A Bookish Memorial…

Sailing into the West…

My current absence is because we have had a family bereavement. My sister Sheila, who commented here under the pseudonym BigSister, died last week after an illness which felt long while it was happening, but was actually only a few months. I don’t normally blog about personal matters, as you know, but some of you who have been around for a long time have interacted with BigSister over the years, and she was a keen, if silent, supporter of those of you who have published novels, buying, reading, and talking to me about them. She also enjoyed visiting many of your blogs, though never commenting, I think, and again this has been part of our regular lengthy bookish phone conversations over the past few years.

This doesn’t feel like the right place for any kind of memorial to her full and active life, so I thought instead I’d pay tribute to the influence she had on my early reading (and the influence she still tried to have on my later reading too, with rather less success)!

From Hitchcock’s adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps

BigSister was eight years older than me, which seemed like a huge difference when we were young. She always seemed grown-up to me, she being the eldest of four and I the baby of the family. From the time I was about five or six until I was old enough to go alone, she would take me with her to the library each week – she was a voracious reader all her life, often reading more than a book a day. And with a phenomenal memory for the written word! Whereas I can barely remember a book I read last week, she had almost total recall of plots and characters of books she read forty years ago. Back in those days, you were only allowed to take two books out of the library at a time, so BigSister had managed to gain possession of library cards for all the less enthusiastic readers in the family so she could get a big enough stash to feed her addiction. And like many addicts, she was a pusher too, giving me free access from an early age to her already groaning bookshelves…

BigSister read just about any genre and had a totally open approach to supervising my reading – if it appealed to me, then her attitude was always, well, try it and see how you get on. On reflection, I think this might be why I missed a lot of the children’s books of my day – I feel I was reading relatively adult books quite young. There was no such thing as YA back then, but lots of writers were writing books that worked easily for both child and adult. She’d stop me from choosing anything too unsuitable or way beyond my ability to understand, though. If she didn’t know a book I liked the look of, she’d read the first few pages and the last few and that would be enough for her to decide whether it was okay for me.

Illustration from Kipling’s The Jungle Book

It was easier back in those halcyon days, because even crime fiction veered well away from the gruesome and harrowing and no published writer would have dreamt of peppering their work with graphic sex and swear words (except DH Lawrence, naturally, but fortunately I didn’t encounter him till my teens). So I met Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Ed McBain, Mickey Spillane, Carter Dickson, John D MacDonald, and a myriad of other crime writers now sadly forgotten (by me), and was guided towards the adventure stories of Rider Haggard, Gavin Lyall, Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Alistair MacLean, et al. I didn’t like them all – I never got on with Kipling, whom she loved, for instance – but it all helped me form my own tastes in time. The classics weren’t omitted – Jane Eyre, Little Women, Oliver Twist, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Treasure Island, etc., were mixed in with general fiction like the Mapp and Lucia books, and total pulp, like Dick Tracy. Did anyone ever read the Modesty Blaise books? They shocked me to my socks when I was a little’un and I suspect they might shock me just as much now, but for different reasons.

She never had as much success with science fiction. While I liked the more speculative end of it – Wells, Wyndham, Asimov, Pohl – I was never able to follow her into the realms of fantasy, where she spent many, many happy hours. She never gave up though – like any pusher, she kept offering me little doses of the soft stuff in the hopes I’d get addicted to the hard stuff in time. In the last few years she has tried every Hallowe’en to get to me read A Night in the Lonesome October – I could never bring myself to admit to her that I’d tried, hated it, and thrown it on the abandoned pile!

In more recent years, she became a dedicated fan of Terry Pratchett’s books, and I was always a little sad that I couldn’t share her love for them. In the last few months, as concentration became harder for her, it was Pratchett she turned to, reading them all again even though she could probably have quoted them from memory. On my last visit to her, her main concern was for me to get her Kindle to work with the hospital wifi so she could access more of the Pratchetts in her library.

I can’t finish without mentioning her lifelong love for Lord of the Rings, a pleasure I happily shared. Which was just as well, really. We shared a room for a couple of years when I was a teenybopper and she was a student. The walls on my side had posters of Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper – BigSister had posters of Gandalf and Aragorn and a map of Middle-earth. Yes, indeed, she was an addict! She even liked Tom Bombadil! She regularly stated that her ambition was to be knocked on the head and get amnesia so she could have the pleasure of reading LOTR again as if for the first time.

