The Fifteen Characters Meme

I spotted this on Claire’s at Paperback Reader’s Facebook page, but I think it’s doing the rounds. Sounded fun so here are my fifteen.

Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen fictional characters who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you. (Emphasis: influenced). List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes. 

  1. Aragorn – from LoTR – dark, handsome and mysterious.
  2. Hermione Grainger – from Harry Potter – the perfect role model for my daughter.
  3. Myrddin – Merlin from Here’s Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve – spin doctor supreme
  4. Charlie Gordon – Flowers for Algernon
  5. Philip Marlowe – the Big Sleep – Quintessential hard-boiled detective
  6. Elizabeth Bennett – P&P – D’Arcy’s stately pile got her in the end.
  7. Mary Anning – real-life fossil hunter who was in Tracy Chevalier’s Beautiful Creatures.
  8. Italian detectives – Brunetti & Montalbano – both love life, food and hate bureaucracy.
  9. Sebastian Flyte – Brideshead Revisited – live fast, die young.
  10. Alice in Wonderland – always wondering, questionning.
  11. Lucy from the Narnia books – emphathetic and lovely.
  12. George Smiley – dogged spymaster.
  13. James Bond – pure fantasy!
  14. Ree from Winter’s Bone by James Woodrell – young pioneer spirit. (Can’t wait to see the film now out).
  15. Anqelique de Xavia from the Sacred Art of Stealing by Christopher Bookmyre.

So that’s my list.  It was surprisingly difficult – some are more favourite characters rather than ones who truly influenced me, although they all have attributes and/or experiences that are attractive (in one way or another!).

Do have a go!

Fforde does YA and it’s Ffabulous Ffun!

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde has written a new book, and if it wasn’t for heroine being two weeks short of sixteen, no swearing, and no overt classic literary references, you’d be hard pushed to know that it was for young adults.  I expect that many grown-ups will read it anyway and some will be none the wiser as, although it is lighter fare than usual, it will happily sit along with his other titles.

Jennifer Strange is a foundling, not quite sixteen years old, and is running the Kazam agency for soothsayers and sorcerors in the unexplained absence of its owner Mr Zambini. In an age where magical power is diminishing, managing magical talent is an art in itself, and Jennifer has to massage the egos of once powerful mages who are reduced to doing plumbing jobs to make ends meet, as well as doing all their paperwork every time they cast a spell.

Power has been gradually draining away as the dragons started to die out, and now there is only one aged beast left living in the dragonlands between the kingdoms of Hereford and Brecon.  Then premonitions start happening to all the soothsayers around – they are predicting the death of the last dragon, that Big Magic is involved … and Jennifer.

This book lacks none of Fforde’s inventiveness and humour.  It’s set in a dystopian ‘Ununited Kingdom‘ where the counties and shires have devolved into separate kingdoms again and are constantly niggling against each other, and as you might expect bureaucracy has gone mad too.  Jennifer is thrust into a situation where it’s difficult for her to know who to trust, everyone has their own agenda, and ultimately she must go by her own instincts to sort things out. She does have help though from young Tiger – another foundling, Kazam’s magicians of course, and her pet Quarkbeast – the softest, yet scariest pet monster you’ll ever encounter!  Jennifer is a plucky heroine – the sort of girl who’ll grow up into being the next Thursday Next – I really liked her.

In creating this richly detailed world, Fforde doesn’t write down for the younger audience at all.  I enjoyed it so much it was all over too quickly, but I’d heartily recommend to older children and anyone who is young at heart. (9/10)

Pub: Nov 2010, Hodder & Stoughton, Hdbk, 281pp, £12.
I bought this book.

