A Review: THE STORM BOTTLE by Nick Green

I’ve heard consistently good things about Nick Green’s novels, –
'The Storm Bottle' by Nick Green
and I know him to be a witty blogger – but this is the first book of his I’ve read.

It’s a beautiful, transporting fantasy, set in Bermuda. The heat, the seas, the colours and scents, the sea-breezes of the island are a constant, and wonderfully evoked. I’ve never been to Bermuda, but after reading this book, I felt I had a sense of it. There’s one phrase, describing the aftermath of a tropical storm – the ‘shaken tin-foil glitter’ of the bright sun shining on the wet island. I could see it.

The book concerns characters who are out of place. The engaging heroine, Bibi, has felt out of place for her entire life. She’s a tom-boy, and bound up with the grief she feels for her dead mother is the knowledge that she was never the girlie-girl her mother wanted.

Her relationship with her rich father is amiable rather than close. So long as they can talk about sailing and boats, they get along fine. But Bibi rather scorns her father’s big, expensive boat. She prefers the little sailing boat belonging to her Bermudan friend, Hal, because sailing it brings her closer to the winds and currents. She loves Bermuda and its seas passionately.

Her father has married again, and this marriage has provided Bibi with a step-brother, Michael. He has been ripped from his scholarship-pace at choir-school, from his friends, from Britain – and is truly out of place in hot, bright Bermuda. He is sulky and resentful.

Bibi does her best to befriend him, trying to interest him in sailing and her pirate games, but he is unresponsive until, out sailing on Hal’s boat, they see a wild dolphin. Michael is so excited by the thought of swimming with it that Bibi almost likes him. Both of them dive in and, to her surprise Bibi, who has swum all her life, finds that Michael is the stronger swimmer.

This leads him into trouble, however. Despite Hal’s warnings, he ventures too far from the boat and is caught in the current.

Bibi thinks he is lost when, ‘Foam unzipped the waves and Michael’s pale body washed up into the sunshine…[Bibi] saw a crescent fin, a glass-boulder forehead. The dolphin…had returned.’ A 'glass-boulder forehead' - Nick Green has a knack for hitting on the perfect descriptive phrase.

But the dolphin has done more than return Michael to the surface. To save his life, it has exchanged souls with him.

If you can make this imaginative leap, whether young adult or older adult, you will love this book. If you can’t, you probably won’t. If you think all fantasy is daft, then you’ll think this daft too.

Fantasy is like any other genre. It can be written simplistically, as nothing but wish-fulfillment or gimmickry – and that sort of writing tends to be daft, whether it’s written in the Romance genre, or Crime, Science-Fiction or Thriller.

Or, as with any other genre, Fantasy can be written thoughtfully. It can be used as a way of alienating us from the everyday world we take for granted, so that we have to re-examine and re-evaluate it. Storm Bottle does this.

After the accident, the book follows Bibi on shore, and Michael in his new life.

On shore, in hospital, Michael is in a coma, and when he wakes, his confusion is assumed to be caused by brain-damage. His desperate mother smothers him with protective love. His new step-father withdraws, unable to cope – just as he withdrew from Bibi after her mother’s death, becoming an amiable but distant workaholic.

Only Bibi tries to understand the boy on his own terms. It is she who realises that the boy is not a brain-damaged Michael, but someone - something - else altogether.

Meanwhile, out at sea, Michael is also coming to terms with a whole new body and way of  life. He finds himself swimming with a dolphin pod – two males, Pedro and Sancho, and an injured female, Jill, who is considered, by the males, to be their ‘property.’

The story may have fantastical elements, but the account of dolphin life is based on reality. These dolphins are not the cute, winsome mascots of New Age Harmony seen on a thousand posters, mouse-mats, t-shirts, pendents etc. They are predators, hunting and killing prey, and being hunted as prey by others.

They are intelligent, and they communicate – their clicks and whistles are translated into words for our benefit. But their intelligence is mostly used for catching fish, fighting with other dolphins, escaping from sharks and killer-whales – and capturing females, because the more females a pod has, the more status it has.
The chapters about Michael’s dolphin life are fascinating and often beautiful. The dolphins call themselves ‘rainvoices’, because the sounds they make are like rain falling on the ocean’s surface. They teach Michael how to use his dolphin-body’s ‘voice-eye’, or sonar.

Jill, the injured dolphin, is the sister of the dolphin Michael has become, and looks to him for food she can no longer catch for herself. Her injury has been caused by a fishing line which has wrapped itself round her tail, drawing tighter and tighter until it has sliced off a fin. Michael, with his human understanding, is able to see how to unravel it, and saves her from further injury – and from the endurance of constant pain.

