The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - BOOKS REVIEWS - By Alas­tair Mab­bott

Notes From The Sofa by Ray­mond Briggs (Un­bound, £8.99)

A se­lec­tion of ar­ti­cles writ­ten for The Oldie, this is the first new book from Ray­mond Briggs for a decade, and the first he hasn’t writ­ten with chil­dren in mind. He seems to rel­ish the free­dom his col­umn has given him to roam through his thoughts, whether that means en­ter­tain­ingly be­moan­ing his fail­ing phys­i­cal prow­ess and his ex­as­per­a­tion with mod­ern liv­ing, dredg­ing up old mem­o­ries or re­count­ing his new-found friend­ship with a stray chicken. For the most part, he keeps cur­mud­geon­li­ness at bay, opt­ing to look at the mod­ern world with be­nign be­muse­ment – af­ter all, there can be few men push­ing 80 who will con­fess to car­ry­ing around a wedge to sta­bilise café ta­bles but also ex­press their joy that graphic novels are at last be­com­ing re­spectable. Briggs’s nos­tal­gia is of a wist­ful rather than grumpy kind, and al­ways comes with an un­der­tone of self­dep­re­ca­tion. He only bares his fangs when com­ment­ing on the de­cline of lit­er­acy and ed­u­ca­tional stan­dards.

The Burnt-Out Town Of Mir­a­cles by Roy Ja­cob­sen (Ma­cle­hose, £8.99)

In Fin­land in 1939, the Rus­sian forces are ap­proach­ing, but although his neigh­bours have fled, set­ting fire to their houses as they leave, wood­cut­ter Timo can’t imag­ine liv­ing any­where else and stays put. Gen­er­ally reck­oned to be the vil­lage idiot, Timo is ac­tu­ally a bril­liant sur­vivor of win­ters that can plum­met to -40C, and the in­vad­ing Rus­sians come to rely on him, putting him in charge of a log­ging team. Else­where, the Finns are fu­ri­ously fight­ing the Rus­sians, and his­tory shows that they tri­umphed against over­whelm­ing odds. But that’s not part of this story, which fo­cuses on Timo, the bonds he forms with the mem­bers of his team and, once the in­vaders are driven away, the dis­tance that has opened up be­tween him and his fel­low Finns. Told by one of Nor­way’s most re­spected au­thors in Timo’s sim­ple and un­der­stated voice, this is a tale of hu­man­ity and com­pas­sion in the midst of con­flict, which ra­di­ates charm and pathos.

Lit­tle Noth­ing by Marisa Sil­ver (Oneworld, £8.99)

In an un­spec­i­fied Eastern Euro­pean coun­try around the turn of the last cen­tury, a dwarf girl, Pavla, is born to an age­ing peas­ant cou­ple af­ter they turn to a witch to give them a child. As she reaches her teens, her par­ents, fear­ing she won’t be able to find a hus­band to care for her af­ter they’re gone, al­low her to be stretched on a rack. This brings about the first in a se­ries of trans­for­ma­tions, which sees Pavla join­ing a freak show and cul­mi­nates in her be­com­ing a wolf. Like the best fairy sto­ries, Lit­tle Noth­ing has a lot the­mat­i­cally go­ing on un­der the sur­face. There are ob­vi­ous shades of An­gela Carter to this me­ta­mor­pho­sis story, though Sil­ver han­dles the sub­ject mat­ter very much in her own way, writ­ing rich prose in the re­al­ist tra­di­tion and striv­ing to make her char­ac­ters as three­d­i­men­sional as pos­si­ble, ex­ploit­ing the al­le­gor­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties of folk tales while chal­leng­ing their ac­cepted con­ven­tions.

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