Saturday 24 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 12: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe

A glowing lamppost in the middle of a snowy wood. A faun, wrapped in a scarf, carrying parcels and an umbrella. This is one of the images that has lodged in my mind for as long as I can remember, and which is inextricably linked with Christmas. Which is odd, because there hasn't been a Christmas in Narnia in living memory. The country has been placed under a spell which means that it is always winter, but never Christmas.

When I was little, I always wanted so much to find Narnia in my wardrobe. It is so beautifully described, and though it is supposed to be a curse, I think it is at its most beautiful when shrouded in snow and ice. Perhaps I would grow tired of it if I lived in perpetual winter - after all, in real life, I am already wishing that spring would come again. But that snowy wood with its lamppost is the first sight you get of Narnia, and that is the most special, the most iconic image of this wonderful land in the wardrobe. And every time I read this book, which I do most winters, I am transported to the innocence of childhood, when, although even then I knew the story inside out, it never lost its magic and its wonder.

And with the arrival of Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter, and the return of the Great Lion Aslan, the Witch's power begins to wane. Father Christmas is seen once more. I love the fact that, although here Christ is known as Aslan and is in the form of a Lion, Christmas is still Christmas. (It was probably brought over by the first King and Queen of Narnia, Frank the Cabby and his wife Nellie in The Magician's Nephew.) Father Christmas is instantly recogniseable, as old as time, wise as well as jolly. I was pleased to see that in the recent film adaptation, Father Christmas was an old-fashioned, graver version of today's Santa, in a darker red coat, as befits an old-fashioned British story - and yet still very much recogniseable.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is, to my mind, the classic child's fantasy story, a fairy tale not only for children, but for those who have outgrown being too old for fairy tales. It never loses its magic.

And I still check the wardrobe in every room I stay in.

Merry Christmas to you all.

Friday 23 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 11: Little House on the Prairie

I received my Little House on the Prairie omnibus for my seventh birthday, and it was my first really big book: three books in one, chronicling the early years of Laura Ingalls and her family as they settled in different places, making their homes in different places before moving to their next place in a covered wagon drawn by horses. Laura Ingalls Wilder's descriptions, coupled with the illustrations by Garth Williams, ensured that this book allowed my imagination to play house to its heart's content. A pen-and-ink drawing of the inside of a small wooden house was enough to let me imagine I was there too, living with Laura and Mary and playing make-believe.

There are two vivid Christmas scenes in the series that stand out for me: the first in the first book: Little House in the Big Woods. It is a merry, family Christmas, with all the uncles and aunts coming to stay, presents of mittens and a precious doll for Laura, home-made candy of molasses poured onto snow, making snow-angels and indulging in a feast of a Christmas dinner. It is a Christmas described so well I could almost taste it, almost smell the clean, fresh snow and hear the laughter of a family celebrating Christmas together. Other Christmases feature as the series chronicles Laura's life. Nowadays children receive TVs, gaming consoles and iPods for their big Christmas presents, but Laura makes a few pieces of candy, a pair of mittens, a tin mug and a penny sound like riches galore. What else could any child want.

The other striking Christmas in my three-in-one volume, was a lonely one. A trip to town for essential supplies was a long journey, and one December, Pa Ingalls was stranded there by a blizzard. The days following his departure are anxious days of waiting, with Ma trying to distract her children with games, well aware of the dangers her husband faces. Pa's safe return on Christmas Eve, minus the Christmas candy and treats, which he had to eat to survive, is the best Christmas present of all.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 10: A Christmas Carol

You cannot, of course, write a series on fictional Christmases without mentioning Charles Dickens' ghost story and tale of redemption: A Christmas Carol. Indeed, it is claimed that this story is what has made Christmas what it is. You don't need me to tell you the story of how three ghosts convinced the cold, heartless miser Ebeneezer Scrooge that Christmas was not a waste of time and money, but a time to show love and compassion to one's fellow human creatures, and especially those who are poor and suffering. Probably you've read the book, certainly you've seen it acted out, either by Muppets or Mickey Mouse, actors or singers, set in Christmas Past, Christmas Present and maybe even Christmas Yet To Come.

I wrote last year about the deep themes of this book, about what Dickens' message of the real meaning of Christmas is all about, so I shan't cover the same ground today. Instead, I'll think of the nostalgic, romantic view of the Dickensian Christmas, cinnamon-and-sugar scented, candlelit and joyful, with a soundtrack of church bells and merry voices singing carols. I think of this Christmas ideal when working on the front tills at work, when it's got dark and I see the glowing lights and tinsel decorations in the windows of the chocolate shop across the road. When I go into Julian Graves with my mum to stock up on turkish delight, sugar almonds and spiced punch, I am taken back to Dickens' Christmas Eve, or the version of it that has evolved in my mind.

