All Creatures In Print

Because animals cheer is up.

Just a glance at Twitter and Facebook shows that a lot of people like animals. Videos, pictures, gifs about cats, dogs, goats and anything else prove that featuring fauna is always going to be popular. As we are all inside at the moment and as it’s spring, the time of lambs and small chicks, I personally feel we are missing out. It’s my favourite time of the year but this time round we can not be immersed in nature.

That being said there are plenty of books that can try and fill that void. Two of my favourite writers are known for their works about animals and they are great feel good reads, which is another positive thing for us all at the moment.

James Herriot’s works are probably better known from the 1980’s TV series All Creatures Great And Small, but they were merely an adaption of his books. I do have fond memories of watching them on a Sunday evening when I was young, there was always someone with their arm up a cow, for a child that is very funny.

I discovered the books years later, It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet was in a second hand book shop I used to frequent. I bought it and took it with me to the south of France one winter, I spent a freezing January day in Tende waiting for a train to take me to Italy, but it wasn’t going to arrive until well after 9pm; the only connection after I arrived there just before lunch. Being mid-winter there were only two cafes open so I made a nuisance of myself by staying far too long in each one just to keep warm, until they closed or I felt the stares of the staff finally get too heavy. I then had to wait outside on the platform. James Harriot’s book kept me well entertained as I was lost in a world far different from my own, but nearer to the one I found myself in. It didn’t make me any warmer though.

Set around the time of the Second World War, James Herriot has written eight books based on his time as a country vet in the magnificent Yorkshire Dales. Each book is a series of short episodes in his life revolving around the farms his practice looked after, smaller domestic animals the locals had, and life in general. Each story is a gem and many make you laugh out loud. These are based on his own experiences, although his real name was James Alfred Wright, and those of his colleagues.

The Yorkshire Dales

You can tell he has a real fondness for the characters he paints as he goes about his work, and not just the humans but the dogs, cats, sheep, cows, horses and everything else that came his way.

As stated this is set in the rural Yorkshire Dales around the 1930/40’s. Life was harder, simpler and people had a lot more skill and endurance. It does of course make you a little concerned as this was a time before drink driving was considered a bad thing and some stories tell of men getting very drunk in a pub and then driving home as if there was nothing to worry about, but as I said it was a very different world. If you like animals then you will love these books.

It was a bit late to stand on my dignity. I went over to the animal and seized her by the ear. Inflating my lungs to the utmost I bent down and bawled wildly into the hairy depths. The cow stopped chewing for a moment and looked at me enquiringly, then her eyes drooped and she returned contentedly to her cudding. ‘We’ll give her another day,’ I said wearily. ‘And if she’s still down tomorrow we’ll have a go at lifting her. Could you get a few of your neighbours to give us a hand?’
― James Herriot, It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet

Also known for his love of animals is Gerald Durrell. Once again probably more connected to several TV adaptions, the latest of which was only very loosely based in his books, but there is far more to his work than Corfu Trilogy.

Of course My Family And Other Animals, the most famous and first in the trilogy, is a perfect starting point. Set just a few years before James Herriot’s experiences, Durrell’s books recount his very eccentric family’s move to, and life on, the Greek island of Corfu.

Just as the title says My Family And Other Animals is about his family but also his love for nature, which would prompt him in later life to set up ecological programs and a conservationist zoo.

The books are, once again, laugh out loud funny, as his family get into various scrapes and situations. He also describes the fauna and flora about him in such a way that makes the reader want to be there with him.

Gerald Durrell wrote many other books about his experiences with animals, often times abroad on expeditions to try and conserve endangered species. Often this is done is a way that is out dated by today’s standards but it was people like him that pushed for us to care about wildlife and that got us to a more advanced state today. Most works set post Corfu follows a similar path to each other, but when you just want to sit and read something enjoyable these certainly hit the spot.

