Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 07 Mar 2018

Three novels for snow days

Because of the unusually harsh recent weather I have been able to stay snuggled at home and make my way through more books than usual. It is a luxury to be able to spend several consecutive hours doing this instead of fitting in reading around other stuff. After all, what could be cosier than sitting in the warm house looking out the window at the falling snow and taking short breaks to fetch cups of tea and plenty of snacks?

I always have an eclectic mix of books in a pile by my bed, some of which I dismiss very quickly after reading just a few pages - life is too short after all. The ones that I have stuck with over the last week are all very different, although co incidentally they have all been about relationships, but each has entertained me in very different ways.

‘Under a Pole Star’ by Steff Penney tells the story about Flora Mackie, a whaler’s daughter from Dundee at the end of the nineteenth century. When she is only twelve, her widowed father decides to take her with him on his whaling ship to the Arctic Circle and there she begins a lifelong obsession with exploring everything she can about the people and the environment. Against all the odds, she eventually becomes a successful scientific explorer, dubbed by the press as ‘The Snow Queen’, and makes many difficult and exciting expeditions throughout her life. While Flora is in the early stages of learning how to be a scientist, Jakob de Beyn is growing up in Manhattan to become a keen and reputable geologist. Their paths eventually cross when he joins a rival expedition and they begin a tempestuous sexual relationship.  I am a big fan of this author because she is such a compelling storyteller, but is also an impressive writer. Her many beautiful and very different descriptions of the icy landscape throughout the novel helped me to understand how people have become enthralled with the region (and also succeeded in making me feel very cold):

‘A sight she was always to remember: a peculiarly fine berg, crested and crenelated like an Alpine peak, which rotated to reveal an arc of ice, seventy feet high. It glittered white, scored with clefts that glowed deep blue above and at its water –worn foot, a pale, silky green’.        

This was a big satisfying read with plenty of convincing twists and turns, so that it only took a couple of days to read it and I was sorry to finish it.

The next one in the pile was The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer where the first person narrator is trapped in a third marriage, this time to a successful film director and has numerous hoards of children, only one of which is named as the story unfolds. At long last this middle aged woman is materially very comfortable, but is increasingly distressed at the banality of her life. She thinks that she might want another baby to help lift her depression, but her current husband disagrees. I stuck with it because I was fascinated to try to piece together the various fragments of her story and to try to decide whether she was ever going to recover her sanity. The flyleaf blurb explains that it is a novel that one wishes ‘would go on much longer and not stop’. I would beg to differ because, although convincingly told, it is a painful story about a woman’s emotional breakdown that takes place over many years. Although she is clearly mentally ill, I found her  to be a very irritating character so that didn’t help.

So it was with some relief that I picked up ‘Raking the Ashes’ by Anne Fine. I have always enjoyed reading her many books aimed at children and Young Adults and so decided to try one of her adult novels. I am pleased to say that it proved to be another example of her skill of analysing family life in forensic detail. The very likeable Tilly is a woman who is also trapped in a frustrating relationship, but one that she seems unable to escape from. Not only does she have to put up with the very needy but ultimately ‘nice’ Geoffrey, but she is entangled with his two troubled, thankless children from a previous relationship as well. She is able to make a regular respite escape because of her work commitments as an oil rig engineer, which is perhaps why she puts up with the very tiresome situation for so many years. I devoured this witty story very quickly and am relieved to tell you that eventually enough is enough for this extraordinarily patient woman.


The snow is all gone now but there is a new pile of books on my bedside table for my delectation so I need to get started.

Karen Argent

March 2018