Tag Archives: stories

Book twenty-four and Book twenty-five: The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath (Tales of Alderley) #Garner

The Tales of Alderley are children’s fantasy novels written in the 1950s and 60s by Alan Garner.  Despite critical success Garner actually grew to dislike his characters and the third book in the series wasn’t released until 2012!

Upon reading these books my first thought was how had I not read them when I was younger.  They are a fantastic introduction to the fantasy world for children and I can’t believe it has taken me so long to stumble across them.  Set in and around Macclesfield and Alderley Edge in Cheshire the books rely heavily on the folklore and landscape of the area and having grown up not too far from the area myself I definitely connected with the setting of the story.

So what is the story?

The Tales of Alderley tells the story of two children, Colin and Susan who are sent to stay with old family friends whilst their parents are overseas.  Living on a farm in a quiet rural area of Cheshire the children naturally begin to explore the fields and woods and in doing so come to realise that the world they know is shared with wizards, shape shifting witches, dwarves and other magical creatures.  The first book focuses on the lost Weirdstone of Brisingmen, key to protecting the world of humans and good magic from the evil spirit Nastrond.  When it falls into the wrong hands the power of dark side begins to grow and Colin and Susan find themselves caught up in a great quest to take back the stone and quell the forces of darkness once more.  In the second book some time has passed since the great battle and Colin and Susan have had no contact with the world of magic.  But times are changing and the elves need Susan and Colin’s help with an unknown evil power in their own lands.  In helping the elves, Susan is left vulnerable to other older dark powers roaming the Cheshire countryside.  A struggle between old and new magic is taking place and the children get caught very much in the middle of it.

You can’t help but smile when you begin this book and find the “obligatory” map laying out the key places of the story.  I read this book in a mere couple of days, and would find myself caught up reading chapter after chapter.  It is a natural page turner with fantastic chapter cliff endings keeping you reading on.  Whilst there is complexity to the story it is not overwhelming and at roughly 300 pages long they are considerably shorter than many fantasy novels making them perfectly accessible to children new to the genre.  I also found that having children as the central characters kept a good level of mystery and fantasy to the back story of characters, motivation  and plot development without becoming too complex or weighty.  But don’t be worried that in doing that it loses any depth or darkness, I’m sure if I had read this as a child I would have been hiding under the covers insisting that I was ok whilst secretly dreading turning the light off.

Whilst written for children I thoroughly enjoyed both of these books.  So whether you’re looking for a light fantasy read for yourself or something to get your children interested I would highly recommend these books.

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Book thirteen: Watchmen #Moore #Gibbons

As discussed in an earlier blog Watchmen is the first graphic novel I’ve read.  Whilst I quickly got use to the format, finding it much easier and engaging than I had initially expected, I did struggle with getting my head around the story.  Unlike most novels there was no summary of the story available on the back cover and whilst my husband tried to give me a brief introduction I felt quite in the dark for the first few chapters.

So, having read it, what is it about?

Originally written as a series of comic books in 1986 and 1987 Watchmen is set in 1980s America, mostly true to the real world in setting but this one has superheroes who fight crime.  Although referred to as superheroes all bar one of them, Doctor Manhattan, are in fact just highly skilled, trained and equipped civilians, think Batman rather than Superman.  These costumed crime fighters together known as the Watchmen have in the preceding years to the start of the novel affected and altered the outcomes of key events in America’s history including the Vietnam War and presidency of Richard Nixon.  However, over time they have grown unpopular with the police and public leading to the Keene Act which in 1977 outlawed them.

The novel opens with the murder of Edward Blake, known as the Comedian who along with Doctor Manhattan had been operating as government-sanctioned agent since the introduction of the Keene Act.  Rorschach, who has been operating outside of the law believes there is a plot to terminate retired costumed adventurers and takes it upon himself to warn everyone.

Can he get to everyone in time? Who would want the heroes dead? And with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan threatening to start World War III is there a place once more for masked avengers?

