Let it snow

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This lovely modern fairytale is that rarity – a book that lives up to the hype. There have been many reviews, in both print and on blog over the past couple of months. Without exception I think, all have been glowing and gushing about this book – I’ll now add mine to the collection…

Jack and Mabel are homesteaders in their fifties, having retreated into the Alaskan wilderness to lose themselves after the death of their baby, who was still born. Both are still suffering, Mabel especially, mostly being confined to the cabin while Jack works the land. Each of them is lost in their own sadness.

That night in bed, she had a heightened awareness of him, of the scent of straw and spruce boughs in his hair and beard, the weight of him on the creaky bed, the sound of his slow, tired breaths. He lay on his side, turned away from her. She reached out, thinking to touch his shoulder, but instead lowered her arm and lay in the darkness staring at his back.
‘Do you think we’ll make it through winter?’ she asked.
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he was asleep She rolled away and faced the log wall.
When he spoke, Mabel wondered if it was grogginess or emotion that made his voice so gravelly.
‘We don’t have much choice, do we?’

Then one day it snows, and in a moment of uncharacteristic playfulness, they have a snowball fight, and build a snow figure which Jack carves into the shape of a young girl. The next morning, the snow girl is gone, and there are small footprints going into the forest. The over days and months that follow, they see fleeting glimpses of a girl running between the trees, followed by a red fox.

The Snow Child of was inspired by Arthur Ransome’s re-telling of the Russian folktale, Little Daughter of the Snow, which I re-read last week. Ransome’s version is tragic, and Mabel is familiar with it – a book of Russian fairytales having been a childhood favourite.  Her sister sends her the book, and in her letter she comments…

What a tragic tale! Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyond me. I think if I ever tell it to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel?  To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?

Mabel is determined that the girl could be the daughter she and Jack never had, even if she is a child built from snow.

I won’t tell any more – I’ll leave you to read it if you wish and make up your own minds about Faina the snow girl – or not, for the author is absolutely brilliant at making her seem like a feral child surviving in the wilderness at one moment, and then an ethereal sprite born of snowflakes, in an instant. Is gaining the unconditional love of would-be adoptive parents the transformational force that occurs in so many fairy-tales where a magical being changes into a human one?  Ivey’s light yet sure touch with these possibilities make reading this novel a magical experience.

Jack and Mabel are wonderful characters.  They have to endure many hardships to make a go of it as homesteaders, and they are not just physical ones. Before Faina’s arrival it would be hard to see them surviving for long on their own in this wintery wilderness.  It is wonderful to see them come into bloom again after years of dormancy – I was so happy for them, yet knowing the fate of Ransome’s snowgirl, scared too.

Contrasting with Jack and Mabel are their nearest neighbours, the Bensons, who live a good wagon ride away. Esther is a big-hearted woman, and provides Mabel with much relief from her cabin fever and luckily the two women get on like houses on fire.

The other star of this novel is the landscape of Alaska itself. We really feel that we’re there back in the 1920s with Jack and Mabel, experiencing the long, cold winters, the frozen forests, and all too brief spring and summers. Farming may be hard, but nature itself has much to offer if you know where to look for it all year round.

I was delighted to see a quote from Ali Shaw, whose latest modern fairy tale I reviewed here on the back, which reinforced how magical this book was for me.  This is a lovely, lovely book, and my first five star one of the year. I hope you’ll love it too.  (10/10)  

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I received my ARC via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Pub 1st Feb by Headline Review. Hardback, 432 pages (including the Arthur Ransome story)


It’s. Bill Shatner’s. Autobiography. Yes. Captain Kirk…

Up Till Now: The Autobiography by William Shatner with David Fisher

I can’t remember if I’ve confessed up to it since I’ve been blogging, but I used to be a full-blown Trekker – a Star Trek fan.  I managed to stop just short of buying a uniform, but had all the videos of all the episodes of all the series, plus the 60+ novels, episode and making of guides etc, a model enterprise, and loads of other ‘collectables’.  One day I decided it was too much, and snapped out of my collecting obsession and started to sell all the stuff off.

My enthusiasm for the shows themselves has not waned though. I remain a huge fan, even watch the occasional episode in the re-runs, and adored the last film which went back to Starfleet Academy.  If pushed, although I truly adore Patrick Stewart, my loyalties ultimately reside with the original.  Captain Kirk was fearless, handsome, decisive, and had a sense of humour; Kirk has a swagger about him that made it all such fun, contrasting brilliantly with Spock’s coolness and Bones’s old-fashioned Southern gent.  I’m old enough to remember seeing some of the episodes in their original showing on British TV too.

