Thursday, 27 May 2010

Bookish meme

This came from Bookish NYC by way of Life Must be Filled up

Do you snack while you read?
Not really, but I always read while having lunch, or any other time I’m eating alone.
What is your favorite drink while reading?
Tea – generally Whittards Spice Imperial, to which I am addicted.
Do you tend to mark your books while you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you?
Never – I keep Post-Its (horrid orange ones) to hand to mark quotes, or places I want to refer to.
How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Laying the book open flat?
I use cards as bookmarks and have a basket full of them beside the bed. When I’m away, though, I regularly find myself without one and have to use bus/train tickets or my hotel breakfast card – good thing I take my book to breakfast! I will put a book face down for a few minutes – while I get another cup of tea, for instance, but because I won’t force the spine, I usually get back to find that it’s sprung shut and lost my place.
Fiction, nonfiction, or both?
Mostly fiction, though I always have at least two (mood-dependent) non-fiction on the go. I don’t feel the same drive to finish non-fiction as a rule.
Are you a person who tends to read to the end of a chapter, or can you stop anywhere?
I like to stop at a natural place, so it’s usually the end of a chapter.
Are you the type of person to throw a book across the room or on the floor if the author irritates you?Absolutely not!
If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop and look it up right away?
Only if I can’t make any sort of guess from the context – in which case, it was probably unnecessary to use it.
What are you currently reading?
Fiction: China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun. Non-fiction: Ursula Le Guin, The Language of the Night.
What is the last book you bought?
Fielding Day by Simon Raven – it’s the first part in a long series. Never read anything by this author, and thought it was time I gave him a try. When it arrived it turned out to be a Panther edition, which brought back memories. I lived on Panther paperbacks in my teens.
Do you have a favorite time/place to read?
Anytime. All day every day. In or on my bed with a dog (good change of position after sitting at a computer all day).
Do you prefer series books or stand-alones?
I really don’t mind – except that I have a thing about not reading the last book in a series because I can’t bear it to be over. There is one book on my TBR pile which has been there for 2 years, I think, while I wait for the right, auspicious moment to finish the series.
Is there a specific book or author you find yourself recommending over and over?
Probably not, when I think about it. I'm conscious that other people don't share my obsessions. I'm more likely to recommend a new discovery.
How do you organize your books (by genre, title, author's last name, etc.)?
Oh, how I wish I had space to organise my books – by genre for preference, but now they are shelved on the anywhere-there-is-space principle. However, there are plans to build shelves in our big sitting room. So I’d better get on with earning the money to pay for them.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Dancing with Demons by Peter Tremayne

Seventeenth of the Sister Fidelma mysteries, Dancing with Demons is set in Éireann (Ireland) in the seventh century. As I’ve said before, I am often a bit wary of the historical detective genre – it really seemed to take off after Ellis Peters’ Cadfael mysteries and a few are excellent, but the quality can be very patchy, and some are downright awful. I’ve read several of this series, though (all out of order) and they are both good and original in concept. To give you a flavour, I thought I would quote the paragraph which introduces Fidelma in this book:
Fidelma of Cashel halted her horse on a rise of the road, which ran from Cluain Meala, the Field of Honey, the settlement on the banks of the broad River Siúr, where she had spent the night, north to her brother’s fortress. She had spent a week away from Cashel in attendance at Lios Mhór, the great abbey and settlement site beyond the mountain range of Mhaoldomhnaigh. Although she had slept well the previous night, Fidelma felt exhausted after a week’s hard work. She was a dálaigh, or advocate, of the law courts of the five kingdoms of Éireann, proficient to the degree of anruth, the second highest qualification in the land. Her rank therefore allowed her not only to plead cases before  judges but, when nominated, to hear and adjudicate in her own court on a range of applications that did not require the presence of a judge of higher rank. It was a task that Brehon Baithen, the senior judge of the kingdom of Muman, often requested her to perform. It was also a task that she liked least.
Muman is Munster – Tremayne generally uses Old Irish placenames and words and it must be admitted that it can at times be difficult to maintain the flow of reading, when you trip up on unfamiliar and unpronounceable names on almost every page. My approach is to try to make an approximation to the most frequent words and names and to give up entirely on the rest, since Irish remains impenetrable even if you are armed with the basic rules – letters are modified by others depending on their placement. Irish may only have 18 letters, but they are used in very versatile ways! My own starting point is Scottish Gaelic, of which I have an exceedingly sketchy knowledge, and occasionally there is a glimmer of light when I carefully sound out a word and discover that it’s recognisably a version of a modern placename. Dálaigh is one of the few words I can pronounce – daw-lee – and after some thought, I realised (and confirmed with a bit of searching) that the alarming looking Mhaoldomhnaigh is anglicised as Muldowney.