The last but one comment that she left on the blog before she became too ill was on my New Year confession of the state of my TBR. She said “I’m so glad I don’t have a TBR! I do however have a lot of books I want to read.” And that seems to me to sum up neatly the voracious, eclectic, mood-reading philosophy of her bookish life.

“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

* * * * *

Apologies to all of you whose recent comments and links have been left unanswered. I shall be back in action around the blogosphere soon.

109 thoughts on “A Bookish Memorial…

  1. Oh, I am so very sorry to hear this, FictionFan! What a sad loss. Thanks for sharing a bit of your sister’s life with us. Thinking of you and wishing you and your family peace and healing at this time.

  2. I wondered where you got to and I’m so terribly sad to hear it was this that kept you away. I’m so sorry for your loss. This is a lovely post to remember your big sister by and I’m sorry I never got to talk to her about LOTR. Fierce hugs, much love and strength. xx

  3. This brought tears to my eyes! I’m so very sorry to hear of your loss, and I hope your memories will bring you some consolation. I’m in awe of her ability to remember so much about what she’s read too, I forget things I read so quickly! It sounds like she was a wonderful influence on your life and a good friend. Sending a big hug and lots of strength for you and your family.

  4. This was such a wonderful recitation of your thoughts about your ‘BigSister’! Just beautiful and we are honored that you took us along with you. I am so sorry that she’s gone – what a legacy she leaves though. Not only to you – to all of your readers. I was an older sister (by 6 years and 8 years) and lost my younger sister a few years ago. I know those age gaps are a little tricky at times and it sounds like yours was bridged perfectly with books. Take care and take your time. We’ll be around regardless. Hugs to you! Perfect quote from LOTR, by the way.

    • Thank you, Kay! Yes, our age gap seemed huge in a lot of other ways but we always had books in common and that helped bring us closer. I’m sorry to hear about your loss, too – somehow the death of a sibling hits particularly hard. 🙂

  5. I am so very sorry to read of your loss, FictionFan; I know what it is to lose a sister, albeit many years ago. She sounds such a wonderful big sister, and what a priviledge to bond as you did over books. Wishing you peace and stillness as you deal with the coming days ❤️️

    • Thank you, Sandra, and how lovely to hear from you! Yes, our shared love of books definitely helped bring us closer despite the age gap, I’m sorry to hear of your loss too – somehow the death of a sibling hits especially hard. 🙂

  6. Oh, I’m so sorry to hear this – I did wonder where you had gone. This is a lovely tribute to your sister and it sounds as though you have lots of wonderful memories to look back on.

  7. Golly, I feel almost as if I knew BigSister because of all the comments she left on your blog, as well as because of the lovely tribute you’ve written here. I missed you, of course, but I attributed it to bouts of dismay over Rafa’s defeat at the Aussie Open (something I totally understand!). Anyway, I’m so sorry for your family’s loss and sending you big hugs from across the Pond!

  8. I am so so sorry, I have only just come back to blogging after some absence, and discovered your post as I worked through postings of those I follow. BigSister was indeed a happy presence for us, on your blog

  9. So sorry to hear of your loss but you have written a wonderful tribute to your sister. I hope the memories of your shared joy of reading and the legacy of her love of books will be of some comfort to you in the days and weeks ahead.

  10. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. We should all be so lucky to have such a reading mentor to guide us through those early years. I’m sure she will be with you in memory every time you pick up a book you know she would have enjoyed.

  11. I’m so sorry for you FF, what a dreadful thing to go through, but your memorial to her on this blog is so lovely, and remembering those we lose through their bookish habits is a wonderful way to move forward. She sounds like she was a huge influence on you, and it’s nice that you have a small piece of her forever immortalized on your blog through her comments!

  12. You have my sincere sympathy. My sister (14 years older) died three years ago this month, following a two-month illness, so I can relate in many ways.

    This is a lovely and moving tribute to her. ((hugs))

  13. I am so sorry to hear this FictionFan and I did like BigSister’s comments on your blog!
    Your post perfectly sums up those special bonds that are shared through the love (and dislike) of books which were I’m sure just one of many shared with your eldest sibling.
    I sincerely wish I had some wise words to impart; I don’t but will simply say be kind to yourself x

    • Thank you, Cleo, and I think your words are wise indeed! I know once this first stage has passed, I’ll be able to feel how lucky I was to have a sister who shared my love of reading. 🙂

  14. What a lovely and moving tribute to your sister, FF. What a gift she gave you in sharing her love of reading, a gift which carries on for as long as you read and enjoy books. I am so very sorry for your loss.