All of this brings me to William Shatner’s autobiography, Up Till Now, written with David Fisher, which is refreshingly honest and up front about nearly everything. It’s also very funny, but has plenty of touching moments too. William Shatner is a man of grand passions and big emotions.

Shatner’s acting career has been long, and so much more than Star Trek.  He started off in the Canadian theatre, playing small and supporting parts in much of the classical repertoire, before moving to New York and a new life in TV dramas – many of which were aired live.  He was in demand, and turned up on time, lines learned, got great reviews playing a wide variety of parts including leading men.

Part of the reason I was becoming better known was what people perceived to be an unusual. Speech. Pattern. Apparently I was becoming know for. Pausing, between words, in. Unusual Places… I have no idea where that. Came from… but the reality is that I don’t even hear it. I can mock the idea. I understand people hear me speaking. That way. They’ve even put a name to it, calling it Shatnerian. As in, ah yes, the character spoke with true Shatnerian eloquence.
But it’s certainly nothing I’m doing intentionally, nor do I do it in real life. I have seen several William Shatner impersonators speak in that. Clipped. Punctuated manner. Okay, if people recognize the impersonation as me, then it must be me.

Bill’s the big break didn’t come until well after he moved to LA.  Even after three series,  Star Trek wasn’t a hit until it later sold into syndication around the world, and so the hard-working Shatner continued plugging away.  It was the long-running series TJ Hooker in which he played a veteran cop that finally made him a TV star, later leading to the acclaimed Boston Legal, along with the Star Trek movies.

TV series like those tend to have a different director for each episode, and Shatner talks interestingly about this experience: “It’s the job of the actors who work there every week to proetct the integrity of the program. Because I cared about the quality of the show I tested every new director. And if they didn’t know what they were doing I would complain about it. That was my job.”

Another funny bit is when he and the voice cast of the animated film Over the Hedge got sent to plug the film in Cannes.  “As we were walking up the red carpet, surrounded by photographers, we were introduced to the French actors who had played our characters in the French version.  Wait a second, I wondered, we’re the stars of this film, right? I knew we were stars, our names were in big letters on the lobby cards and in the credits. Bus as this is an animated film our faces weren’t on the screen, and now our voices were being replaced by French actors. So we were the stars of a film in which we didn’t even appear.”  He forgets that the animators usually embed some of the personality of their voice actors into the characters…

Along the way he’s had four marriages, the third of which ended with tragedy, when his wife Nerine, an alcoholic, accidentally died in their swimming pool.  He threw himself into his horse business, and through that met Elizabeth his fourth wife.  His first marriage was to an actress, Gloria.  They had three daughters, but she never made it into the limelight, and it faltered once they moved to LA. Shatner talks openly about the mistakes he made, and the actor’s ego, that made him a poor husband at first.

What shines all the way through this memoir is Shatner’s sense of humour. Once he found it, (he was a very serious actor to start off with), he let loose, and takes every opportunity to laugh at himself.  He can even laugh at the way his spoken song performances in his 1968 album The Transformed Man have been taken, although they were recorded in all seriousness and remain cult tracks today.

I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir, which is so not just for Star Trek fans, although the spectre of Captain Kirk looms large over much of it. I got a much better appreciation of Shatner, the actor and have-a-go hero, a would-be family man who learns by his mistakes, and unashamed self-publicist with a great line in self-deprecation.  I shall leave you with an urging though, to pop over to Youtube and watch his spoken interpretation of Elton John’s song, Rocket Man, introduced by lyricist Bernie Taupin. If you search for William Shatner Rocket Man, you’ll find it (sorry, can’t embed it). (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Up Till Now by William Shatner with David Fisher (pub Sidgwick & Jackson, 2008), now in paperback.
The Transformed Man – William Shatner (CD)
Star Trek – The Original Series – Series 1 – Complete – Remastered [DVD]

Short Takes on Two Short Stories…

I don’t read many short stories, but this week, I’ve happened to read two …

The Small Miracleby Paul Gallico

Published in  1951, Gallico’s story is a charming fable of faith and love about an orphan boy Pepino, and his donkey Violette.

