The Page 56 Meme

This nice and easy meme came by way of Victorian Geek via Ibooknet blog.

  • Grab the nearest book.
  • Open it to page 56.
  • Find the fifth sentence.
  • Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
  • Don’t dig for your favourite book, the coolest book, or the most intellectual one: pick the CLOSEST.

Here goes: “Until late in the century, he would visit German houses in Baltimore and Pennsylvania on Christmas Eve, carrying a bundle of switches for naughty children and treats for the good ones.”

Who is this strange visitor? He’s ‘Belsnickel’ – a Dutch mythical being similar to Krampus in Austria and Germany – one of Santa’s helpers. A dour character who was popular with parents who wanted to keep their children in line.

Big apologies for posting about Christmas when it’s still October! This lore comes from a little book I just acquired called The Christmas Companion – a merry little book of festive fun and trivia – a sort of Christmas themed Schott’s Miscellany. I got this to help me write some seasonal questions for the end of term staff dinner – we like a bit of a quiz, and silly me – I volunteered to do it this year.

An influential book from an influential writer …

Howards End is on the landing by Susan Hill

That pesky Susan Hill! She’s managed to set the book-blogging world alight with her latest – a memoir about reading the books in her house and the stories they are associated with. HEIOTL, as I shall abbreviate it to, has become a blogging hot topic – but in the nicest possible way…

At the heart of HEIOTL is Hill’s decision not to add to her house full of books for a year (except for books she is to review); to explore her collection and find new books to read in it, to re-discover lost gems and re-read favourites, and then to compile a list of the forty books she couldn’t live without.

Each shelf examined brings reminiscences. There are stories about encounters with great writers and celebrated personages, who all seemed to be very supportive of the young novelist, and indeed many of them became friends. I loved all this name-dropping, and particularly enjoyed the chapter about Benjamin Britten whose ‘Sea Interludes’ provided an epiphany for Hill (I love them too – they were marvellous to play many years ago in Croydon Youth Philharmonic Orchestra); the story about Alan Clark was good also.

There are many discussions of writers and their books. Hill is refreshingly honest about what she doesn’t enjoy reading as well as her literary loves – she’s no Austenite, but reveres much of Thomas Hardy, she can’t be doing with Terry Pratchett and Sci-Fi in general but did concede to liking John Wyndham but puts him in the horror pile. I was delighted that she loves Ian Fleming, John Le Carré and Michael Connelly too.

Although I haven’t read him, her chapter about W.G.Sebald does make me want to read The Rings of Saturn. She writes “But so many places on a Sebald journey are eerie, deserted, out of date, and lie under a pall of dismal weather. In The Rings of Saturn he walks through East Anglia and manages to make places I know well, and have found sparkling and lively, suicidally depressing.” I lived and worked for nearly two years in and around Great Yarmouth – a South Londoner fresh out of uni and have rarely felt so lonely as then, so I’m with Sebald on that one.

Then at the last pages we get to the final forty, the snapshot in time of the forty books she couldn’t do without – well on that day at least, for she says she would probably pick a different 40 tomorrow. The natural extension of this is to start compiling one’s own forty – but that’s another project and post!

Every year I say I must read more books from my TBR mountains. Do I think I could do as Hill did and not buy any new books for a whole year? It would be nice, but I don’t think I can. Simon at Stuck in a Book has set himself a post-HEIOTL challenge to buy no more than 24 books in 2010. My biggest problem post-HEIOTL is the number of books I’ve added to my wishlist, and may have to buy/acquire, after reading it – an index would have been slightly helpful here!

I love reading books about books, and this one (with its lovely cover) didn’t disappoint. Susan Hill is doing an event in Abingdon next month, and I’m really looking forward to hearing her talk about it. I also hope to fit in reading another of her novels too – The Beacon has been on my shelves unread for ages too.

This book sure has got us all thinking! If you want to read more reviews, see Dgr, Paperback reader, Savidge Reads, and Other Stories to name but a few. Oh, and by the way, if you love books about books, do read Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman – it’s utterly brilliant.

My Season of the Living Dead is over!

