The Winter’s Reading: A New Year, A New ChallengePosted: 5 March 2012
I hate to begin a post with a negative comment, but here it is: my attempt at the ’50 book challenge’ last year ended in tears. Tears as in the liquid kind, dear reader; after all, could you imagine a devotee such as me, defacing a book? Moving on swiftly… before I admit to the hundreds of condemned flyleaves torn out, date sheet still attached, or the inside covers stamped and scribbled upon for the purpose of book sale, or that one occasion I lost my temper with a so-called Christian book* which had ‘homosexuality’ marked as the opposite to ‘marriage’ in a neat little chart… I love and respect all books. Honestly.
However, after bravely beginning the year with Hans Christian Andersen (and realising I’d bitten off more than I could chew), I came to realise that not every book I may lay eyes upon will readily see me through until its last page. It is not with pride that I abandon a badly-chosen book, either for the nature or the SHEER AMOUNT of its content. Therefore in this year’s attempt I promise to avoid such books which threaten the average Bible girthwise.
Eyeing the sizeable tome** that I’m currently reading, this resolution may yet prove fruitless. But at least I can more successfully plot my literary journey this time. She says!
(You can see my current list here, by the way)
January began in earnest with a surprisingly engaging debut from historian Bettany Hughes. It is not often that I pluck a history book from the shelves for light reading. I’m not entirely sure what I expected to find in Helen of Troy: Goddess, Princess, Whore, but I found a truly intruiging and fascinating read.
I am not a stranger to the Greek classics or to Helen; but never has she been discussed in so much colourful and honest depth, with the historical fact and richly-embellished fiction laid side by side and explored with such clarity and vision. Anyone searching for the ‘real’ Helen will find a succinct and worthy companion in this book; you may not find her, but you will finish it much the wiser. Aside from the many portrayals of Helen which Hughes examines in loving detail, she provides so much background information on the life, times, sociology and geography of the Trojan War that your knowledge of the subject truly does increase a thousandfold. I love the feeling that you get when a book you’ve read has furthered your understanding of the world – it is one of the benefits that makes a reader’s hobby so worthwhile. All history books should be like this!
The next to grace my bedside table was The Affinity Bridge by crime and fantasy author George Mann. I must make an admission here in that it was the cover that drew me to this book; I have an affinity for the curious and the vaguely steampunk, and though I’m not fond of crime as a genre I couldn’t pass this one by.
I got exactly what I asked for; as a setting, a Victorian London transformed by the wonders of steam-powered mechanics and a cast of characters so steampunk they ooze oil rather than blood. Yet this is not a vanity book at all; given the popularity of steampunk this novel could have sufficed on a superficial level and still sold its copies, but in actual fact is a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining romp abundant with both humour and hair-raising action, alongside a juicy mystery; the steampunk setting simply makes the prose richer and addictively readable. The one thing this novel is missing is senseless gore, something I’m extremely grateful for. There is graphic death here (after all, it is a crime novel), but always to further the story and not to give the morbidly-inclined a cheap thrill. I could summarise my thoughts of this book by describing it as the steampunk answer to Indiana Jones; the two franchises have a lot in common. Except that I don’t think I’ve actually seen Indy dangling from an airship!
The next book was another random find. At the end of December I was given the opportunity to sample the stock of South Tyneside libraries (and I’m still trying to work out whether this constitutes a conflict of interest!). In the desperation to return home with something new to read I picked up a rather unassuming paperback from the science fiction/fantasy section – an author and a series I hadn’t heard of.
Kim Wilkins is a hidden gem. It’s a shame and a surprise that she seems to be most well-known in her native country of Australia – I can’t even find a second novel for The Autumn Castle, the first in her ‘Europa’ series. Fantasy through-and-through, with just a touch of horror, this book offers a refreshingly different take on the fairy, the changeling, the old witch and the fairy castle which permeate both folklore and all too often (sadly) the less worthy of the genre. This is a good read, however. The villain of the story is its best creation – both unique and unsettling – and while the novel seems to be of a tone which screams ‘teenage’, there is realism in its themes and the treatment of its interesting and well-rounded characters. While the book is marred by a predictable plot, it feels genuine in its delivery and rich in its description and character development.