Pepino and Violette live in Assisi. They make ends meet by doing donkey work for everyone in the town. One day Violette is taken ill and the vet can’t help. Pepino goes to church to ask the priest if he can take Violette into the basilica of St Francis to pray for a cure. The Supervisor and Bishop forbid it, but Father Damico tells Pepino to ask the Pope, so off he goes to Rome …

Sweet, and with a light touch, this was a delightful tale. Unusually, it was published as a single illustrated story back then, and the charming drawings really help to show the spirit of St Francis alive in the love of Pepino for his donkey.  A charity shop find, it was well worth the 50p I paid.

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The Little Daughter of the Snow from Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome (pub 1916).

One of the books I’m looking forward to reading in the coming weeks is The Snow Childby Eowyn Ivey. It was inspired by this particular fairy tale from Ransome’s collected tellings of Russian fairy tales, (which I previously wrote about here). Before I embark on the new book, which everyone seems to love, and I’ve deliberately steered clear of reading too many details about, I thought I’d re-read the old tale, a mere ten pages, to set the scene for me…

In Ransome’s story, a childless old couple build a snow girl who comes to life. She is an elemental force, spending most of her time outside playing. But one day she gets lost in the forest.  A fox brings her home and think he’ll get a chicken as thanks, but the old couple plan to trick him out of his reward.  The snow girl melts away while telling them that they didn’t love her enough if they wouldn’t give away a chicken.

The cruel moral sting in the tail makes this one of the saddest in the collection.  I’m really looking forward to reading The Snow Child now!

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I bought my copies, to explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome

A Favourite Reference Book – About Books…

The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel ed Peter Parker.

I know that you bookish sorts like nothing more than a book about books, so today I shall introduce you to one of my favourites. Published back in 1994, and edited by Peter Parker, (consultant editor Frank Kermode), this chunky tome chronicles the twentieth century in novels, (well up to 1993), featuring over 750 titles from around 400 authors.

The main part of the book is arranged chronologically, with key events for each year preceding the Editors’ choices of novels for that year, many of which are given around a full page per entry.  Synopses are sometimes accompanied by quotations, and commentary. Added to this are short biographies of the authors, indexes of the books, by year and title, and authors.

Recently, after posts by DGR and Simon T, I treated myself to a 1p copy of The Modern Library – The 200 best novels in English since 1950. I’m pleased that they share many titles, but with its size The Reader’s Companion can suggest more titles per year, and of course it goes back to 1900.  One way of comparing is to pick a year … say 1960 when yours truly was born:

Modern Library

  • To kill a mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The Balkan Trilogy – Olivia Manning
  • The Rabbit Quartet – John Updike
  • Jeeves in the Offing – P G Wodehouse

Reader’s Companion

  • We think the world of you – J R Ackerley
  • The L-shaped room – Lynn Reid Banks
  • A kind of loving – Stan Barstow
  • The Sot-Weed Factor – John Barth
  • Bid to me live – H D (Hilda Doolittle)
  • The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell
  • To kill a mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The London Trilogy – Colin MacInnes
  • The Great Fortune (see Balkan Trilogy, 1965)
  • The Violent Bear it Away – Flannery O’Connor
  • The Country Girls  (see Trilogy, 1964) – Edna O’Brien
  • Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (see Anthony Powell, 1975)
  • The serpent and the rope – Raja Rao
  • The Waters of Kronos – Conrad Richter
  • The Affair (see Strangers & Brothers, 1970) – C P Snow
  • This Sporting Life – David Storey
  • Rabbit, Run (see Rabbit Quartet, 1990

Not all years have as many entries though; the majority have between 6 and 10, some fewer, and some more.  It was interesting that the Modern Library puts series of books at the start of the series year-wise, whereas the Reader’s Companion puts them at the year completed.

How many have I read though?  Harper Lee and all three parts of the Balkan Trilogy – so the same two from each book!  One day I will read Anthony Powell, and try the Rabbit books again, and I do have Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes on my shelf.

For anyone who’s not scared by a large reading list to pick from, and anyone joining in with Simon’s Century of Books The Reader’s Companion is probably the one for you, if you can cope with its physical size. If you prefer a smaller and perhaps more personal one, and in a handy normal paperback size, go for The Modern Library.

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I bought my books. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Modern Library: 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950 – Carmen Calill and Colm Toibin (from 28p (no 1p ones left!), old version; updated one from £3.95)
The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel – ed Peter Parker (from 1p!)

Aaarrr! Here be Pirates, Aaarrr, me hearties!

