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“… an elemental power.” @LittleToller @marcussedgwick #ReadIndies

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Today on the blog, I’m off to explore for #ReadIndies a book from a lovely indie press which is relatively new to me – Little Toller Books. I’m not entirely sure where I came across them, but it was probably on book Twitter; and they’re a publisher specialising in classic and new writing about nature, wildlife and landscape. I’ve read and loved two of their books so far – “Beyond the Fell Wall” and “On Silbury Hill“. Both are part of the Little Toller Monographs range, and today’s book is another one of those – “Snow” by Marcus Sedgwick.

Since every snowflake must take an individual path towards the ground, no two will have had precisely the same conditions for growth, and so no two will be alike.

Sedgwick is an author and illustrator with many prizes under his belt; and “Snow” takes a very personal look at that white fluffy stuff that appears to be so pretty but can be so devastating to the human species. Divided into six sections, to replicate the six points of a snowflake, the book explores different aspects of show – from the science, the art inspired by it, its histories and mythologies to the transformations it brings about. Sedgwick is old enough (like me) to remember times when snowfall was more prolonged and dramatic in the south of Britain; and interestingly, he explores whether this is just his faulty memory making more of what happened and concludes from consulting meteorological records that in fact it was the case – winters *were* snowier when he (and I!) were younger.

The explorations of the past are also fascinating, looking at periods like the Little Ice Age (which features so memorably, for example, in Woolf’s “Orlando” during eras when the Thames would freeze); and also going back to the times of the glaciers, looking at the effects on our landscapes. There are of course many fables and legends set in cold worlds, such as the fairy tale of the Snow Queen; and as Sedgwick points out, it’s not surprising that Jadis in the Narnia stories has the land plunged into permanent winter. Cold and snow equate with ice which is symbolic of darker, more evil people and intent.

For most of us, life in the fullest sense of the word is unthinkable without some form of art. I have met people who deny there is any great need for art; that the important things in life are food, shelter, education and so on. And yes, of course these things are vital, with but without art in some form, be it music, film, literature etc., we are not living.

“Snow” is a slim work of only 104 pages, yet it probes deeply into our relationship with the weather, and how snowfall appears throughout our stories, whatever form they appear in. Woven into the book are Sedgwick’s personal experiences with the substance; he currently lives at the edge of the French Alps, and as he relates, snowfall and the avalanches it brings can be a matter of life and death.  Sedgwick’s descriptions of waking up to a silent, changed world really resonated – there’s a strangeness to the world when it’s been blanketed in snow, and I’m not sure humans are ever completely reconciled to that.

Nature’s timescales are somewhat longer than our own, even than that of our species. Nature has a way of doing what she wants to, in the end, and it only needs a little land and snowslide to block the road to remind us of that.

Ironically, I started reading this book on the first day of this winter’s snow in my part of the world; and it certainly shed light on my sometimes complex feelings about this kind of weather and the effect it has on our everyday world. The emotions stirred when you’re faced with a landscape covered with untouched snow are deep, and the spectacle is beautiful. Yet there’s always an ambivalence because of the restriction and disruption it can cause to everyday life, as well as the actual physical danger it can create. Particularly in this country, we never seem prepared to deal with the changes snow brings, and I have felt nervous and slightly threatened in the past during heavy falls; at those times, my go-to therapy is reading “The Long Winter” by Laura Ingalls Wilder and reminding myself that what’s happening here is not so bad and even if the trains aren’t running properly for a day, I’m not going to starve… And during these lockdown times I am less bothered as I’m not exactly going anywhere much; though seeing how the car behaved during the recent snow on a short trip to the shop for vegetables was a reminder of the substance’s power to disrupt.

Psy guy, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons

But I digress. “Snow” is a beautiful book and another delight from Little Toller. An often poetic and profound meditation on the white stuff and its effects, it was ideal reading whilst snuggled down and cosy. The book is the perfect mix of the personal and the universal, and Sedgwick’s thoughts on the effects of climate change were also sobering, and got me thinking again about the need to channel my inner Greta Thunberg. Will we reach a time on the planet when there is no more snow? I fear we will, and that will be such a shame. It’s a substance that has the ability to transform our landscape, fascinate us and allow us to look at our world anew, inspiring myths and stories – and without snow, our world will be a poorer place.

Recent Reads – Death Under Sail by C.P. Snow

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“So…..” – as the detective in my latest green Penguin would say – instead of doing “proper” reading I’m off on another vintage crime! In my defence, this came about as I’m considering embarking on C.P. Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers” sequence as I feel I ought to attack some classic 20th century literature. But I read that Snow’s first book was a crime novel and decided it might be a good way to get to know the author!

