'The Great Escape - Illustrated!' is a children’s book which stands out through its humour and sense of character.
First in the series about Commander Rocky and his Organisation, a secret pack who rescue and care for ill-treated dogs, it features silly Astro, a dog who can’t see how lucky he actually is. Astro learns through working with a cast of characters including technologically-minded Hans, a Dachshund, and Digger (whose name gives away his role in the story) that he isn’t really a prisoner as he claims, but a much more fortunate dog than those the Organisation is called on to save from neglect.
Astro's adventure moves on swiftly and involves a sinister dog processing centre, as well as the Organisation’s feline enemies.
Well-equipped and resourceful though the Organisation may be, its members don’t abandon their canine natures. For example, a microchipped dog can always get in touch with the Organisation by turning round and round and dropping like a stone in its basket, which activates a hologram.
This is typical of Susan Day’s humour, which is clearly based on close observation of dogs and which doesn’t avoid a serious message about dogs’ need for a loving home and companionship.
'The Visitor' is a beautifully structured story about human need, taking its occasion from a daughter's regular visits to her demented mother in a care home. Wendy Beach captures the soulless misery of that kind of existence: wretched food that has to be fed 'half a teaspoonfull at a time', the endless turnover of staff, the hoists to get into bed, the irony of a home called 'Safe Harbour' while the mother herself must be seen by the narrator as 'driftwood', 'an anchorless vessel.' But the daughter's repeated resolve, in the face of her mother's painful lack of recognition, is quietly moving: 'I will come back tomorrow'. Read this story for its sensitivity, its deft language, its fine shape and imagery, and for its understanding of the community of need between the mother and daughter, where we ultimately learn how different and how similar are the things they both want.
When Wendy Beach offers an apparent twist-in-the-tale story - “Pelican Smile” opens with a woman scouring obituary notices - we can be pretty sure that something far subtler than that will ensue. Indeed, there is a twist in this story of a woman waiting for her mother-in-law to pass on, but the twist is based on a generous, moving, and satisfying irony. The story combines a simple and compelling narrative, told with admirable economy, with a real turn for the telling phrase, for instance the pelican “risen from the wet sand to carry away her father’s life force in its sagging bill.” A brief and rewarding story.
Wendy Beach has had the excellent idea of picking out a couple of characters from her short story, “Brushstrokes” - available here and very much to be recommended, by the way - and giving us a deeper glimpse into their lives.
Her use of theme is one of the strongest ways in which she tells us more of “Green-eyes” and “Snow-scene” - Dylan’s pack, painter Skye’s focus on winter landscapes, even the planes overhead, all have a part to play in involving us in their stories.
But language has a powerful role, too, whether it be in descriptions of gardens, the effect of hear, or of water: “The morning sun hit the onyx surface of the Swan, turning the ripples into diamonds, spilling over each other to the shoreline.”
And the plot’s as well organised as the language and the themes, leading to a highly satisfying conclusion. "Brushstrokes 2” reminds us plaintively that each of us has a story, each some kernel that longs to be understood.
"In A Bright Glass" beckons us into a still more exotic Ravenna than we’ve known, alongside Llewellyn-Gareth, a Welshman abroad on a mission, with many a crisis to overcome and a mechanical leg that’s not helping. On his richly atmospheric way, not excluding airships, we meet his outrageous Chestertonian nephew and a cast of characters which takes in the affecting, the conniving, and the downright dangerous. A quirky tale full of unexpected turns which doesn’t just enjoy the striking visuals of steampunk, but which is also convincingly attuned to the speech rhythms of the epoch.