Saturday, 25 September 2010

These are a Few of my Favourite Things: Trees

What?!  The sun's shining, the autumn breeze is wafting through the gold and red leaves... and I LOVE TREES.  What's not to love?  They are beautiful and ageless, strong and vibrant.  And those brilliant greens and soft olives melting into the horizon are surely a sight to life the soul and brighten the spirits.  Whether it's a wistful weeping willow or an ancient oak, a giant fir or a cherry in full blossom, there is something special about a tree.

I live on a hillside just below a beautiful wood.  When I first came home from university with agoraphobia, when I could hardly leave my own front door for fear of something dreadful happening, trees played a huge part in starting me on the path to recovery.  On the first day, I went out into our garden.  I took photographs of the eucalyptus tree and the flowers, and stood at the gate staring out over the valley, at the great trees reaching towards the sky and the woods sweeping away over the far hillsides.  On the second day, I went down through the gate into our field, down to the orchard, where the fruit trees were in blossom and the grass grew thickly around their roots.  The next logical step was the woods.

Over the next few weeks I started walking up into the woods, starting with my favourite five-minute 'taking a breather' route and gradually exploring further afield.  I discovered the quarry face with its giant tumbled boulders, and peered down through the trees into the valley below.  I wandered up past the fir plantation and into the darker, damper woods on the other side of the hillside, listening to the stream splashing unseen far down the steep slopes.  I walked up the steep hill past the fruit farm and gazed out across the open fields.

And whenever I started to feel panicky or afraid, it was the trees that brought me back.  Walking through the woods, gazing up through the branches, I could feel history whispering all around me.  The trees are tall and strong.  They have seen countless people wandering beneath their boughs, just as I did; houses being built across the valley; generations of people coming and going.  They've seen it all, and they've never wavered, never fallen.  Those people are gone and forgotten now.  And this thought made me feel so small, and somehow safe and protected, that my fears were soothed and my heart felt lighter.  I stopped to photograph the avenues and the leaves, and I felt calm again.

I don't think I'll ever lose that sense of magic and hope, or that feeling of timeless safety.  And THAT'S why I love trees.

Note: All photos except the top one - the tree on the strip of grass - are mine.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

REVIEW: Forbidden, by Tabitha Suzuma (4*)

(Definitions, 2010)

Wow. It's hard to know where to begin with this review - or even whether to review it at all. It's always hard when it comes to books like this because the hardest to review are so often the ones that deserve it most, so bear with me and I'll do my best!

To begin with, let me say that although this is published by Definitions as a young adult novel, I wouldn't recommend it for teenagers younger than 15 or 16 due to the extreme nature of the themes. Because yes, this is a story about the romance between a brother and sister. Don't stop reading! Because it's also so much more than that...

Lochan is seventeen. He suffers from crippling social anxiety at school, and comes home every afternoon ready to take care of his three youngest siblings: wild rebel Kit, 13, mischievous young Tiffin, and sweet Willa, 5. His mother is a neglectful, alcoholic mess who barely bothers to come home any more, and his father moved to Australia with his new wife years ago. His only ray of sunshine in this darkness is his sixteen year-old sister Maya. The two have never really been like brother and sister; they are best friends and, to all extents and purposes, parents to the three children. So when they share an unexpected kiss one night, it's like the final piece of their existence has fallen into place.

The first third of the book is mostly about the family, and the way Lochan and Maya are hanging on by a thread. They have to keep up with their school work as well as cooking, cleaning, shopping, playing, supervising homework and bedtimes, and covering for their absent mother so that Social Services won't split them up and place them in care. With Kit now old enough to rebel against his brother's authority, the situation is reaching breaking point and the tension is tangible.

Once the kiss happens and changes their lives forever, this tension is only compounded by the added nightmare of falling in love with the wrong person. As their love grows deeper, the sense of dread grows ever more pervasive as they try to balance their feelings against the needs of their family and their gradual realisation of how much trouble they would face if they were ever caught. With this comes an even greater despair as they wonder how they will ever be together. Seriously, Romeo and Juliet had nothing on these two.

