Wednesday, 31 August 2011

More darkness - it's R.I.P. VI!

It's been feeling pretty autumnal here for some time and the chickens go to bed earlier and earlier each day. I'd be feeling cheated of a summer except for one thing - Carl's R.I.P. Challenge. I've been looking forward to it for a couple of weeks now, and hoarding books until the auspicious day. Although I have to admit I've been keeping my impatience at bay with some pre-peril reading.

My book pool has been growing during the anticipatory period, and now shows signs of getting out of control (well, there's a surprise). So I'm going for:

which requires me to:
‘Read four books, any length, that you feel fit (my very broad definitions) of R.I.P. literature. It could be Stephen King or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming or Edgar Allan Poe…or anyone in between.’
One thing which will be different for me is that I shall mostly be reading on my Kindle this year. This might make it even more of challenge because, although I reckon that I can reader even faster than usual on it, I get tired more quickly, and bedtime reading tends to be an hour or so of Quoodle-reading, followed by 30 minutes' wind-down reading a "proper" book. On the other hand, I may get so absorbed that I don't notice, and I do find when I'm travelling, and only have the Kindle with me, that I cope quite well. Another difference is that I plan to embark on a series re-read and see how far I get - I'm feeling quite excited about this.

And the last new element is Carl's read along of Jim Butcher's Storm Front (I've already told younger son I'm reclaiming it for the two months) and Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things.  I'm warming up for the latter by re-reading American Gods - the end is in sight, which makes me sad, it's a near-perfect book for me.

My book pool is:

In book form:
  • A.S. Byatt, Ragnarok - I'm really looking forward to this! Should complement American Gods nicely.
  • Martin Edwards, The Hanging Wood - a new Hannah Scarlett book, lovely, who could resist?

On Quoodle:
  • Phil Rickman, The Merrily Watkins series. Starting with the first...I'll probably only manage a couple, but I've got three lined up.
  • Jon Rosenberg, The Digital Wolf. I liked his first book, and have been saving this one.
  • Frances Hardinge, Gullstruck Island. Love her writing.
  • Connie Willis, Blackout. Ditto.
  • Phil Rickman, The Bones of Avalon.
  • Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind. Still on the TBR list.
  • Alan Bradley, A Red Herring Without Mustard.
  • Patricia Elliott, Murkmere.

I think that's enough to be going on with, especially as Carl's very nice about rules and allows us to add things as we go along. However many I get through, the difficulty is always finding time to blog about the books, so I don't really do very well on challenges - but I'll be happy having my reading focused for me, enjoy a binge on dark matter, and write about them whenever I can. And I always enjoy finding new things to add to the TBR list. I think this year I'll start a separate list of recommendations from other R.I.P. readers - ready for 2012?!

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Darkness at teatime

As I started to write a new post late on Monday afternoon the power suddenly and unexpectedly went off - no thunderstorm or similar to explain it. It took my part-written post with it, and it didn't come back. Or at least, it didn't come back in a way that could be used, the lights were flickering dimly and most things, including the broadband, weren't working at all. Investigation suggested that a combine harvester had yanked the power line and stretched it - something hotly denied by one of the workers in the field! We rang the power company, who said they would send someone out, and in the meantime, our neighbour came home and confirmed that we had between 60 and 100 volts only, instead of the required UK 240v. The joys of country life, honestly - usually it's our water supply that gets ploughed up. Some hours later the lights came back on, in time for reading in bed, I'm glad to say.

The post I lost was only a reading update: despite the TBR pile being multiple, I of course came home from Edinburgh on Sunday with two books from my elder son and a determination to start re-reading American Gods instantly, having been to hear Neil Gaiman speak at the Book Festival. I could only make time to go to one event, and had been intending to go to hear A.S. Byatt, but then it was announced that Gaiman was doing a Guardian Book Club event, so that won hands down - it was worth it, too. Both sons came with me and we had very pleasant Thai food before heading home.

I had to go to the library as a book had come in for me - Margaret Drabble's The Sea Lady, which I'd read somewhere has a Northumberland connection. I like books with a strong sense of place, and I like living in the north-east, so one feeds the other, and if I'm not careful it will become the next obsession. I'd been checking exactly where in Northumberland it was that there was a Drabble/Byatt connection (Wylam, in case you're wondering) because I thought I'd read somewhere that Byatt's new book, Ragnarok, which I plan to read for R.I.P. is set on the north-east coast. I guess it will become evident - or not - when I read it. In the meantime, I'll read Drabble, with some trepidation - I used to love her in my younger days, but I haven't really enjoyed any of her more recent books.

Anyway, while at the library I also picked up a couple of books on Northumberland: one has lots of pictures and a bit of history, and the other is a complete gazetteer of churches. Lots of the churches aren't interesting at all, but a few are intriguing, and it's nice to be able to read about them all, rather than an author's selection, which may be favourites, but not necessarily my favourites (especially if I haven't yet discovered them!) Time to visit some soon, I hope.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Verdigris Deep by Frances Hardinge

I was reading Ana's excellent (as ever) review of Fly by Night the other day and was very pleased that she'd enjoyed it so much, because I think it is one of those really original books that can make you feel happy that someone out there is writing such good fiction; however, I noticed that one of the commenters spoke less than enthusiastically about Frances Hardinge's second book, Verdigris Deep, describing it as Alan Garner/Diana Wynne Jones but not as good. I've had it on the TBR shelf for ages, and frankly, was doing my usual thing of saving it up for some unspecified special occasion - which, since such times occur relatively infrequently chez nous, is just plain daft).

