OK, so me and N talked last night, and she agrees with me that the Once Upon a Time reading challenge sounds like great fun, and something we as readers should be involved in. The basic premise is that you can decide a challenge from the list on the website to further expand your horizons and add a bit of summer magic to your reading.
I'm personally going to go for Quest The Third, where you read one fantasy, one folklore, one fairytale and one piece of mythology before June 2010 and then read Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', which has to be one of my favourite plays ever, or go see a performance of it (or both! eeee, theatre and books, slightly awesomegasmic!)
So...the quest begins here...
Well where do I start? I'm not a massive fantasy reader, to be honest. I was when I was younger (see Robin Jarvis article below) but seemed to stop when I hit my late teens, now I actually flinch at the thought of sci-fi and can't really get into the whole escapism thing...maybe because I live in a perpetual fantasy world and realism is the only escape? Hmmmmm
So my first book to be read as part of the Once Upon A Time Challenge will be Odalisque by Fiona McIntosh, because N recommended it and it has been sat on my shelf for ages.
Sometimes, when browsing my local crack den, I mean second hand bookshop, certain books just reach out and grab me. ‘Buy me’, they cry helplessly as my fingers caress the unbroken spine (how? How do you do this? Seriously I have been reading paperbacks with spines for about twenty years now and have never managed to keep a single one in tact, what is your secret? Silicon fingers? Cif?) ‘Buy me, and I will be yours…I will never leave you, never deceive you, you can trust me. My name is book’. This happened to me last week in Poverty Aid (possibly the greatest charity shop in the world, on Cardigan Lane in Leeds. Gonna buy all my furniture there when am Big). I walked in with a pound thinking I would treat myself and walked out with five pounds worth of books and random crap paid for on my credit card. And I wonder why I can’t afford real food and have to bulk up my lasagne with stock. Which is delicious, btw, the 70s got that one right.
The two books I bought weren’t even new! They were remnants of my childhood- ‘The Oaken Throne’ and ‘Thomas’, both part of the Deptford Histories by Robin Jarvis. I finished ‘The Oaken Throne’ last night and need to share with you this amazing, and too often neglected, children’s author. Those of you of a certain age may remember his books with fondness, others, I guarantee you will not be disappointed by taking him up. Jarvis’ first series of fantasy novels aimed at readers from about 8 years old was The Deptford Mice. This is based on a world populated by anthropomorphic mice and other rodents living around London, who worship a system of spirits and gods based on the power of nature and the circle of life. The story centres on one mouse family, the Browns, who throughout the series become entangled in a war against the evil powers of the god Jupiter, who lives in the sewers under London and wishes to cover the world in darkness and prevent the spring. The series is prequelled by another The Deptford Histories, which are, in my opinion, the stronger of the books, each telling the history of a minor character in The Deptford Mice, unrelated to each other and spread across time and place. My favourite book would be ‘The Oaken Throne’, which I have just re-read, about the war between squirrels and bats over the power of a magical portal that controls the coming of spring, the Starglass and manages not only to evoke Shakespeare in its depiction of doomed love and demonstrates to children truthfully, understandably and non-patronisingly the futility of war based on racial hatred, but also has one of the most powerful and sad endings I have ever read in a book, never mind a children’s book. What I like about the books is just how inventive they are. Anthropomorphism is not a rare occurrence in children’s literature, but combining this with a tangible religious and political system, and stories that include themes such as inter-racial relationships, slavery and exploitation, and, it could be argued, environmentalism, is a rare achievement for books aimed at children younger than ten. Although the writing is not as strong as, say, Phillip Pullman, it is just as inventive and challenging to the reader to grasp this fully formed and realised world Jarvis, unlike other children’s fantasy writers of the last twenty years who I am not going to mention, is incredibly versatile. By making series of books that conform to the trilogy format he is able to explore a wide range of situations and characters without being caught in a over-long tangent of events and characters that are not well rounded enough to last for more that a couple of books without having by necessity to be killed off, and although both the Deptford Mice and Histories, and the new series The Deptford Mouselets are based in a world of speaking mice and bats and squirrels at war, he is a gift that keeps on giving with other trilogies that are just as inventive and enjoyable to read. I was first introduced to Jarvis