Is by Joan Aiken


Joan Aiken’s Wolves chronicles are set in a Dickensianesque,  England, in which the Stuarts had repelled a Hanoverian takeover of the monarchy.

The series started with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and continued in Black Hearts in Battersea. The second of those books introduced Dido Twite who becomes the main character in the series until this book.

Dido’s younger sister Isabettecommonly known as Is, was introduced in Dido and Pa. She now  gets a story of her own. in which she shows the same kind of resourcefulness previously demonstrated by her older sister Dido.

The inventive language of Aiken’s characters is a joy to read. The Twite girls’ unique vocabulary is a highlight of the books and adds the authenticity of a world not quite our own, stemming from an alternate history.

After promising her dying uncle that she’ll go to London to find her missing cousin, Is becomes aware that throughout the city, children have been disappearing, and she takes on the task of finding out what is happening to them, hoping to find her  cousin in the process.

One thing struck her at once, and this was how very few children there were to be seen, in comparison with the days when she had lived in London. She recalled then, that on her household errands through the streets, children had been everywhere, swarming like ants: ragged sharp-eyed brats, the active ones earning pennies by holding horses, or sweeping the mud from street crossings, running messages, picking pockets, shouting their small shabby wares, bundles of matches or bunches of cress; and sick, shrunken, starved ones sitting listlessly on doorsteps or curled under bridges, waiting for death to come and solve their problems.

But now all these seemed to have vanished  altogether. In London there were hardly any children visible; the hurrying crowds in the streets were all adults, going about their adult affairs.

Croopus, where have all the kinchins got to? Is asked herself. It sure is a mystery! Funny no one’s wondered about it sooner. Nobody cares above half, I reckon. Streets look tidier without kids all about. Some folks likes it better that way, I daresay.

Is finds herself uniquely placed to investigate the mystery of disappearing children by joining their ranks, accepting an invitation to board a monthly train to “Playland”, with over two hundred other children trying to escape the hardship and poverty of their lives in London.

The train takes them into the new northern kingdom of Humberland ruled over by Gold Kingy where play will be the last thing its young cargo will experience.



For more about Aiken and her work:


Fictional Discoveries and a Memoir or Two

Looking back through this year’s reading list I find that I’ve discovered (and rediscovered) several authors that I’d love to read again. I’ve added their other books to my wishlist.

Starting at the beginning of the year the discoveries have included:

Joan Aiken – a good way to start the year. Although I first read her Wolves of Willoughby Chase at the end of last year, it was the next book, Blackhearts in Battersea that really won me over. I soon bought the remaining books of the “Wolves” series and started working my way through them. The books are a fun alternative history, using rich and amusing language and could be seen as a precursor to the “Steam Punk” genre.

David Mitchell – I’d read Black Swan Green a couple of years ago and finally got around to reading Cloud Atlas, an inventive and highly readable book spanning various time periods using language and writing formats relevant to each era (including those of the future). It also has a very interesting structure   . Mitchell is an excellent interview subject and I’ve  enjoyed hearing several recorded interviews I was able to track down via google.

Salman Rushdie was someone I struggled with when I read The Satanic Verses, but his memoir, Joseph Anton was compelling from the first page. During the reading of this, when I reached the part where he described the writing of his first children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, I took a short time-out to read that book. Its dedication to his son Zafar has to be one of the most poignant pieces of writing I’ve come across.

Zadie Smith is someone I initially gave up on. Her first book White Teeth is one of the very few books I’ve abandoned since I started my reading list a few years ago. But she won me over through a few recorded interviews I listened to and I gave her writing another go and enjoyed The Autograph Man and Changing My Mind. Like David Mitchell she is an intelligent and articulate interview subject. Eventually I’ll give White Teeth another try, but not until I’ve read her most recent book NW.

Nadeem Aslam – clearly there’s a trend to be seen here. Yet another I was inspired to read after hearing a radio interview. I could listen to him for hours. The interview related to his most recent book The Blind Man’s Garden, a non-partisan story about the effects of the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan. A genuinely sensual book, with vivid use of all of the senses to portray  convincing  experiences shared by a community affected by an imposed war.