My month of vampire reading is over – Ended! Finito! I’ve read six novels back to back, mostly extremely enjoyable until I came to the last. Dracula – the Un-dead by Dacre Stoker and Ian Holt …

Co-written by Bram Stoker’s great-grandnephew and a vampire expert, this official sequel tries to shoehorn in every single bit of vampire lore in existence into its length, moving the action on to 1912, twenty-five years after the original novel ends. Someone is after the survivors of the original band of heroes who ‘killed’ Dracula and is picking them off one by one. It appears to be another evil historical figure – Elizabeth Bathory, (another real person who is reputed to have bathed in girls’ blood), or could it be Jack the Ripper(!), or has Dracula risen again from the undead. It’s up to Jonathan Harker’s wife Mina, and son Quincey to stop them or be killed themselves.

The novel was never sillier than when they put Bram Stoker himself into the plot as a struggling writer trying to put on a play of his novel – for a book supposing to put right the injustices done to the Stoker family when they were denied royalties for Dracula in the USA, I couldn’t understand this move. Mercifully, it was a quick read – fans of Dan Brown should love it!

*****

I finally watched the film of Twilight yesterday. I loved it! I liked the Twin Peaksy feel and the lighting. I felt that Bella came across as having a bit more self-determination than in the book, and of course it pared away some of the frustrating talk that clogged up the novel. I also like how they handled the vamp’s shimmering in the sunlight. Of course, the two lead characters were lovely to look at which always helps – Kristen Stewart reminded me of Harry Potter’s Emma Watson with dark hair and a bit less earnestness – they have very similar facial expressions. The result is, of course, that I may have to read a seventh vamp novel very soon – New Moon, but first I need a break – I’ve a book group choice and some ARCs to waiting to be read!

A chilling and contemporary twist on the vampire novel

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

All the other vampire books I’ve read in my ‘Season of the Living Dead’ have been rather cosy or had a good sense of humour.

But then they’ve been mostly aimed at teens and young adults.Then I came to a Nordic vampire novel Let the Right One In, and found something truly dark and horrific that needed a strong stomach and nerves of steel. It is a real contemporary chiller, full of violence and gore, totally relentless – yet at its heart is a the redemptive relationship between a twelve year old boy and a 200 year old vampire frozen into the body of a young girl.

The book is set in and around an anonymous housing estate, built at the edge of a forest in the suburbs. We are introduced to Oskar, twelve years old, fat and geeky, who is the chief victim of the class bullies, and we immediately feel for him. But then we meet Håkan, a quiet newcomer to the town; but he’s also a seedy forty-five year old in a raincoat and has serial killer written all over him – he’s carrying a cylinder of anaesthetic, and he’s prospecting for a victim – it doesn’t take long, and then it’s horrorshow time!

Meanwhile Oskar meets Eli, a strange young girl who only appears in the evenings in the playground. They gradually strike up a friendship and once they realise that their bedrooms share a wall, they start to send morse code messages to each other; Eli’s the first girl who’s ever noticed Oskar. The rest of the supporting cast comprises a group of old men, drifters and alcoholics who meet at the pub – one of them thinks he saw something on the night of the first murder but they’re all too scared. Eventually all of these character threads come together.

I won’t expound any more on the plot as it would spoil the suspense; suffice it to say there are some particularly disturbing scenes in its 500+ pages. The relationship between Oskar and Eli is fascinating; Eli is of course a vampire. When Oskar finds someone to love it is touching, it is also the beginning of his growing up, being able to stand up for himself.

Oskar held the piece of paper with the Morse code in one hand and tapped letters into the wall with the other…
G.O.I.N.G. O.U.T.
The answer came after a few seconds.
I. M. C.O.M.I.N.G.
They met outside the entrance to her building. In one day she had … changed. About a month ago a Jewish woman had come to his school, talked to them about the holocaust and shown them slides. Eli was looking a little bit like the people in those pictures.
The sharp light from the fixture above the door cast dark shadows on her face, as if the bones were threatening to protrude through the skin, as if the skin had become thinner. And …’
What have you done with your hair?’ He had thought it was the light that made it look like that, but when he came closer he saw that a few thick white strands ran through her hair. Like an old person. Eli ran a hand over her head. Smiled at him.
‘It’ll go away. What should we do?’