“It’s all your fault, Mother,’ said Larry austerely; ‘you shouldn’t have brought us up to be so selfish.’ ‘I like that!’ exclaimed Mother. ‘I never did anything of the sort!’ ‘Well, we didn’t get as selfish as this without some guidance,’ said Larry.”
― Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals

Both James Herriot and Gerald Durrell have left a wealth of literature that means when you’ve finished one of their books, it won’t be long until you are back in the gentle worlds with them and all the animals they cared about.

Buy It Shouldn’t Happen To A Vet by James Herriot
Buy My Family And Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

Very Long Reads – Part Two: The Obvious Russian Ones

Something to do as we have more time.

Growing up there were always two books joked about when anyone wanted to hyperbolise a long text; War And Peace and Crime And Punishment. I always liked the symmetry of the fact that for two books to have the same reputation they always had the same concepts in their titles; something and something, each side balancing the other.

Firstly forgive me on this as I had planned to do a blog on Russian Literature in general, there is far more to it than just these obvious two (it probably will be a two parter) so I will look at it in greater depth elsewhere. But as frustratingly not everything falls neatly into separate categories, I realised when I was thinking about long books to read I had to include these.

Let’s start with War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Like a lot of literature in those days, this was originally serialised and in this case it was in The Russian Herald. In fact some sources state it took between 1865 to either 1867 or 1869 to do the whole thing. It was, however published as a book in 1869.

Once again this is a massive tome, and having been written in a foreign language it’s hard to be specific in exactly how long it is, as translations and formats will differ in word and page count. Instead we can say it is broken up into four Books and an Epilogue (of two parts).

It literally is about War and Peace. Starting in 1805 amidst the Napoleonic Wars that were sweeping across Europe it follows the course of the lives of five intertwined families, in both Peace and War times. Epic is the very word for its scale.

Tolstoy himself said it wasn’t a novel. As you read this you see he had a far greater ambition than just telling a story. The book includes various essays and philosophising on the part of the author. Some say this slows the plot, some say it adds more weight to it. Either way taking on this tome is no mean feat. Don’t be put off by hearing that, but it’s probably good foreknowledge to have so you know what you are taking on.

I read it years ago when I was living in London and was taking the Underground to work every day. I had the time and made use of it. I’d seen it for sale in a shop reduced in price and I decided that the amount of hours entertainment I was buying made this a very good deal. Also I’d always heard people joking “it’s like reading War And Peace,” about other things and since I loved reading, why not actually do it? I’m very proud to say I finished it, as gloating rights are automatic, but it did open a door to the world of Russian Literature as having enjoyed it so much the natural next step was…

Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Fyodor Dostoyevsky has since become one of my favourite authors so you will be getting more of his other works later. But Crime And Punishment was such a game changer for me when it came to reading. In theory it was War And Peace that made me take on these big classic works, and whilst I enjoyed that, I LOVED Crime And Punishment.

As it was first published, once again as a serial, in 1866 and then as a book in 1867, it was a contemporary of War And Peace. However this was set at the time of publication and reflects St Petersburg as it would have been known to the author.

It is no way as long as War And Peace but it is deep. The premise is that Raskolnikov, a former student, decides that it is morally acceptable for him to kill someone, and then the plot follows the consequences of that judgement. It’s not exactly light reading, however the way it takes you into the thoughts of this man is a fascinating insight into the workings of conscience and paranoia. How does this choice affect him? Does he act on it? I’m not going to tell you, but I’ll recommend you find out by reading it for yourself.

I read it a couple of years after War And Peace. I’d concluded that having read both of the obvious very long reads that would be enough; but it just gave me a taste for Russian Literature and I’ve read a lot of it since, and plan on discovering even more.

Both of these novels are well worth the challenge. If you want an ongoing saga of family life amidst the historic wars of Europe read War And Peace. If you want a psychological thriller read Crime And Punishment. If you liked one, read the other.

Buy War And Peace By Leo Tolstoy
Buy Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

Very Long Reads – Part One: Victor Hugo

Something to do as we have more time.