This Easter, I shall be hotfooting it to the multiplex to see the latest film from the ever-wonderful Aardman (or should that be Aaarrr-dman, sic) Animations which is called The Pirates – Band of Misfits (Trailer here). With an all star cast of voices including Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain and Salma Hayek as Cutlass Liz, it will be brilliant, I’m sure.

The film is based upon the first two in a series of delightfully silly books by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the screenplay.  There are now four in the series, with a fifth due later this year.  I always prefer to read the book(s) before seeing the movie when I can and just happen to have these ones waiting for me in the TBR, Aaarrr!

The first, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists was published in 2004, and concerns the scurvy crew of the unnamed ship being sent on a wild goose chase in search of gold by Black Bellamy, the Pirate Captain’s worst foe, and instead bumping into Charles Darwin, and Mister Bobo, his Man-Panzee – a trained monkey who has become more human than most men.  Having sunk The Beagle, The pirates agree to go back to England with Darwin so he can show off Mister Bobo, and also search for Darwin’s missing brother Erasmus…

‘I should say we’d reach England by Tuesday or thereabouts, with a decent wind behind us. It would be a lot quicker than that if we could just sail straight there, but I was looking at the nautical charts, and it’s a good job I did, because it turns out there’s a dirty great sea-serpent right in the middle of the ocean!  It has a horrible gaping maw and one of those scaly tails that looks like it could snap a boat clean in two. So I thought it best to sail around that.’
Fitzroy frowed. ‘I think they just draw those on maps to add a bit of decoration. It doesn’t actually mean there’s a sea-serpent there.’
The galley went rather quiet. A few of the pirate crew stared intently out of the portholes, embarrassed at their Captain’s mistake. But to everyone’s relief, instead of running somebody through, the Pirate Captain just narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.
‘That explains a lot,’ he said. ‘I suppose it ‘s also why we’ve never glimpsed that giant compass in the corner of the Atlantic. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.’

Once back in England, the Pirates and Darwin go off hot-foot to London where they get into all kinds of trouble. Highlights include an encounter with the Elephant Man, and a brilliant chase through the Natural History Museum.

The Pirate Captain is very bad at remembering names, so there are running jokes aplenty with the names of his crew.  Much is also made of the pirates’ obsession with eating ham, the quality of the Pirate Captain’s beard, and as the book’s blurb says, it “is one of the very few books to deal with the weighty issue of science v religion, whilst also featuring lots of roaring and running people through.

I also loved that the inside covers are illustrated with wonderfully batty maps and the jokes continue in occasional footnotes and several appendices.  This book was very silly indeed, and I chuckled all the way through – it was plunderful stuff, Aaarrr!  (9.5/10)

The second, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling, has had Whaling substituted for Moby Dick in the new paperback edition, (bit obvious, why didn’t they re-name scientists Darwin while they were at it?)

In this adventure the pirates get to travel across America to get the money to repay Cutlass Liz the loan for their new boat, and failing at Las Vegas, they join the hunt for Moby Dick.

Although there were some brilliant jokes and nice set pieces to the second adventure, reading it back to back with the first made it too much of a good thing, and not quite as sustainedly funny for me.  The Appendix is brilliant though!  I shall have a gap before embarking on reading the others in the series.  (8.5/10)

Recommended for anyone who enjoys a good chuckle, and likes playing spot the joke.

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I bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists
The Pirates! in an Adventure with Moby Dick

Murder – the lawyer’s tale

The Child Who by Simon Lelic

After writing a spec fiction thriller for his second novel The Facility, review here, Lelic returns to give us a different take on familiary territory for his third. His stunning debut Rupture, review here, was a Whydunnit which explored how a teacher came to murder his pupils. The Child Who takes its inspiration from the tragic murder of Jamie Bulger, but frames its story through the eyes of a child murderer’s solicitor.

Leo Curtice is a jobbing solicitor based in Exeter, used to picking up all the drunk and disorderly cases at the weekends, and thinking there must be more to life than this. Then one day, he’s the duty solicitor when the call comes about a new case –  “I think you should take this,” he’s told, and he says yes. This is where Leo’s life changes forever.

Leo is introduced to Daniel.  Daniel is twelve, they say he murdered Felicity Forbes, his classmate. Her body was found in the river. Daniel has clammed up and Leo has to find a way to get him to communicate. The police have a witness and evidence.  Could diminished responsibility be a defence strategy?