  15. I was wondering where you were and I was hoping it was another football/soccer playoff season. I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your BigSister. Your tribute to her is as beautiful as any I’ve read, and I’m enchanted by the love for books you two shared as sisters. The early trips to the library and her sharing her books with you. It gives me goosebumps. Thinking of you and sending love and peace.

  16. I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. This is a lovely tribute to at least one aspect of your sister relationship and I hope your memories bring joy and peace. Wishing you all the best – you’re missed around the book blog world but take all the time you need.

  17. Dear FF, this is a lovely tribute to your sister. So often the oldest and youngest siblings are just too far apart in interests growing up. My condolences and thoughts are with you. I am pleased to see you back online too.

    • Thank you! Yes, the age gap between us meant we were rarely interested in the same things or knew the same people, so our shared love of books was great at stopping us growing apart as we might otherwise have done. I’ll be back in action properly soon… 🙂

  18. Dear FF, what a very sad loss for you and and thank you for sharing your memories of BigSister Sheila’s rich bookish life. What a wonderful early guide and sisterly book companion for you. Even though I only knew her through her comments on your blog, I had a strong sense of a generous, thinking and exceptionally well read person. I paid close attention whenever she mentioned a book (she lead me to the enjoyable Sunset Song trilogy). I’m with you on Kipling but very much with BigSister on the hours of fantasy reading pleasure and with you both in the enjoyment of Lord of the Rings. You and BigSister have been in my thoughts this year since you mentioned family illness, and I hope you and your Big Brother can ‘go in peace’ in the next hard months. Warm thoughts.

    • Thank you, Christine. Yes, she was very knowledgeable about books, and I didn’t even mention that she also read a huge amount of history, that being her subject at University. Because she read so much, I never came close to catching up with her and used to raise a little cheer on the rare occasion I actually succeeded in recommending a book to her rather than the other way round! She had also read far more Scottish fiction, classic and modern, than me. I shall miss being able to ask her whether a book was worth investigating and being almost certain she would know. Thank you for your kind thoughts – she was touched when I told her you had asked after her at the New Year. 🙂

  19. So sorry for your loss, what a joy to have had a reading guide in your big sister, I love her reading attitude and joy of immersing in literary fantasy world’s, oh that quote really got me, even if I don’t understand the evil of tears bit. Sending you all healing thoughts and prayers at this time.

    • Thank you, Claire. She had an amazing talent for getting lost in whatever she was reading regardless of whatever was happening around her – no small feat when you have three noisy younger siblings! 🙂

  20. How lovely to be able to share your reading life with your big sister – so sorry for your loss, she will be much missed.

    • Thank you! I tried several times to get into Terry Pratchett because she enjoyed them so much, but sadly the magic wasn’t there for me. But he gave her so much pleasure over the years, and it was good to see her still able to enjoy him and get lost in his world until very near the end. 🙂

  21. Oh no. I am so sorry for your loss. My condolences to your family. You sister and I have the same book cravings. I love Terry Pratchett, Tolkien, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and some of the others mentioned. Never read the Modesty Blaise books.

    Take care of yourself! You’ll be in all of our thoughts

    • Thank you, L. Marie. She had such eclectic tastes, even for stuff that seemed kinda out of character for a respectable professional lady of a certain age – like the Modesty Blaise books! I always tried to get her to start a blog on all her fantasy and sci-fi reading but she always said she’d rather be reading than writing… 🙂

  22. This is such a lovely tribute, thank you for sharing some of your memories with us – I love her library technique and reading the first and last pages of a book for you, big sisters are the best aren’t they?

  23. What a wonderful tribute to your sister! I’m so sorry to hear your news – she sounds a truly good Big Sister. I used to read her comments and wondered if she really was your sister and hoped she was. I’m so glad she shared her love of books with you – and via your blog with the rest of us bloggers too.

    • Thank you, Margaret. Yes, it was always a pleasure to me that she visited regularly – we lived in different cities so it was a nice way of touching base with each other most days, and books were always a subject we could talk about for ever… 🙂

  24. I’m so sorry to hear this news, FF, and feel terrible that I’m so out-of-the-loop! She sounds like she was a big sister who was practically perfect in every way. It’s wonderful that you had so much in common, even if you didn’t *always* share the same taste in books.
    What a lovely tribute to her. I like to think there are lots of books where she is now, and she has all the time she needs to read them all. xo

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