Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell

fullsizeoutput_565 ‘Odd and the Frost Giants’ may be a seasonal treat for a child, or just because you like beautiful books. It is a new edition of a book produced for World Book Day in the UK. Gaiman and Riddell’s latest collaboration is as impressive as ‘The Sleeper and the Spindle’ (a retelling of Sleeping Beauty by Snow White).

‘Odd and the Frost Giants’  sees Gaiman in his familiar territory of Norse mythology. The story centres around Odd who lives in a Viking village with his parents. Tragedy befalls Odd, and he is forced to forge his path away from the Viking village in a never ending winter. As with all Neil Gaiman stories, this book has disguised gods and an unlikely hero using his wits to beat a physically powerful and magical foe. It is a well-crafted story of hope and bravery and showcases Gaiman’s skill at reimagining folk tales. What makes this story beautiful are Chris Riddell’s illustrations. Riddell has a remarkable, expressive ability to create beautiful, emotive characters. His pictures alone were the reason I bought this edition. It is a gorgeous edition to admire on a winter’s evening, snuggled by a fire and free to dream of frost giants. fullsizeoutput_567

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell: Magic’s answer to Middlemarch?

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Sometimes, you encounter a book and know a copy will sit on your shelves until the end of your days. For me, ‘Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell’ is one such book. Susanna Clarke has created an immersive alternative Regency world where the forces of magic play alongside the fortunes of the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon and Lord Byron. In reading it, I felt myself beginning to believe that England had a Raven King who had ruled the North as the magical history of England is explained through footnotes and legends as the story of the two English magicians unfolds.

As the story begins English magic is in decline (this is the age of the Enlightenment) and is studied in a purely theoretical form. The difficulty with studying magic is that the vast majority of magical books are in the keeping of one man in Yorkshire, Mr Norell. The magicians of York apply to him for assistance, and he responds with the first demonstration of magic in York’s medieval Minster. Mr Norell soon moves to London as the first practical magician in hundreds of years and his trickery means he is the only person allowed to practice magic. However, a street magician, dismissed by the crotchety Norell as an amateur makes a prophecy about the arrival of a second magician as foretold by the Raven King. The Raven King, John Uskglass, is the man credited with bringing magic to England from the faery realm. He reigned in the North of England for three hundred years, weaving magic through the kingdom. Norell’s fears about this prophecy are realised when Jonathan Strange appears, wanting to be his student. Strange has all the flair and flourish of a Romantic poet while Norell remains a fusty old man, following magical procedures to the letter, wearing his old-fashioned powdered wig and criticising Strange, most of all for his curiosity about the magic of John Uskglass. Unbeknown to Strange, Norell has his reasons for hiding fairy enchantments, and these unfold with the story.

It is a long book, and it did take me some time to read. Like a novel from the Victorian period, it does not rush at telling the story, taking its time to build Regency London around the reader. I felt it was a book to savour rather than devour, though, when I got to the end, I could quite happily have turned back to the beginning and read it again. Neil Gaiman describes it as the best work of English fantasy for seventy years. I agree that it feels like a very English book. It draws on so many themes that were present at the time, war, the Gothic, nature and Romanticism, and weaves them through the story so that if I opened an anthology of Byron’s poetry and found a poem about the madness of Jonathan Strange, I would not be surprised.

April’s book club: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

   
 Though this book did win a Costa award, my book club’s reason for choosing it is that we are based in Lancashire near where much of the story is set, except is isn’t, not really, unless you shared the dark, gothic imagination of the author. Luckily, I do! 

This is a strange story that does not really slot into a genre but does seem to touch gothic horror with overtones of young adults fiction, reminiscent of Celia Rees’ stories about Edinburgh. As with Emily Bronte, the physical nature of the landscape dominates the story and the action that takes place there, though Hurley’s landscape seems to switch between Morecambe bay and the bleak mud flats of Pilling sands, with their big skies and quicksands. Though Hurley does not match Bronte’s skill, the landscape intruding, sometimes feeling so bleak it’s almost comic and the portrayal of the London home of the protagonists is so broad brush it could be Anytown.

