slowly and grudgingly grows. Again this is something that Stroud handles with great skill and subtlety. You know it’s going to happen, and as it does, you know it’s happening, but you can never see the joins.

The other marvellous character is Doctor Calloway who is relentlessly pursuing Albert after his escape from her Hospital/Laboratory/ Prison. There are shades of Philip Pullman here, as Calloway echoes the evil Mrs Coulter from His Dark Materials. It’s a tribute to Stroud that this comparison strengthens each character, rather than diminishing them.

By the end, we are set up for more adventures in this new future England. For which promise I say, Please Sir, can I have  some more? I have a feeling that this is a series that could run and run. And now, I’m going to check out the other books Stroud has written. This one could, of course, be a one off. But, really, it’s so good that somehow I doubt it.

This blog was first published at www.rjbarron.co.uk

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

A review

Doerr’s latest novel is his first since the Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See. That book was a particularly happy accident for me. I found it lying around the house, and knew nothing about it, so began it with no expectations. After about thirty pages or so, I knew I was dealing with something special. I browsed this new one in Waterstones in the run up to Christmas and rejected it. It just didn’t sound like my cup of tea: three separate stories spanning several hundred years, including a sci fi section, all linked together by a fictional fragment of a Ancient Greek text. No, thank you very much, I’ll pass on that.

How wrong I was. This is a singularly brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read for years. Each section is perfectly realised: the stories of two of the little people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople in 1453 (pictured right) , Omeir and Anna is beautifully done in luminous prose. I’ve read some criticisms about the sentimentality and implausibility of this story, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the outcome, after years of hardship and personal tragedy. 

The contemporary section, which tells the story of a teenage eco-terrorist bomber, who is “radicalised” by a shadowy online presence that exploits his vulnerability and his disbelief at what we are doing to our planet, is the starting point for the whole novel. Each section as it is threaded through the bigger narrative, slowly ratchets up the tension of the unexploded bomb in his rucksack at the local library. The library is empty except for a group of young teenagers who are rehearsing a theatre production of the Ancient Greek text, Cloud Cuckoo Land, that  holds the whole thing together.

The links extend to the sci-fi section that is set in a spaceship of humans escaping a world destroyed by global warming. You might think that such a variety of settings would jar, and that the author would naturally display a weakness in the realisation of at least one of the stories, but the reverse is true. There is no sense that, in fact, these are three entirely sparate stories that have been clumsily welded together. The whole thing feels seamless, with each section being part of an organic whole. The plotting, linking all of these disparate parts is exquisitely done. Improbable, but done with authority, credibility and artistic integrity. Each section enhances the others, and the sequencing and pacing of the sections turns a heavy weight literary novel of ideas into a page-turner of real dramatic power.

A further structural embellishment is the regular punctuation of the text with extracts from the fictitious Ancient Greek “novel” by the classical writer, Antonius Diogenes. (pictured left) Each extract is short, with the gaps in the text, supposedly  produced by the passage of time,  represented by missing words, scholarly guesses and question marks. For a while, these sections work well. They are strangely poetic and they are a welcome pause for the reader, providing an opportunity to digest the main sections of the overall narrative. After a while, however, I must admit that I began to skim read these bits, but that was because I was so invested in the main story, I really wanted to press on to get to the resolution of the whole thing. So even the weakest aspect of the book is actually an indication of its great strength.

Doerr himself describes the book as “my attempt at a literary-sci-fi-young-adult-historical-morality novel”. Guess what? He succeeds. It reaffirms the value and power of literature as a cultural endeavour that is capable of producing  great beauty and great insight. Immersive, big stories like this that tell us something about ourselves and our world continue to be important. In many ways,  the book is very explicit about that. It is a celebration of the significance of stories, of texts, (like the imaginary Cloud Cuckoo Land of Diogenes) and their ability to endure over the centuries so that they  continue to speak to people in the future. 

Literature, and story-telling in general, does a lot of cultural heavy lifting in our society, whether it’s a comic, a novel, a movie or the latest Netflix series. It can soothe, entertain, reassure, divert, excite. At its best, it can illuminate and make you see the world afresh, while doing all of the above as well. 