The Grocers'! oh the Grocers'! nearly closed, with perhaps two shutters down, or one; but through those gaps such glimpses! It was not alone that the scales descending on the counter made a merry sound, or that the twine and roller parted company so briskly, or that the canisters were rattled up and down like juggling tricks, or even that the blended scents of tea and coffee were so grateful to the nose, or even that the raisins were so plentiful and rare, the almonds so extremely white, the sticks of cinnamon so long and straight, the candied fruits so caked and spotted with molten sugar as to make the coldest lookers-on feel faint and subsequently bilious. Nor was it that the figs were moist and pulpy, or that the French plums blushed in modest tartness from their highly decorated boxes, or that everything was so good to eat and in its Christmas dress; but the customers were all so hurried and so eager in the hopeful promise of the day, that they tumbled up against each other at the door, crashing their wicker baskets wildly, and left their purchases upon the counter, and came running back to fetch them, and committed hundreds of the like mistakes, in the best humour possible; while the Grocer and his people were so frank and fresh that the polished hearts with which they fastened their aprons behind might have been their own...

You can keep your Black Fridays and your January sales; just let me retreat into this book for a heartwarming, joyful Christmas shopping experience.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 9: Hogfather

There haven't been many subjects that Terry Pratchett hasn't taken from the round world, taken to his Discworld and examined from an odd angle so that what you think you know all about, looks very different all of a sudden. So it was inevitable that Christmas would get the Discworld treatment, and that it would be both festive and strange at the same time. When Sky One adapted Hogfather into a two-part drama a few years ago, seeing it on the big screen made me think that if I was not already a Discworld fan I would think it a bit dark and scary in its surrealism. Father Christmas is a skeleton in a sleigh pulled by pigs? How is that in any way not creepy? Oh, and not just any skeleton but the Grim Reaper, Death himself? How - how - is this in any way okay?

Of course, I am a Discworld fan, and know full well that Death is nothing if not a big softie. It's not until seeing Hogfather through a newcomer's eyes that I even thought twice about the weirdness. But though a bit odd, it's not dark or creepy at all, and once you get into the story, you soon forget about the things that seem to be all-wrong. The Hogfather - Discworld's version of Father Christmas - is missing, and if his job is not done, disaster will strike. People are stopping believing in the Hogfather, and the spare belief is bringing all sorts of strange beings into existance, and if people don't believe in the Hogfather, the sun will not rise.

Yet for all its weirdness, Hogfather, with Death, assassins, tooth fairies and bogeymen, is as seasonal as you can get (with plenty that is jolly, with holly, and other things rhyming with "olly.") Examining the importance of faith and belief and the traditions we just take for granted, with lots of bad punes, or plays on words, and snarky wit from Death's granddaughter Susan, along the way, Hogfather has earned its way in the Christmas canon alongside the classics featured in the Twelve Days of Christmas. And the TV adaptation is a must-see!


Tuesday 20 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 8: Harry Potter

Because of each book in the Harry Potter series spanning an entire school year, Christmas features in each of them. I found it difficult to choose just one moment, so I chose three Christmas scenes that stood out to me.

Philosopher's Stone:

After a childhood of neglect, Harry discovers that people actually like him enough to send him Christmas presents. Among other things, he receives a knitted sweater from his best friend's mother, who he's met for all of about five minutes, and an invisibility cloak from an anonymous sender with the instructions to use it well. Venturing out into the school at night to explore, he comes across a room containing a mirror. But no ordinary mirror: the Mirror of Erised shows his deepest longing - himself with his parents, who died when he was just a baby.

Goblet of Fire:

The Yule Ball, from Harry and Ron's point of view is, frankly, a disaster. Neither of them particularly want to be there, having taken as their partners two girls they have no interest in. Harry would far rather be dancing with Cho Chang, and Ron - well - he seems more than usually grumpy at the thought of Hermione partnering Triwizard rival Viktor Krum. Odd, that! But this is a major turning point in the series for Hermione Granger, the first point in which she is seen as a girl rather than a nerdy know-it-all. When the film came out, this was the moment that seemed to be hyped up above the main storyline: the point in which Hermione becomes pretty. (Considering that Emma Watson had showed up at premieres dressed up nicely, it was less of a big deal to viewers than it was to readers, but still. It was a lovely moment - until Ron ruined it. Nice one, Weasley!)

