29 March 2011

14. Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones was my favourite author when I was a teenager. I have read almost everything she has written and reread and reread my favourites over and over when I was a child. Last week I was feeling nostalgic whilst browsing Amazon so looked for Archer's Goon, my favourite when I was younger. I discovered, and was outraged, that it is now out of print but I bought a second hand copy. It came late last week and I read it over the weekend and I loved it as much as I ever did. After I finished it I went online and discovered that Diana Wynne Jones had died on Thursday after a long battle with lung cancer.

It is always sad when a beloved author dies, particularly one you loved during your childhood but finding out about Diana Wynne Jones' death moments after I had finished reading my favourite book of hers, also one of my favourite books from my childhood, when I hadn't read anything by her for years, really affected me. After reading a beautiful tribute by her friend, Neil Gaiman (http://journal.neilgaiman.com/2011/03/being-alive.html) I was in tears.

As Gaiman puts it, "There was only one Diana Wynne Jones, and the world was a finer one for having her in it."

13. Girl, Missing by Sophie McKenzie

Girl, Missing is an exciting, fast moving adventure story for 11 - 15 year olds. It was published in 2006 and won a slew of children's book awards including the Red House Award. It was shortlisted for Carnegie and was on the Richard & Judy list as well. It is also massively popular in my school library, our copy is literally falling apart from being read so much. I finally got round to reading it when I booked the author, Sophie McKenzie, to visit our school in June.

The story follows 14 year old Lauren Matthews who was adopted when she was three. A school essay assignment entitled Who Am I? prompts her to start thinking about who she really is and her curiosity prompts her to browse a missing children website. She is unnerved to find a listing for Martha Lauren Purditt who went missing in America two months before Lauren was adopted with a photo that could be her. This starts the beginning of an adventure across America of Lauren searching for her birth parents.

28 March 2011

12. When I Was Five I Killed Myself by Howard Buten

When I Was Five I Killed Myself is a short, unusual story about Burt Rembrandt. Burt narrates the story for us from The Children's Trust Residence Centre about his experience there and the events leading up to his stay there. The book, my copy at least, is also unusual physically. It is a tiny red covered book with no cover illustration, just the title in black. The book also has footnotes in German, the blurb on the back of my book is in German as well. To be perfectly honest, I have no idea why as the author is an American living in France, where the book was initially published and particularly popular. Interestingly, Buten is also a clown, violinist and psychologist. His fascination with what it is like to be an autistic child inspired this, which was his first novel.The preface that is featured in my copy, written by Buten, seems to hint at a author who is similarly quirky to his protagonist: "I'm an ingrate. It's a personality trait I have."

We immediately learn that the title is not literal: "I sat on my bed for a long time. I sat and sat. Something was wrong inside me, I felt it inside my stomach and I didn't know what to do. So I layed down on the floor. I stuck out my pointer finger and pointed it at my head. And I pushed down my thumb. And killed myself."

23 March 2011

11. The Memory Cage by Ruth Eastham

I frequently say that truly wonderful novels are when an author manages to fuse beautiful writing with a brilliant plot, something that happens less than one would like. Something like Twilight has the great plot - whatever your opinions of it you can't deny the way it has captured so many imaginations. Sadly, Stephenie Meyer does not have the writing skills to match - I find the writing in the Twilight series - particularly in Breaking Dawn - tedious and embarrassing. I would venture to say that a novel such as A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book occupies the other end of the spectrum - the book is cleverly and beautifully crafted but not much really happened and what did happen took a long time to happen and by that time, I didn't care what happened.

Sadly, The Memory Cage by Ruth Eastham falls into the first category. I am inclined to be more forgiving of the latter category, which is perhaps my own literary snobbishness coming through but there I stand nonetheless. At the core of The Memory Cage is a fairly unique story with lots of themes that are relevant to it's young adult audience as well as introducing themes that they may not have thought about before.

10. Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Fingersmith is a 19th century term for a pickpocket. Our heroine, orphaned Sue Trinder, is such a person and lives in a seedy street in London with a household of various theives, baby farmers and generally suspicious types. At the start of the novel, a plot is proposed to Sue, ‘Gentleman’ is trying to seduce and marry the wealthy niece of an isolated and academic old man in order to secure her fortune. Sue is employed as her maid to help convince her to marry Gentleman and to help deposit her in an asylum before splitting the profits. So Sue makes her way to Briar, a country house in the middle of nowhere to work as a maid for Maud Lilly.
Needless to say, in a story of Victorian thievery and Dickensian names, all is not quite as it seems. To give away any details though would spoil the cleverness of Waters writing and story construction. The story wends its way through country houses, asylums and back to the seedy London underbelly. The end of both Part 1 and Part 2 left me with my jaw literally hanging open with where Waters was taking us. I would advise you not to try and work anything out though and just go with it, make the discoveries as Waters reveals them and you will enjoy the novel all the more for it. The climax of the novel was exciting, tense, triumphant and melancholy by turns although I won't give away what order they happen in.

22 March 2011

8 March 2011

9. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a short and haunting story about family, being an outsider and agoraphobia. The author herself suffered from agoraphobia which no doubt lends a realism to the feelings described.

Our protagonist and narrator is 18 year old Mary Katherine Blackwood, or Merricat to her family, who lives with her older sister Constance, wheelchair bound Uncle Julian and a cat, Jonas, in their family home in an unidentified small town in America. We learn gradually, but early on, that the rest of the family was poisoned six years ago by arsenic in their food. Constance was tried but acquitted for the murder of the rest of the family and since then the remnants of the family have lived in isolation from the rest of the village. Constance never leaves the house and they stick to their rigidly planned days.

The novel opens with one of Merricat's weekly visits to the village to buy food and get library books, a weekly trial for her as she is stared, whispered and laughed at by the villagers. Her attempt to appear normal by visiting the coffee shop are thwarted by two village men taunting her. We learn early on that Merricat is most defintely an anti-heroine, with her frequent references to wishing her tormenters were dead and burying things around her house to protect her family. If we didn't know otherwise, you would think she was much younger than 18.

Merricat wants things to stay as they are forever and when their cousin Charles arrives to try to 'normalise' them, Merricat tries more and more drastic plans to protect her way of life - replacing all of Charles' books with leaves or hanging her mothers jewellery from trees to make their house reject Charles. Constance spends her time gardening and cooking whilst mentally ill Uncle Julian spends his time replaying the day that the family died and making endless notes for his book. We are torn between wanting Merricat to succeed in getting rid of the awful Charles and the underlying knowledge that this spiteful and precocious girl is descending further and further into a kind of fervoured isolation.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a dark and ominous book. We learn more about the poisoning but we never really find out what exactly happened or why. Whilst the ending is satisfying, it is not exactly resolved. It is a disconcerting look into a society where a small village has turned on a family and the frightening mentality that groups can have. Right and wrong are never clear and the story is unsettling and dark. It is one for readers who enjoy reading rather than just plot and is quite unlike anything I've ever read before.

7 March 2011

8. One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

Firstly I would say that I can't recommend Jasper Fforde highly enough. He is one of the few authors that I pre-order on Amazon without needing to know anything about the novel other than he's written it. I would highly recommend the entirety of this series as well as the first book in his newest series, Shades of Grey, which was my favourite book of 2010.

So you have been warned – I am a huge fan of Fforde and any reviewer who denies that a longstanding affection for a series of books will affect their judgment is lying. Nonetheless, here’s what I think.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing is the sixth book in Fforde's Thursday Next series. The series is really unlike anything else I've read - you could perhaps compare him to Terry Pratchett, they share a quirky sense of humour and ability to create huge, fantastical alternate worlds. We first meet Thursday in The Eyre Affair where she rescues Jane Eyre from a kidnapper and by doing so changes the entire plot of the novel (to what we know now).Through the series, Thursday comes to realise that the BookWorld is a huge place with its own politics and rules and she eventually becomes a Jurisfiction literary detective, tasked with policing the BookWorld.