Cloud Cuckoo Land is literature at its best.

Inspiration, Stealing and Intertextuality

How what we read always bubbles up into what we write, even when we aren’t aware it’s happening

A guest appearance in the blog today from children’s author, R J Barron, writing about the links between his new novel, The Watcher and The Friend and the work of Joan Aiken, in particular, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The connections between what we read and what we write, even years later, are mysterious and powerful. Read on for more

In the first part of this blog, I wrote about my serendipitous discovery, over many years, as a teacher and a parent, of Aiken and the Wolves Chronicles. Here, I’m going to look at the links between her wonderful books and my own children’s debut, “The Watcher and The Friend”.

It wasn’t until much later, after my book was written, that I realised the connection. Even when my editor had explicitly asked me about the inspiration, and the books I would compare it with, I did not come up with “Wolves of Willoughby Chase”. Budding writers will be familiar with this part of the process. Agents are thinking about selling, marketing, promoting. And that leads them to think about genre. What other books is your book like, so we can directly appeal to lovers of those books in the hope that they will give your book a punt? I said Narnia (The Grandfather Clock) His Dark Materials (parallel world, moral dilemmas, emerging feelings between young protagonists), Thomas Kempe (ghostly messages written across time and space). And it’s true, there is a connection between all of those books and my own. Originality is a very overrated quality in my opinion. Everything is connected, and ideas breed other ideas. The Jim Jarmusch quote is a useful guide here: Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent.” In other words, whatever you steal, make it your own. If you’re alive in the world, it’s impossible to produce something original. You’d have to lock yourself away for a lifetime to achieve that, like a jury in a murder trial. And for what? Instead, we should celebrate the connections between our own work and that of others, even connections that have emerged from the sub-conscious.

And the sub-conscious was exactly where my ideas lurked, in the shadows, skulking. But now they are out, wide-eyed and blinking in the sunlight, the connections are perfectly clear to me. Here they are:

Alternative History

In Aiken’s novels, the strength of the parallel world she creates is the fact that England’s real history has been tweaked only very slightly, as if an acetate copy has slipped on top of the original. The effect is disconcerting. The reader feels as if they are standing on shifting sand and everything, including the things we take for granted, has to be re-assessed, re-evaluated in some way. The power comes not from the precision of the words themselves, but the suggestions held by the white spaces in between the words. Everything seems to be at once familiar and strange at the same time.

The time shift in “The Watcher and The Friend” is different. At first it appears that Tom has simply gone back in time, to the Runswick bay and North York Moors of 1795. The clue first appears in Tom’s reaction to historical England, as we are told that there was something not quite right about it, something he couldn’t put his finger on, but which jarred, or irritated like a tiny pebble in one’s shoe. The reason he couldn’t work out what it was the fact that it was something so familiar to someone who lives in South London in the early twenty first century – the absolute diversity of the population. All kinds of people from all over the world, living relatively harmoniously together. This state of diversity and equality is extended in The Watcher to all groups – women hold positions of power, same sex relationships are commonplace and so not worthy of comment. As we subsequently learn from an amused Silas Cummerbund, Tom has journeyed not to England in 1795, but to Yngerlande, a parallel world, also in 1795, where there is perfect equality. There has been no history of Empire, colonisation or slavery, and therefore power relations have not developed in the same toxic way as in our own world.

Settings – Country side and weather

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appears to be set in a mini ice age, with permanent ice and snow serving as a perfect backdrop to the wolf packs that are terrorising the country. This is very deliberately echoed in The Watcher and The Friend. One early chapter, The Frozen North sets an atmosphere that can be so powerful in children’s fiction, and descriptions of snow, in both countryside and “Georgian” towns and villages, are used to provide an atmosphere that is both beautiful and harshly challenging. For many children in the UK, apart from those who live in remote areas in the hills, snow is an unfamiliar occurrence and one which is mainly evocative of classic children’s books read or films (such as the Harry Potter series) seen. It’s a powerful motif of adventure, something that is both thrillingly beautiful and to be escaped from at the same time. The escape from a snow bound forest, and its attendant dangers, into a domestic setting with food and warmth and closed doors, fulfils a most basic human desire for security.

