There’s a new bookshop in town – antiquarian and second-hand – called Mount of Alex. Very exciting for the book-hounds of the area. A week ago I called in and asked about Joan Aiken books, because I stupidly gave away or lost all the ones I had bar The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. The owner still had boxes to unpack and said he’d give me a call when he found some more. Lucky me – on Sunday I picked up Black Hearts in Battersea, Nightbirds on Nantucket and The Stolen Lake. I’m not over-the-top about matching sets, but I would have loved to have had Black Hearts with the original Puffin cover (see left) that I had back in the day. Never mind. The story’s the thing.
I had a trip to Melbourne yesterday and my travel time needed beguiling. I started Black Hearts on the 8.06 train, read it on trams and suburban trains all day and finished it on the Bendigo train before Woodend on the way home. What a roller-coaster ride of a read! What a romp through history!
It’s ‘historical fantasy’ rather than historical fiction – and what fun the writer must have had. I probably haven’t read this or any of the other books (called The Wolves series in the trade, the bookseller told me) for more than forty years and it hit me with a bit of a shock how much they have influenced me as a writer.
It’s the romp thing. I actually set out to write a romp with the first Verity. Define romp? The dictionary says it’s rough, energetic or boisterous play; also ‘an easy victory’ or ‘to proceed without effort’. My definition is a plot that just tumbles along with lots of things happening and doesn’t stop until the last page; a story that’s as full as a Christmas cracker with odd words and funny facts and snippets of information. I felt I could tell that, like me, Joan Aiken adored her research, treating herself to little games with language and names and historical events and people. Not to mention an insanely complicated plot!
My Verities are for an older age group, and the the characters are deliberately more rounded. They develop along the way, and Verity in particular grows and changes and reflects on her life as her story unfolds. But what a debt I owe to Joan Aiken for my love of the romp. There are more books in the series than I knew – the Mount of Alex bookseller is on the hunt for me – but for the next day or so, I can look forward to the adventures of Dido Twite (how I love Aiken’s names) in Nightbirds on Nantucket.