If you ask Google how long the average novel is, you get so many different lengths and ideas you could make a book out of them. There does seem to be agreement that generally they are somewhere between 80,000-100,000 words. How that transfers to page count is hard as it depends of size of text, number of chapters and format. But again a cursory search on Google seems to indicate somewhere between 200 – 300 is about average for a novel. None of this is law. It also depends on the type of story and who the audience will be, basically do what seems right for the tale you want to tell.

Having said that there are some whoppers out there. I mean books that you look at on the shelf and think “If I start to invest in this it had better be good,” or “That’s going to take a lot of time,” no matter what our reading speed. Both of these statements are true along with, “If I finish that it’ll look great on the shelf and I can feel a bit smug”.

For a writer to produce something of vast length they need to be incredibly confident, as with all books really but here even more so. To ask your readers to stick with you for that long is a big ask; sometimes it pays off, sometimes it really doesn’t.

All things being equal, it does always come down to opinion. Something I really love might not appeal to others and vice versa. Having said that, seeing as we all seem to have a bit more time on our hands as more and more restrictions are imposed worldwide due to the coronavirus, So, in this Part and in the next one, I’ve suggested some really long reads which I have enjoyed and that you might want to have a go at. Am I doing this to be helpful or just to show off I’ve read them?… Yes, you’re probably right.

Both my authors I’m going to list for recommendations are in the “classic” genre. They’ve been around for years and I really think they are worth reading. Let’s start with the brilliant Victor Hugo.

It’s hard to say how many pages long Les Misérables is, it depends on the edition and the language. The Penguin Classics in English is 1,232 pages. (You can get an abridged version, but what’s the point?) The book is set out as explained by its Wikipedia page:

“The novel is divided into five volumes, each volume divided into several books, and subdivided into chapters, for a total of 48 books and 365 chapters.”

Regardless of the language and the edition and format, it’s a long read! I have a version spilt into two volumes and that made the thing easier to hold if anything, and not so intimidating to start.

Someone demonstrating how it can be likened to a brick

Frankly I love it. I really enjoyed every page. I’d not seen the musical or any adaption, so it was all new to me and I think that is the best way of attempting this (if you have seen them it’s still recommended). I really had no idea what the story was before I picked it up so Jean Valjean’s uncertain future became mine.

Let’s make one thing clear – to be that length the writing is intricate, but you soon get used to it. At the start there is a very lengthy account of the life of Bishop Myriel. For those of you who know the story he’s actually an almost incidental character and this is the first stumbling block for many who just want to get to the action. It takes up a lot of pages and meticulously catalogues his life and ways. I can see why this would be irritating; but for me I didn’t know this so just went with it and enjoyed it as a result.  Later there are other very long histories and accounts that aren’t really necessary to the plot (the history of an old convent somewhere towards the middle for example), but by this point the reader is aware what is happening and if they’ve stuck with it this long they’re obviously enjoying it.

The book does build momentum and I genuinely didn’t know what would happen as it (despite length and side-tracks) eventually speeds on towards the conclusion. I was gripped. I really love this book and I still haven’t, and now won’t, see an adaption as I think it misses the point. Les Misérables is a book that you need to commit to reading to get the full enjoyment.

Just as an addition although shorter, sometime after I finished Les Misérables I read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Again I’d not seen any adaption of it but went into it blind. Once more I fell in love with it. The attention to detail is still there but not as intricate or overwhelming, however it gives fascinating histories of various parts of Paris as well and other interesting information as the plot goes on. Just like Les Misérables it manages to keep momentum and again I was engrossed by the time I got towards the end. I stayed up until 4am to finish it, I just needed to know what happened.

If you’ve seen an adaption, especially Disney’s, expect something totally different. Darker in tone and grim in plot, this still is a read will worth undertaking.

Buy Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
Buy The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.

Children’s Literature

It’s not just for kids.

Generally I’m not a great fan of watching the film/ TV series of a book I’ve read. I don’t like how they miss things out or change parts. I don’t like being told that a character looks nothing like I had them in my head. This hasn’t always been the case, in fact as a child it often went the other way round.