In The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, the early escape back to the big house after being pursued by wolves that descend from the hills into the estate is a key example of this. Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe is another. In The Watcher, such snowy scenes of pursuit and escape play a significant role in the novel: in the wolf attack on the lonely snowy roads across the Moors to the coast; the scene where Della, Tom, Dan and Clara emerge from the smugglers’ tunnels high up on the top of the Moors, to encounter a group of Redcoats who have tracked them down in a thick, snowy forest; and the snowy streets of York on Christmas Eve, thronged with Redcoats nervously on guard outside the Queen’s Christmas Ball in The Assembly Rooms. All of these echo Aiken’s deployment of memorable settings to create a strong and vivid sense of place.

Creatures – Wolves, Steedhorns and Steedwings

The combination of a parallel world and a historic setting allows the writer to give full vent to their imagination as far as reality is concerned. Creatures that come from old folk and fairy tales naturally inhabit this land. The archaic setting gives permission for imagination to flourish. These creatures are surely the kind of things that would have existed in this strange alternative universe. Aren’t they?

And so, very real and very frightening wolves, are joined in my book by Unicorns (or Steedhorns, as Yngerlande terms them) and flying horses (Steedwings). Not the sickly pink, disneyfied versions. No, these creatures are large and rough and shaggy, with brown coats and matted hair. The Steedhorns are commonplace and considered a pest by the local farmers, because of the damage they do to crops and the environment whereas the Steedwings are rarely seen and thought by most people to be the stuff of old tales.

In Aiken’s  version of England the same cast of wild and fierce animals are present as a source of danger: primal, terrifying, ancient in the shape of the packs of wolves that roam the countryside with a careless lack of fear as far as human beings are concerned. Casual references to bears abound, along with flocks of sheep, (rescued from the slaughterhouse) a pink whale and many individual creatures that tag along after Simon, a prototype eco warrior, years ahead of his time, is the future King of England with an uncanny affinity with animals of all kinds. For children, animals in fiction are both a blameless repository of affection, and an echo of an ancient wilder world than their own. Aiken taps into this unerringly – perhaps she was an animal lover herself?

Strong female characters

Dido Twite is possibly Aiken’s greatest creation. Missing presumed drowned in the North Sea at the end of Black Hearts in Battersea, she reappears mysteriously at the beginning of the next book in the series, Nightbirds to Nantucket, on board a whaler headed towards the Newfoundland coast. The story of her rescue does not detain the reader for more than a paragraph or so and no-one who has read Black Hearts needs to know more than that, so delighted are they that Dido has returned. The legend has it that readers were distraught at the end of Black Hearts at the thought that Dido might have died and wrote to Aiken begging for her resurrection. I love the fact that this was not part of a grand plan on behalf of the author but instead it emerged at the behest of her readers. Proof again that reading is a social act of reconstruction for each individual, and that once a writer has let their work go, it no longer belongs to them, but has an independent life of its own, being constantly regenerated every time it is read afresh. And once Aiken had been diverted down that path by her readers, a whole warren of paths and turnings sprang up that had not been envisaged when The Wolves of Willoughby Chase was being planned. This is the very nature of the writer’s imagination. The act of writing begets deeper, richer, better writing; better than could ever have been planned, no matter how meticulous the creator.

The Dido that returns does not disappoint. Feisty, independent, brave, loyal, she brings a young, and as yet unjaundiced, eye on the idiocies of the adult world. The book sings whenever she is on the page, not least because of Aiken’s fabulous inventiveness in terms of Dido’s language. Even without speech tags or description, the character is immediately identifiable through her dialogue alone. Croopus! What a creation!

Like Aiken’s books, the most important characters in The Watcher are female, despite the fact the protagonist, Thomas Trelawney, is a thirteen year-old boy. As well as a group of younger female characters (Tom’s sister Grace, the mysterious girl Clara, who trails stars in her wake, Della Honeyfield, the dashing coachdriver and her partner Dr Amelia Church) the book paints a positive portrait of an older woman, Mary Carruthers. As Silas Cummerbund tells Tom early in the book, “With age comes wisdom, Thomas. Most of the old women I know are fearsomely clever, and the world would be a better place if people listened to them a bit more often. Your world and mine.”