It’s difficult to describe the genius of Fforde’s creation, the BookWorld is complex and clever and the novels are packed with literary references and jokes. The wider read you are, the more of these little jokes you will appreciate but you can enjoy the novels on a surface value whatever you read. Characters from a whole host of literature make appearances and Miss Havisham takes a starring role in the middle few novels. The basic idea is that whenever a reader in the ‘Outlands’ reads a book, the book in the BookWorld springs into action with the characters acting out the plot which is then transferred to our imagination. It is worth reading the books just to enjoy the details of the BookWorld.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing differs from the rest of the series in that it is narrated by the written Thursday Next, the fictional person who lives in the BookWorld enacting the Thursday Next series when it is read. The BookWorld is in a state of flux with Racy Novel threatening war on Women’s Fiction and Dogma. The real Thursday is due to be a crucial part in the peace talks but the written Thursday becomes suspicious that something underhand has happened and sets out to investigate.

The plot is, as always with Fforde, exciting and tightly written. I was desperate to find out what was going on and the final chapters of the book ratchet up the tension well. I was concerned about how the novel would work being from the perspective of the written Thursday but it provided a new outlook to the series and meant that Fforde could explore a fresh angle on the BookWorld.

I would recommend starting this series at the beginning in order to appreciate this fully. The only thing that stopped this book being superb was that as it is the sixth book, the premise is familiar now so it lacks some of the amazement of the creativity you get when you start and I feel reached its peak in the third book, The Well of Lost Plots. Having said that there are lots of new touches as the BookWorld is ‘remade’ at the start of the novel, there are also a few new constructs which produced moments that made me laugh out loud (one at the expense of Daniel Radcliffe.) I’m not really one for puns but Fforde’s work is full of them and they normally make me laugh, against my better judgement. “Nobody move… I think we’ve just driven into a mimefield.”

Fforde has written a worthy addition to the series which is creative, funny and exciting. I compared him to Pratchett earlier: I personally am not a Pratchett fan, I’ve read several and always struggle to get to the end of them – I find his style and humour grating but he has legions of fans. I imagine that Fforde is the same – if you enjoy him, as I do, you will probably love this as well but it might not be everyones cup of tea.

2 March 2011

7. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

A few weeks ago I was combing my local charity shops for books and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell instantly appealed with it’s quirky cover and blurb. That afternoon, I happened across a blog on which the author had included a list of her Top 5 Books of 2010. Three of these matched with books on my Top 10 Books of 2010 list. One of the other two was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, I took this as a good sign and started reading it. I was thankfully not disappointed. It could probably come under the genre bracket of speculative fiction which I think is probably where my literary heart lies.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a bit of an epic that spans decades and includes many characters. It has a Dickensian feel to it at times, with characters with names such as Honeyfoot and Drawlight featuring. It is set in an alternate version of England in the early 19th century. England is much as we know it but with an added magical history. In Clarke’s world, magic was a defining part of English history and up until a few centuries ago England was the home of several prominent magicians and the entire north of England was ruled by the Raven King, the greatest magician of English history. However, as we join the story there are no practical magicians left and people only study magic theoretically.

We are then introduced first to Mr. Norrell, and then to his future pupil and rival, Jonathan Strange. Norrell and Strange are polar opposites in terms of character but become the two great practical magicians of the age and work to bring about the revival of English magic. Working against this is the fact that Norrell wishes to be wholly in control of this and not to allow any others to practice magic, going to great lengths to prevent others from studying practical magic. Norrell is a shrewish old man who is easy to revile and we spend most of the novel knowing about something he has done and wanting it to be revealed. The book really ratches up the tension in the last third and I was reading it for long stretches at a time wanting to find out what was happening.

It is almost impossible to summarise the plot of such a novel as it covers so much time and encompasses a great variety of characters, including a malevolant fairy, a bewitched young gentlewoman, the Duke of Wellington and a mysterious street magician covered in blue markings.

I found myself totally engrossed in the story. It is both literary and engaging. Clarke has that unique blend of wonderful writing and enticing plot. The writing is adept with fascinating footnotes explaining a magical history that creates a seamless history and background to our story. The characters are cleverly and realistically written. It is very much in the realms of fantasy but presented as though magic and spells were commonplace.

I have heard quite a variety of opinions of this book, with criticisms ranging from it being boring to self-indulgent and I do think that Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell suits quite a specific taste. If you enjoy involving, complex books such as The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon or Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel I would give this engaging and interesting novel a go. It’s an investment in terms of time and concentration but in my opinion, it definitely pays off.