Sister Fidelma is a religieuse (the author’s preferred description – nun is misleading, he says, and Fidelma is a religious in the same way that most members of the professional classes in Ireland had previously been Druids). By this point in the series she is also married and a mother, a not unusual situation at the time – it wasn’t until 1139 that the Second Lateran Council outlawed marriage for clergy in the Roman Church, and Celtic Christianity was in any case more liberal. Tremayne’s feeling for the difference between the two provides him with a strong thematic element throughout the series, and he insists that there is nothing anachronistic nor inconsistent with Brehon law in his books.

In Dancing with Demons the High King has been found murdered in his bed (this is documented, circa AD670); his killer, discovered apparently in flagrante, turns his weapon upon himself and dies. As Tremayne says in his short preface, not so much who-dunnit, as why. Fidelma is called on as a neutral investigator, and her method is essentially that of interview and deduction although, since this might become a little dry, we are permitted the 7th century equivalent of a car chase towards the end (did you know, by the way, that the Latin carrum, which gives us car, comes from the Gaulish karros, a Celtic two-wheeled war chariot? in this case, a nicely circular association, I think!)  Her husband makes a very satisfactory Watson for her investigations – as a Saxon he is unfamiliar with aspects of both society and language, so things have to be explained to him from time to time. He does, however, bring his own skills to the pursuit, and his unofficial status occasionally comes into its own. His Romanicised Christianity helps to keep religious tensions in play, not least when the old religion of the Druids may also be a factor in the assassination. The interplay between the three belief systems helps to remind us that Christianity is still relatively new to a Celtic world which has a long and rich history, providing a very welcome perspective on a period long dismissed as the Dark Ages (modern terminology has largely moved away from this crude characterisation of history, but I think it still remains in the popular conception of the period).

I don't consider that it matters if you read the series out of order, although there are plot elements that might benefit from being read in sequence, and events from previous books are referred to in the text (and footnoted). The historical past – from the characters' viewpoint, so that it encompasses Irish mythology – is explained, while historical research is dropped in with a light touch. The books are sometimes a little slow to get going, but a little patience is rewarded, and despite a plethora of unfamiliar names, characters are clearly distinguishable - in case you need it, though, there is a dramatis personae at the start. That list could certainly be improved by a phonetic guide to pronunciation, and personally, I think a map* never comes amiss, but I know that's a contentious area, and that there are some browsers who will instantly put a book back on the shelf if they find one.

* As I was fine-tuning this post, I discovered that there is an extensive website devoted to the series, with masses of information about books, characters, a lengthy discussion of the question of clerical marriage, some information on pronunciation (though I still think that my suggestion is better!)

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Abarat by Clive Barker

Imagine a world where which is a giant archipelago of islands, each one in a different time zone – every island is perpetually set at a particular hour of the day or night. Twenty-five islands in all – the 25th, Odom’s Spire, being a mysterious pinnacle of rock which drives those who land there mad. The archipelago is the Abarat and the boundaries between it and our own world, which the Abaratians call the Hereafter are not easily, but very occasionally, breached.

Once such breach occurs at the very start of this story, when young Candy Quackenbush, resident of Chickentown, Minnesota, unhappy at home and bored and frustrated at school, walks out of class one day and carries straight on out of town and into the open prairie. Unexpectedly she finds a lighthouse, and stranger still, a man with antlers on which there are extra heads. Strange as he may seem, he is nothing to the terrifying creature who is pursuing him, and Candy is suddenly caught up in a life and death struggle which transports her into the Abarat, adrift in the Sea of Izabella.