I found this to be quite a complex story, there is a lot of movement between the past and present as we learn about the different members of the Watchmen and it wasn’t always clear where in the timeline we were.  In the different chapters we jump back in time to find out more about how the characters developed their costumed alter egos, how they all met, what their relationship and friendships with each other were like.  At the end of chapters we are given access to additional material, extracts from autobiographies, newspaper clippings, letters etc. I believe these are there to give depth to the characters to flesh them out but I don’t think they quite succeed.  I felt that character development was lacking and I struggled to feel empathy or a connection with any of the characters.

Alongside the main story we have a young boy sat by a news cart reading a comic about pirates.  At no point within the story did I understand the relevance of this sub-plot.  I just found it frustrating and would often put down the book during those sections quickly losing interest.  Since finishing the book I have read explanations about the story within a story, how the author included it to bring a subtext and allegory about the darkness within man but even on reflection I fail to see any greater meaning or impact within the main story.

The title of the series apparently refers to the famous question by Juvenal “Who watches the watchmen?” and the theme of power and the role of “superheroes” within society is very strong in the book.  Power struggles between the heroes, US and Russia, between husband and wife, lovers, friends all of these are given a spotlight with the ultimate question being does power corrupt us or is manipulation and strength the only way to win in this world?

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Book eleven: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe #Lewis

Originally published in 1950, although second in the sequential stories, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was the first of the Chronicles to be published and is probably the best known of the seven novels.

Set 40 years after The Magician’s Nephew The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe see 4 siblings, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, evacuated from London to stay with the now grown up Professor Digory Kirke.  There through a wardrobe they find a doorway to another land, Narnia.  The land is in the clutches of an evil White Witch and the children find themselves key players in a battle between good and bad.

Re-reading this book was like taking a time machine back to my childhood, it was always one of my favourite books and I adored the BBC adaption.  Sunday evenings curled up in front of the fire eating sardines on toast I was convinced I could be as brave and courageous as Lucy given the chance to visit a magical world.  Obviously as a child I was unaware of some of the deeper Christian symbols and themes within Lewis’ writing.  Whether you choose to explore the Christian themes or not this is a magical book and a joy to read.

As previously mentioned, I will do a more thorough review once I’ve completed the series.

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Book nine: Ghostwritten #Mitchell

My first experience of David Mitchell’s work was the acclaimed Cloud Atlas.  My husband had thoroughly enjoyed it and I began with high hopes.  Sadly it just didn’t resonate with me.  I found the different stories too short, I couldn’t connect with the characters and I failed to grasp the thread going through them all.  I was incredibly disappointed.  Despite my husband’s insistence that Mitchell was a fantastic writer I pretty much swore off him the day I read the last page of Cloud Atlas.  However, earlier this year we went to an event at the Southbank to see Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation.  The event was fantastic, you can read about it in my post, “Among Giants and Ghosts: Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation” .  Having seen how charismatic and witty Mitchell was it made me reconsider my stance on his books and I decided to go back to the beginning and his first novel Ghostwritten.

Ghostwritten is one book with 9 stories, each with a different set of characters and plots.  Set across Japan, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia, Russia, England, Ireland and America each story has a small thread which splinters into the next.  A millenarianist doomsday cult terrorist hiding out after an attack in Tokyo connects with a mini love story in a Japanese record shop; the couple brush the life of a financial lawyer in Hong Kong.  An affair with his cleaning lady sees a chain reaction which takes us to an old lady on a Holy Mountain in China.  A disembodied spirit moves around people in Mongolia, including that of a Mongolian KGB agent who is involved in a Russian art heist.  In London a ghostwritter has a one night stand with the widower of a Hong Kong financial lawyer and saves the life of a woman about to be hit by a taxi.  With her life intact the woman continues a long journey back home to a small island in Ireland to implement a plan to make her physicist research an aid of peace rather than weapon of war.  Her work leads to the creation of artificial intelligence called Zookeeper which breaks free from its creators and makes contact with a late night call-in radio show seeking guidance.  Mitchell concludes his literary journey back on the Tokyo underground with his first character Quasar, in a panic to get off the train before the sarin is released strands from the other stories appear as hallucinations.  He and we are left pondering what is real.

