Annabel’s Shelves: C is not for …

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino – DNF

calvinoOh dear, I tried and tried to like If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino, but I fear it is not a book for me. So, sorry to Karen and Dark Puss who both championed this book.

It has a wonderfully inventive structure – being a novel of alternating strands. In the first framing narrative, written in the second person, the reader is trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night …. Then, in the second half of each chapter we get the book he is reading, except that it appears to have been mis-bound and consists of a set of different first chapters, which of course, I think, will turn out to be linked.  I say ‘I think’ because I gave up at about page 69, although I did flick through to the end skimming the conclusion and I realise that I’ve mostly missed a love story between the narrator and Ludmilla, who also buys the defective book.

My problems with reading the book were two-fold. Firstly, I didn’t engage with the smug narrator – who spends half the book telling you how to read. Secondly, I didn’t really engage with the stories because I had one of those moments reading the first one where a particular sentence irked me – and I obsessed over whether it was the original or the translation (William Weaver, 1981) that was annoying me (I still don’t know which). The sentence that got me was:

In the odor of the station there is a passing whiff of station café odor.

It was the repetition of ‘odor’ that got me (that and the American spelling probably!) It just felt lazy to use the same word twice.

On the next page he then goes on to use it many more times:

…with the odor of train that lingers even after all the trains have left, the special odor of stations after the last train has left. The lights of the station and the sentences you are reading seem to have the job of dissolving more than of inidicating the things that surface from a veil of darkness and fog. I have landed in this station tonight for the first time in my life, entering and leaving this bar, moving from the odor or the platform to the odor of wet sawdust in the toilets, all mixed in a single odor which is that of waiting, the odor of telephone booths when all you can do is reclaim your tokens because the number called has shown no signs of life.

Maybe it was deliberate the first time too, but by then it was too late for me, I’d been sensitised. Instead it just all felt totally smug, and thus all the parody about books, reading, writing and style, plus the metafictional aspects which I’d been looking forward to fell flat.

So, if I try Calvino again, I’ll go for The Complete Cosmicomics, stories about the evolution of the universe – but I might leave it a while!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below (affiliate link):
If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Vintage Classics) trans William Weaver. Paperback, 272 pages.
The Complete Cosmicomics (Penguin Translated Texts) trans Martin McLaughlin. Paperback, 432 pages.


I reached the Dark Tower!

Stephen King’s Dark Tower Saga


It’s been a long time a-coming, but I have finally reached the end of Stephen King’s epic fantasy series The Dark Tower.

I began reading the books back in May 2011 in a readalong with Teresa and Jenny at ShelfLove.  It was to have been a monthly readalong, but I only managed the first four then, adding the next two at roughly six monthly intervals, and the last after just a couple of months.

That totals 4111 pages of sometimes very small print, and I’ve loved it, and what is clear from Stephen King’s notes that accompany the volumes, so did he.

He wrote the seven books over a period of 34 years, starting in 1970; turning out the first four steadily through the years up to 1997, then the final three in a splurge over two years ending in 2004.

This epic saga is truly genre-bending. Starting off very much a Western, before descending into SF and Horror with monsters aplenty, but also containing elements of high and dark fantasy and, most surprisingly, the Arthurian chivalry of medieval knights – although when you find out that King’s inspiration was Robert Browning’s poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, it makes sense – the poem is included in volume VII as an appendix.

As it’s a complex saga you have to begin at the beginning. Here are the links to my posts on the previous six volumes, so you can start at the appropriate point for you.  Although I’ve finished the main series, I now have a new volume to read – The Wind Through the Keyhole, published in 2012, sits between Vols 4 & 5.

Now for what I thought of the last book …

The Dark Tower: Dark Tower Bk. VII by Stephen King

dark-towerThe final volume is where it gets really personal. Stephen King fans will know that the author was almost killed by an out of control driver whilst out walking near his home back in 1999.

In Song of Susannah, King introduced himself as a character and Eddie and Roland went through a door to visit him to get him to help them. In The Dark Tower, they realise that he hasn’t done what he was meant to, and that the end of their story may not get to be written, so Roland and Jake go back…

He (Jake) opened his eyes. ‘The writer? King? Why are you mad at him?’
Roland sighed and cast away the smoldering butt of his cigarette; Jake had already finished with his. ‘Because we have two jobs to do where we should have only one. Having to do the second one is sai King’s fault. He knew what he was supposed to do, and I think on some level he knew that doing it would keep him safe. But he was afraid. He was tired.’ Roland’s upper lip curled. ‘Now his irons are in the fire, and we have to pull them out. It’s going to cost us, and probably a-dearly.’

