Saturday, 3 November 2012

Ways of Seeing ...

A blog written by Armadillo reviewer Bridget Carrington offering food for thought about shorter books ...  
Sometimes shorter books are a lot deeper and more thought-provoking than megabig books. There’s certainly no shortage of angst and drama in the 175 pages of Diana Hendry’s The Seeing (Bodley Head), set in a 1950s seaside town and focussing on the intense friendship between teenager Lizzie – from an aspirational middle-class home – and Natalie, the product of a single-parent family, with a mother who invites ‘uncles’ back to her house. Natalie’s brother has both physical and learning disabilities, but seems to have second-sight, with an ability to see qualities and faults in others which others don’t.

Set less than a decade from the end of World War II, this intense novel shows how Natalie is obsessed with LONs (Left-over Nazis) and uses Philip’s ‘powers’ to identify them, and then try to drive them out of the town, often with tragic results. Lizzie becomes increasingly concerned at Natalie’s obsession, and realizes that their friendship is poisoning the rest of her life, her old friendships, her relationship with her older sister, and with Hugo, an artist who visits the town each summer. Lizzie has a great interest in art, and is drawn, both artistically and emotionally to Hugo, as well as recognizing his compassion for Philip.
Hendry makes us question our own experience and our own motives: whether we manipulate others knowingly or unknowingly – what exactly is a bully?  She also shows the dreadful consequences of mental illness, how it can masquerade as abundant enthusiasm/obsession, and how, unchecked, it can escalate unseen into extreme and unthinking acts of violence, with appalling outcomes. Lizzie may survive the ‘friendship’ but she doesn’t emerge unscarred, and we leave her rebuilding her life and rediscovering herself.

By contrast Panama Oxridge’s second volume in the Tartan of Thyme series, Thyme Running Out,  is a romp through an outrageously funny, complicated, detailed and tongue-in-cheek family saga, starring Justin Thyme, who can see into other eras by using his time machine.  Justin is an inveterate inventor, and we are treated to some improbable (but attractive) inventions, which allow him in this episode to travel back to a time when the dodo was on the point of extinction.  Justin is determined to use his manifold talents to prevent their extinction. This involves many feats of daring-do, extreme danger and plenty of complex calculations, which we are often invited to try through the detailed explanations and the numerous illustrations.

There’s an extensive appendix explaining unusual terms and ideas, and additional pages in which readers can make their own calculations, not only about the puzzles in the book but also to unravel the author’s identity.  For confident readers this is great fun, and the final page offers an intriguing cliff-hanger…

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