Mitchell is a novelist with a vision, whether you enjoy them or not his mapping of stories and characters is a true skill and art.  References to plots and characters appear not just in stories in this book but some of them continue in his subsequent work.  Describing him as an artist would not be a dis-service.  Mitchell paints vivid and emotion filled pictures with his words, he can be tender, compassionate and funny.  What I think stands out the most in this book is his ability to embody and portray so eloquently the different genders, generations and cultures.  Written whilst he was living in Japan you can see how he could create such convincing Japanese characters, but his little Chinese woman, his Mongolian villagers and his Russian femme fatale have as much depth and realism.

I have to say I did enjoy this book.  I don’t think I’m ever going to be Mitchells greatest fan and it didn’t leave me wanting to rush out and buy another of his books but I did feel like I understood this book and felt that I invested in the characters and their tales. It’s odd how two books following the same format can read so differently.  There are probably a number of reasons why I appreciated in this book what I disliked in Cloud Atlas.  Maybe the stories are just longer, giving me more time to understand the characters; maybe it is just that the characters are more easily relatable; or maybe it’s me, maybe I was more open to his style having seen him talk about his work, or was just in a better headspace.

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Book seven: The Buried Giant #Ishiguro

Set in an undefined part of England where Britons and Saxons are living in peace with each other an old Briton couple Axl and Beatrice set out upon a journey to visit their son. The history of the couple and their lives before this day are unclear, lost within a mist that sweeps across the land. On the way to visit their son, they meet a number of mysterious people, including Wistan a Saxon warrior, Gawain a night of King Arthur and a Saxon child, Edwin, who has been forced to flee his village after they believe him to be bitten by an ogre.

During the course of their travels Axl and Beatrice find out what is behind the memory clouding mist and must face the reality of remembering things they may have preferred to have left forgotten.

I thought this was a beautiful book. Like man of his other books Kazuo Ishiguro has an almost poetic tone to his writing, slowly moving us through the story. As referred to in my previous post there is definitely a haunting theme to this book. Each of the characters is haunted by their past, memories are eclipsed breaking through in small moments of light. When reading you cannot help but reflect on your events in your own life that haunt you. Do we remember them as they were? Or do we cast a favourable light even on our worst memories?

There are also a lot of secrets in the book. We are often held in the perspective of Axl and Beatrice unsure as to what is happening and whether we are being told the truth. From the mysterious animal that bit Edwin to the behaviour of the monks we are often left lost and guessing, caught up in the cloud of mist. As the truth unfolds it commits us more to the story, to the journey that Axl and Beatrice are on and to the task that lies before all our characters. Even the ending of the book is shrouded in haunting images and secrecy as Axl and Beatrice meet once again with the boatman.

Reading other reviews of the book on Goodreads I was shocked by how many people felt to connection to the characters, did not care for them and were not engaged by the book. I cherished the main couple on the story admiring their love for each other and hoping that in our later years my husband will still call me princess and look out for me on our adventures. I also find the more mysterious and deep characters of Wistan and Gawain compelling. Both warriors clearly carry a heavy weight upon their shoulders and their loyalty to the leaders is admirable. When their individual tasks bring them face to face it is difficult to accept although by that stage in the story you know the outcome is inevitable.

Those that have become caught up in the idea of this as a fantasy novel are I believe completely missing the point of Ishiguro’s writing. A scene has been painted in 6th century Britain and colour is given with reference to ogres and dragons but this is ultimately a book about relationships and memories. Through Axl and Beatrice we must face some stark questions about humanity. Who are we without memories? Can we create a future without knowing the past? Is love strong enough to forgive the past?

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Among Giants and Ghosts: Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell in conversation

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing two literary greats talk about their interests, inspirations and writing. So often when authors participate in events like this there is an intellectual chair who has read all of their work in great detail and proceeds to ask what they think are probing questions about themes, issues, and characterisation. But as Mitchell said himself last night, those questions have all been asked before. A applaud Ted Hodgkinson, Southbank Centre’s programmer for their Literature and Spoken Word programme, for having the confidence to simply leave the authors to it.