A world under threat – plots and rescues

First and foremost, The Watcher, like the Wolves Chronicles, is an adventure, an entertainment. The story carries important messages about the world we live in, but the book stands or falls on the story alone. If the reader is not engaged, no message of any kind, no matter how pressing and relevant it is, will have any purchase. In the alternative history that underpins the stories of the Wolves chronicles, the ongoing struggle for power of the Hanoverians versus the Jacobeans provides much of the drama of the plots. Revolution, counter revolution, plots hatched and foiled ( usually at the last minute), hiding places, treachery, chases, discoveries – all of these regularly punctuate the pages of the novels in a breathless chase towards a final resolution. They are exciting adventures and readers turn the pages eager to experience the next twist or turn.

And so it is with The Watcher, I hope. I make no claims by this comparison – it’s up to readers to respond. I’m just struck, after the event, of a similar technique, a similar structure that underpins my book. In The Watcher, Yngerland in 1795 is a diverse, tolerant society. The only hierarchy is that generated by money. Apart from that, all “minority” groups are treated with equal respect and have an equal place in society with equal status. It serves as a model for our own world, particularly when it comes under attack. The “old Guard” – white rich landowners, with the figurehead of the grandson of a King who had been deposed many years earlier – secretly try to mount a coup against the Queen, Matilda, a black woman who represents everything they despise. The old guard want to preserve their interests, establish their privilege and consign all other groups to servitude. The Watcher, The Reverend Silas Cummerbund, has an ancient role of guarding the portal between Yngerlande and England, and working together with the new “Friend”, Thomas, they work to foil the plot. Their struggle to save Yngerlande involves wolf attacks, invisible ghosts, chases through smugglers tunnels, capture in dank cellars and flight across a snowbound North York Moors, all against a background of a snowy five days in the run up to Christmas. They succeed, of course, winning this first battle, but the war is clearly not over.

This blog has been a musing on connectedness and intertextuality. If you’re a teacher, a reader or a writer, I hope you’ve got some inspiration from this reaffirmation of how important children’s fiction is and how what you read as a child resonates down the years. I loved writing The Watcher (and I’m looking forward to the next four volumes in the series) and it’s clear to me now that the enjoyment I derived was in part down to the pleasure I had had years before in reading Joan Aiken’s books. If you haven’t read them, let me enthusiastically encourage you to begin. You have a treat in store. And as a writer taking the first faltering steps towards a readership, it would be remiss of me not to encourage you to do the same with my Aiken-inspired first children’s novel, The Watcher and The Friend. See if you can spot the connections as clearly as I now do myself.

If you’re interested in The Watcher and The Friend, try a lttle more. Click the links below either to read the first few chapters, or, even better, to buy a copy.

Click the buttons below to buy The Watcher and The Friend at your preferred bookshop

This piece first appeared in the barrononbooks blog at www.rjbarron.co.uk

Where The Crawdads Sing

This summer’s literary sensation is just a Netfix mini-series in waiting.

Shock as Human Being is underwhelmed by book

Twitter has been agog all year, or so it seems, about this book from first time novelist, Delia Owens. It firmly established itself as the book to read this year, and in normal summers, it would have furnished many a beach bag as the go-to holiday read. I was intrigued. Could it really be that good? Or was it just the latest example of marketing triumphing over substance? There was only one way to settle it and, firmly behind the curve, I bought it and settled down with a raised eyebrow, waiting to be convinced.

Unfortunately, dear reader, I was not. Convinced that is.

There is a lot to admire and enjoy about it. I finished it in three days, for a start. So, yes, it’s a page turner, and in my book, that is a powerful attraction. It’s an often under-appreciated skill to load a narrative with so much forward momentum that it’s easy to read seventy pages without really noticing it. Normally, even with books that I end up loving, I can be persuaded to break for a cup of coffee and a biscuit after twenty pages or so. It’s hard work reading and one needs to keep one’s strength up. But here the scenario, setting and characters are so well set up, structurally, that I found myself engrossed in wanting to know what actually happened.