This case should be the making of Leo’s career, but in defending a child murderer, Leo is unprepared for everything else that happens. In a kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome he finds himself bonding with Daniel, much to his wife and teenaged daughter Ellie’s utter disgust. They can’t understand why he’s putting the case before them, and he can’t see that it’s hurting their relationship. He hadn’t accounted either for the reaction of the public – everyone hates a child murderer, and they hate him for defending his client.  This hatred extends to Leo’s family, and it soon escalates out of control; his daughter gets bullied at school, he gets pelted with eggs going into court. He can’t let go of the case, but there’s a lot worse still to come…

In The Child Who, Lelic once more shows his abilities to get under the skin of his subject and by approaching it from a different angle finding a new way of telling a story. It may lack the freshness of Rupture with its unique reveal structure, but it doesn’t have his debut’s slightly clichéd lead character of a policewoman who has to try too hard.

Instead, in Leo we have a man who is jaded and on the edge of a mid-life crisis, a state of mind which, when offered this stimilus takes over until it is too late. Leo is fully formed, and we see almost everything through his lens, knowing no more than he does at any time. Because of this obsession, his wife and daughter become rather sidelined as characters at the start allowing Daniel to dominate, which allows Lelic to comment on how the system treats young offenders. Notably, the victim and her family scarcely feature at all.

Less of a legal drama, more a psycho-thriller, the moral dilemmas are disturbing which make this an uneasy yet compelling read, and confirm Lelic’s status as a literary star in the making. (8.5/10)

See what some others thought of The Child Who: Reader Dad, Farm Lane Books and David Hebblethwaite.

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My copy was supplied by the Amazon Vine programme.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Child Who by Simon Lelic, pub Mantle books, Jan 2012, hardback 320 pages.
Rupture, The Facilityalso by Simon Lelic, paperbacks.

Book Group Report – Rutshire Redux

A couple of weeks ago, I reviewed our Book Group’s January read here. This week we met, so here’s an update on what the group thought about Riders by Jilly Cooper.

I was the only woman in our group who’d never read a Jilly Cooper novel. The rest had read quite a few over the years, and enjoyed revisiting her very much. The men in the group were less sure of the attractions of this doorstop of a novel, although reading it on a Kindle meant not having to reveal the provocative cover!

We had a spirited discussion (once my daughter went to bed!) about everything this book represents. From the show-jumper as rock-star (with grooms as groupies), to the comedy accents of the international equestrians, and the presence of every upper-middle class character stereotype you can think of. We decided that the only character that was likeable was Jake’s wife Tory – but she was characterised as fat and ugly and too eager to please, whereas all the beautiful people were uniformly selfish, vain and horrid. We enjoyed speculating about Jilly, and her obsession with class. Not a conventional book group choice, but one that was great fun during the bleak months of winter.

Next month, we’re reading something totally different – Stasiland by Anna Funder – Stories from behind the Berlin Wall, a piece of investigative journalism about life in the former GDR.  It’s a bit shorter than Riders too!

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I bought my books. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Riders by Jilly Cooper
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder.

Raining in my heart?

The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw

When Ali Shaw’s first magical novel, The Girl with Glass Feet was published in 2009, I was drawn to this adult fairy-tale like a Greek sailor to the sirens, nothing could have stopped me reading it.  Luckily for me, it was good – very good. Without doubt, it was the best debut I read in 2009, and you can read my review here.  After Ali did an event in Abingdon and turned out to be one of the most fascinating authors I’d heard speak, I championed this book everywhere.  This meant, for me, that his second novel had an awful lot to live up to…

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Elsa Beletti needs to escape – from the claustrophobia of her city life and her boyfriend.  She grew up in the open spaces of Ohio, where her father was a fearless stormchaser; always happier outside, he was ultimately killed in a tornado.

She’d seen it as a kid, when an afternoon storm had lifted the gutter of the ranch’s barn, twirled it in the air like a baton, then flicked it at him. It broke his leg. Being holed up in the house while it healed made him catatonic. ‘I’m weather-powered, see,’ he mumbled once, and it was the best way to describe him.

Elsa is drawn to a small settlement nestled amongst the mountains that she’d spied from an aeroplane window once.  Thunderstown is isolated, it’s a trek to get there, but she’s not alone in having found this backwater which is surrounded by weather.