Whereas his step-sister on land, Bibi, was tough and, in many ways, braver and more knowledgable than him, he now finds himself with an adoptive sister who, though more knowledgeable about life underwater, is also more helpless. In taking over as her protector and helper, he becomes close to her. In short, the sulky boy has to dolphin-up – but doesn’t always succeed. After all, as the dolphin Jill observes, ‘You are just a child, aren’t you?’

Michael seeks a way back to his own body and life on land. The other dolphins don’t know how to help, but lead him on a journey to consult ‘The Tidings.’ Michael understands this as some sort of archive, and is puzzled as to how such a thing can exist – until he discovers it to be the long, long memories of Humpback Whales, known to the dolphins as ‘Deep Singers.

‘The humpack whale was too far ahead to see, even with his voice eye. Yet its song built majestic architectures around him, pillars of tone and melodious arches, bearing the weight of words.’

The whales remember a similar exchange of souls in the distant past, and give Michael hope that he can return to his own body.

Meanwhile, on land, Bibi and Rodrigez, the dolphin-in-human-form, have devised a way to send a message to Michael, using ‘a message in a bottle.’ Bibi sacrifices her beloved collection of antique bottles, throwing them into the sea with a one-word clue. They hope that the sea-borne Michael will find one of the bottles, decipher the clue, and so meet them at a certain cove where, perhaps, they can swop bodies again.

But their plans are disrupted when Michael’s mother leaves Bibi’s father. She intends to take her son home to Britain.

This forces the two young people to run away, and camp out on one of Bermuda’s off-shore islands, while the police search for them.

The finale brings together dolphins, human children and a great storm. I don’t think it will be giving away too much to say that Michael succeeds in returning to his human body – but Nick Green bravely resists the neat ending. He goes beyond that, and provides a more original ending, but one that is right for the book, and the characters.

A beautiful, invigorating fantasy, full of sea and sun, and deep, cool waters.

But also a fantasy which, by distorting reality, looks at how, if you are at odds with your surroundings, and feel you don’t fit, you can grow into your situation – or, with courage, break free of it and follow your own way.

The Return of Pedro

          On September 2nd, Picadilly Press publish 'We're Having A
'We're Having A Party!' - 30 years of children's books
to celebrate their 30 years of publishing for children.

          In one volume, they've brought together seven short stories - enough for one every day, or bedtime, or bath-time, for a week.
          The book is illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark, and its stories are 'about everything from imaginary friends to following Mum’s orders, an amazing dog to unexpected neighbours...'
           They have been written by a roll-call of excellent, acclaimed writers for children: Anne Fine, Jan Mark, Jacqueline Wilson, Helen Cresswell, Robert Swindells and Hilary McKay.
          It costs £7-99, and would make a very good Christmas present. Or birthday present. Or unbirthday present, come to that.
          What is my interest in this book? Well, that amazing dog... His name is Pedro, and I wrote him.
          I've got even more attachment to him than that, because 'Pedro' is an almost entirely true story - apart from a little narrative tweaking here and there. Pedro belonged to my great-grandmother.
          I was raised on stories of my parents' childhoods - 'Tell us about Christmas when you were little, Mom.' And then we heard about the orange in the stocking's toe, the white enamel bucket filled with nuts, the pink and white sugar mice. Or we heard about how her brothers fought - or how they dressed one brother up as a guy, and towed him round the streets in a buggy, begging for, 'A penny for the guy.'
          My father countered with stories of damming brooks, or seeing spitfires flying overhead, or filling his mother's washing-boiler with tadpoles. (And hilarity ensued? Not with my grandmother, it didn't.)
Dare you to fill this woman's boiler with tadpoles!
          They also told us stories from the previous generation - stories that their parents had told to them, about their childhoods. So we heard about our mother's mother going out to work at ten, or walking 12 miles every day to work in the glassworks.
          My father told us how his father started work, in 1912, aged 12, and how he'd been an ostler with enormous great cart-horses. Another tale told of Great-Grandad's nightly attempts to put the cat out.
          Great Grandad was always a little befuddled by bedtime, and every night my Grandad (who slept on the floor under the kitchen table) would watch as his father caught the cat, unlocked the many locks and bolts on the door, caught the cat again, put the cat outside - after a struggle involving the cat bracing its legs against the door-frame - closed and re-bolted and relocked the door,  and finally started up the stairs to bed. Half-way up, he always met the cat coming down on its way back to the warm kitchen again.
          Swearing, Great-Grandad would start the whole cat-wrangling performance again. What he didn't know - but which my young grandad sniggering with his brother under the table did know - was that the cat simply climbed the crumbling cottage wall and got into the upstairs room through a broken pane which had been blocked with cardboard. It pushed the cardboard aside with its head, jumped inside and scooted down the stairs, back to the fire. To have pointed this out, though, would have spoiled the nightly show.
          I loved these stories. Another great favourite was the tale of my paternal Great-Grandmother (wife of the befuddled cat-dupe) and her corgi, Pedro. This was the woman and the dog who convinced several Polish emigrees that all the stories they'd heard were true, and the English were quite mad.
Original 1996 cover
          So when, in 1996, Picadilly asked me for a funny story, I wrote down the family story of Pedro. I can't decide whether it was my Great-Grandmother or the dog who was more eccentric, but I thought their story deserved to be passed on.
          I never worried about dates when I sat listening to these stories, but I suppose the years when my Great-Gran doted on Pedro were either just before or just after the Second World War.
          It would spoil the story to give away much of it here - but I will warn you that the ending is unavoidably sad. Dogs don't live for ever. I don't apologise for this, though. I think adults often try too hard to protect children from the harshness of the world. I've said in another blog that as soon as I was able to read a favourite book of animal stories for myself, I gravitated to the more tragic stories - whereas my father had only read me the lighter, more comic ones.
         When I read stories aloud to my younger brother, I noticed that those he asked for most often were the ones that made him sob. I would say, "You don't want to hear that one again, do you? It made you cry." He would insist that he wanted, more than any other, to hear the sad story again. There was obviously something in the story that he needed and wanted to hear.
          So I decided not to hide Pedro's sad end. After all, he had a very good and happy life. It might have been short - but his memory lives on!