Hilary Mantel – did I mention the trend? Should I point out yet another radio interview connection? Hearing her talk about her work led me to her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and back to her fiction. I’d previously read Wolf Hall and now have the sequel Bring Up the Bodies on my “to be read” list.

There are some others on this year’s list I could mention, but they aren’t exactly new discoveries (or rediscoveries) more like old acquaintances who I can trust to give me an entertaining read.

But before I close this post I can’t afford to leave out Kate Atkinson. Started Early Took My Dog is the first novel of hers that I’ve read and I’m confident it won’t be the last. It has an intriguing plot alternating between two time periods (1975 and the ‘present’). There are multiple characters who are slowly shown to be connected to each in some way, drawn together by events and actions of the past. I haven’t finished it yet, so hopefully the conclusion will match what I’ve read so far.

Throughout this post I’ve mentioned recorded interviews with authors. Some of the best sites I’ve found for interviews are:

Buy Less, Read More?

On the weekend I visited my parents. My mum was reading one of her books for the third time. She had read everything in her library at least twice and had nothing new to read.

booksI don’t have that problem. I have a few bookcases and two large cupboards with bowing shelves full of mostly unread books. When I got home from my parents’ place I tried to go through them to sort out things I’d be unlikely to read, but I found few I was willing to cull.

I WANT to read them all. I bought them over many years because they interested me. But I have a problem with time. I don’t have as many opportunities to read as I would like and yet I continue to find more and more books to add to my growing collection.

Why do I keep buying?
One reason is that I don’t want to miss out. Some of purchases are remaindered or liquidated stock. Others are second hand. They aren’t things you can put aside to buy at a later date. Their availability is limited. While I probably won’t read a new purchase immediately, at least it’s there for me to read when I’m ready.

A second reason is my wide ranging and regularly changing interests. For a few weeks I’ll want to read about the space programme and will find a few books about that subject. And I’ll read one or two before moving on to something else, leaving the rest of the books in my to-be-read-later pile.

books2That “something else” may be literature, and I’ll pick up a book or two that has alleged literary merit, fully intending to read something of “quality”, but then I’ll struggle through the first choice, quenching any ambition to read the others (at least for a few months). This also creates the disadvantage of slowing down my reading. It dampens my enthusiasm, ridding me of that “can’t wait to get back to it” drive that ensures I’ll read at every available opportunity. On rare occasions I’ll eventually put the book aside only half read – but that’s something I really want to avoid.

Why do I bother with these “literary” works? Because I’m hoping to come across a gem, something that makes the disappointments worthwhile and surely my own writing can’t be harmed by exposure to “the greats”. And even the books I struggle with usually have moments of recognisable quality.

As well as the above “reasons” for book buying, occasionally I’ll discover the author of a series of books. At Christmas I came across Joan Aiken’s Wolves of Willoughby Chase. It’s a book I remember from childhood, not through reading it, but possibly through a TV or radio adaptation. I found a copy in a Wagga Wagga bookshop and enjoyed it so much I tracked down all of the sequels in the series. I’ve now read a few of them, but the rest have been put aside for later while I try to catch up on other things.

My current reading projects include Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, Zadie Smith’s collection of essays Changing My Mind and At Risk by former MI5 boss Stella Rimington.

SVThe Satanic Verses is one of those “literary” books that I find a struggle to read but I’m determined to get through it. It’s a book I first started maybe 20 years ago and gave up on. This time I want to make sure I finally get to the end. I’ve past the half-way point and have given myself the luxury of taking a break to tackle something easier and more interesting: the Stella Rimington book, an authentic thriller (I naively assume,considering the author’s background) about British security services discovering and trying to prevent a planned terrorist attack.

The Rimington is another purchase (second hand) that led me to buy more of her books, all taking their place in my to-be-read-later collection. And that is often why I continue to buy: one good book leads to another…