Our narrator is Ian Capel who, at 63, is about 40 years older than most of the other characters. Ian has been invited to join a group of friends sailing the Norfolk Broads on a wherry. The skipper, Roger Mills, is a friend and the other young people are mostly known to Ian, except for one of the young ladies.

Before long, Roger is found dead at the tiller of the wherry, and suspicion falls on his six fellow passengers. Ian, who has a soft spot for Avice, one of the young ladies, is appalled by the circumstances and calls in a friend of his by the name of Finbow, who has been a civil servant out East and has experience with puzzles. Finbow, with his tea-drinking ritual and inscrutability, is a worthy addition to the canon of Golden Age detectives and it’s a shame he only made one appearance. Additional characters, in the form of a mad Irish police sergeant, Aloysius Birrell, and a housekeeper who spits venom at the perceived loose behaviour of the young people, add quite a lot of humour to the book.

I was a little unsure about Snow’s style to start with and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. Firstly, I thought it was a little cold and flat – maybe I was imagining this because he’s known as a scientist as well as a novelist. However, as I read on I got used to his style and involved with the characters. Finbow came across a little bit stylised, almost as if someone was trying to create a quirky detective, but he was very convincing by the end. The other characters also filled out a lot, and the book was very well written and entertaining with all the essential Golden Age elements – plan of the location, map, red herrings et al.

The denouement was quite dramatically handled and fortunately I didn’t guess who did it (although I did guess one major plot element). So this was a worthy addition to my shelves of green Penguins and an enjoyable one at that. Now I just have to summon up the stamina to embark on “Strangers and Brothers” – but I’ll have to finish the Elizabeth Bowen I’m currently reading first!

Recent Reads – Night’s Black Agent by John Bingham

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When you’re suffering from a bad case of “I don’t know what to read next”, in my experience it’s often best to plump for a crime novel – preferably a vintage Penguin! And this is what I’ve done, as I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to commit to reading.

I picked up “Night’s Black Agent” on my recent visit to Leicester because it was an old green Penguin and because it sounded intriguing – I knew nothing about it or its author, but a quick check on Wikipedia brought up the following:

John Michael Ward Bingham, 7th Baron Clanmorris (3 November 1908 – 6 August 1988) was an English novelist who published 17 thrillers, detective novels and spy novels. During the Second World War he worked for MI5, and was reportedly the inspiration for John LeCarre’s character George Smiley. Prior to his service in MI5, Bingham had been the Art Editor of the Sunday Dispatch. His first novel, My Name is Michael Sibley (1952), is unusual for its time in suggesting that the British police might not always play fair.

Gosh! Turns out his daughter is Charlotte Bingham, who those of us of a certain age will recognise as a TV scriptwriter.

Anyway, on to the book itself. The story is perhaps more of a thriller than a traditional murder mystery, as it is something of a psychological study of a murderer/blackmailer/all round bad lot who calls himself Green, and the effect he has on two characters. Our narrator describes himself as a newspaper man and tells us the tale of a civil servant and a doctor, both of whose lives are dramatically affected for the worse by Green’s actions. The newspaper man is in Norway, tracking Green, and it seems that the criminal has also impacted on his life.

It’s impossible to say much more specifically about the action without spoiling the book. However, I can say that this is a jolly good thriller – very well written, very exciting to read and extremely compelling. It was another one of those which I read in a couple of sittings and would have liked to finish in one go. Bingham’s characters are interesting and very human – the timid civil servant who has lived in the shadow of his domineering wife for years; the philandering doctor ready for his comeuppance; the civil servant’s daughters, some of whom are going/have gone off the rails; the doctor’s mistress and her blind husband. As with so many of the best mystery novels, there is no simplistic division between good and evil, and there is quite a lot of consideration of the actions of the narrator and whether his intentions towards Green are justified.

As a side comment, I’m often surprised to notice how many so-called serious novelist write crime novels – either under their own names (Bingham, C.P. Snow) or an alias (Michael Innes/J.I.M. Stewart). I get very frustrated with people who lazily condemn mystery writing as rubbish. Some of my favourite novels are coincidentally vintage green Penguin and I challenge anyone to find fault with the prose or storytelling ability of, say, Edmund Crispin. It’s possible to use a thriller as a valid vehicle to make some very strong points about morals or society or life in general, whilst telling a great story and entertaining the reader!

So, was I entertained with this one? Yes, I was – strongly diverted for a few hours, puzzled, amused and intrigued. I think I’ll be searching out more of John Bingham’s Penguin volumes!

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