A couple of blogs ago I mentioned a children’s book and it got me thinking; so much of good children’s literature has been adapted for television or for the cinema. Of course as a kid you don’t really realise that some of brilliant things you are watching was a book first. Well I assume that’s the case, I lost touch with children’s television a long long time ago. That’s not to say it doesn’t still hold an important position, I just can’t compare now with what I experienced.

The fact is all those years ago there were so many good adaptions of books on television, and if I enjoyed watching them, as this was before streaming or even (shock!) DVDs, I’d go and get the book. (You didn’t really buy many videos, it was mainly used to tape stuff off the telly which would invariably be taped over later.)

These were the days of CBBC and the broom cupboard (other children’s programming were available… well one other was which was on ITV or “the other side”). Each adaption would generally be six episodes long and you would have to wait the full six weeks to see the whole story… if you missed an episode, well the chances are you would never get to see it again – unless by some chance they repeated it in the next year or so.

Specifically there are two that I think of fondly and I do still have the books on my shelves… well in a box at the moment, but when the shelves come back they will be there.

Firstly in the eighties (Wikipedia tells me it was 1989), there was a very English serial made about a boy who looked at a clock and went back to the Victorian times. This was of course Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce. Published in 1958 this won the Carnegie Medal which is a British award for children’s literature. As a TV programme I found it fascinating and as a book unputdownable, even though I remembered the story. The “current” era of the novel is set in the 1950’s (ish – dates are not stated) which was present when the book was written and only just over thirty years before broadcast, which is horrifying as we’re thirty years from broadcast now, going forward in time!

Set in Cambridgeshire and telling the story of a friendship between Tom from the fifties and Hatty, a girl from Victorian times, it’s a beautifully written tale which, although it plays with the concept of time travel, doesn’t feel sci-fi (because it isn’t). Whilst it has intrigue it keeps things simple enough for an adult to understand and complicated enough for a child not to get bored. There have been other adaptions, but I won’t bother with them (I’m sure they are good) the 1980’s one will always be the definitive for me, and of course the book tops that.

“I meant to ask Hatty questions about the garden,’ Tom wrote to Peter, ‘but somehow I forgot.’ He always forgot. In the daytime, in the Kitsons’ flat, he thought only of the garden, and sometimes he wondered about it: where it came from, what it all meant. Then he planned cunning questions to put to Hatty, that she would have to answer fully and without fancy; but each night, when he walked into the garden, he forgot to be a detective, and instead remembered only that he was a boy and this was the garden for a boy and that Hatty was his playmate.”
― Philippa Pearce, Tom’s Midnight Garden

The other one I that I distinctly remember is almost as different as you can get but still be brilliant (although there are some concepts in the two that cross paths). Set in what was then modern day England this was a story that got increasingly bizarre but still managed to keep to a logical and comprehendible story. This really was thinking outside the box and when I discovered it was a book first I was delighted.

I’m talking about Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones. I’ve not actually read anything else by her and I feel I should because not only are the ideas in this book very strange, they are written in a way that doesn’t put you off but makes you want to know more, and, as I’ve said, the logic works. Published in 1984 this was adapted in 1992.

This starts when a boy called Howard discovers that someone called Archer has sent a Goon to collect a tax of words his father has to write. As Howard investigates he discovers that within the real world is another more baffling one, one ran by a group of very odd types. And that’s as much as I’ll say, go and read it to discover exactly what is going on.

“You don’t give hired assassins supper, do you?” Quentin smiled. “No, but when a wolf follows your sleigh, you give it meat.”
― Diana Wynne Jones, Archer’s Goon

I still love both these books and recommend them to parents who want a good read for their children. I was never really aware of the expression YA Fiction until years later and I gather it is doing good things getting teenagers reading. I haven’t read a lot of it as there is just so much other stuff to read, but in what I would refer to as “the classic children’s literature” there is still a wealth for them to discover.

Contrary to what adults would tell me about what television was going to do, because of the two examples I’ve mentioned above and others, I was drawn to reading by it and not pulled away from it.

Buy Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce
Buy Archer’s Goon by Diana Wynne Jones

Follow My Blog

Get new content delivered directly to your inbox.