Candy finds the Abarat to be a place of wonder and enchantment:
Everywhere she looked there was something to amaze. Besides the citizens there were countless animals in the city, wild and domesticated. White-faced monkeys, like troupes of clowns, were on the roofs baring their bottoms to passersby. Beasts the size of chinchillas but resembling golden lions ran back and forth along the power cables looped between the house, while a snake, pure white but for its turquoise eyes, wove cunningly between the feet of the crowd, chattering like an excited parrot.
Despite its anarchic magic, however, all is not perfect in the archipelago. On the Midnight isle of Gorgossium, Christopher Carrion, nightmare ruler of a monstrous army of stitchlings, is already taking an interest in Candy, and she will need all her ingenuity and courage to evade his servants, each one more horrifying than the last. All she can do is try to keep ahead of them, moving from island to island, meeting and being aided by new friends along the way.

Across two books (so far) and several islands, Abarat and its sequel are necessarily episodic, but the writing is vivid, the action fast and Barker isn’t afraid to be ruthless with his characters. Not everyone you grow to like will survive. The episodic nature does mean, though, that there is not always a great deal of characterisation. Candy develops as the story progresses, but perhaps without quite the roundedness that we expect from such an experienced writer. Similarly, there are edge-of-the-seat moments, but it’s never really frightening. Compared to the recently-reviewed The Secret Ministry of Frost, these two volumes are positively cosy, yet they are aimed at essentially the same audience. This isn’t necessarily a complaint – I can imagine young Harry Potter fans loving Abarat – but Barker in adult mode can be truly scary, and I couldn’t help thinking that just a touch more of the gruesome could give Abarat an edge, and would be lapped up by its young audience. Kids do love to be scared and, after all, think of the dementors in HP. They scare me!

Having said that, Abarat 2: Days of Magic, Nights of War is perceptibly darker than the first book, and I suspect that is part of a trend. In it, Candy starts to learn more about why she has been drawn to the Abarat and we discover the full horror of Christopher Carrion’s plans for Candy and the archipelago. We also meet Carrion’s vicious and hideous grandmother, Mater Motley, creator of the stitchling army.

When I finished Abarat 2 I wasn’t clear whether there was going to be a third – the story clearly wasn’t finished, but it was published in 2004, and I wondered if Barker had lost interest, though I found it hard to imagine that he could, he was clearly fond of his young heroine. A bit of research on the interwebs brought up his wonderful website, The Beautiful Moment, encompassing both Abarat and his much earlier – and splendid – The Thief of Always. Here I discovered that, far from losing interest in Abarat, it would appear that Barker has been too busy painting his characters to write about them, and that three more volumes are planned to complete the story. Abarat 3: Absolute Midnight may be out later this year. The paintings are wonderful and I wish I could reproduce some of them here, they are full of imagination and glowing colours, every bit as magical as the books. I hope that one day a complete set might be accompanied by full-colour illustrations. Here's a taste in the original cover.

I hope I have persuaded you about this series: they are like a cross between The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (something of an oddity in the Narnia series) and China Miéville’s The Scar, and I really can’t pay a much higher compliment, they are both books I love. In Candy’s adventures Barker finds something which is missing in many novels which have a journey at their centre, a sense of new wonders unfolding before the eyes, of anticipation and delight. For this reason alone, they are worth a read.

Read for the Once Upon a Time 4 challenge.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Setting the tone - Austen again

About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation, and her father hoped that the eldest daughter's match would set matters in a fair train for the younger. But, though she possessed no less a fortune, Miss Julia's features were rather plain than handsome, and in consequence the neighbourhood was united in its conviction that there would not be such another great match to distinguish the Ward family.
This is the opening paragraph of Murder at Mansfield Park - I hope it whets your appetite!