Deathly Hallows:

The last months have been a nightmare. Fleeing for their lives and wanted by Lord Voldemort, Harry, Ron and Hermione have embarked on the seemingly impossible task of tracking down Voldemort's horcruxes - which could be anything, anywhere - and destroying them. The quest has put strain on their friendship, and Ron has left. Harry and Hermione turn up in Godric's Hollow, the village where the Potters lived and died, in the cold. They search for Harry's parents' grave, and they hear the church bells ringing and people singing carols. It's Christmas eve, and they didn't even know it. The scene is sad subdued, far from the innocent joy of his first Christmas at Hogwarts, but the longing is the same, for what he's never known. It is a beautiful, but heartbreaking pensive moment, the calm amidst storms.

Monday 19 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 7: Anne of Green Gables

As I described earlier in the year when rereading the Anne of Green Gables series for my Kindred Spirit challenge, my childhood reading experiences were so vivid that sometimes they seem almost indistinguishable from my real-life experiences. I'm sure that my character was partly influenced by precocious orphan Anne Shirley, who I could identify more with than any other character I had encountered in either fiction or real life. I couldn't tell you what it was like to be a child in the early 1990s, because as far as I was concerned I grew up in 19th century Canada, 1940s rural England, on the Prairies... wherever my reading and imagination took me.

If you were to ask Anne Shirley what her most memorable Christmas present was, no doubt she would tell you about the dress bought for her by Matthew Cuthbert the Christmas before she turned thirteen. Her childhood before then was one of poverty and neglect, reluctantly taken in by one family after another, before being dropped off in an orphanage. A bright, dreamy girl with a love of all things beautiful, it was only Anne's imagination that resigned her to wearing the shabby, second-hand clothes of ugly material provided by the orphanage. Being adopted by two middle-aged people who knew nothing of children was her first taste of real happiness. Shy Matthew adored her, his sister Marilla was less demonstative, but under her stiff exterior, she too came to love Anne. But as far as Marilla was concerned, pretty clothes were frivolous and encouraged vanity, and she insisted in dressing Anne in plain ginghams and prints without any room for flounces or fashions - or puffed sleeves, Anne's biggest dream.

If you were to ask Matthew how he came to be an expert in dresses for teenage girls, he would probably scurry away like a frightened rabbit. Buying the dress that Anne set her heart on was not an easy feat for him, because he was terrified of all women except his sister, neighbour Rachel Lynde, who he tolerated, and lately Anne, the apple of his eye. When he arrived at the store to be greeted by a new - female - shop assistant, he could not bring himself to ask for dress material for his ward, instead making himself look even stranger by requesting hayseed and a rake - in winter! - and enough sugar to open a toffee factory. If it was good sugar, which it wasn't. It's a wonder that dress ever came into being. But ask Matthew if Anne's joy made it all worthwhile, and his eyes would tell it all.

"That's a Christmas present for you," said Matthew shyly. "Why - why - Anne, don't you like it? Well now - well now."
For Anne's eyes had suddenly filled with tears.
"Like it! Oh Matthew!" Anne laid the dress over a chair and clasped her hands. "Matthew, it's perfectly exquisite. Oh, I can never thank you enough. Look at those sleeves! Oh, it seems to me this must be a happy dream."

Sunday 18 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 6: What Katy Did

What Katy Did is one of those books in the genre of Victorian children's literature that can be a bit too cloyingly moralistic for some people's tastes, and certainly I do feel that loveable, careless tomboy Katy is not so much improved through her trials and tribulations, as made into a perfect and dull paragon of what a young lady should be. Certainly, as the story progresses, the character of Katy holds less interest for me, but what keeps me reading these books are the details. The details of the games children play, the schemes they concoct, and the little things they do to amuse each other.

When Katy is bedridden after her accident on the swing, she and her Aunt Izzie concoct a plan for "St Nicholas" to visit and bring presents for all of her many brothers, sisters and friends. Some items are handmade, others recycled items of Katy's own, coveted by her siblings, while others still are bought fresh: including a sled for one sister and a writing desk for another. With a grand sum of seven dollars and a quarter, I wondered just how great the rate of inflation must have been since the book was written - seven dollars equalling something over four pounds today.