when I was about 8 by the Whitby Witches, a trilogy, surprisingly enough, based in the North East England coastal town of Whitby- famous for it’s beautiful Abbey and connection to Bram Stoker who set part of ‘Dracula’ there. I grew up about ten miles from Whitby and was therefore very much aware of the town’s beauty and spiritual past. The Whitby Witches tells the story of two young orphans, one of whom, Ben, can see not only dead people (including, tragically, his parents), but supernatural beings. When he and his sister Jennet (beautiful name) are adopted by a strange old woman and brought to live in Whitby, it is not overly clear why their lives have brought them to this beautiful, eerie place. However, Ben soon discovers a race of fantasy characters, the Aufwaders, that live along the shore under the cliffs (if you ever visit Whitby, which you will want to do after reading this books walk along the beach and you can almost see the little fisher folk cleaning their nets). The story follows Ben as he tries to help the Aufwaders, who are struck by a curse that was brought on them when their ancestor fell in love with a human, bearing his half-breed child that was subsequently neglected by the rest of the tribe and their gods, the Lords of the Deep who evoke the spirits of the oceans. This leads to the human man’s death, the Aufwader’s suicide, and a curse by the Lords that all Aufwader women will die in childbirth. Pretty adult themes for a book about an 8 year old boy. Makes Harry Potter look almost tame (which it is). The stories get even more adult in nature in the second book of the series, where the pre-teen Jennet is prayed on by an adult male warlock in order to get closer to the coven of witches to which her foster mother, Alice, belongs. I truly believe that it is important that children talk about things that worry them: instead of merely smothering our children in wii-fit cotton wool, we should openly discuss bad things that happen in the world, this can be facilitated by the reading of excellent literature and A Warlock in Whitby provides that. I would highly recommend this book as invoking pathos, as a way of getting children to talk about abuse, and exploitation. I cannot remember the entire plot, but I can remember the feeling of tingling up my spine when Jennet is persuaded she is in love with Nathanial Crozier, in the modern world of social networking, with grown ups preying on the emotions of children, it is important for people to recognise from an early age that this is wrong. Jarvis has also written a series based around WWII and ancient Norse mythology crossed with a bit of Greek, set in a modern day museum (starting to tell why I love this guy? I mean, what happened, did he wake up in the morning and go “I wonder what would happen if the Fates in charge of the Yggdrasil actually ran a museum in London that contained a time traveling device in the shape of a stuffed bear” and then just go from there?). I did not enjoy this series as much as the other too (a bit weird for me, probably why its called The Wyrd Museum series), probably because I did not like any of the characters, whilst I loved Alice, Jennet, Ben and the Aufwaders and had a strong liking for the Deptford Mice. The books are also insane, jumping from ancient Viking myth to the history of Glastonbury to the Nazis to the trials single parenthood way to fast- or maybe I’m just getting too old for them!
Occasionally re-reading something from your past can go two ways, either you want to go back in time and rip the book from your tiny-child spine creasing fingers and beat yourself round the head with it for wasting your precious pre-taxpaying time when you could (and should) have been watching The Craft, or make you all warm and soft inside because you know what’s going to happen and you don’t care- as Miley Cyrus once said, it’s the climb. Re-reading Jarvis over the past few days has been a pleasure, and I can’t wait for this week of reading The Damned Utd in preparation for seeing David Peace talk next week at the Headingley Lit Fest on Saturday to be over so I can get stuck into Thomas!
Right, I’m going to say it, I’m just going to come out and say it. No holding back any longer, I am a strong independent woman who has the right to state her own opinion freely and without fear.
I really really love Marian Keyes.
Not in a lazy-Sunday-afternoon-in-the-bath way, not in a holiday-reading way, but in an actually,-I-think-she’s-a-bloody-good-writer-and-capable-of-many-things way.
I just love her. I love her honesty in writing characters that are fundamentally flawed. I love her sense of humour, and that she finds the same little things funny as I do. I love the way she incorporates fashion and style and modern thinking into her books, without overdoing it and making them hopelessly dated. I love how my the end of certain parts you are weeping because these are real people whose lives you’ve intruded upon and you almost want to give them all little hugs and make them a cup of tea and tell them everything will be better. Because that is what you would do with your friends. And they are your friends. And she is your friend. Marian, my friend Marian. Ahhh.
I mean just look at the woman. She is a brand for women who like biscuits and handbags but more often than not have biscuits in their handbags and when searching for their mobiles get crumbs all over their coats. She looks like Primark pyjamas that have never been washed. Like proper hot chocolate, made in a pan, by a man with wide shoulders. Not as good as your mum, she’s way too sexy to be your mum, but maybe like your best friends’ older sister. Even her fringe looks comforting.
I first discovered Marian (you can call her Marian, she doesn’t mind) when I was 13 on a coach trip coming home from Spain with school. I had predictably run out of books and for some reason (even though some of my favourite books of all time have been randomly bought in foreign railway stations- The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco being the best example. Made Florence ’06 so much better) I was unable to buy more. Probably because I had spend all of my money on a small wooden statue of a voodoo priest and a massive poster of the Sagrada Familla that I STILL haven’t got framed. But never mind.
The book I ended up borrowing (I say borrow, I mean steal, but she dropped my Clan of the Cave Bear in the bath so fair enough says I) was ‘Last Chance Saloon’, which had been published by Keyes the year before. Could Not Put It Down. ‘LCS’ is the story of a group of friends in their thirties living in London in the late nineties. Three of them are Irish from a small town in Co Clare: Tara, who now lives with her arsehole tight fisted misogynistic boyfriend and has no self esteem about her appearance, even though she is clearly successful and popular with her friends (love this character even more now I have grown up and know so many people like this! So very very frustrating): Katherine, who comes across as a confident Ice Queen (her nickname in the office where she works- one of the funniest bits in the books for me is when the new office temp calls her Ice Queen to her face, thinking it must be an Irish name or something. I know full well I will end up doing something like this at some point), but in reality has as little self esteem as Tara, especially when it comes to men: and finally Fintan, a fashionista living with his equally modern and hip boyf who seems to be the happiest of all three of them. The book starts with each character getting on with their lives. Then, Fintan becomes ill (and what I really, really like is that it isn’t AIDS, but cancer. Not that I like cancer) and forces Tara and Katherine to make drastic changes as his last wishes.
This leads to much hilarity as the two women battle against straying from what they consider ‘normal’ behaviour (such as wearing a dress two sizes too small because your boyfriend tells you to, even though you don’t like yourself in it, then putting up without complaint whilst he calls you ‘fat’. I really really hate Thomas) in order to fulfil the final wishes of their best friend. The book also explains the reasons behind Tara and Katherine’s character flaws, going back to their childhoods and moving to Limerick. The book is, in turns, romantic, tragically sad and hilariously funny. It also contains one of the most highly charged, whilst excruciatingly subtle sex scenes I have ever read. You should know by now I don’t like gratuitous anything, the sex in Keyes books is real, and important in showing how the characters fit around each other. I still have a mega crush for Joe Roth, who is NOT REAL. Not Real.
I must have read this book about thirty times in the last twelve years. Even if I don’t read all of it, I could read the chapter of Katherine and Joe’s first date over and over again- its like Darcy’s proposal; you know its going to happen at the end, but its just so beautiful. Of course semi-prolific writers (ten books in fifteen years, all of which are at least two inches thick, plus two collections of short stories, endless amounts of journalism and two books written for ESOL learners. Not bad) can’t always be amazing, Marian does have some books that have fallen flat. Her latest ‘The Brightest Star in the Sky’ was criticized for being too out-of-this-worldy and borrowing heavily on the style of another prominent Irish Women’s Author (why do I say that? I wouldn’t go Adele Parks, she’s a Prominent English Women’s Author. Sorry for the slight case of literary racism) Cecelia Ahern. I haven’t read it yet, so can’t comment, but I did not enjoy ‘Anybody Out There’, and found ‘Watermelon’ (to be fair, her debut. But then look at all the other debuts I’ve been loving recently! Props go out to the Kostova Massive- just as soon as I can justify £14 for a hardback I will hitting that Swan Thieves), draggy and semi pointless- in fact I’m not massively keen on any of the Walsh family, her reoccurring characters, five sisters who get a book apiece- but I defy you not to read ‘Angels’ and weep.