I've only read the first chapter, but this shows promise, I think, and I have high hopes. Lynn Shepherd has caught the tone of an Austen novel well - she says that the biggest difference is that she includes more dialogue than Austen would do, a change which ought to be largely imperceptible to the modern reader. I'm glad I read this, though, because it saves me a quibble:
I did make one conscious compromise though, and that was with ‘stepson’. In my novel Edmund is Mrs Norris’ stepson, but Austen would have referred to him as her ‘son-in-law’. That usage has fallen so far out of favour now that it would have been downright confusing for a modern reader, so I kept to stepson (which was used in Austen’s time, even if not by her).
Oddly, my stepfather, who is somewhat old-fashioned, uses the phrase "daughter-in-law" to describe me: this is quite unconscious and not an affectation, but he's the only person I know who keeps to the former usage. I must admit to some trepidation about the changed roles and relationships at Mansfield Park, but Fanny Price is a long way from being most people's favourite heroine. I do hope Mrs Norris is still hateful, though!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

New arrivals

Okay, it's a small pile of new arrivals, but I am trying not to buy too many new books! What particularly pleased me about this pile is that they all have lovely covers.

Top of the pile is a collection of essays by Jerome K. Jerome, courtesy of LibraryThing's Early Reviewers. I've giggled my way through the first of these already.


Recently a link to a blog post caught my eye - author Lynn Shepherd was talking about writing her first book, Murder at Mansfield Park. What she had to say about the constraints of writing in the style of Jane Austen was so much in tune with my own prejudices that I bought her book - the attractive cover was all the added incentive I needed.

Finally, another impulse buy. I've been re-reading Tim Pears' In the Place of Fallen Leaves, a lovely, lyrical first novel, and in an idle moment, I googled the author to check a detail about his background. To find, of course, that he has a new book out, and once again, I succumbed to a cover - this one's pretty irresistible, redolent of the English countryside.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Keeping up and Austen everywhere

In an effort to prove to our funders that we are thoroughly Web 2.0 savvy, I've had a Twitter account at work since earlier in the year, but I can't say that I was doing anything with it beyond alerting people to grant deadlines - very dull. Younger son is rarely seen without his Android phone, and frequently regales me with what Stephen Fry and other luminaries are doing today, but I hadn't realised that book bloggers had embraced social networking quite so enthusiastically until Cornflower bravely took the plunge - creeping in on her coat tails, so to speak, I found lots of other friends already there. Younger son set me up with Tweetdeck, so that I can keep track of both accounts, and now it's possible to take a couple of minutes out now and then to have a quick look at maps from the British Library, to read Oxford World Classics' Fact of the Day or to see that overnight they hit 200 followers, to learn that author Jon Courtenay Grimwood is suffering from cold hands just like me or, occasionally, to re-tweet interesting trivia from the Canadian press (that's the work bit that justifies having it there all day).

There's an interesting short video here, which popped up while I was writing this, Colm Tóibín talking about his most recent book, Brooklyn, and how he drew on Pride and Prejudice in writing it. JA is definitely the flavour of the moment!

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Monthly round-up - April

  • Brotherly Love by Elizabeth Pewsey - re-read
  • A Blunt Instrument by Georgette Heyer
  • Unholy Harmonies by Elizabeth Pewsey - re-read
  • Divine Comedy by Elizabeth Pewsey - re-read
  • The Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester
  • Children of Chance by Elizabeth Pewsey - re-read
  • The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb
  • Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary by Ruby Ferguson
  • Requiem for a Mezzo by Carola Dunn
  • The Secret Ministry of Frost by Nick Lake
  • Be Your Own Landscape Detective by Richard Muir
  • Abarat by Clive Barker
  • The Cat Who Sang to the Birds by Lilian Jackson Braun
 There was lots of re-reading in April which, as in every other year, was demanding and exhausting - looking back, it seemed to go on for a long time, too! It wasn't the ideal time to develop a mild obsession with the visible signs of history in the landscape, so that the two books I borrowed from the library will go back unfinished - mind you, we have a copy of one of them - Oliver Rackham's History of the English Countryside - somewhere, if only I could find it! Most frustrating. The obsession is linked to my Rosemary Sutcliffe reading, which is progressing rather slowly at the moment, as I want to write proper posts about the books. However, it's now several weeks since I read Eagle of the Ninth - may have to go back and re-read in order to write about it!

I have to organise myself over more than just my private Sutcliffe challenge - there are posts to write for both the Once Upon a Time Challenge and the Canadian Book Challenge. And I'd thought about writing a post on Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, but Nymeth has written about it much more sensitively than I would have done, so I can't do better than to point you to her ever-thoughtful blog.