The residents of the town are a real mixture – good and bad, traditional and modernising, jobsworth and helpful. Almost all of them however, are superstitious about the town’s legendary Old Man Thunder – except Daniel Fossiter, the town’s ‘culler’ (whose job is to keep the local wild goat population in check), he has reason to think differently.

One day Elsa goes hiking in the mountains, and meets a young man with rain in his veins and a thunderstorm inside him.  Finn Munro is an outcast who lives alone on  the mountain, and it’s love at first sight.  However there are many obstacles and a world of weather in the way to make this relationship one that can run smoothly…

From the first page, I was taken once again, into Shaw’s world-vision.  In his hands magic is entirely natural, for those that embrace it, that is.  For those who don’t believe, it is unexplainable and to be feared, which sets up the central conflict which powers the plot. This organic and robust approach to magic is essential in this kind of adult fairy-tale, showing both cause and effect which adds authenticity, and Shaw gets that just right with his descriptive imagery.

He handles the non-magical folk well too, they’re all believable, from kindly Kenneth, Elsa’s landlord – a cricket-loving West Indian, and Dot, a nun who looks after those touched by lightning to the rather scary council leader Abe Cosser, who always gives Daniel a hard time.

If I hadn’t read The Girl with Glass Feet first, I would have been totally wowed by The Man Who Rained. Don’t get me wrong, I did love this book too, but felt it was not quite different enough from his debut. Both featured magical people, small town locations, and both had heroines who were lured there to find themselves – I was just expecting something else.

Difficult second novel?  Definitely not!

The Man Who Rained is engaging,  beautiful and a fabulous read. I can’t wait for what he comes up with next. (9/10).

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I bought my book. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Man Who Rained– Pub Jan 2012, Atlantic books hardback, 258 pages.
The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. Paperback.

Mostly Bookbrains III – what a night!

Phew!  I can rest from having to compile quiz questions for a while.  The third Mostly Bookbrains lit quiz night happened yesterday evening.

It was icy cold out, but that didn’t stop the bookish folk of Abingdon and beyond from going out and  filling our school hall – Dave, the caretaker, had to get extra tables for us.  The Quiznight was co-hosted by me and Mostly Books to raise money for two local charities – See Saw and Abingdon Alzheimers Club.  Judy and her hubby ran the bar and raffle and sold delicious snacks. The Book Swap table did a great business too.  I think we raised a good amount of money, but the total isn’t available yet.

The Quiz was won by the team who sat at table Q who named themselves Quiller-Couch after the author who was himself known as ‘Q’, and they scored 115 out of 132 possible points! There were loads of books and chocolate as prizes down to third place, with an additional prize for the interval big quiz-sheet.  Thank you to everyone who came, including bloggers Simon, Becca, and Yvann. It’s always especially lovely to see blog-friends at any occasion.

One of my treats, the morning after is to read through everyone’s answer sheets, and have a chuckle at some of the imaginatively hopeful and wrong answers. I’d like to share a few with you – but no names!

  • I asked which poet turned down the offer of becoming Poet Laureate after John Betjeman died in 1984 …  We had W H Auden (died 1973), and Benjamin Zephaniah (born 1958, and turned down an OBE in 2003). (A: Philip Larkin)
  • I asked which author’s memoir of growing up in Berkshire was called The necessary aptitude.  Good suggestions were Miranda (Hart, Devon-born, but boarded at Downe House school nr Reading), and Kate Winslett (a Reading born girl).  (A: Pam Ayres)
  • I asked about the subject of Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall which will be called ‘Bring up the Bodies‘ – the further life of Thomas Cromwell.  One team guessed Pol Pot!
  • I always have a picture round of identify the author – many teams find this the most difficult round.  Oxford author Helen Rappaport was wrongly identified as Kate Summerscale, Helen Fielding, Hilary Mantel, Joanna Trollope, Jodi Picoult, Kate Atkinson, Catherine Cookson, Deborah Moggargh (sic), and JK Rowling – One team did get her right – sorry Helen!  whereas nearly everyone got celebrity cook Lorraine Pascal (another local girl from Witney) who I’d thought might be tricky…
  • Teams did better on the other picture round which was all about illustrators; of the harder questions, two teams knew that Albert Uderzo illustrated the Asterix books, not Rene Goscinny; Chris Riddell’s cover for Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book was similarly elusive; but absolutely everyone misidentified the fairy-tale picture of the Princess & the Pea by Edmund Dulac as Arthur Rackham.