Jake and Roland have to stop King being killed in a potentially fatal car accident.  It appears to happen exactly as it did in real life, except that Jake and Roland are present.  Even the guy driving the car with the distracting dog has the same name as the real driver of the car that nearly killed King.  King’s treatment of himself is again, largely uncomplimentary.

I’m not going to expound on the plot except to say that it ties up many ends, brings in even more references to King’s other works, and is full of drama in Roland’s relentless quest.

As to Roland – Does he ever reach the top of the Dark Tower?
I can’t tell you, but I certainly didn’t predict the ending!  (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Dark Tower: Dark Tower Bk. VII by Stephen King, Hodder Paperback 736 pages.
The Dark Tower Book I: The Gunslinger by Stephen King.

‘A Duty-Dance with Death’ – ‘So it goes’

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).

vonnegut 2

S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life!  Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.

Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.

This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.

Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…

Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.

One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII,  the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:

And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘

Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’

This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.

Getting back on the quest for The Dark Tower #6

The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah Bk. VI by Stephen King

dark tower 6

King’s magnum opus is not a series that you can jump into midway through, so if you’ve not read it, I suggest you start at the beginning. See my series of posts: Vol 1, Vol 2, Vol 3, Vol 4 and Vol 5 and find your starting point, don’t read on.

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It’s fair to say that the penultimate episode in this saga is probably the weakest in the series so far. The largest part of it is devoted Susannah who is pregnant with a devil’s spawn, and possessed by another female demon Mia, as well as her own suppressed split personality Detta, transported back to New York to have the baby, or rather chap.  It is growing unnaturally, and Susannah is trying to suppress the labour until help arrives from members of the Ka-Tet.

Meanwhile back in the Calla, Roland and the others are trying to activate the door through to our world with the help of Henchick and the Manni.  Once opened they will split up.  Jake, Oy and Pere Callahan will go on Susannah’s trail.  Roland and Eddie will go to Maine 1977 to persuade Calvin Tower to sell them the vacant lot back in NYC which is pivotal to their quest, but also to seek out the author of a novel called Salem’s Lot.

Yes, it all goes metafictional – with King introducing himself as a character in his own novel. Tellingly, he doesn’t glamorise himself at all – in fact, almost the opposite:

‘Maybe I’m having a breakdown,’ said the man in the water, but he slowly dropped his hands. He was wearing thick glasses with severe black frames. One bow had been mended with a bit of tape. His hair was either black or a very dark brown. The beard was definitely black, the first threads of white in it startling in their brilliance. He was wearing bluejeans below a tee-shirt that said THE RAMONES and ROCKET TO RUSSIA and GABBA-GABBA-HEY. He looked like starting to run to middle-aged fat, but he wasn’t fat yet. He was tall, and as ashy-pale as Roland. Eddie saw with no real surprise that Stephen King looked like Roland. Given the age difference they could never be mistaken for twins, but father and son? Yes. Easily.

The last sentences above confirm to me that King is playing out his own fantasies of being a gritty gunslinging hero in this series. It must have been fun to write. The King of the novel is back in 1977 – at this stage, The Dark Tower books are just scribbled outlines in a box.

When we reach the climax in the final book to come – will King reappear in the future with the saga complete? Will Susannah survive having the chap? Will they find the rose in the vacant lot? Will they reach the Tower? Will Roland’s quest be ended?

There are so many questions still to be answered, many threads to be tied off. This may not have been the best novel in the series, but it ends on a cliff-hanger and I must finish it – just another 736 pages to go!

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah Bk. VI by Stephen King, paperback, 480 pages
Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, paperback 768 pages.

Ramble on …

This is my 800th post – Gosh!  That means that in my four and a half years of blogging I’ve posted around 177 times per year. It also works out that I’ve averaged a post every other day – which frankly astounds me! Anyway it is entirely appropriate that my 800th post should be a book review:-

Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit

Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat SegnitSub-titled A novel in fifteen rambles, this book is an uniquely British, black comedy, that at first glance you could mistake for a proper handbook for ramblers who like a good pint.

Upon opening it, you’ll see that it really does contain fifteen rambles – featuring actual places mostly around the Cotswolds, and the Brecon Beacons in Wales, but venturing abroad too.  I have no idea whether the routes of the rambles actually work, as I imagine that ‘all names have been changed’. However, they all give the appearance of being totally true.  Each walk is complete with maps, nature notes, architectural details, literary references, footnotes and, of course, the all-important tasting notes of the pints of nectar that await the weary rambler at the end of each trail…

… three and a half pints of Wickwar’s moreish Cotswold Way (4.2%), whose upfront maltiness followed by figgy, pruney notes reminiscent of Moroccan tagines, only added to its intense drinkability.

In a meta-fictional opening touch, Nat Segnit introduces Graham Underhill, the author of the pub walks book, tells us how he disappeared one day, and describing how “as a ‘psycho-geographer’, a cartographer of human consciousness in the exalted tradition of Roger Deakin, Richard Mabey and Robert MacFarlane – the three R’s as Graham like to call them – that Underhill deserves to be plucked from obscurity.”  That premise, naturally, sets the bar impossibly high, and we know from the start that Underhill will be undermined in trying to emulate his heroes.

Then it’s into the rambles, which start off very seriously, and you start to wonder if this is it, when Graham introduces a personal touch to the text and tells us about when he met and later married his second wife, Sunita.  Their relationship plays out throughout the novel; theirs is a marriage not destined to be made in heaven, but the besotted Graham can only view his beautiful Bengali bride through rose-tinted glasses. In his late forties, Graham is much older than his wife …

At thirty-three, Sunita’s ‘body clock’ was ticking, and quite apart from the fact that mine might well definitively have tocked, to have brought up the subject of children so casually was a mistake I had the opportunity to regret at my leisure, sitting outside the Rotunda banned from so much as giving her a call.

Graham doesn’t really understand women so much as worship them. He had problems with his first wife, Anne, too – we’ll hear about these later.  Right from the start though, we sense that Sunita is playing him.  We sympathise, but because of Graham’s pomposity, and self-absorption that reminded me totally of Adrian Mole or TV’s Alan Partridge, we also find him a figure of ridicule.

Sun slipped through the branches of the lay-by’s sessile oaks, coaxing wisps of vapour from the tarmac, ghosts of the rain that had until its abrupt cessation fallen steadily since we crossed the border into Wales. Not three feet from the Prius’s steaming bonnet a small, copper-breasted bird landed on a branch, cocked its neckless head and, as if to greet us, called veest!
‘Brambling,’ I conjectured, but at this point Sunita had turned onto her knees to reach the two-compartment picnic cooler on the back seat, and the impulse to ornithological speculation somewhat dwindled in me.  Reclining in our seats we gazed up at the voluptuous skyline, lost for words as we speared our Bengali specialities from the Snap’n’Lock food containers nestled stably in our laps.

I did love Underhill’s flowery verbosity and ever the pedant, his obsessive attention to detail but, with 260 pages of this dense text, I did struggle in the middle sections. I kept reading though, as I wanted to find out what happened to Graham, finding that I did care about him enough to finish the book. The story does indeed take some unexpected turns, so I’m very glad I stuck with it.  I can’t recount the number of times that I either wanted to shake some sense into him, or tell him to shut up though!

Last spring, I was lucky to hear the author, (Segnit, not Underhill!), read from this novel at the Penguin Blogger’s Night, (bravely in front of Robert MacFarlane as it happens), the part he read featuring one of Graham and Sunita’s spats, was hilarious.

This is a very funny novel, darkly comic throughout, but an air of farce and slapstick bubbles just under the surface, popping up now and then to make you laugh out loud.  It is so different, that even if I found the middle a little stretched, I really enjoyed it. (8/10)

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I received a copy from the publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Pub Walks in Underhill Country by Nat Segnit, Penguin paperback.

HHhH – Final Thoughts

HHhH by Laurent Binet, trans Sam Taylor

If you don’t know anything about HHhH, you may want to read my previous post first which describes a bit more about it, and the halfway hang-ups I experienced reading this book…
… I’ve now finished it, and it was one hell of a story. I remain, however, equally fascinated and irritated by this volume – I still can’t call it a novel.

The true story of the plot to assassinate Heydrich was thoroughly gripping and actively told, mostly in the present tense which builds up the suspense well.  The portraits painted of Heydrich, Hitler, Himmler and the other top Nazis show them to be the monsters we know they were.

But this is not just a straight-forward novelised account of Heydrich’s life and Operation Anthropoid. That is presented as an episodic novel within another novel following an/the author’s writing of the book.

This was where the book failed for me, because I just didn’t like the ‘author’, whether he is Binet himself or a fictional counterpart.

In particular, I didn’t like his snarkiness about other authors who have written around the same subject, (not that I’ve read any of them, but that’s not the point). Jonathan Littell’s doorstop of a novel The Kindly Ones is put down as “Houellebecq does Nazism.”  He also criticises a 1960 novel by Alan Burgess called Seven Men at Daybreak for waxing lyrical about the flight which will drop the parachutists into Czechoslovakia. Hang on!  They’re both novels – they’re allowed to blend fact with fiction for the sake of the narrative aren’t they?  Binet’s ‘author’ raises himself above them …

Once again I find myself frustrated by my genre’s constraints. No ordinary novel would encumber itself with three characters sharing the same name – unless the author were after a very particular effect. …
… This must be very tiresome and confusing for the reader. In a fiction, you’d just do away with the problem. Colonel Moravec would become Colonel Novak, for instance, and the Moravec family would be transformed into the Svigar family – why not? – while the traitor  might be rebaptised with a fanciful name like Nutella or Kodak or Prada. But of course I am not going to play that game.

and later he says:
My story has as many holes in it as a novel. But in an ordinary novel, it is the novelist who decides where these holes should occur. Because I am a slave to my scruples, I’m incapable of making that decision.

None of this endeared me any further to him.  I realise that this is all about exploring the role of truth in an historical novel, but I found it to be too clever for its own good and even a bit heavy-handed in going on about it so much.  (6.5/10)

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However, you may have a totally different experience with this non-fiction metanovel. Here are a few other bloggers reviews to get a different picture: Just William’s Luck, Winston’s Dad, The Only Way is Reading, and 366 Days, 366 Books.

One good thing from this reading experience is that I am now keen to read more WWII books and novels. Already in my TBR are two by Primo Levi for instance, plus Anja Klabunde’s biography of Magda Goebbels (the scene in Downfall when she gave her children cyanide pills – sends a shiver down my spine to even think of it), and Emma Craigie’s fictionalised tale of Hitler’s youngest daughter.

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I received my ARC via Amazon Vine.  To explore further at Amazon UK, please click below:
HHhH by Laurent Binet
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell
Magda Goebbels by Anja Klabunde
Chocolate Cake with Hitler by Emma Craigie
Downfall [DVD]

HHhH – Halfway Hang-ups

HHhH by Laurent Binet, trans Sam Taylor

HHhH is the book du jour, the one that’s getting the blog-inches, mostly giving it glowing reviews. It won the Prix Goncourt in France, and Mario Vargas Llosa thinks it “magnificent.”

For anyone who hasn’t encountered it yet, HHhH is the story of Operation Anthropoid, in which two Czechoslovakian parachutists were sent on a mission to assassinate Nazi poster-boy Reinhard Heydrich, ‘the hangman of Prague’.

I don’t usually write posts when I’m halfway through a book, but as much as I’m enjoying fascinated by HHhH, I’m having slight problems with it. The cover proclaims “All the characters are real. All the events depicted are true.”  But it’s a novel!  However you start reading it, and it’s all about an author – the actual  author? – who is researching Op Anth.  We have a story within a story, the author’s framing narrative, and his version of Heydrich’s life and the plot to end it.

The ‘author’ tells us about film depictions of Heydrich (including the rather brilliant Conspiracy with Kenneth Branagh).  He debates with himself about what to leave in the book, and what to leave out. His girlfriend berates him for writing a cheesy sentence which imagines Himmler going red with apoplexy.  He wishes that he could have written some better dialogue than documented discussions report.  All this makes me feel that HHhH is less of a novel, and more of a ‘making of’ type of documentary book.

I normally don’t have any problems with this kind of metafictional concept, I am a Paul Auster fan after all!  I am having problems reading HHhH as a novel though. It feels more like Anna Funder’s book Stasiland: Stories from behind the Berlin Wall which I read/reviewed earlier this year; that was a mixture of memoir and reportage – which is what HHhH feels like too. That added assertion that everything is true just adds to the non-novel feel.

All this adds up to HHhH being slightly hard going for me.  In the beginning sections, I spent far too much time trying to decide whether the author in the book is the real author, or a fiction, and maybe that’s why I’ve struggled slightly.  I’m nearly halfway through now and I won’t give up as the subject matter is too important to abandon.

So is this a novel, or is it a novelisation of a non-fictional topic, or something else?
Did you have any problems with this format?
Should I be bothered by this?

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I obtained my ARC through Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
HHhH by Laurent Binet, pub Harvill Secker, May 3, Hardback 338pp.
Stasiland: Stories from Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder
Conspiracy [2001] – DVD starring Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci

Lemony Snicket for Grown-ups

Adverbs by Daniel Handler

This author is best known as the writer of the fun Lemony Snicket series of novels for children.  I’ve read the first Lemony Snicket novel, and heard the audiobook narrated by Tim Curry, (I just love his voice!) and one day intend to read the rest of the series.  The film, which combines the first three novels is immensely stylish and is a favourite at Gaskell Towers too.  In these books, Handler has a fabulous and quirky narrative style, telling the story of the three Baudelaire orphans who have a series of unfortunate events happen to them.

So after that preamble, you may be interested to hear that Handler has written some adult novels under his own name.  You would also expect some off-beat humour and full-on quirkiness and Adverbs doesn’t disappoint.

The novel is really a series of short stories, mostly linked, sharing characters and a timeline.  Each chapter is titled with an adverb, which occurs physically in the text or in character in that story, including: obviously, particularly, briefly, naturally and symbolically to name a few.  Do you know the parlour game Adverbs?  You have to act in the style of a particular adverb for the others to work out – well this book is a bit like that!

One of my favourite characters, Helena first crops up in the story Particularly in which she ends up working for her husband’s ex, teaching in a school …

She and her husband needed to buy things pretty much on a regular basis. This teaching job did not pay a lot of money, because, let’s face it, nobody gives a flying fuck about education, but it was a temporary position. Helena had been told it would last until the money ran out. From Helena’s experience, she would say the money was going to run out in about nine days.
‘It’s a temporary position, like I told you,’ said Andrea,  who had said no such thing. ‘Pretty much what happens is, you facilitate the creative expression part. You’re a creative expression facilitator. Get it?’
Andrea was an ex-girlfriend of Helena’s husband, so she said ‘Get it?’ like one might say, ‘The same man has seen us both naked, and prefers you, bitch!’
‘Of course I get it,’ Helena said, but she sighed.Things like this had not happened to her in England. She could not explain the difference, perhaps it was because there wasn’t one. Certainly England had castles, but Helena had not lived in them, although memories of her British life had become more and more glamorous the longer she hung out at hideous places like this.

There’s a rich cast of characters who fall in and out of love, requited and unrequited, from a chivalric teenage crush to being immediately smitten with love at first sight. There are all kinds of  love too, from full-on romantic to platonic, and ghostly too.

Despite being called Adverbs, Handler doesn’t use many of them – I gather that using too many adverbs is considered bad form for proper authors – Elmore Leonard says, ‘Using adverbs is a mortal sin’ in his slim tome 10 Rules of Writing.

Adverbs is also a strange book that happens to be full of magpies literally – it is obsessed with these colourful birds and their kleptomaniac character they crop up throughout as a kind of birdy glue – and dangle sentences at you like wonderful shiny jewels:

Love can smack you like a seagull, and pour all over your feet like junk mail.

How fabulous is that!  Like all proper good metafiction, Handler partially narrates the story, and crops up as himself too. His narration is similarly knowing as that of his alter-ego Lemony Snicket, intimating that he knows what will really happen and he’s not letting on.  As he is so much an integral part of the novel perhaps, the female characters tend to dominate the rest, but they’re all interesting so that’s not a bad thing.

It is also full of advice on life in general:

You have to be careful when you say what you like two weeks before your birthday. You say birds you’ll get birds. You say the new album by the Prowlers and you better not buy it yourself because it’ll be waiting for you in the bag from Zodiac records…

There was much I really liked about this book.  At the risk of sounding like Forrest Gump, it was a little like a box of chocolates – I liked some stories and characters far more than others.  However, the quirk factor was right for me, and the literary tricksiness was right up my street, so I will look out for more by this interesting chap.  (8/10)

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I bought this book.  To buy from, click below:
The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events No.1)
The Bad Beginning (Series of Unfortunate Events) Audiobook read by Tim Curry
Lemony Snicket’s: A Series Of Unfortunate Events[DVD] [2004]
10 Rules of Writing by Elmore Leonard

A Ffunny evening with the Ffabulous Jasper Fforde

I couldn’t resist the ‘Ff’s.  I bet some authors would get fed up of people doing that, but I think Jasper Fforde a) wouldn’t mind because he will know that I love his books, and that is what matters, and b) does it himself on his website

Jasper was on day two of his book tour promoting his latest – One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the fifth Thursday Next novel. He talked to a packed St Nicholas church in Abingdon complete with pneumatic drills and grinders digging up the road outside doing nighttime repairs, (the sort of quirky coincidence that might happen in one of his books we thought). But despite the background noise, he kept the audience thoroughly entertained with a largely off-the-cuff talk involving much hilarity, and it was lovely to see an author positively encourage questions from the audience, rather than dread them.

He took us through his writing experience and how it took ten years and several books to get published. His third, The Eyre Affair was his breakthrough book, and then it took a  whisper campaign with a larger number of proof copies than usual with a  ‘Don’t ask, read it’ tag by the publisher to raise awareness as Fforde’s books tend to defy easy description.  He calls this the ‘Jasper Fforde Role-playing Game’ – try to describe one and it’s nigh-on impossible.

He told us how The Big Over Easy was the first book he wrote – a satirical whodunnit about the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty; but it wasn’t published until 2005, after the first few Thursday Next books. When he looked it over then, he could see why it didn’t get published the first time and engaged on a re-write. So he urged new writers to use the rejections and keep practising and learning how to be worth publishing.  In fact he was full of great tips for aspiring authors, and urged people to be their own worst critics.

Talking about how he writes he said, self-deprecatingly, that he just wrote and figured out how he wrote them later.  However, he did admit to setting himself ‘narrative dares’ thinking of some wild and wacky themes and challenging himself to write them.  When asked about where the name Thursday Next came from, he told us he wished he’d known it truly was a phrase in Romeo and Juliet, but actually it was something his mother tends to say rather than next Thursday.

Moving on to Shades of Grey, newly out in paperback, he said that this was a departure for him – no hiding behind existing characters. It’s been more of a slow burner saleswise than his previous works because of that it seems, but actually it’s my favourite because of its originality,  (review coming very soon as I read it last week).  He had this idea for a dystopian world where everything is governed by visual shades of colour, and how he could change the rules of engagement in society.  Volume II in this trilogy is due out in 2013.
He’s also been delighted with the success of The Last Dragonslayer, which I reviewed here.  He liked the idea of insane wizards and magic that fizzes and phuts.  Although written more with a teen audience in mind, it’s being read by many adults too.  A sequel will be coming next year.

The queue for signing was long, but worth it.  He was such a nice guy. We chatted briefly, and he posed for a picture, and stamped my books with his own custom stampers (Civic Duty – have you done yours? in Shades of Grey, and a Council of Genres Reading Visa for the new book) – How Ffab is that!  Oh, and he gave out postcards too.

With three Thursday Next books plus the Nursery Crimes pair in my TBR, I’m looking forward to a long reading relationship with Jasper.  If you’ve read any of his books, do go and see him if he comes round your way, you won’t be disappointed.  If you haven’t read Fforde and fancy some zany metafiction – Oh ‘Don’t ask, read it!’  The Eyre Affair is a good place to start, or Shades of Grey if you prefer dystopian fare.

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To buy books from, click below:
One of Our Thursdays is Missing (Thursday Next series vol 5)
The Eyre Affair (Thursday Next) (Thursday Next series, vol 1)
Shades of Grey
The Last Dragonslayer
The Big Over Easy (Nursery Crime Adventures 1)

Celebrating 50 years of Penguin Modern Classics

Penguin are very good at celebrating their anniversaries.  Previously we’ve had the Penguin Sixties and then the Penguin Classics 60s back in the mid 1990s for the company’s sixtieth birthday – each series featuring sixty little pocket-sized books which were 60p each, and an eclectic mix they were too.  I remember visiting loads of different bookshops to try and collect the lot – of course they brought out a boxed set slightly later, but I think I managed to get all of the orange spined 60s, and nearly all of the black classics.

Now the Penguin Modern Classics series is fifty years old, and Penguin have produced a variation on their previous celebratory sets. They’ve produced a set of fifty small volumes by fifty authors, each featuring a selection of short fiction. For more detail and the full list, see the Penguin web site here.  But don’t they look nice?  Keeping the style of the latest incarnation of the series with white spines, silver covers with the distinctive font, and black and white author photos on the back.  Nice box – want one!  (Homer drool).

I was delighted to receive two of them to review. Having perused the list I picked H P Lovecraft then asked for a random pick…

I am trying these days to read more of the authors that have influenced so many others and Lovecraft is one of them.  The high priest of ‘weird’, his short stories are dark Gothic fantasies, horror with some fairy tale elements or science fiction thrown in.  These are the first I’ve read, and if the three in this little volume are anything to go by, I’ll enjoy reading more and think I’ll need to acquire the anthologies listed below!

The Colour Out of Space written in 1927 – is a classic Sci-Fi horror tale of a meteorite that falls in a farming valley and gradually poisons everything around it.  The dread engendered by this tale’s narrator is palpable and terrible – pure evil poisoning and sucking the life out of all living things within its grasp.

The Outsider is more of a fantasy, and strangely brought to mind a miniature of Mark Z Danielewski’s magnificent modern horror novel House of Leaves, in which a door in a house is found with a never-ending world going down, down, down. In this short story a twisted creature discovers a door leading up from his dark subterranean castle.

Lastly, in The Hound, a grave-robber takes one amulet too many and is driven mad by a curse.  Less ‘weird’ than the preceding two tales, but still highly atmospheric and charged with dark energy.

I loved the ‘weirdness’ of these tales – that word is perfect for them. They were fantastical, bleakly pessimistic, dark in tone as well as lacking sunshine, and rich in descriptive language.  Lovecraft is a hit (8.5/10)

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Now for Robert Coover – an author of whom I knew absolutely nothing at all.  Turns out he’s an American professor at Browns, now in his 70s, and Wikipedia told me he’s considered a fabulist and an author of metafiction.  New takes on fairy tales I adore, and I’m very fond of Paul Auster’s metafiction – so I was looking forward to the three short stories here too (all taken from his 1969 collection Pricksongs and Descants) .

The title story tells a tale of what happens in a circus freak show when the Thin Man wants to put on a little muscle to impress the Fat Lady who is going on a diet for him.  A rather sad fairy tale.

The last tale in this trio, A Pedestrian Accident,  is narrated by a man who has been run over by a lorry.  He lies dying while weird people argue around him – or maybe in his pain he’s hallucinating.  Nasty actually, and contains several moments of pure comedy which will make you wish you hadn’t laughed!

It is the second story in this set which is a masterpiece though – The Babysitter.  A teenager arrives to babysit for Dolly and Harry Tucker who are going out to a party, leaving her to get two tricky youngsters bathed and off to bed and deal with a hungry, pooey baby. The Dad fancies the girl.  She’s wondering whether to invite her boyfriend Jack over once the kids have gone to bed, what to watch on the telly and whether to have a bath too or not.  Her boyfriend’s mate Mark is trying to persuade Jack to let him soften her up for him, they should both go over to the Tuckers’ house.  This story is all about sex – more particularly thinking about it.  They all fantasize about the girl, and as they all work themselves up, their fantasies all become more and more outrageous, paralleled by the girl imagining increasingly outlandish stories about the children until you’re not quite sure what is real and what isn’t.  Proper metafiction – absolutely brilliant!

Having now investigated Coover a little, I’m dying to read his novel Gerald’s Party (1986).  Where a drunken party carries on around the corpse of a dead actress – Cocktails, sex, and violence.  Sounds slightly like a louder American version of Mike Leigh’s wonderful Abigail’s Party, which Channel 4’s reviewer said: “Abigail’s Party still ranks as the most painful hundred minutes in British comedy-drama.”  ‘Little top-up anyone?’

So Robert Coover – Another new author and another hit for me (8.5/10)

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All this means of course, that I just must have the full set of Penguin Mini Modern Classics!

To order from
Mini Modern Classics Box Set
The Colour Out of Space (Penguin Mini Modern Classics) by H P Lovecraft
Romance of the Thin Man and the Fat Lady (Penguin Mini Modern Classics) by Robert Coover

Most of Lovecraft’s stories are conveniently anthologised in this trio of Penguin Modern Classics:
The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird StoriesThe Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories
House Of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski
Pricksongs & Descants (Penguin Modern Classics) by Robert Coover
Gerald’s Party (Penguin Modern Classics) by Robert Coover