This novel was entirely different to any other vampire story I’ve read. It was thoroughly modern with no hints of Gothic melodrama at all. It was too long, but thoroughly gripping if you have the stomach for it. Moreover it takes our current fascination with all literary things Nordic, particularly crime novels, to another different level. Read it if you dare! (9/10)

P.S. Just got the original Swedish movie to watch. Apparently it’s marvellous.

Paving the way for the teen vampire sensation

Vampire Diaries  by L J Smith

Anyone reading this book would be forgiven for thinking that it was rather derivative of a certain other one – Twilight that is. It even has an apple on the black cover … Amazingly, it was published over ten years before Stephanie Meyer had even started hers. Understandingly, the publishers have jumped on the bandwagon with a new edition. I didn’t discover it until I had already read Twilight though, so my thoughts about Smith’s book can’t help but but be influenced by the other.

The Vampire Diaries was originally written as a trilogy in 1991, and extended to 4 parts a year later. This edition contains parts 1 & 2. Smith is now adding another new trilogy to the series, and in between also created the ‘Night World‘ series of novels featuring many different supernatural races.

Smith’s heroine is beautiful and popular, and when a new boy Stefan comes to school, she just has to have him. Sure enough he’s a vampire with an evil older brother Damon. Back in the Renaissance they both loved the same woman, who became vampire and then when they forced her to choose between them, she took both, but Stefan still thinks she really loved him before she died. Elena reminds him of her – so they’re made for each other. Then nasty things start to happen in this little town – there’s a big black crow always around, then people get scared in the old ruined church, and an old guy is killed under bridge over the river. Then at the school’s Halloween Haunted House party, someone dies – all fingers point to Stefan, but we know that Damon lives and he wants what his brother wants …

Arguably, more happens than in Twilight, however I found the Vampire Diaries rather ordinary and humourless, somewhat full of stereotypes and also lacking the former’s subtlety. Also, for a book with the word ‘Diaries’ in the title, the few diary pages included were strangely uninvolving to me. I would describe the book(s) as competent, and fans of her Night World series will surely enjoy these vampires. (6/10)

Sookie & Vampire Bill – what a couple!

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

The high-school vampire novels I read last week were but mere hors d’oevres in preparation for this – the main course.

The Sookie Stackhouse novels have been given the HBO treatment by Alan ‘Six Feel Under‘ Ball, and are currently on our screens as True Blood, but before I watch the TV series (I’ve recorded initial episodes) I wanted to read the first book…

Pretty Sookie Stackhouse waits tables at Merlottes, a bar in Bon Temps, deep in the heart of Louisiana. The locals think she’s slightly crazy – but they don’t know that Sookie is a telepath and can hear everyone’s thoughts – to stop herself going mad she has to concentrate to keep her guard up. She lives quietly with her Gran, boyfriends being difficult with her knowing everything they are thinking!

Since the invention of synthetic blood, vampires have come out into the mainstream but one has never been to Merlottes, until Bill. Unfortunately he sits next to the wrong people who are after his blood – it’s worth $200 a phial, and they lure him out to the woods beyond the carpark where they tether him with silver and start to drain him – until Sookie intervenes. She saves Bill, and it’s fair to say it’s love at first sight for both of them – particularly as Sookie can’t hear Bill’s thoughts. Bill now owns the old house across the way from Sookie’s Gran. He’s one of the few who wants to intregrate into a community – to live quietly, and only drinking synthetic blood. He was made a vampire during the civil war and is tired of living on the edge.

The only problem is that as soon as Bill appears, murders start happening. They’re all good-time girls who have a bit of a reputation as ‘fang-bangers’. Suspicion is automatically on all the vampires in the region, but Sookie’s brother Jason also knew the murdered girls. Sookie decides to use her powers to help solve the crimes. The wider vampire network is a dangerous place and there is a serial killer somewhere out there in this close-knit community that must be caught.