The hardest thing when setting a quiz is to gauge a level of difficulty which will produce a good range of scores – difficult enough to separate out top scorers, yet not so hard that the lower scoring teams don’t have fun, and get more than 50%.  We achieved the scores, and I do hope everyone enjoyed the evening as much as I did.



Australian Literature Month – Just about made it!

This January has been Australian Literature Month, hosted by Kim at Reading Matters, and the interweb has been alive with Aussie Lit.

Before I give my thoughts on the book I read for the month, I’d like to recall my very first experience of Australian books…

It was the early 1970s I think, and my Dad acquired a little volume by a chap called Afferbeck Lauder.  It was called Let’s Stalk Strine and was about Australian language and culture, but written phonetically in an Aussie accent, and thus was very funny indeed. I remember reading it rather perplexedly, then as realisation dawned falling about with laughter.  Afferbeck Lauder (Alphabetical Order) was, of course, a pen-name – for a chap from the Sydney Morning Herald who wrote a Strine column, and half a dozen or so Strine books in the mid 1960s.  Sadly they’re all out of print, and none available for under a tenner anywhere, else I’d have been able to see if it’s as funny as I remember, (unless you still have yours Dad?).  Enough of detours though, and on to the book I read…

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

This book was in my TBR for so long, I got rid of it. It was the original hardback too (left), although I don’t think it was a first edition.  Then a few years later, I had a yen to read it and bought another paperback copy (right, dislike that cover though), and put it in the TBR again, where it has stayed until I was given the nudge to read it, spurred on by Lizzy.  We had a vague plan to do a shared post, but in the end were too busy to get it together!  So here are my thoughts…

My first reaction to the book was it’s so dense!  There is so much packed into O&L’s 500+ pages, that it reads like a book that is far longer. That’s not a bad thing though in a really good novel, and this is one.  The density is in the dazzling detail which has a Dickensian quality to it, making it a book to be savoured and not rushed.  I read it more slowly than I usually do taking nearly the full month, reading several short chapters, of which it has 111,  most mornings.

The story was not at all what I expected.  The playing cards on the front of the original cover would have you think that O&L are an Australian Bonnie & Clyde conning their way through the bush, however, the later cover with its church and praying hands is ultimately much closer to the heart of the story.  I’m not going to outline the plot in detail as Lizzy’s post captures its essence admirably.

Needless to say it’s epic in scope. We alternate between Oscar and Lucinda’s stories in the first half of the book.  Both are parentless as young adults, Oscar through estrangement and Lucinda’s mother died leaving her a small fortune. Despite having developed a flair for winning on the horse, Oscar decides to emigrate to Australia on a whim, and must overcome his phobia of crossing water for the long voyage. Lucinda meanwhile buys a glassworks and, while trying to integrate into Sydney society, gets addicted to playing cards for money.

So it’s chapter 46 before they are on the same page of the book, and several chapters later before they say a word to each other on board the ocean liner taking Oscar to Oz.

There were two doors. She chose the right-hand one. Ahead of her was a red-headed clergyman sitting on a plush red settee. It was the second-class promenade. She felt herself ‘nabbed’, ‘caught in the act’. She thought it undignified to turn back. She held up her head and straightened her shoulders. She came forward. She walked directly towards him. She introduced herself to him, and when he said his name, she did not hold it.
‘I am in the habit’, she said, ‘of making a confession.’
‘Quite,’ he said.
‘Perhaps this is not a practice you approve of.’
‘No, no,’ he said, ‘of course not.’
‘I wonder then, she blurted, ‘if you might not oblige me at a time convenient to you.’ And then, not quite knowing what she had done, and certainly not why, she fled to those regions of the ship where Oscar dare not follow.

There’s an instant attraction, but neither are capable of acting upon it. Hidebound by society rules, theirs is a relationship that will be two steps forward, and mostly two steps back, as misunderstandings and the inability to speak their minds always get in the way, until Oscar gets his chance, but what will he do?

This is a slow-burning book that, until the last fifty or so pages, plots a leisurely course through the lives of its protagonists. I can imagine getting very frustrated with both of them if I had read it faster – I still wanted to knock their heads together.  Having been on their own since they were teenagers, with few friends of their own age, Oscar and Lucinda are innocents in the ways of romance, and it was this hope that they would actually realise their love that kept me mesmerised from start to finish.

My first experience of Peter Carey was a good one – I hope to have many more. (9/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey