Where is your North?

Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

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This was the last book that Russell Hoban finished before his death in 2011. It was published posthumously by Walker Books as an illustrated short novel for a teen audience, and it is dedicated to Hoban’s grandchildren who are probably the perfect age to read this modern folktale of the frozen north…

Maybe you think there isn’t any north where you are. Maybe it’s warm and cosy and outside the window the street is full of cars or maybe there’s just emptiness and a train whistle. There aren’t any Eskimos or dog sleds, nothing like that. But in your mind there is a North.

There’s a north where it’s so cold that your nose hairs get stiff and your eyeballs get brittle and your face hurts and your hands will freeze if you leave them uncovered too long. A north where the white wind blows, where the night wind wails with the voices of the cold and lonesome dead. Where the ice bear walks alone and he’s never lost. Where the white wolf comes trotting, trotting on the paths of the living, the paths of the dead. Where the snowy owl drifts through the long twilight without a sound. Where the raven speaks his words of black.

In this north there’s a place on the shore of the great northern bay with forty or fifty huts and a co-op and some boats and some of those motorized sleds they call skidoos. Some of the people still live by hunting and fishing but many have jobs and buy their food at the co-op.

These are the opening paragraphs of Soonchild, and those of you who’ve encountered Russell Hoban before will recognise his trademark way of bringing a flight of fantasy down to earth with the introduction of the mundane and a dash of humour.  This novel is full of these touches of humour, but underneath that is a rather dark and profound story of death and rebirth based on Inuit folklore. 

Soonchild is an unnaturally quiet baby, and she plans on staying in her mother No Problem’s womb. She can’t hear the ‘world songs’, so there is no point in coming out, she doesn’t believe there’s a world out there.

Sixteen Face John is her father, he is the local shaman, as was his father and grandfather before him, but he has got fat and lazy drinking Coke and watching baseball on the telly.  No Problem challenges John as shaman to fix it.

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Illustration by Alexis Deacon from Soonchild by Russell Hoban

Somewhat reluctantly, John goes off and makes a big-dream brew – and he jumps into the raven’s eye to go and visit Nanuq, the ice bear, chasing these elusive songs. He will meet all manner of wildlife of the North as well as his ancestors in his quest in which he will die and be reborn many times in his search for the songs, and he will need courage as he finds out some hard truths about himself too.

With the exception of the mysterious snowy owl, Ukpika, many of the animals that John meets are straight talking and worldly.  “… my houth is youw houth and you’we my browther. What can I do fow you, bwo?” says Timertuk the walrus with a shocking lisp.  However, if you took out these playful bits of vernacular and the references to Coca-cola and pizza, what’s left could be a traditional folktale.

What makes the story really come alive, and takes it to a whole new level though are Alexis Deacon’s superb monochrome illustrations as above. They are ghostly and slightly savage – you can see the ribs and skulls of some of the wolves showing through their skin. You can sense that it’s hard to stay alive for the animals in this harsh landscape.

monster 1Given the fantastic nature of Hoban’s story, it lends itself to being illustrated. This was the same for Patrick Ness’s novel A Monster Calls, which I reviewed here. Jim Kay’s Greenaway Award-winning illustrations for that book were elemental, full of a life darker than the story itself. Reading the illustrated version was an absolute pleasure, yet Walker Books also produced an picture-less version of the paperback as a conventional adult crossover edition. I don’t think this would benefit Soonchild – it needs the illustrations to take you past the humour so you can savour the story underneath.

I’m a fan of Hoban, and the allure of the frozen North and its spirits, encountered from my cosy armchair made for a magical hour or two of reading. (9/10)

By the way: Another novel for older children and teens with its roots in the far north that I’d recommend is The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake, which I reviewed here.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Soonchild by Russell Hoban, illustrated by Alexis Deacon. Walker Books 2012, 144 pages, paperback – Feb 2014.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, illustrated library binding.
The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake

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A charming adventure inside fairy tales …

goodbye yellow brick roadMost of you will know Ian Beck’s work without even realising it. He is an illustrator of renown and amongst many other things designed the cover of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John.

In the early 1980s, he started to write and illustrate picture books for young children, and later moved into writing children’s novels. I read and loved his book for older children, Pastworld (reviewed here), which featured London reinvented as a Dickensian theme park.

I’d bought a copy of Tom Trueheart, his first children’s novel, back when it was published. My daughter had enjoyed many of his picture books, yet somehow it stayed on the shelf until I rediscovered it the other day …

The Secret History of Tom TrueheartBoy Adventurer by Ian Beck

Hardback

I do love it when authors find an original way of using old fairy tales and that’s just what Ian Beck has done in this charming novel for children.

Tom Trueheart is nearly twelve. He comes from a celebrated family of adventurers – he has six brothers all called Jack (or variations thereon).

They are all employed by the Story Bureau who devise adventures and send the Jacks off to play the roles in ‘The Land of Stories’ and finish the tales. When it’s over the Jacks tell the Bureau what happened and they write it up into the story books that everyone reads.

The basic plots are thought up by the Story Deviser at the Bureau – Brother Ormestone, who is to present his latest ideas at their meeting:

‘If I may, Master,’ said Brother Ormestone, ‘I have been completely redrafting the ideas for the story which we discussed at our last meeting. “The Adventure of the Fair Princess Snow White and the Seventeen Dwarfs”.  During the second half of the story, by allowing the young Snow White to escape the hunter and his knife, she can then be found in the woods and sheltered by the seventeen dwarfs. Or she could even find them in her panic to escape. We will use the north-eastern area, the deep woods in the mountains, if our Brother Treasurer could supply a nicely turned-out bright cottage, able to house eighteen, well hidden away, for them all to live in.’

‘The cottage will not be a problem, there are several we can dress ready,’ said the treasurer, a severe bearded figure in grey, who sat at the other end of the table. ‘The seventeen dwarfs, now that is your problem: I can supply a maximum of seven for any story.’

‘Seven,’ said Brother Ormestone in his most chilling voice. ‘Seven. Dear me, dear me no. I have worked long and hard on this story and it definitely involves seventeen dwarfs of varied and, I am afraid, somewhat twisted character.’ He emphasized the word ‘twisted’ in such a way that it caused the Master’s skin to crawl, …

… ‘In any case, Ormestone, we have heard enought for now. You have, as usual lately, gone too far in the planning of these stories,’ said the Master shaking his head. ‘There is nothing left for the adventurers to actually do. Your story plans have got longer and longer. It is almost as if you are tying to get rid of the adventurers’ role altogether. You know the rules as well as the rest of us. We suggest the beginning of things only. We set things up for the adventurers, and they carry out the adventure. It is not up to us to wrap it all up for them and tie a ribbon round it with our name on it.’

Thus embarrassed again, Ormestone in his jealousy of the adventurers hatches a dastardly plan to have his vengeance on the Trueheart family.

Over the next days, one by one, the brothers Jack get sent off on new adventures, one to be Prince Charming, one a frog prince, another to rescue the sleeping princess and so on – you get the picture.  They all swear to be home in time for Tom’s twelfth birthday, the age at which he can become an apprentice adventurer – but one by one they don’t return.

Tom has to celebrate his birthday with just his mother. The next day a letter arrives for him by sprite-mail with an adventure.  As the last adventurer left, it will be Tom’s job to find his brothers and get all the tales finished.  He bravely sets off, accompanied by a talking crow called Jollity (a sprite in disguise who is to keep an eye on him).

Young Tom will have the adventure of a lifetime.

I was captivated by this story.  It touches upon all those fairy tales we know so well, but which are held in hiatus by their missing princes. Tom passes through each of the tales in turn and stops them from collapsing in on themselves, keeping them alive for the return of his brothers.

This is done with surprising subtlety and gives each of the classic tales in their basic form some added depth, as we see how the cast are actors playing parts. (At some subterranean level, I wondered whether Beck’s ‘Land of stories’ is a satire on Disneyland?’ – theme parks seem to be a fixation of Beck’s!)

Ideal for those children who aren’t quite ready for the small print of Harry Potter, they will love spotting the familiar tales, and thrill along with young Tom as he finds himself in peril from the evil machinations of Brother Ormestone. The book is also full of Beck’s lovely silhouette illustrations as on the hardback’s cover which make it a pleasure to read.

Beck has since written two more volumes of Tom Trueheart’s adventures, and I must say I’d love to read them. (9/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Tom Trueheart by Ian Beck, (2007) OUP Oxford, paperback 320 pages.

The answers are in Africa in this novel …

The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger

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At first glance this novel may seem like a quirky romance between two unlikely would-be lovers, Azalea and Thomas, who having found each other, get mixed up in Azalea’s quest to analyse what she believes are coincidences that happened to her family, and many father figures.

Underneath this gentle and humorous exterior, however, is a mass of violence.  The frustrations of modern life in London give way to child soldiers toting guns in deepest Uganda as all the tragedies in Azalea’s childhood which are gradually unravelled and we hear about her childhood.

How Thomas, a university professor who specialises in analysing coincidences, and Azalea, who lectures at a different London college meet, could be construed as a coincidence in itself or is it just serendipitous that they are involved in a pile-up on an escalator in the Underground?  Soon after, they meet properly when she comes to him to ask about her own life’s events.

 ‘I’m getting used to the universe springing surprises.’
‘Would it help if I were to explain why coincidences happen? Why it is that we frail humans have to find patterns in nature?’
‘It might help.’

Azalea was adopted after she was found wandering in a fairground in Devon, aged 3. Her mother had disappeared, she was unable to tell the police where any of the three men who might have been her father were. Azalea is adopted by Luke and Rebecca Folley, and soon taken to Uganda – to a charitable mission and orphanage founded by Luke’s grandfather. There she has an idyllic childhood until the day that Joseph Kony (a very real guerilla leader who led the LRA – the Lord’s Resistance Army – in Uganda, and abducted children to become sex-slaves and child soldiers, and is still at large), came up the mission drive.

‘Are you familiar with the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers marching off to war”? asked the soldier of Rebecca.
Rebecca shrank slightly. ‘It’s marching as to war.’
The mission bell began to ring.
As to war,’ she said, ‘not off to war. It has a completely differnt meaning.’
Dingdingdingdingdingdingding
‘It is a command for Christian Soldiers to fight,’ said the man, ‘to go off to war and fight.’
‘No, it isn’t,’ Rebecca said. ‘It’s a metaphor. The hymn is telling us that we must face up to evil – but not with violence.’
‘”With the cross of Jesus going on before”,’ said the soldier triumphantly. ‘”Onward into battle, see his banners go.'”
Dingdingdingdingdingdingding
The LRA man’s attention began to turn towards Luke and his urgent ringing of the bell.

Never argue with a man with a gun.  However, the conversation buys time for some of the children to escape.  Soon, Azalea’s adoptive mother is murdered, her father presumed too, Azalea is captured, but (obviously) escapes.

Back in the present day, Azalea and Thomas slip into a relationship that neither is quite ready to make solid. Azalea is still bound to explore all her coincidences, and Thomas feels beholden to explain them, to explain them away if necessary. This situation reminds me very much of the wonderful and hilarious comedy novel The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, where a quest for fathers also gets in the way of romance. Ironmonger’s book is no comedy though, despite having moments of gentle humour.

All the threads will finally get resolved, and there is a rather predictable ending – no coincidence there! I enjoyed reading it a lot, but did find Thomas rather wet, and the older Azalea is a tad irritating. The sections set in Azalea’s childhood are where it all comes alive – growing up happily at the mission, marred forever by violence.

By necessity perhaps, there is quite a lot of explanation in this novel – my geeky side enjoyed thinking about the statistics of coincidence, but please don’t worry – there are no equations or complex maths, just discussions about coin-flipping, lottery numbers, birthdays etc.  Yes, it slows things up a little, but the course of true love never did run smooth, as Shakespeare said.

Less necessary to the plot, but making the situation clear that this corner of Uganda, close to borders with Congo, Kenya and especially Sudan, is a haven for guerilla groups, was a lengthy description of the political situation and the evolution of the different warring factions.  Serious as this is, I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but think of the People’s Front of Judea crying ‘Splitters‘ at the Judean People’s Front and the Popular Front of Judea et al in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, when seeing how the factions named themselves.

Mimicking Thomas’s website in the book, you can also visit The Coincidence Authority.com, where you are invited to share your own coincidences. This is, of course, a marketing exercise, but contains some entertaining stories. For anyone interested in the subject, I’d recommend reading Paul Auster’s essays in The Red Notebook (my review here), for some eloquently described examples, and you may be interested in finding out more about influencing luck in Richard Wiseman’s The Luck Factor, (my review here).

This novel may not be perfect, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. (7.5/10)

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Source: Amazon Vine review copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Coincidence Authority by J W Ironmonger, pub Sept 2013 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson, hardback, 277 pages.
The Red Notebook by Paul Auster
The Luck Factor: The Scientific Study of the Lucky Mind by Richard Wiseman

Return to the Dark Tower saga

The Dark Tower #5 – Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Last year I took part in Teresa & Jenny’s Dark Tower readalong at Shelf Love, but I dropped out after book four in the series. I didn’t have the time to get through the increasing page-count then, but was definitely hooked by the genre-busting dystopian western cum SF & fantasy series.

I always intended to return the following summer to read the remaining couple of thousand pages!  However, events prompted me to pick up book five sooner; more of that below.

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This is a series of books which you have to begin at the beginning, it would be nigh on impossible to join in successfully partway through, despite the author’s summary at the beginning of each volume.

The Wolves of the Calla introduces a major new character. Pere Callahan is an ex-drunk priest from New York who, like the rest of Roland Deschain’s ka-tet (fate-bound compadres), found his way into Roland’s world when life got too hot in his own.  The ka-tet make his acquaintance as they stop in Calla Bryn Sturgis on their quest to the tower, and we soon find out that he will become essential to the story.

Meanwhile the folks of the Calla are expecting something awful to happen, and  believe that the Gunslingers could be their salvation. Once every generation, the ‘Wolves’ arrive in force and carry away half the children, who return to their families years later as mutant idiots. They can’t let it happen again…

This traditional Western guns-for-hire against the bandits story forms the back-bone to this chunkster, but the real plot developments are in all the other bits. It gets quite complex but holes get filled in and back-stories expanded, and more strands start. Such is King’s skill though that it all hangs together really well. The final battle is everything it should be, and the cliff-hanger coda left me dying to open volume six.  (8.5/10)

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Or should I read the new volume 4.5 instead?  

King’s latest novel is another in the Dark Tower series set between books 4 & 5 called The Wind Through the Keyhole.  Jenny and Teresa have already read and reviewed it here.

I only really mention it because I entered a Facebook competition to have my photo (see left) included in the photo montage on the back cover of the UK hardback – and I’m on there – somewhere!

I was sent a link to my exact location – but the link is now broken and I can’t remember where I am (serve me right for not printing it out). You can see the dots in the cover which are the size of everyone’s heads. There are over 7000 on there, so it may take some time with an enlargement and a magnifying glass to find me again if I bother.

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I bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
The Dark Tower #5 – Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King, Pub Hodder 2003, 771pp.
The Wind Through the Keyhole: A Dark Tower Novel by Stephen King, pub Hodder & Stoughton, April 2012, Hardback 352pp

“I would walk 500 miles” – well 627 actually…

The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

This is a road novel, but with a difference.  Harold Fry used to rep for the brewery, but he’s now retired.  He has nothing to do but get in his wife Maureen’s way.  He’s in a rut, they’re in a rut, basically ever since their son David left, they’ve been in a rut – that’s a lot of rut.

Then one morning a letter arrives for Harold  from Queenie who used to work in accounts at the brewery. It says she is dying of cancer and in a hospice at Berwick-upon-Tweed. Harold writes a short letter back, sets off to post it, and as he walks he gets a bit teary thinking about Maureen and David while watching a mother with her son…

Office workers were laughing with lunchtime pints outside the Old Creek Inn, but Harold barely noticed. As he began the steep climb up Fore Street, he thought about the mother who was so absorbed in her son she saw no one else. It occurred to him it was Maureen who spoke to David and told him their news. It was Maureen who had always written Harold’s name (‘Dad’) in the letters and cards. It was even Maureen who had found the nursing home for his father. And it begged the question – as he pushed the button at the pelican crossing – that if she was, in effect, Harold, ‘Then who am I?’ He strode past the post office without even stopping.

It’s the girl in the garage who confirms to him what he should do. He stops for a snack, and she tells him about her aunt who had cancer and they all prayed for her to get better. Harold doesn’t turn back, he’s decided to walk all the way to Berwick.

The only problem is that he’s in the South Hams in Devon – it’s 627 miles. A life-changing decision for Harold is indeed an unlikely pilgrim. He’s totally under-equipped, wearing the wrong shoes, the wrong clothes and with no supplies or first-aid kit; it’s not long before he gets bad blisters.

He plods along, blisters allowing, inching towards his destination by six, seven, or maybe eight miles a day. He begins to delight in the nature he sees along the way, and he always manages to find a bed for the night. He keeps in touch with Maureen and Queenie, with postcards and brief phone-calls. Poor Maureen is in a quandary, half wanting to leap in the car and either stop him, half hoping he’ll give up on his own, but incapable of actually doing anything herself.

The thing that keeps Harold going though is the people he meets. From a lovely Slovakian doctor who can only find work in the UK as a cleaner, to a silver-haired gentleman who needs to talk about his rent-boy lover…

He (Harold) understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passer by, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things, that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.

Not all his encounters are so benign, and for a while Harold becomes the centre of attention as his cause is picked up by the press. As you might hope and expect however, as Harold continues on his journey, the details of his story are teased out: How he met Maureen and their early days; how he met Queenie, and how she became a special friend to him; and about his son David. What started out as an entertaining and altruistic journey, (which reminded me slightly of Hector and the search for happiness initially), becomes something much deeper, darker and better as Harold explores himself, and is surprised at what he finds.

This is a novel that never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality, although it could have so easily. From the outset, you care about Harold – and Maureen and Queenie for that matter. I needed to hear their stories, and to hear how they ended. I chuckled, I welled up with tears, and I kept turning the pages, needing to read on. (9/10)

Despite being a debut novel, Rachel Joyce is not a novice at writing, having honed her art on Radio 4 plays and the like.  The Unlikely Pilgrimage of  Harold Fry is an accomplished story and justifies its selection as one of the 2012 Waterstones 11 pick of the best debut novels coming out this spring.

Read also: Fleur Fisher‘s thoughts on this fine novel.

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I received an ARC of this novel via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Unlikely Pilgrimage Of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, pub 15 March by Doubleday. Hardback, 304 pages.
Hector & the Search for Happiness (Hector’s Journeys) by Francis Lelord