It only took me a few hours to read and, at first, I thought it was okay but nothing special. I agreed about it being Garner/Wynne Jones territory - lots of echoes of Elidor and Fire and Hemlock in the mean streets of Magwhite and the scary way that things start to glow around Josh, the eldest of the three protagonists. The, about halfway through, I realised that I wasn't being disappointed any more, but had been drawn into the story completely, convinced by the way that Hardinge tackles the children's response to the disintegration of their already shaky world. Because, of course, they are all outsiders: Josh could be popular at school but doesn't choose to be, Ryan is small and speccy and worried, Chelle can't stop talking although no-one listens to her; she's pale and asthmatic and sort of just tags along with the others. They are all drawn to Magwhite precisely because they shouldn't be there and when they don't have any money to pay for the bus home, they know that there will be serious trouble. Which they need to avoid: Chelle doesn't know how to deal with being in trouble, Ryan doesn't want to provoke any more family rows, and Josh will be exiled to his aunts' house where he won't be allowed out. So they steal the money from a long-neglected well. And suddenly it's not just everyday trouble they have to contend with, because they are all changed, in frightening ways.

This book is aimed, I think, at a slightly younger audience than Fly By Night, but it doesn't pull its punches. Hardinge knows that there's a lot going on in children's heads that adults don't realise, and some of its because they don't have the experience to make sense of the adult world, even when to the grown-ups they look bright and manipulative and sometimes just plain bad. By the end of the story, it's all pain and rain and urgency - in 2007, when it was published, there were massive floods in England that summer and it must have seemed prophetic, with its images of rising waters.

The UK edition (it was published in the US as Well Witched) is a thing of great beauty. The picture here really doesn't do it justice, I think it's one of the loveliest book jackets I've ever seen. The back is as lovely as the front. I'd have included it here, but it's too dark to scan easily - what you can't see is that it really looks like tarnished copper. I'm tempted to take it off the book and put it on my wall.

To sum up, Verdigris Deep lacks the wondrous inventiveness of Hardinge's first book, but it's still a well-told story, atmospheric and exciting, firmly-rooted in a nice urban grittiness, and a classy example of the genre. I recommend it.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson

This book has the feel, as it opens, of the beginning of the (written much later) Fairacre novels by Miss Read – the sun rises over a small village square with the baker at work in the early morning, an English idyll. Both have something to say about the disruption of that idyll – the Fairacre sequence is about a village dealing with the change brought about by the end of the Victorian era and descent into war. Miss Buncle’s Book hints at, though it does not directly mention, the Depression: Miss Buncle’s dividends, which she has relied on since her parents’ deaths, have ceased to materialise at regular intervals, and she is forced to consider the dire prospect of keeping hens. Chickens, in the numbers required to earn even a meagre income, are not such endearing creatures as a mere five or six may be, and Barbara Buncle turns in desperation instead to the pen, and writes a “novel” about the doings of her neighbours. Once the book is published, speculation about the anonymous author is rife and Miss Buncle watches the repercussions from the sidelines in bemusement.

I have a dilettantish sort of interest in books about women who have to earn their own living in an era when ladies didn’t, from Jane Eyre and Agnes Grey onwards. In the early 1960s my grandmother suddenly found herself coping first with a husband too ill to work any longer, and then alone with a young daughter and her own mother to support after his death. She was in her late 40s at the time, and in need of both income and home, so she went as a “cook general” to a succession of English country houses (inadvertently giving us all a glimpse of, and taste for, the sort of gracious living we could never afford). The pattern repeated two generations on when, without ever having had a “proper” career, I found myself with a disabled husband with a very small pension and two sons, suddenly thrust into the role of family wage earner. So I have a sympathetic interest in books about women thrown on their own resources, and Miss Buncle is an intriguing example (fortunately, despite childhood aspirations, I had no illusions about being able to support us by writing!)

The Depression may loom but Miss Buncle’s Book is really about transformations, and it has a delightfully sunny feel. D.E. Stevenson writes knowingly about people, but her wit is always tempered with affection rather than malice, and the same quality extends to her heroine’s portrayal of her fellows, even if they feel to perceive it. The stirring-up of the villagers works very much to their own good, even in the case of the least pleasant amongst them (although I doubt that Mrs Featherstone Hogg would agree).

Vignettes of village life abound: Colonel Weatherhead’s battle with the Bishop,  the ghastly tea-party for the children, the earnest young vicar asking for the outside leaves of cabbage (as a young child I was sent to scrounge these from the grocer for our rabbits, and fish-heads for the cat, which came in a horribly smelly newspaper-wrapped parcel to be carried dripping up the High Street); it may be a work of fiction but it’s a true picture of life in a small community before and after the Second World War. You can’t help but wonder if D.E. Stevenson, too, had neighbours to avoid when her books were published.

The Persephone edition, with its pretty endpapers is, it goes without saying, a thing of loveliness. These beautifully produced books are a pleasure to handle and read.

Postscript: I'm sorry that when I lived a few miles from Moffat, I didn't know that D.E. Stevenson had lived there. I would have made a mini pilgrimage to her grave during one of our many visits there - we used to go to buy Moffat toffee, much beloved of one of the sons, and to take visitors, as it was our nicest local town. Once we went to buy hens, an appropriately Miss Buncle sort of activity.