To buy this book from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde

The world of Ephemera #7 – the word is ‘Dirndl’

A dirndl, in case you’ve never heard the word before, is the name for a traditional peasant dress worn in Bavaria, the Tyrol and the surrounding areas. It consists of a fitted bodice, blouse, full skirt and apron. I’m talking dirndls today because I have one – read on …

When I was at junior school, my parents used to help out as chaperones on school trips abroad for a prep-school.  Our nex-tdoor-but-one neighbour was a teacher at this school – and presumably he couldn’t get any of the staff to come on the holidays so he asked my parents – who got a cheap holiday and me and my brother went too.  We went to Wales several times at Easter, but also alternately Switzerland and Austria in the summer the week after the schools broke up – this went on for about five years.

1970 was an Austria year – and we were based in the Tyrol.  Day trip to Salzburg, visiting the Mozart Geburtshaus and Mirabell Palace. Sadly, The Sound of Music was far from my mind – I probably didn’t associate the wonderful fountain with Do Re Mi – well I was only ten.  (I really want to go back to Salzburg some time and do the full SoM tour!).

Anyway, my Mum bought me a dirndl and the receipt is on the left there.  At the time there were about ten Austrian Schillings to the pound, so it cost a mighty £27.50 old money which was an awful lot.  You can see a skinny me wearing it (complete with pigeon toes and Clarks playdeck sandals) on the right – and there’s also my little brother lurking in the background with a silly hat!  It’s a shame you can’t see the skirt properly behind the apron, it’s scarlet sprigged with emerald green flowers.

But I can rectify that …

Putting in a rare appearance on the blog is my daughter modelling the outfit in our garden back in spring 2008. Granny had found the dirndl and brought it to us on a visit.  I expect it won’t fit my daughter any more as she’s put on a big growing spurt since,  but I’m not getting rid of it – it’s too special a souvenir for that.

New Stories from the Mabinogion #3

Ronnie’s Dream by Niall Griffiths

See my previous post here for some background on this series of comtemporary retellings of the medieval Welsh story cycle the Mabinogion, and the first two titles in the sequence. The Dreams of Max and Ronnie to give this book from the second pair its full title comprises two novellas based upon separate stories involving dreams.  It starts with Ronnie’s …

Ronnie and his mates are Iraq-bound.  They go to visit Red Helen to get a little something for a last hit before they ship out.  Ronnie takes his pill and falls asleep for three whole nights and has the weirdest dreams.  In them a ‘grinning man’ plays war games while armies and gangs of men from around the country get in the mood but wait like sheep for their orders.  In between Ronnie’s dream sequences, we have snatches of what’s happening in the real world …

And DUMPHA DUMPHA DUMPHA DUMPHA goes the soundtrack to Britain’s life, pounding and meaningless, to this stage in the growth of one of the oldest democracies on the planet. Apparently. Supposedly. Pounding and pulsing and unchangingly repetitive. Beating and battering, a cudgel. Sound of the cat-pissed house. Sound of the seemingly deserted village, shop gone, pub gone, chapel now a holiday home….  Thumping soundtracks unchanging like a diseased heart to the parks in which young people are kicked to death, to the dark skins that are slashed open or punctured, to the back rooms or garages on estates or in suburbs in which figures hunch over chemical that when mixed turn volatile, to bomb factory, to murder scene. To those that move, all of them alike, to those that trudge alone unheeded or those that band together to share hatreds and those that plead and those that sneer and those that beseech and those that disdain and those that thieve and those that lose and those that have their meagre belongings removed from them, to those that add another nugget of gold to the gleaming mountain range they already possess to those that bomb and those that are blown apart and those that are stabbed and all of them watched by a million mechanical eyes on lamp-posts and roofs, every twitch of every limb and every expression on every face monitored, every lost face that moves between giant signs that say nothing but DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T and tannoyed voices filling the airspace that say nothing but DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T DON’T and the millions of silent screams in the millions of heads that nod nod nod towards the grave and leave nothing but longing in the mud. And, before he is sent to fight for this, to kill for this and be killed for this, Ronnie sleeps on on his lucky moo-cow blanket and Ronnie goes on dreaming.