Come And Turn The Page

          My cousin, Alan Hess and I recently made an appearance at
Stories for Learning: Art work copyright Andrew Price
the On-Line Edinburgh eBook Festival, now in its final weekend.

          We did a presentation about the bee in our bonnet, Functional Grammar, and how it can help children - and older people - improve their reading and writing skills.
          Click on the links below for an explanation and a demo of what we're working on.
           This is a prototype, so when you click on the link, it may take a few seconds for the programme to assemble itself into a 'book'.
          When it does - and it will take seconds - you'll be able to get a better idea of what we're aiming at, and how it will work. You'll be able to use the tools, and get a better idea of how this might work in a classroom.
          Note: the 'little lego brick icons' mentioned in part one are along the top of the page.
          Clicking on a link opens a new window.
Art work: copyright Andrew Price

Click here for Part One

          In Part Two, do have a play with the 'hot potato' games, and the 'rewrite the text tool.' This part ends with links to videos explaining things in a little more detail. 

 Click here for Part Two

          Alan has recently programmed an edit tool which allows anyone to take any text and quickly insert the HTML codes to make these games work. It's brilliant.

Here, for completion, is a link to Dr. David Rose, of Sydney University, speaking on his reading strategy, 'Reading to Learn.'

Scherherazade: Saving lives by telling stories

 All Art work: copyright Andrew Price.

Moebius and Stones

From 'Kallee and Other Stories'
          I'm still sorting through all the stuff we had to clear from my late parents' house before we sold it. Not just their stuff, but the stuff they'd kept belonging to four children.
          A lot of favourite old things came to light. I've already blogged about one here - the book, Kallee and Other Stories by F. G. Turnbull.
          But we keep on finding other things.
          My Dad worked as an electrical rewinder. That is, he repaired electric motors, rewound their coils when they were burned out, replaced ball-bearings. He had to calculate the thickness of copper wire required and the number of turns needed to carry the required voltage. The number of coils altered according to the gauge of wire. Ball-bearings too, had to be ground to exact dimensions. Decades before the metric system was officially introduced, Dad was working in 'thous', meaning millimetres.
          (An aside, but I remember making a special trip to buy him
Casio Calculator: Wiki commons
one of the first calculators, which was nearly the size of brick.
This would have been the late '70s or early '80s. I had to club together with other family to afford it, and it had to be a 'scientific calculator', to be capable of the calculations Dad had to do. 'Do you really think he'll get any use out of it?' my mother asked anxiously, when she saw how much it cost. Any use? He wore it out. He was so thrilled with it, he almost smiled when we gave it him.)