The reason I’m going on about Keyes is because I have just finished what I believe to be her ‘best’ book in terms of actual writing; ‘This Charming Man’. This is the story of Paddy de Courcey, a successful politician in Ireland who has just announced his marriage to the press. This comes as a surprise both to his fiancée, Alicia, who did not know a wedding was immanent, and his girlfriend, Lola, who did not know about hi fiancée. Thrown into the mix are investigative journalist, Grace, and her sister Marcie who has a mysterious connection to Paddy. The story is told from the point of view of four different women, each of whom writes in a totally different style (Lola in diary format with no propositions). I know multiple-voice isn’t particularly new or clever, but she does it really well, and structurally the novel is excellent, slow at the front then suddenly incredibly gripping. What I also love about Keyes, which she demonstrates in this novel in particular, his her willingness to tackle themes that are Big and Important without loosing her reader. ‘The Charming Man’ is also an exposé of domestic violence and alcoholism, and by having the victims being strong women who you expect not to put up with that sort of thing, the reader is even more aware of the horrors of violence against women, and that it could (and does) happen to anyone. Marian does not let her characters ‘get away’ with it either; although you genuinely feel sorry for the alcoholic mother who looses her job and family because of her drinking, you also feel utter disgust for her actions and want to shake the poor woman in parts. I felt a lot more effected by the violence in this novel, more so than say ‘The woman who walked into doors’ by Roddy Doyle (which I will hands up say is the better book literary speaking) because it is juxtaposed so well by the humour. Yes its cheesy and easy, but so what? She has done the job, made the reader more aware, and who knows how many ‘normal’ women will read that book and turn around on their dickhead husbands and leave them?
There is a tendency for ‘readers’ to scorn Keyes as trash, fair enough. But I really really like her. I do like ‘proper’ books, and I will read and enjoy classics, but I will not be ashamed to have Marian on my shelves and in my life and I’m kind of sick of other people being so. Marian has brought many women to reading for the first time- this cannot be a bad thing. Even my sister (when not reading about sexually frustrated seventeen year old vampires) loves Marian, and always has, and always gets bought the newest one for Christmas off my Dad, whilst I, the ‘serious’ reader get the latest edition of ‘The Second Sex’ and Jon Pilger’s journalism collections (not that I am in any complaining, both are excellent and make my shelves look very phat, plus now desperately need a copy of The American Way of Death by Jessica Mitford- anyone, anyone at all? Birthday now not for over year!). I would really recommended that people read her books before judging her, and therefore her readers, as somehow second best. She is always top of the bestsellers, long may she reign.
This month I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’- though on top of the current book club selection was feeling a bit ratted out. Also rediscovered an old favourite Robin Jarvis- loved his books when I was about 10 and re-reading ‘The Oaken Throne’ is bringing back many happy memories. Also finished ‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry which I thought was just beautiful and will be lending out shortly.
The three book-clubbers, and honoured guest - Lela - ventured into the 3D world in order to see this film in all its glory...and whatever our views about the film, the 3D does not disappoint. In fact, the Doctor Who trailer was terrifying!!!
I personally have always had a deep and abiding love for the world of Alice, and her friends. As a very teeney tiny little (but no less vocal) person, my parents undertook the task of ensuring that I would be a reader, and worked their way through many children's classics, revisiting Alice's adventures more than once.
(Interesting side note, my mother, hates this book. She re-read it with her book club, and she is no fonder of it now than she was when I was a wee one. Funny the way that sometimes happens, usually our tastes are more aligned!)
However, for me, Wonderland is no static place, fixed in time. Instead, it's like Narnia, or Oz. The sort of place that you are invited to visit and have your own adventures in, ever changing, but staying the same. While slightly dubious when I first heard of the project, I relaxed slightly when I realised that the child-like genius that is Tim Burton would be directing it.
From my first fall (see what I did there?!?!), I've been enthralled, and I love all the different incarnations that the book allows - from graphic novels, to films, to books, to music - Alice has influenced so much more than her author could have even imagined!
Some of my personal favourites - aside from the originals, which are obviously top of the heap - are 'The Looking Glass Wars' by Frank Beddor. This, a grown up retelling of the Alice story, is a darker, but respectful incarnation, and led to the marvellous 'Hatter M' graphic novels, in which a ninja style Hatter searches for Alice in our world.
The Disney film, which I watched with my first ever BFF, is drenched with those warm fuzzy memories that no amount of cynacism manages to overcome. Every time I watch it, I become 12 years old again, and the sun is shining, and the air smells of heat, and leaves. Despite not being the most faithful of adaptations, and so sweet it'll give you a toothache, I will never not be able to love that film!
Oooh, the scifi series Alice is also very watchable, though one of those more inspired by, than any sort of adaptation.