The evening began with a short montage of clips from the numerous books of both authors that have been made into film. I must admit I was taken aback by just how many of them have made the jump to screen.

In the early stages of their careers both authors experimented with writing ghost stories. It was interesting to hear them talk about this and the different viewpoints they take. Mitchell is clearly interested in the gore of ghost stories, the tales of what these ghouls may do to you and shared a story with the audience about his brother telling him a ghost story when he was four years old which was built around the fear of a dead grandfather coming back to take your liver! Ishiguro’s fear is more closely aligned to my own which is of the supernatural being itself rather than what they may do to you. The gory elements are things we could fear from a human, the madman who breaks into a home in the middle of night is very real and scary but the incomprehensible phantom that we see when waking from sleep in the middle of night is haunting.

I was really intrigued to hear Ishiguro speak of that feeling of being haunted. Whilst he has left ghost stories behind him, I think he still writes haunting tales, echoes of his characters and stories stay with the reader long after you have put the book down. His characters are also haunted within the books. Take his most recent The Buried Giant, Axl and Beatrice are clearly haunted by the memories of old taken from them in the mist. And in one of his more famous novels The Remains of the Day Mr Stevens is consumed with the people and events of his past.

I think for most people the word haunting immediately conjures images of ghosts, eerie dark houses and things that go bump in the night. Yet as an adjective it is simply defined as remaining in the consciousness; not quickly forgotten. A haunting tale does not have to be scary or gory it simply needs to endure, a quality Kazuo Ishiguro captures beautifully in his books.

From haunting the conversation moved on to fight scenes with a cut away to a clip from a Japanese samurai film which Ishiguro used to demonstrate how a real sword fight should take place. The two proceeded to talk about the difference between writing a great fight scene and filming one. It was something I’d never thought about, but then other than the Lord of the Rings Trilogy I don’t think I’ve read many books with large scale battle scenes. Both writers were in agreement that in books it is more important to get the build up to the battle right, conveying the tension, the anxiety, the aggression then leads the reader to feel that within the battle scene whereas in a film all of that can be conveyed through the battle itself. Mitchell talked about a book by Rosemary Sutcliff that he had read as a child in which the battle scene had been superbly described. In his memory that part of the story was 20 pages long with so much detail and information. Re-reading the book as an adult he realised it was in fact a page and a half, but within there so much had been captured.

Another important factor when writing fight scenes highlighted by Ishiguro was perspective and height. Having re-read War and Peace recently it had struck him how important it is to have someone high up observing the fall out, through that character you can provide a micro and macro account of the fight. Naivety on my part but I had never given much thought to how you describe and create a fast paced battle with words that will only be consumed as quickly as your reader can process them. I have a new found respect for authors that include huge battles, well those who do it well.

The evening moved quickly with both authors taking turns to move away from the planned topic, heading off on a tangent with a tale or a question for the other. Did Mitchell play imaginary games when he was little? Why is Ishiguro so obsessed with the county of Worcestershire? One of the most interesting bits of the conversation I felt was when they spoke about areas they do not feel knowledgeable or authentic enough to write about. With success and age both authors admit to becoming more reserved with their writing and less likely to take risks. Mitchell confessed that he would not write an American narrator again feeling he would be a minor tone out but that being enough to make the whole thing sound wrong. Ishiguro spoke of shying away from areas that he feels are still to present, for example avoiding an original idea to set The Buried Giant during the Bosnian war for fear of not knowing enough to be true to it. Mitchell’s solution is to take side steps, don’t use an American narrator use an Englishman who has lived in America for many years, or maybe a Canadian (said with a wink and a smile).

Time for questions from the audience. I won’t go through them all but wanted to pick up on one of them. A lady asked about how the endings are created, her assumption from reading being that Mitchell very much knows his ending at the start whereas Ishiguro finds his way there organically. Having only read Cloud Atlas by Mitchell I could understand where the assumption comes from, to create a book like that one presumes that the ending must be known to create the loop. How wrong both I and the questioner were. Much to the amusement of the audience both authors were quick to respond – Mitchell “I never know my ending” and Ishiguro “that is where I start”. It was also interesting to see how each other’s method amused and possibly baffled the other. What they both agreed on is that sometimes you have an action, an image, a moment that comes to you that you know must be woven into the book. Mitchell described it as being a point C, knowing what F is going to be and using D and E as the vehicles to get you there.

Although possibly a little awkward to start once Mitchell and Ishiguro found their stride I think both could have continued well into the night. It was a relaxed and fascinating evening and a format I hope more authors participate in. Following the event the authors were doing a signing but sadly we had a train to catch the queue was already a hundred plus long by the time we got down to the ballroom. Maybe next time.

 

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A year in review

This year I set myself the target to read 65 books, to date I have read 29.  Whilst I have been known to be a fast reader at times, with 36 books still to read and only 38 hours left of 2015 (of which I am having to spend 13 in work) I don’t think I’ll reach my target.

For some having read 29 books this year would be an achievement, on average it’s still nearly 2.5 books a month but for me it’s a disappointment.  Why? Because I have a heaving bookcase at home full of books I want to read.

But I’ve struggled this year.  I don’t know if it has been my choice of books, my method (switching between Kindle and hard copy depending on commuting transport), or something else entirely but I’ve failed to get hooked.

So what have I managed to read this year…

The year started well with the Fareer Trilogy by Robin Hobb, I loved those books and couldn’t put them down.  These were quickly followed by Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronvitch – an enjoyable book but not as good as the previous ones in the Peter Grant series, I hope in the next he brings the story back to the streets of London.  Blacklands by Belinda Bauer and The Woods by Harlan Coben were next, both quite dark and following them I needed something a little lighter so I turned back to free books on my Kindle.  March saw me read Mixed Signals by Ivy Raine (don’t ask), Five Children and It by E. Nesbit, Double Dare, Rhonda Nelson and If I Break, Portia Moore.

At the beginning of April I got engaged, I didn’t realise at the time but my life must have become over taken with wedding planning that month as I didn’t read a single thing!  And then I made possibly my biggest error of the year, my choice to get me back into reading…Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell.  I know so many people who love this book, my husband Alex being one of them, but I struggled so much.  Given the choice I think I would have walked away after a few chapters but Alex had enjoyed it so much he pretty much begged me to stick with it.  I wish I hadn’t.  I found it so hard going and broken up that I never got into the flow of reading.

The year progressed with The Taxidermist’s Daughter, Kate Mosse, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins – possibly the most overrated book of the year).  The Beautiful and Damned, F. Scott Fitzgerald, another heavy hitting book followed by The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith. Hmmmm as I write this list I can see clearly where I went wrong this year.

The summer saw me reading The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton, The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch and Police by Jo Nesbo.  I think took an usual turn for me and read a non-fiction book.  I love learning about the areas where I live and work and a friend in work recommended Diamond Street: The Hidden World of Hatton Garden by Rachel Lichtenstein to me.  It was a very interesting read, told in a story-telling manner which made it easier to work through than some history books.

August I returned to the books of Scott Lynch with the 2nd in the series of the Gentleman Bastards, Red Seas under Red Skies.  It didn’t have the same appeal as the first although definitely worth reading.  With the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman I went back to my teenage years and re-read To Kill a Mockingbird followed by the new one.

God’s Spy, Juan Gomez-Jurado, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy, Rachel Joyce and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman guided my through September and in October I escaped to the continent with Us by David Nicholls.  The last two months have been slow going, having loved Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro I picked up his possibly more famous book The Remains of the Day.  Whilst I did enjoy the book I didn’t find it as captivating as his others and found myself reluctantly reading which is never a good thing.

The year has been rounded off with the 3rd book in Scott Lynch’s series The Republic of Thieves and a festive tomb in the form of A Christmas Tail by Cressida McLaughlin.

My aim for next year, to read more than I did this year and not to trouble myself with completing books I’m not enjoying.  To give me a boost I’m actually starting the year with a book I’ve read before and loved.  Going back to the beginning it’s Knots & Crosses by Ian Rankin, the first in the John Rebus series.

 

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