Having said that I do understand why this intriguing story won a prestigious award. It is a dark and mysterious tale, set in the mid 1970s, about a small group of Catholics and their priest, who travel from London each Easter on pilgrimage to a small shrine in this lost corner of the Lancashire coast. The central characters are two brothers, one is nicknamed Tonto by the priest, the other Hanny, has some sort of illness which seems to be combination of learning difficulties and mutism. Though it is never quite said, the purpose of the pilgrimage in the eyes of the small group is to pray for a cure for Hanny, culminating in him taking the waters at a small shrine. The boy’s mother fanatically believes in a miracle cure, if only she prays hard enough and manipulates the group to do her bidding. There is a subplot about the strange circumstances surrounding the death of the previous priest who the boy’s mother was devoted to, and her inability to accept the new ideas of the young Irish priest who has replaced Fr. Wilfred. Fr. Wilfred’s presence lingers through the stay at the Loney and all the new priest’s efforts fall short against it. All these stories whirl around the coast as the tide comes in and out and the two boys play along the shore line. They meet some of the ‘locals’, vicious men who let their dog rip a lamb apart and seem to be working in league with a posh Daimler driving man who lives along a causeway at a house with a murderous past. These characters are rather vague and shady, at times feeling like something out of the ‘League of Gentlemen’. They have a pregnant girl at the house, possibly as young as thirteen, who possesses apparent supernatural powers. This aspect of the story remains in the shade. The multiple narratives twist around each other as faith is called into question and the price of miracles explored.

It is a page turner, I read it on a holiday flight and certainly worth reading. It did have some flaws in my opinion in the plot devices, such as Tonto’s ability to overhears confessions and the retrospective narrative structure, he is telling the story from the present as an adult. However, some of the descriptive writing is first rate, such as the description of meeting a local tramp in a bus stop, and the ability to leave gaps for the imagination to fill is excellently executed as in the best gothic fiction. This is a really good first novel and I think Hurley is definitely an author to watch.

The Golem and the Djinni

  I chose this from the rejected pile at my book club: one person’s rejection is another’s treasure :-). If you enjoy stories like Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’, where magical worlds intersect with our reality then I think you will enjoy this story – though it’s not in Gaiman’s league.

The story is set in the early part of the twentieth century and centres on the migrant communities as they land on Eliis Island and have to make a life in New York. The Golem of the title finds herself alone and master-less, struggling within hours of her arrival to manager her created purpose to please with the multitude of demands in New York. After she is taken in by a kindly Rabbi who recognises her for what she is and wonders how much she will be able to deal with free will. The Djinni is accidentally conjured from a lamp, a tiny cliche, but by the tin smith who is repairing it, not a princess or a magician. The Djinni demonstrates his own metal working skills and stays on in the Syrian community where he finds his new home.

Of course, the two magical creatures eventually meet and search ways to support each other in containing their special abilities in a new world where magic is left behind. It wouldn’t be a story if things went easily. There are complications of the heart, their cultures collide and their magical pasts follow them from the Middle East as sinister characters cast long shadows into the immigrant community of New York.

This is  a good story with lead characters you can engage with in New York of the last century. To be honest, I did find the story dragged in places and I felt I was waiting for the writer to get on with it! But it is worth pushing through these moments as it is unusual and, like the best fantasy fiction, asks as many questions about the real, modern world as about the parallel world of the story. Welcoming strangers, hospitality, inclusive beliefs and the very question what makes a human are all carefully interwoven with the narrative. It is a bit longer than a usual paperback at around 500 pages, still, a good holiday read and highly recommended.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

  
My second Dickens of 2016! I first read this when I was a teenager, though I now realise it was an abridged version. I also realise how much the musical and TV versions have become muddled in my head with the novel.

Before I read this, I would have said, “Yeah, it’s a good story but I find Dickens bit heavy weather.” Not now! It is a fantastic story which really keeps the pages turning. For me,  Dickens doesn’t quite capture the characters of children as well as, say, Charlotte Bronte, but this is plot driven story about the fate of the orphan, Oliver Twist. Through the story of Oliver’s life Dickens  offers a harsh critique of the Victorian welfare system  and the corruption of the officials who direct Oliver’s fate first through the workhouse system, then into a brutal apprenticeship. When Oliver runs away he is recruited into a gang of London pickpockets led by Fagin, an old and corrupt villain who exploits boys to his own criminal ends. Dickens refers to him as the Jew, which does grate, reading this in the twenty first century! Oliver is an unsuccessful pickpocket though his failure happily leads him to a kind stranger who takes him in as an adopted son, until he is dragged away by Nancy, another member of Fagin’s Gang and put to work in the criminal world by Bill Sykes. All this happens in the first third of the book! 