A kooky heroine and vampires combined with a top-notch crime novel set in America’s Deep South is a winning combination – I absolutely loved it! Sookie is sparky and resourceful, yet has been waiting for someone to love; Bill wants to be normal and to be taken at face value – he is a good and chivalrous vampire and Sookie awakens his protective instincts. This book is immense fun, it’s sexy and intense with thrills aplenty. Volume two, Living Dead in Dallas is already in my reading pile. (10/10)

Brothers under the skin???

I will get back to writing about books very soon, but an off-duty photo I saw yesterday of Twilight hunk Robert Pattinson in my daughter’s kids’ newspaper ‘First News’ gave me a jolt – for the delightfully chiselled Robert is looking rather like the handsome younger brother of the comedy demi-god that was John Belushi! I couldn’t find the exact photo – but it’s all in the eye-brows … What do you think?


Now I can see why teenage girls love vampires …

Although I have more of the same stacked up, (vampire novels aimed at teenagers that is), I think I’ve worked out why teenage girls love reading them… They have all the features of many traditional favourites:- set in schools pupilled with bullies, geeks, jocks, all the usual stereotypes are there; there’s good/bad, sympathetic/not teachers; an overwhelming hatred of maths; but most importantly the heroine is new to the school – an outsider who is different and sticks out a mile. Mix thoroughly and then spice liberally with vampires to bring a whole new level of fantasy to the staple genre. However given all that, these first two books have totally different approaches …

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer

Although not the first, Twilight is the book that has ignited the current vamp fever.

Isabella is a beautiful yet clumsy girl who has left her Mum, and her new husband, in Phoenix to live with her Dad in the small, rainy, northwestern town of Forks. Enrolling at the local high school she soon makes friends, but then attracts the attention of the mysterious and impossibly good-looking Cullen family.

It is love at first sight for Isabella and Edward – but the course of true love never runs smooth, as the Cullens are vampires. As Edward and Bella start to explore whether it is possible for them to have a relationship, some other vampires come on the scene, and Bella is put in danger.

It could have been really brilliant, but to be honest I didn’t warm to Bella – she’s a bit of a whiner and homebody, and so drippy once she falls for Edward. He on the other hand is the business, provided you can forget the slightly creepy fact that he’s a hundred year-old vampire in the body of a seventeen year-old Adonis. Crucially though, it’s so slow in getting to the action as they talk and talk and talk; and the central romance is totally frustrating for an adult read, (younger teens may baulk at the length). The overall feel to me was like one of those über-slick good-looking American TV series like Beverley Hills 90210 (or whatever the number was) with less sex and more talk.

Reading Meyer’s website it appears that Bella is the daughter she’s never had, and that there is a certain amount of wish fulfillment going on too. It was compulsive though, and I shall definitely read the rest of the series to find out what finally happens!

*****

Now to a rather different type of high school vampire novel …

Marked by P.C. & Kristin Cast

Written by a mother and daughter team, this is the first in a series called the ‘House of Night’. In the Casts’ world, teenagers are ‘marked’ to become vampires. It has a cracking opening line – “Just when I thought my day couldn’t get any worse I saw the dead guy standing next to my locker.” Zoey is picked to become a vampyre (yes, with a ‘y’), the tracker marks her forehead and from that moment on her life changes.

She has to abandon everything and go to the ‘House of Night’ – the vampyre finishing school where they will take over her schooling and help her go through the change into becoming a vampyre. She’s happy to leave her mother and her horrible new husband, but has to say goodbye to her Cherokee grandmother who lives out of town. While out looking for her Gran who is out in the hills, Zoey falls and has a vision from the vampyre goddess Nyx who asks her to be her eyes and ears at the House of Night. Once at school, she finds that she’s the centre of attention, for the mark on her forehead has changed – it’s different to all the other fledglings’ ones, and not only is the headmistress Zoey’s mentor, but the head girl Aphrodite is soon on her case!

What ensues is more of a typical boarding school novel with secret clubs, cliques and escapades, and all the stereotypes above are present too. Many have commented that there’s a touch of Hogwarts about it with the pupils learning to be vampyres, but these teenaged vampyres’ blood is full of raging hormones so it’s definitely not suitable for younger teens. It was more fun and definitely has a better sense of humour than Twilight, but I don’t feel the compulsive need to read more of the series, (well – maybe!).