          Anyhow, Dad worked with a lot of copper wire. As children, some of our play-things were twists of pretty copper wire, and old ball-bearings (some as big as golf-balls.)
          One of the things saved from my parents' house is this.

           It's a Moebius Strip, made from a piece of scrap copper. Dad read about this curious geometric figure - 'a surface with only one side and only one boundary component,' and he wanted to make one.
          He took a strip of copper, gave it a half-twist, joined the two ends and soldered them together. Run your finger around the side or the edge and you trace both sides and both edges without ever having to lift your finger from the surface. It's the same with the sides. It's a two-dimensional object in a three-dimensional world: it has only one edge and one surface.
          Dad stamped my name on the strip and gave it to me as a paper-weight. I don't think I've ever used a paper-weight, but I still have the Strip. I always loved the bright, orangey colour of the copper wire, and I think Dad's Moebuis Strip is a beautiful thing.

          A friend, Leslie Wilson, sent me a 'seer-stone' as a little gift once, It's a flint with a hole right through - a hole bored by natural forces. Such stones have always been regarded as magical, and one was said to have been owned by the Brahan Seer.  He called his an 'adder stone'.
          For some time now I've kept my seer-stone inside the moebius strip, in dogged expectation, or hope, of something weird happening. I'm not quite sure what.

          The small, brown stone is Leslie's gift. The larger one was given me by Davy, on his return from a trip when I couldn't accompany him. It's holed, revealing interesting little matrices in the stone, but the hole doesn't go all the way through.
          The stones and the moebius, working together, have produced nothing. As far as I know. Yet.
          But all three together? They have to constitute a charm, at the very least.

          And there's a Blott this week. Maybe the 'fluence of stones and strip can get us one for next week too, if we're lucky.


A Book Festival Round At Yours...

     Starting on Monday, we're holding a book festival round at
     Well, if you want to, that is.
     You don't have to let us through the door - or, rather, through the computer. But if you like books, and e-books especially - if you like writers and writing, it might be worth taking a look.
     The Edinburgh eBook Festival 2013 starts on Monday August 12th and run every day for a fortnight. And it's free.
     This wonderful idea was writer Cally Phillips', and she has heroically
Writer Cally Phillips
organised the whole thing from her fastness up in Aberdeenshire.

     The Festival focusses on ebooks and, just as ebooks are sold all over the world in defiance of borders, so the ebook festival can be attended by anyone, from anywhere in the world, so long as they have some kind of device that can connect to the web.
     It should really be called The NOT The Edinburgh (eBook) Festival. It's got nothing to do with Edinburgh. It's virtual, it's everywhere - it's in your house and mine, on the train, on the bus, on the ferry and wherever there is wi-fi.
     But it's Cally's festival and she can call it what she likes.
     You don't have to be able to afford to get to Edinburgh, and then to stay in Edinburgh, or buy tickets. You can attend events in your jim-jams, if you like, while lying on your sofa. You can attend life-writing workshops while sitting in your socks and underpants and drinking beer. If you want. (Though Cally does ask that you don't attempt to join in while driving.)
Derek: Weather Sheep
       Every Festival has to have a big STAR, of course, to draw in the punters - and the big celebrity draw at the EeF this year is - ta-da! - Derek the Weather Sheep, fresh from his battle with Facebook, where he spoke up for the freedom and dignity of sheep everywhere.
     Besides Derek, there will be crime writers, sci-fi writers, horror writers, romance writers and writers who are hard to categorise. There will be workshops, discussions, reviews, ideas, recommends, and FREE ebooks. (And the Festival is free, did I mention?)
     There will be music, there will be laughter. The beer, wine and horlicks will flow freely, as will the chocolate (but only if you supply it.)
       Each day will start at 10am, with an overview of all the events for that day. You'll be able to lunch with an author throughout the fortnight; and each day will wind up, at 11pm, with reflections

     You can follow the Festival on Twitter at @edebookfest
     You can find more news on Facebook, here. 

     And you can find the Festival itself HERE.
    Follow the link to find out a lot more about the events on offer, and the writers involved.

     I shall be showing up myself on the 17th and 18th, along with my colleague, Alan Hess, and we'll be demonstrating our interactive reading books.

Functional Literacy workshop with Sue Price (and Alan Hess)

Susan Price (2)

This is an ‘offsite’ opportunity for you to find out more about ‘functional literacy’ and how ebooks and the online experience can open new doors for readers.  Authors Electric founder Sue Price guides you through a DIY workshop experience where you can explore the concept of  functional literacy for yourself.

          I'll be seeing you at the Festival, I hope?