The remainder of the story keeps moving at the same place as Oliver seeks to escape the clutches of Sykes and Fagin. Sykes is a wonderfully created villain with no redemptive qualities even when he commits the darkest of deeds. His fate at the end of the novel is a heartstopping piece of writing. Most of the characters in this story are simply ‘on the make’ looking to exploit others to gain wealth or influence for themselves. But not all of the villains are unchanged by the events of the story, though not all who wish to change are able to escape their circumstances, such as Nancy, whose demise Dickens used to portray in his live readings.

I did find the references to Fagin as a Jew difficult to take. That is my only reservation about the story and I recognise the shifting historical contexts. Everything else about it I loved and I’m now just wondering which Dickens to tackle next, maybe Bleak House? Any suggestions welcome! 

Book Club Read, March: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans.

  This book was chosen by vote at February’s meeting. I didn’t vote for it! Judging it by its cover I had decided it wasn’t my ‘thing’. Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s actually an entertaining story of the start of the Second World War, the fate of evacuees and the opportunities the war offered to ‘make a quick buck’.

The story opens with a boy of ten, Noel, coping with his godmother’s dementia as he tries to deal with the early demands of the war, blackout blinds and ration books, whilst his school is closed and his classmates evacuated. Eventually, his godmother’s dementia overwhelms her as the conditions of war remind her of her imprisonment as a suffragette and he is ultimately forced into evacuation in St. Albans. This is where he encounters the ‘crooks’ in the crooked heart. The family who take him in are engaged in small time crime, profiting from the war. The son, Donald, a man of nineteen has a heart murmur and has failed his medical. He now takes medical examinations on behalf of men wanting to escape conscription. His mother shakes collecting tins for fake charities and pockets the profits. They are nor portrayed as bad people, just people eking out a subsistence living on the fringes of crime. 

Noel arrives in this family, intelligent and insightful but also a little out of place. He sees the flaws in the plans of his foster mother and begins to help her maximise her profit through statistically examining charity returns in the local papers. As the story is told, the reasons why the family dabble in small crimes become clear and Noel begins to find some affection in his adoptive family.

The story really gets going as things unravel in the two scams and Noel finds himself adrift in a very different London to the one he knows, huddled in air raid shelters, he experiences kindness, the genuine terror of an air raid and eventually finds a path to a new life.

This isn’t great literature but it is a good read which tells an enjoyable story.  Definitely a recommended ‘light’ read, great for a journey or a holiday, not a keeper but one I will pass on to another friend to pass a holiday week.

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

  
This book was bought for me as a present. It’s always interesting to get books as gifts because it shows the sort of reader people think you are. Though I’m from the North West of England and grew up in an ‘agricultural setting’ I know little about sheep, and can honestly say I’ve never thought of being a shepherd, so why did they buy me this book?

This is an autobiography about how a man finds his vocation, real vocation. There is no doubt Rebanks is called to the land, to his fell farm in the Lake District and to the work of sheep farming. The book is told as a tale of the seasons, the first season, the summer of his childhood, growing up learning the work of his grandfather and father, the hard graft and satisfaction of a farming life. He describes how unsatisying school life is and the sense of disconnect between the Lake District of Wordsworth and Wainwright and the landscape he inhabits. The next season, Autumn, follows the death of his grandfather and the slow implosion of his childhood world view. As Rebanks realises the farm of his childhood is not the summertime landscape of his adolescence, his relationship with his father is defined by anger and he knows his life will be one of, ‘drinking, shagging, fighting’ he escapes into the bookcase of his unknown maternal grandfather and finds a different version of the world. 

Camus, Salinger, A.J.P. Taylor, Orwell. It turns out my grandfather had impeccable taste in books. And I lucked out because they ended up in front of my hungry eyes at just the moment I needed them. 

From this, Rebanks begins an unusual, unlikely, but successful journey through night school to Oxford university. Still returning to the farm, to the fell and the sheep as often as he can. Though one summer he is away and realises why National Parks matter to everyone, how places like the Lake District offer escape, a breath of fresh air, to people who live and work in an urban landscape. 

Winter then follows with the Foot and Mouth epidemic which swept Britain in 2001. Rebanks gives a vivid picture of what it is like to loose the herd, to be a shepherd without sheep. Bloodlines bred through the farm over generations are wiped out and they are left devastatingly at leisure. Rebanks is also one of the few writers, who acturately describes snow in the North West. The cold and wet that penetrates to your core and having to keep going to feed the sheep, to bring the flock down from the fell to safer ground where they won’t be entombed in the snowfall. Now when people ask me why I don’t like snow, I can just say, “read this”.