This wasn’t an easy book to read or love, yet it was extremely powerful as you can see from the slightly shortened paragraph above.  Nearly every page was protesting about (the Iraq) war, the futility of it all, the waste of life, and also people wasting their lives away, our celebrity culture in which every boy wants to follow the herd and be David Beckham or Robbie Williams, that you should always question the ‘grinning man’ (Blair).  The writing was by turns coarse and blunt, then poetic – these 90 pages or so make a very angry and pessimistic tale  indeed. The author in his afterword describes it as a Swiftian satire but that didn’t really come through for me.

By contrast, Max’s dream was a bit of a let-down for me.  The story of a gangsta and his crew.  Max is tired of his life of clubbing and whores in Cardiff – he wants a wife.  Hearing of a film being made up north, he sends his crew on a recce with his photo in the search for the perfect woman, but of course nothing is as easy as it seems.  If the first tale was angry, this was nihilistic and not as full of ideas, but equally condemning of the nature of Man.

A powerful addition to this series, but not an easy book to enjoy.  (7/10)
Book kindly supplied by the publisher.

To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below
Ronnie’s Dream (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Niall Griffiths

Don’t call me Vicky!

Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky.

Meet V.I. Warshawski – friends get to call her Vic, never Vicky. Indemnity only is the first in a series of 13 novels featuring the sassy Chicagoan PI.

One evening she meets a new client, a banker, who wants her to find his son’s missing girlfriend. Vic goes to the boy’s pad to find him dead at the kitchen table with an expertly placed bullet through his head.  No sign of the girlfriend.  However it appears that she was set up to find the body, the banker turns out to be a union boss and the girlfriend is his daughter, and its obvious that the gangs are involved too. From there Vic goes on to eventually uncover massive insurance frauds, but not before getting badly beaten up, having a bit of romance too  – and there’s still the missing girl to find.

I liked Vic immensely – she’s strong, feisty and very independent; she’s feminine too.  She had a Polish father and Italian mother, both now passed away.  Her father was a good policeman and Vic takes after him having a very strong sense of social justice – it seems almost natural that she should have become a detective. Meanwhile her mother has left her with a love of opera and fashion – what other PI could get beaten up in a navy silk suit (chargeable!).

Some years ago, I read one of the mid-series titles which I enjoyed, and I always planned to read more.  Earlier this year, I went to an event with Sara Paretsky which I reported on here and now I’ve finally got round to starting back at the beginning (with my signed copy!).  The book is set during the late ’70s going into the ’80s having been published in 1982. Back then Warshawski was one of a kind and she’s become a popular crime heroine.  Sure, the dialogue is a little clunky at times, but Chicago comes alive. Plot-wise, it’s quite complicated being set in the world of finance, but the action makes up for that keeping it fast moving and easy to read. 

Now we’ve met Vic, I’m looking forward to reading more as there’s a lot of corruption still out there for her to tackle.  (7/10) I bought this book.

To buy from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
Indemnity Only by Sara Paretsky.

Bookish Gifts for Older Children

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I have a fondness for reading children’s books – not just all the Twi-likes (I’m getting fed up of them – “Finally!”  I hear you say), but proper novels for children nine upwards.  I thought I’d highlight a few that I’ve spotted or enjoyed recently in case you were looking for books for gifts.  In this post, all links will go through to Amazon.co.uk should you wish to see more…

The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde.
New out this month in hardback (RRP £12). I only bought this book a few days ago and haven’t read it yet – but what’s not to like about it?  It would appear to have all the inventiveness and humour of Fforde’s Thursday Next series for grown-ups, with more magic thrown in for older kids/teens.

Annexed by Sharon Dogar.
Nominated for the Costas, this book tells the story of Anne Frank and beyond through Peter’s eyes – Peter being the son of the other family hiding with the Franks.  This too is in my TBR pile, but I have read her contemporary novel Waves and enjoyed it very much. Dogar was taught by Philip Pullman.  Difficult subject matter, but one for teens who have already appreciated Anne Frank perhaps.

The Dead of Winter by Chris Priestley
I read this marvellous Gothic spine-chiller last month and reviewed it here.  Chris Priestley is carving a niche for himself as the Susan Hill of Horror and Ghostly stories for children.  This one is suitable for around 10 upwards.

Dead Man’s Cove by Lauren St John.
The first in a new adventure series for 10+ pays homage to the Famous Five and is set in Cornwall, but is bang up to date plotwise.  I reviewed it here, but don’t take my word for it – see The Girl Who Read Too Much (who is a 12yr old relative of Simon Savidge). We’ve given it to a couple of daughter’s friends for birthday presents too and it’s gone down very well.

Ottoline at Sea by Chris Riddell.
I’ve raved about Chris Riddell’s illustrations before (click here), but he has also written illustrated books as well as his collaborations.  This, the latest is the third in his Ottoline series which my daughter adores.  Written for 7+, the drawings and quirkiness will enchant anyone who reads it.  This book has the added extra of having coded pictures in which need the glasses supplied to see what’s hidden which makes it extra fun.

White Crow by Marcus Sedgwick.
I love Sedgwick’s books, of which this is the latest. I’ve yet to read it, but I’ve not read anything by this author that I didn’t love reading as an adult, not just auditioning them for teenagers. This one is a bit of a Gothic thriller set in the 17th century about two girls who become friends one summer and uncover secrets best forgotten.

That’s it for now.  If you’d like to recommend any other recent books for older children or teenagers, (especially if you think I’d enjoy them), please do comment.

The World of Ephemera #6

I love looking at old family photos.  Amongst all my Mum’s was a small album she inherited from my late Great-Aunt Muriel.  This one shows Muriel and three friends strolling down the street in Llandudno in  1929. Muriel is the third from the left, she was twenty-three when this was taken. I’ve no idea who the other three are – don’t recognise any of them – the three on the right seem quite carefree though – I wonder what the lady on the left is thinking?  

The second photo below is from later in the book, but sadly there are no notes on the back to identify the cheeky monkeys eating their apples. They may be relatives but truly I have no idea who they are.  That said it’s a classic, and suggestions for thought bubble captions are welcome!

New Stories from the Mabinogion: vols 1 & 2

The Mabinogion is a collection of medieval Welsh stories of Celtic origin – they are written very much in the bardic tradition of oral storytelling. The eleven tales as normally collected have the four ‘branches’ of the Mabinogion proper, a set of Native Tales and three Romances;  the Native Tales also include early references to King Arthur. During my obsessive Arthurian reading period some years ago, (see the previous post) I did include the Mabinogion. Like Malory, it is not an easy read, and the Welsh names take some getting used to, but these stories are full of magic, nature, and always the cycle of life.

The publisher Seren, with its series of short novels ‘New Stories from the Mabinogion’ has commissioned contemporary re-tellings of the stories, (somewhat in the manner of the Canongate Myths). The first two are reviewed below, and I have the next pair to read very soon.

White Ravens by Owen Sheers

Based upon the story of Branwen, daughter of Llyr, the second branch of the Mabinogion. This is a tale of two brothers, their sister and the love of her life.  Sheers has chosen to set a wartime story within another contemporary narrative.

We start in the near present on a farm in Wales where foot and mouth has caused Rhi”s brothers into the dangerous business of stealing and butchering lambs to supply fancy restaurants in London. Rhi hadn’t wanted to be a part of it, but one night necessity forced her to drive the van, and she abandons her brothers once in London – finding herself at the Tower of London.  There she meets an old man who tells her another story, that seems to resonate with her own life.

He tells of an Irishman, Matthew, who fights for the British in WWII. Wounded, he takes up office work, but one day is sent on a mission to pick up some raven chicks from a remote farm in Wales to replenish the Tower’s complement. Matthew arrives and meets a gentle giant of a farmer, Ben and later his sister Branwen and it’s love at first sight for both of them. Then on the day of their wedding, Bran’s other brother arrives back home from the war.  Aghast at losing his beloved sister he perpetrates a shocking act of revenge that makes all the blood of the other pair of brothers’ butchery pale in comparison – animal lovers beware …

The writing is very powerful indeed, and tears sprang to my eyes as I read this scene, and then again later when tragedy strikes again and again.  War changes people and violence begets violence, whether physical or emotional, indeed the food cycle itself has death at its core. The moments of happiness in this book are few and far between, yet there is a moral to take from this tale and maybe it is not too late for Rhi …

* * * * *

The Ninth Wave by Russell Celyn Jones

Jones takes the story of Pwyll from the first branch of the Mabinogion and rewrites it as a dystopian vision of a world without oil.  Pwyll is a rich young aristocrat who has no idea of how to rule his land. One day out hunting he kills the dog of neighbouring ruler Arawn who proposes that Pwyll should swap places while Arawn quietly does some business, and he ends up getting drawn in to a plot by Arawn’s wife to murder her sister’s fiancée…

I really enjoyed the imagery of Jones’ dystopian world in this one. A land where everyone has gone back to horses for transport, yet Little Chefs and Starbucks are still going – it’s that close to us now.  Even more than now, it’s a land of haves and have-nots. Democracy has reverted back to medieval style feudal fiefdoms and tribal enclaves again which brings the story back full-circle to its origins.

Mounted up and heading along the old motorway, with a hand-drawn map in his hands, he practised the lines he was to use on Havgan. He turned off at exit fifteen and was soon catching the highlights of kids ripping copper pipes off the wall of a house. A car burned at the side of the road, with people walking casually by as if this were nothing special. From shop to light manufacturing unit, there was precious little glass left anywhere in one piece.

* * * * *

I would find it very hard to pick between these two marvellous short novels.  Each brings the essence of the original story to life and expands on it to create a whole from the episodic narratives of the Mabinogion.

I loved them both and will be reading vols 3 & 4 very soon.  (both 9/10).
I bought these books.  For another review of these two tales, read Lizzy’s Literary Life

To buy the books mentioned from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
White Ravens (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Owen Sheers
The Ninth Wave (New Stories from the Mabinogion) by Russell Celyn Jones
The Mabinogion (Oxford World’s Classics) trans Sioned Davies

The Death of King Arthur v. Le Morte D’Arthur

The Death of King Arthur by Peter Ackroyd

I am a huge fan of all things Arthurian – having always enjoyed books about myths and legends by Roger Lancelyn Green et al as a child, it was seeing the 1981 film Excalibur that turned this interest into a bit of an obsession.  I read most of the old texts and applied to Mastermind with Arthurian Myths and Legends as my specialist subject even – but didn’t get an audition – probably just as well!  I still devour any books I come across about the subject, and Philip Reeve’s marvelous Here Lies Arthur is one of my desert island books, (reviewed here).

In those days I had a seriously chunky edition of Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur with beautiful illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley (left).  Those drawings fit so well with the 15th century prose, but the original is not an easy read, which brings me finally to Peter Ackroyd’s new re-telling of Malory. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to get a review copy and put it straight to the top of the pile.  I find Ackroyd an interesting author and have enjoyed many of his books.

In the introduction he tells us a bit about Malory and how he came to write Le Morte D’Arthur, before a note about his retelling of the story in loose translation into a ‘more contemporary idiom’ with a streamlined narrative to avoid Malory’s repetitions and inconsistencies. All the stories we know so well are still there – how Uther begot Arthur and Merlin took him away; how Arthur pulled the sword from the stone and became King; how he got Excalibur; Lancelot and Guinevere; the Grail Quest; the last battle against Mordred, plus some we do not know quite so well but are in Malory – like the take of Tristan and Isolde.