And the weirdly wonderful chapters in Heinlein's Lazarus Long series are also worth a mention!
Jeepes, even Lost makes frequent references to the stories!
The Quick Reads scheme is one well known in the inner sanctum of the world of libraries and reader organisations and groups...and I wish to share my love of them . Quick Reads were launched in 2006 and since then there has been over 50 titles published under the brand, the latest 10 being published last week on World Book Day.
What is so great about Quick Reads is the variety of stories available. The aim of the QRs is to be read by adults who are either not confident in their reading, coming to reading in English for the first time or maybe coming back to reading after a break. This could lead to a selection of patronisingly simple titles about going to the park or zoo and eating ice cream with my dog spot, or a long list of stories about yoof and dat. But every ones tastes (well, maybe not every one's taste! No erotica as of yet!) is catered for. The titles range from autobiographies of celebrity chefs and rugby stars, to chick lit romances, to thrillers (including the genuinely terrifying 'Lily, a Ghost Story' by Adele Geras, which is probably one of my favourites). This is owed entirely to a remarkable collaboration between publishers, with many popular authors frequently found in the top ten contributing to the scheme. Quick Reads also come from popular television programmes; both the Dragon's from Dragon's Den and Doctor Who are represented (and David Tennent looking lovely on the cover is NO REASON why they are pride of place in my display AT ALL:-) The writing is simple, compared to 'big' books, but not in a patronising way. There is less punctuation than you would find in a 'big' novel, for example. This does not limit the plots in terms of their adult content; in the new Peter James' QR the main character visits brothels and discussing his sexual practices in them quite frankly. Gordan Ramsey's autobiography is full of expletives as you may expect, and other books discuss knife crime, teenage pregnancy and other popular hard hitting themes.
In my experience, Quick Reads are a great way to get someone to read a full book, by themselves, for pleasure, for the first time; often the hardest step in getting people to be readers. One girl in my last job was a real pain at the start of term, then she randomly decided to borrow a book, because she had nothing better to do that night, and ended up a massive Adele Parks fan through her QR 'Happy Families'. She told us it was literally the first night she had ever turned her phone off and just sat and read. The story of a mother ignored by her family and worried about new relationships really spoke out to her in a way that none of the classic literature she had been 'forced' to read at school had done. Now she borrow a book evry couple of weeks and just finished the last of the Marion Keyes...we'll get her on Austen yet!
The books are £1.99 each, or can be bought as sets from the Quick Reads website. Most bookshops seel them, and libraries will have them; if you are ever stuck for a nice train or bus read I highly recommend you check them out- just because they're short and 'easy' reads doesn't make them bad books!
Lily A Ghost Story by Adele Geras Maybe its because I was on a bus winding over the Yorkshire Dales late in the evening in the deep of mid-winter when I read it, but I was genuinely chilled by this story of a young woman recovering from a miscarriage who finds work in a house with a dark secret...echoes of Rebecca throughout...great fun.
Happy Families by Adele Parks I really like Park's other chick-lit books, especially the Other Woman's Shoes, which I read on holiday a couple of years ago. This is a great example of how chick-lit can resonate with the reader to a profound effect, and you feel for Lisa in her struggles, I had a little leap of joy at the end!
Traitors in the Tower by Alison Weir The only historical fiction one of the series so far, this is a collection of short stories surrounding the deaths of such historical figures as Anne Boleyn and Jane Grey. Of most interest to me was that of Jane Parker, Lady Rochford, who I remembered from Shardlake and The Otter Boleyn Girl- it was nice to read a story dedicated to her. You might think oh great, another one about the Tudors, but in my mind you can never have too many!!
East End Tales bu Gilda O'Neill Just really lovely, its in the retelling of tales from childhood that the simple structure of the Quick Read comes into ts own. I bought this as a preset for my ex's dad who also grew up in the East End and he enjoyed it immensely. The Book Boy by Joanna Trollope Trollope is such a master, she can make any style work for her (guff much). I was really touched by this story of a illiterate woman and her relationship with her son's bully. This one is for all the literacy teachers out there- the bit where the woman grasps the concept of reading for pleasure not as a chore brought a little tear to my eye in recognition. Lovely bus read.
This month I have been plowing my way through Company of Liers (see Book Club the fourth) and also discover Andre Pepper...his Pyke mysteries set in late Georgian England are a little silly at times but well worth giving a go.