By alternating between Lochan and Maya's first-person, present-tense narrative, Suzuma gives a real sense of immediacy and urgency, deftly exploring the thought processes and passionate feelings that each is struggling to bear, and placing the reader squarely in the middle of this whirling dervish of emotion. You know that something has to give, that this can never end well, and yet you ache with every fibre of your being for life to finally cut these two young people a break and allow them to live happily ever after. Of course, the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach tells you that it just can't happen that way.
I closed the book with tears rolling down my face, feeling like I needed a nap - or at least, a stiff drink. This is a real rollercoaster of a read, and so skilfully written that I felt every bump along the way. Every blissful moment, every small triumph, every second of panic, every long hour of frustration and despair and exhaustion, is so beautifully evoked that I found I couldn't read the book for too long at a time without stopping and removing myself from it for a while, giving myself a break from all that turmoil!

I could go on - about the internal morality battle for both the characters and the reader, about the questions it raises about the legal implications of consensual incest (though it never feels like what happens in the novel should be labelled so harshly), about the harrowing depiction of teenagers having to step up and take responsibility for a whole family - but I won't. I'll just say that this is a complex novel about two deeply sympathetic characters in a difficult situation, which will provoke a lot of thought and reflection, skew your world perception a little, and stir up every emotion you can imagine until you tumble out the other end, exhausted. Open your mind, take a deep breath - and read it.

  • "You can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel." - Anon. (opening quote)
Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

REVIEW: Pet Sematary, by Stephen King (4.5*)

(Hodder, 2007)

Firstly, I'll hold my hands up and admit that this was my first Stephen King novel. I'll also admit that I'd worked myself into such a nervous frenzy about the whole thing, given King's reputation for delivering serious frights, that I actually put the book down after 100 pages and decided I wasn't reading any more. Well, I changed my mind in the sunny light of the next morning, and I'm so glad I did. It was excellent!

It opens with Louis Creed, a doctor, and his young family moving to a new house and meeting their neighbours, Jud and Norma Crandall. The Crandalls help them settle in, showing them the children's 'Pet Sematary' on the hillside behind their home, providing evenings of beer and conversation, and warning them about the dangers of the main road, where the huge Orinco trucks have claimed many pets over the years.

Things start to go awry when a young man is hit by a car and horrendously maimed, dying in Louis's arms in his university surgery. He begins to dream about the boy and the Pet Sematary, though he dismisses them as mere nightmares. A few months later his daughter's cat is hit by a truck and killed - and Jud finally shows him the town's dark secret: the Native American burial ground beyond the Pet Sematary where a terrible power lurks, watching, waiting, enticing...

Now, to me this all sounded terrifying. And at certain points it is, but not really in the gruesomely horrific way I had expected and feared. Of course it has its moments, but King is a master of weaving mind games, playing reality against hallucination and the world of dreams, using our deepest fears and the terror of what is NOT seen to elicit the chills and thrills for which he is famous. The same principle which makes the old psychological thrillers more haunting then their modern gore-splattered counterparts.

In fact, though it has occasional moments of genuine horror, I actually found this book deeply sad and very insightful. Its overarching theme is death - the fear of death, the acceptance of death, the nature and experience of grief, and the futility of humanity's attempt to cling to life even when nature is screaming for us to let go. The writing was beautiful - much more lyrical and evocative than I had expected - and I turned the last page with a deep chill of delicious dread and a profound sense of having read something far more worthwhile than I could have hoped. Looks like I'll be reading more Stephen King after all!

  • "But time passes, and time welds one state of human feeling into another until they become something like a rainbow.  Strong grief becomes a softer, more mellow grief; mellow grief becomes mourning; mourning at last becomes remembrance..."
  • "He could smell the clear tang of pine-resin, and he could hear that strange crump-crump of the needles underfoot - a sound that is really more feeling than sound."
Source: I borrowed this book from an incoming bag of books at the bookshop.