*****

Having read these two, I can understand why teenage girls are adoring them. The presence of the vampires adds a fantasy element to the high-school novel that heightens the romance to a new level, providing the escapist fun that teenagers crave – but I wouldn’t recommend even the sex-free Twilight for any younger readers.

Now I’m reading the first Sookie Stackhouse novel – Dead Until Dark, which is the sexy older cousin to those above. I keep on discovering more vamp fare to add to my reading list though – The Vampire Diaries by L J Smith, which was published in 1991 and thought to be a key influence on those who came after; and Nordic vamp novel Let the right one in by John Ajvide Lindqvist. “Bring it on!” I say.

Bad Haikus for National Poetry Day

It’s National Poetry Day and to celebrate here are two topical Gaskella original haiku(s?) plugging my current reading trail… Sorry but they’re the best I can do in the short time available. Please feel free to slag them off and show me how to write a haiku properly – I can just about get the 5-7-5 and a seasonal reference, but finesse comes a lot harder!

Nights are drawing in,
Season of the Living Dead
on Gaskella’s blog.

Autumnal sunshine
Lifts the spirits when reading
Books about vampires.

These books are obviously beginning to get to me!

The Police are but a small episode in this busy life …

Strange Things Happen by Stewart Copeland

The emphasis is on fun in this memoir – for Copeland is a hyperactive sort, a workaholic but easily bored, loving a challenge, never playing anything quite the same way twice, liking to be boss, and he’s also much more than a mere drummer.

Jumping about in time with flashes back and forward, the book opens with pages about his childhood in Beirut, where he played with Harry Philby – yes, son of that Philby, and where his Dad was big in the CIA, through moving to boarding school in England, learning the drums and then in 1975 joining his first professional band Curved Air where he must have broken many a boy’s heart by marrying the elfinly beautiful lead singer Sonja Kristina. Then – The Police – the band that made him world famous.

Copeland deals with their initial years in just ten pages. It’s clear that our mission, should we choose to accept it, is really to read about what Stewart did next …

The next big chunk of the book takes us up to 2007, and there’s a lot to tell. Playing polo against Prince Charles, making a film in Africa, playing with many other bands, and developing a love for the pizzica music of Salento in Southern Italy, meeting his second wife Fiona, and having a ball being a judge on the BBC celebrity duet show ‘It takes two’ … all great fun. Then, there’s the main day job as a composer. Copeland studied composition at college, and post Police, he composed an opera – not a rock one, a proper, grand one – with a plot based on the crusades; it was staged in Cleveland to a largely enthusiastic response. Following this is a long career, in between all these adventures, as a film and TV composer, having composed scores for many movies and lots of TV work, notably starting with Coppola’s Rumblefish.

Then it all comes round again. Copeland’s hobby project of editing all the film he took during the Police years into a movie is entered for the Sundance festival. For the first time in ages, the three musicians are reunited at the festival when Sting turns up for the premiere. This event sows the seeds for the Police reunion tour which takes up the final 100 pages.

Stewart & Sting’s stormy relationship is the stuff of legend. Now they’re both older and wiser, you might expect them to have mellowed. It starts off well, but these guys have had years of being top dogs now, and before long they’re circling around each other, spoiling for a fight. They cope though, letting the music do it’s work and manage eighteen months on tour.

This book is mainly about his career and working families, rather than the loving one at home. We find out very little about his parents, siblings, and even less about his seven (yes!) kids, although there’s a nice photo of them all at the end. Copeland however, is an aimiable yet sparky host, always capable of seeing the funny side of things; his straight talking and writing style always lets us know what he thinks. What also come through strongly are what he sees as the shamanistic properties of music to inspire and inhabit a body – any music has the possibility to do this, and refreshingly he embraces this philosophy throughout.

Copeland is anything but a normal rock star – and this is an excellent read for any music fan, I really enjoyed it. Finally, a big thank you to Scott who arranged to get me a signed and dedicated copy of this book – much appreciated indeed.