What struck me though reading Ackroyd’s version was how much padding there is in between the main stories.  In between Arthur becoming King, sending his knights on the Grail Quest and the last battle – what’s a knight to do?  Ride off into the countryside of course and do all things chivalric like rescuing damosels in distress, jousting and fighting all comers with silly (Pythonesque, sic) names like Sir Bagdemagus, Sir Collegrevaunce and Sir Gilbert the Bastard. Frankly, there’s an awful lot of these interludes and it all gets a bit repetitive – theoretically Ackroyd has done some light pruning to avoid some of this.

Although it was good to remind myself of some of the lesser known tales within, as told in its contemporary idiom I found it all a little bit boring and humdrum.  Just compare sentences from the very first chapter when Igraine has urged her husband the Duke of Cornwall to take her home to avoid being dishonoured by Uther …

Malory : As soon as Uther knew of their departing so suddenly, he was wonderly wroth.

Ackroyd: As soon as Pendragon knew of their departure he grew very angry.

Yes, I missed the floweriness of the original language.  This plain speaking also made many of the knights seem like yobs spoiling for a good fight rather than the figures of romance and derring-do one would normally imagine.  The loose plot and arc of stories aren’t Ackroyd’s fault of course, but the rendering of them into modern English loses a lot of the original’s specialness.  However, what Ackroyd has achieved should be welcomed by anyone who doesn’t have the time and energy to devote to the original, but wants to read the classic story, although you could do worse than Lancelyn-Green’s children’s version!

I chose this book to review from a list supplied by the Amazon Vine programme.  (6.5/10)

To buy titles mentioned from Amazon.co.uk, click below:
The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend (Penguin Hardback Classics) by Peter Ackroyd
Excalibur [1981] [DVD] starring Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, Cherie Lunghi
Le Morte Darthur: The Winchester Manuscript (Oxford World’s Classics) by Thomas Malory
King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table: by Roger Lancelyn-Green
Here Lies Arthur by Philip Reeve

Bloggers and Book Groups – Keeping the Backlist Alive

This past fortnight I’ve been soooo busy with fireworks, quiznights, and tonight more fireworks, I’ve got behind on blogging about books and my stock of ephemera too even. Normal service will resume next week I hope! So meanwhile, I’d like to have a voxpop type discussion with you…

We all love ‘new’ books – titles hot off the press, piled high in bookshops on the 3 for 2 table, featured in the ever-decreasing review sections of papers etc, Richard & Judy picks, nominated for major prizes, what happens to a book when it moves out of company with the new. If it’s lucky, it’ll have two chances – in hardback, then paperback – but then it’s onto the dreaded backlist.

You hear many authors groan that once their books lose their shiny new book du jour status and go on to the publisher’s backlist, then it’s a slippery slope towards being deleted off the backlist for straggling sales, diminishing royalties – hence they’re only as good as their latest book.

One small section of my TBR!

Bookshops have limited shelfspace for backlisted titles and have to choose their stock carefully to keep sales going, and this is where I believe that bloggers and book groups really are playing their part. By not always reading the latest new best thing, and delving back into our TBR piles occasionally to read books that are a few years old or more, or even buying backlisted titles new, we are doing our bit to help.

Often book groups choose backlisted titles – usually preferring (ours does anyway) to opt for books once in paperback to keep the monthly expense down. Admittedly, we tend to stick to the backlists of better-known authors, but occasionally will pick something less well known or off the wall.

Many bloggers like to combine reading and writing about the latest titles, with exploring their TBR piles – and this can all help raise interest in living authors’ backlists. As a blogger with a TBR mountain range that’s now totally out of control, since it got my late Mum’s books added to it, exploring it will remain a key reading resolution for me for years to come!

The key thing for me is finding real gems in authors’ outputs that can be shared – there are so many good books out there from recent decades that are getting forgotten about.

Over to you – what do you think about backlists?