Hands up anyone who can guess why I chose the next book. Examine the cover. Got it? Well, actually you’re wrong – I didn’t notice Terry Pratchett’s name until after the familiar chaotic style of Josh Kirby’s illustrated cover attracted my attention, during a casual sweep of the library shelves.
His work is, of course, a welcome sight to a Discworld fanatic like me. Terry’s name on the cover was the icing on the cake which persuaded me to pick up this collection of stories, written by well-known authors both contemporary and classic and compiled into a series of delightful volumes by Peter Haining. This volume, Knights of Madness, has as its theme the most inventive, humourous and absurdical the imagination can devise. While Terry Pratchett fits this description perfectly, there are some surprising names – L. Frank Baum, Mark Twain and A. A. Milne just to mention a few – who feature with their strange tales, drawing from parody, crime fiction, satire and the human condition alike. I particularly enjoyed Gene Wolfe’s How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion, though every single one of the 24 contributions increases the value of this book tremendously.
DISCLAIMER. The Book of General Ignorance by John Lloyd has not yet been finished by this reader. Oops. See the next instalment.
Onto February! Well on target and raring to go, the first novel I encountered this month was The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, a strange and engrossing (hur hur hur) fantasy adventure debut by the American author Jesse Bullington. I only recently (as in, five minutes ago) discovered that Jesse Bullington is American. This came as quite a surprise, as his writing seems so genuinely European. That may be a strange compliment to make, but given the strange nature of his first epic… well, you’ll see what I mean when you read it for yourself, won’t you.
The brothers Grossbart are without a doubt two of the most interesting characters I’ve ever come across. From the beginning you are presented with two heartless, efficient and brutal graverobbers and murderers, who would take offence at the slightest personal injustice towards themselves and retaliate in the most effective way possible. If you are blessed with an overactive imagination you should hope you have the strong stomach to match, as this is no fairy story. As the story progresses and the brothers progress on their bloody journey they become more than their villainous first impressions (although you will never be allowed to forget what they are capable of). Their warped religious views are discussed on the highway as they render priests and demons alike limb from limb. The extreme black and white outlook the brothers have upon the medieval Europe in which they live is at odds to the greys with which a reader may see their deeds. Are they all evil? Or is there some righteous piety which dwells within?
It was with extreme joy that I discovered Ian Sansom’s Mobile Library series was, in fact, a series. This discovery was made while sorting the shelves – a time-consuming task known among us librarians as ‘sectioning’. I often use this particular part of my duties to glean the shelves for prospective reads. Honestly, I’m surprised I didn’t leap in the air and squeak when I spotted the familiar artwork of The Mobile Library: Mr. Dixon Disappears staring out at me from among the general fiction.
I reviewed this book’s predecessor some time ago, and as you’ve probably guessed, loved it. Ian Sansom’s series is like catnip for librarians, simply because of the numerous annoyances and mishaps of such a career and how they all seem to happen to his fictional librarian Israel Amstrong, all at the same time. This is schadenfreude at its very best. Of course, there are many other annoyances and mishaps Israel encounters, especially during this second book which sees him leave the mobile library behind, first being falsely arrested and spending the night in prison to losing his job. The result is an enjoyable farce which sees Israel escaping the law in the best way he can while trying to prove his innocence. While there’s less of the library and more of Israel making a fool of himself (as usual), I loved this instalment every bit as much as the first; and I’m glad to announce that I have the third and fourth in the series sitting on my pile waiting to be read!