The last season of the book, Spring, tells how the farm restocked and recovered and it is in this part Rebanks really becomes a shepherd, choosing to rear Herdwick sheep, breeding prizewinning tups, raising his own family on the fell side farm, his own father now the grandfather. He also works for UNESCO, which he just drops in as if this is a job everyone does! Book number two?

This is a book about farming, about families, about how we push against our purpose until we find our way and reading it teaches you a little about sheep. I would give it a rare 10/10. There is one character I would like mention, Helen, Rebanks girlfriend, then later mother to his children. They meet when quite young (late teens?) and she is always there just out of focus. The Shepherd’s Wife, perhaps book 3?

February’s Book Club: The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

This was sold to my book club as ‘sliding doors meets one day’. It wasn’t. I did not like it one little bit.
It was a bit like a cake where I like the ingredients, but not their combination – though some people in the club did enjoy it, different tastes, I know.

The basic premise of the book is three different versions of the lives of two characters, Eva and Jim based around the choices they make on one day when they are students at Cambridge. It is a well structured and well written story, with three plausible versions of different lives. I didn’t actually care what happened to them in any version, they were not interesting characters and their internal lives seemed to remain the same in each version. Perhaps that was the point. There was nothing I could identify with, empathise with or even really hate! The main characters felt very two dimensional and often selfish. Because the minor characters were sketched in, they can’t really develop in three different versions of the same tale, the story had no flesh, just the bones of one rearranged into slightly varied skeletons.

Barnett is obviously a very able writer, but this one was just not for me.

  

A Tale of Two Cities.

imageI’ve republished this from a little earlier in the year. It seems very appropriate today, as Brussels comes to terms with a terrorist attack, to remind us that terror is not new. It is our ability to love, forgive and empathise with the sufferings of others that redeems us, just as Dickens’s wrote about two different cities.
It’s ages since I read some Dickens, so one of my reading challenges this year is to re-read some I haven’t looked at for a long time and then read some I have never quite got round to, like Martin Chuzzlewit. This has been partly inspired by the BBC’s production “Dickensian”, which reminded me how vividly Dicken’s draws his characters and evokes Victorian London. So,why did I begin with one of his novels that is not set in his own time, but one of his historical novels. Well, one reason is that it was on my shelf. The Penguin Random House cloth bound classics are a guilty pleasure and I do buy a few each year, by a few I mean six- or seven. Book addicts probably underestimate the extent if their habit too. The other reason was because the lady who runs the book club I attend said she hated it as a novel and had never got to the end. The last time I read it I was a teenager and I wondered if the romantic, historical glasses I had worn from the age of twelve had clouded my judgement and memory of the story.

Being honest, it took me a while to get into the story. The first few chapters felt to drift along until Dr. Manette is finally reunited with his daughter and we meet Mr. & Mme. Defarge. I did at times put the novel down and read something a little less weighty, just to let the story sink in. I suspect that this is how it was read when first published as a magazine series, a little at a time. However, once the scene is set and all the characters introduced, I was hooked. Dicken’s ability to immerse the reader in the Terror of the French Revolution whilst showing how life goes on, bakers bake bread, pharmacists trade, wine sellers stay open and bankers hide assets, is almost like reading a first hand account of a war zone. His characters move between strength and failure, especially Dr. Manette whose personality shows the fragility of the human mind when hope is gone. Dicken’s does not demonise the Redcaps even though they threaten to end the life of his hero Darney, but identifies the failure of justice for the common people. Even the bloodthirsty Mme. Defarge is proved to have a motive for her vengeance though it remains ultimately un-sated. Of course, the real hero of the story is Sydney Carton whose self sacrifice for the love of Lucie gives the book one of the greatest of closing lines.

Though, reading the book later in life, I felt he also had a redemptive ‘awakening’, if not a religious conversion, a conversion to live his life differently, erasing the years of alcoholism. As it is nearly Valentines Day as I write this, I think a quote of his love for Lucie is needed.

I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.

Often, critics comment that if Dickens were writing today he would be writing for T.V. This book is long overdue for a TV adaptation. This is where the BBC should go after War and Peace, the French Revolution ( maybe followed up by a non musical Les Miserables?).