Probably the most admirable thing about it is the fact that the author is a Seventy year old Biologist, whose only other foray into publishing has been Biology text books. A first novel becoming an international best seller is something that the rest of us mere mortals can only dream about. As an aspiring novelist of a certain age, depressingly familiar with the Publisher’s/Agent’s rejection email, this is a phenomenal achievement. So, notwithstanding the criticisms about to follow, I take my hat off to her.

Delia Owens

Her intimate knowledge of Biology furnishes the book with its greatest strength. It’s a beautiful portrait of a wild eco system. There is a fabulous sense of place in the book. The coastal strip of North Carolina marsh land is vividly evoked by someone who clearly knows what they are talking about. This is, refreshingly, not the product of painstaking research, but the result of a lifetime of work and study. She knows her stuff and that sense of authority is absolutely convincing and compelling.

The Whodunnit, Crime element of the book is also very well done, (at least until the end) and she handles the switching back and forth from the past to the present very skilfully, creating tension and adding layers of detail to characters and relationships. There is some sense of satisfaction from the court room scene at the end, with the orderly presentation of prosecution and defence questions and their answers providing some welcome kind of resolution and clarification. The court room scene, of course, has haunting echoes of “To Kill A Mockingbird”, even down to the presence of the marginalised black families in the courtroom. I expected Scout and Jem to pop up at any moment. Kya Clark, the main protagonist, though white, is the victim of prejudice and suspicion by the mainstream community, and her main support and friends throughout her isolation were the elderly black couple, Jumpin’ and his wife Mabel. This Maycomb County type atmosphere resonates throughout the novel. For the most part, it’s another of the pleasures of the book, but like so many things, it’s not an unqualified triumph. There is a straining for this effect, a trying too hard. There are only so many times you can describe the eating and making of Grits, for example, before it becomes faintly ludicrous.

The court room scene, despite its satisfactions, is an opportunity missed. Too plain, too straightforward, with nothing on the same scale as Atticus’ forensic reveal of Tom Robinson’s left-handedness. I got the strong sense, that, like many first-time novelists, by the end Owens had run out of steam, and was just going through the motions. The “twist” right at the end is the least dramatic denouement in the history of murder mysteries. Not because of what is revealed, but the way in which Owens chooses to do it. It’s baldly described, with no character interplay, and the result is deflation. For me, a big “So what?” I’m afraid.

A few other gripes from the grinch. The notion of the main character, Kya, pulling herself out of her poverty stricken, school-refusing, backwoods abandonment, to become a highly literate published writer just wasn’t credible to me. I was willing to suspend my disbelief a little, to give myself to the novel, but I couldn’t sustain it I’m afraid. The two emblematic boys in Kya’s life, Nice Boy and Bad Boy, were similarly two dimensional and also had me running my disbelief down from the flagpole in annoyance.

And then there’s the poetry. Give me strength. It’s not that the poetry is so dreadful, it’s just that there’s far too much of it, and, again, it strains credibility that anyone one in the known universe would recite poems in response to things that happen to them as they mosey their way through the Mangrove to the beach.

As I was reading it, even in my enjoyment, I could imagine Reece Witherspoon rubbing her hands together with glee, cackling, “I wonder if we could get Gwyneth in this and maybe Bobbie May Brown to play Kya.” It’s absolutely set up to be the next “Big Little Lies” or “Little Fires Burning”. And it will probably be a much better Netflix mini-series than book.

So, there you have it. For all of you that read it, devoured it, enjoyed it and eulogised about it on Twitter, I’m sorry. Please don’t take this the wrong way. I’m not saying that you’re wrong or stupid. It just didn’t speak to me. That’s my Bad. There’s precious little enough pleasure in these COVID Neo Fascist times, so I’m glad you found some in this and wish that I had too. Now, let me just get back down to writing an international best seller. How hard can it be?