I should perhaps review titles 8, 9 and 11 of this year’s reading together, since they are of the same series and the same genius – namely, that of Jasper Fforde. Another happy discovery this year was that the library ordered in a copy of The Well of Lost Plots to replace the one which was missing when I attempted to read my way through the series about this time last year. Having read this book (the third in the series), quickly followed by Something Rotten and First Among Sequels, my admiration of the author continues to grow.
The Thursday Next series is a triumph of inventive wit and a celebration of literature of all kinds. There are chuckles around every corner. You’ll spot references to a wide variety of other authors’ work all over the narrative, because in Fforde’s BookWorld all the characters are real, fight and squabble amongst themselves and occasionally make it outside into the real world, either on one occasion, falling in love with one of its inhabitants, or rising to power and replacing the aged British Prime Minister George Formby with ruinous intent on another. In Fforde’s Britain, Swindon is a hub of cultural, industrial and social importance. Wales is a socialist republic. Cheese is a controlled substance. Croquet is the national sport. And of course, if the real world seems too crazy, you can hide away from it all in an unpublished book. Literally.
In The Well of Lost Plots, heroine Thursday Next has done just that. Mega corporation Goliath are after her for imprisoning one of their operatives, the aptly named Jack Schitt, in a copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. She’s being hunted by the younger sister of a serial killer whom she bested on the roof of Jane Eyre‘s Thornfield Hall. If that wasn’t enough, she’s also pregnant by a husband who never existed.
In Something Rotten, Thursday’s family life becomes more complex than ever. She now has a two-year old son, Friday, who remains fatherless. Her mother has taken in some rather odd house guests as part of her husband’s work, and in the absence of Hamlet, his play is merging with the Merry Wives of Windsor. Goliath still refuses to uneradicate Thursday’s husband Landen and prospective prime minister Yorrick Kane is spreading xenophobia about Denmark. While suffering from assassins and stalkers alike Thursday discovers that the only thing to stop total armageddon is Swindon winning the 1988 Croquet Superhoop.
Finally (for now) in First Among Sequels, Thursday has regained her husband Landen and the family has swelled; teenage Friday has lost the power of speech and the ability to wake up in the mornings and daughter Tuesday is a mathematical genius. SpecOps has been disbanded and continues incognito under the cover of Acme Carpets. In the BookWorld, Thursday comes face to face with her literary counterparts and trainees; Thursday1-4, a violent and sex-mad troublemaker and Thursday5, a wet drip. If getting the two to agree (or at least co-exist) wasn’t hard enough, she is faced with problem upon problem – Goliath has invaded the BookWorld and plans to turn Pride and Prejudice into a reality show, she is being hunted down by the Minotaur and unless she can get Friday out of bed, the world will cease to exist.
There are few series which have captivated me as much as this one has, and I think I could count all of them on one hand. I think if I ever get the opportunity to meet Jasper Fforde in person, I will charge him fully responsible for making me miss my bus stop on more than one occasion!
Finally, the last book I’m reviewing this month isn’t a book at all. Though I’m not one for digitised novels (I’m not blessed with an iPod and I prefer my books in paper format, thankyouverymuch), I decided to give an audiobook a go. The one I chose is actually a book I’ve already read – Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.
I wanted to see how an audio performance affected my existing experiences of the book and most of all, I wanted to hear the author himself read it. I was curious to see how he would do it, especially since I’ve read the very same title before for an online radio show. There is just something so special about an author performing their own book, and Neil Gaiman’s performance is spellbinding. Though accompanied with annoyingly unsubtle blasts of the Danse Macabre which drown out the first few lines of each chapter, his narrative is given even more vibrance. It even spooked me out a little at times; which is impressive, given I knew what was coming! It’s an experience I would heartily recommend.
* OK, I was a little naughty. I used sticky labels to block out the word ‘homosexuality’ and replaced it with ‘promiscuity’. Some people’s grasp of English is so weak these days.
** Priestess of the White by Trudi Canavan. A very good, but LONG novel.