"I'd like the sled to be green," went on Katy, "and to have a nice name. Sky-Scraper would be nice if there was one. Johnny saw a sled once called Sky-Scraper, and she said it was splendid. And if there's money enough left, Aunty, won't you buy me a real nice book for Dorry, and another for Cecy, and a silver thimble for Mary? Her old one is full of holes. Oh! and some candy. And something for Debby and Bridget - some little thing, you know. I think that's all."

As a girl I quite missed the narrator's ironic observation - Was ever seven dollars and a quarter expected to do so much? Aunt Izzie must have been a wtich indeed to make it hold out - and thought wistfully of the days long ago when such a small amount of money could buy so many gifts.

The other Christmassy highlight comes in the second book in the series: What Katy Did At School. Spending Christmas in their boarding school, Katy and her sister Clover receive two parcels of tasty goodies from home, and from the description these boxes must have been veritable Tardises, packed with enough sweet treats to feed an entire school.

The top of the box was mostly taken up with four square paper boxes, round which parcels of all shapes and sizes were wedged and fitted [...] Each box held a different kind of cake. One was full of jumbles, another of ginger-snaps, a third of crullers , and the fourth containe a big square loaf of frosted plum-cake, with a circle of sugar almonds set in the frosting [...] Never was such a wonderful box. It appeared to have no bottom whatever. Under the presents were parcels of figs, prumes, almonds, raisins, candy; under those, apples and pears. There seemed no end to the surprises."

Those Christmas boxes must have been a remarkable gift, and the description never fails to make my mouth water.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 5: Jo of the Chalet School

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet School series is one of the most impressively-long series of children's books of all time (Nancy Drew and the Babysitters' Club may beat it, but I believe both of these had the help of ghost writer.) I can't think of a longer-running school story series, spanning 58 books (or 62 if you count those that here split into two for their paperback release.) Beginning in the mid-1920s and ending around the '60s, the books follow the fortunes of a family-run school from its humble beginnings with a handful of pupils in an Austrian chalet, through the Anschluss and World War 2 when they had to flee first to Guernsey, then to the Welsh/English Border, until the school grows so big that it has hundreds of pupils and multiple sites in Britain, Switzerland and a finishing branch.

Of course, through such a long-lived series, the tone and quality is variable, and I like best the early books, when the school is still small and family-like, when you get to know all the pupils, staff and their families, and all their foibles. The second book in the series: Jo of the Chalet School is full of such cosy, informal scenes, and best of all are the Christmas chapters, when headmistress Madge Bettany, her younger sister Jo and a couple of honorary members of the family, spend their first Christmas in Austria, visiting the family of two of the pupils who live in Innsbruck. After a term of Jo and Madge being student and teacher, they get to spend Christmas as sisters once more, in some heartwarming, cosy scenes.

Even now German and Austrian Christmas markets are a thing of wonder, replicated in city centres up and down the UK, but even more wonderful, surely, would be the real thing. My Christmases were illuminated with European folk tales alongside the British and American traditions, and in Jo of the Chalet School, Joey and Madge get to experience for themselves of the magical, Christmas-card beauty of an old-fashioned Austrian festival season. Though the girls find some of the ways of their Austrian friends a little old-fashioned, the welcome is warm and genuine, and they spend their first Christmas abroad with tobogganing, skiing and Midnight Mass, their hosts dressed in traditional costume so that, as Jo says, "It's like Hans Anderson, or Snow White and Rose Red come to life!"

Friday 16 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 4: Little Women

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents!" So opens Louisa May Alcott's classic Little Women, Jo expressing what could be a surprisingly materialistic sentiment in a book that, if you're not in the right frame of mind, can come across as irritatingly preachy and twee. (Don't get me wrong, I do enjoy this book - most of the time. But if I'm not in the right mood, it can get on my nerves.) And, to give her her dues, I think it's more the tradition of exchanging gifts that Jo is lamenting, rather than just wanting more stuff!

Still, the March girls manage to do quite well, even under difficult financial circumstances with their father away at war, coming up with small but all the more precious gifts for each other. Then they share their Christmas breakfast with a family in extreme poverty, who welcome them as "angels." ("Funny angels in hoods and mittens," said Jo, and set them laughing.) And this selfless giving really does bring out the true spirit of Christmas, when the girls find joy in being able to help those even less fortunate than themselves.
And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts, and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.
And after all, the March sisters, though they have little wealth and riches, get just as much joy in their Christmas day celebrations - dressing up and acting out plays with whatever props they have at hand - as they could in going out for a "special occasion" such as theatre performances, concerts or parties. Their celebrations are constructed from joy, fun and love for life and each other.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 3: Five Go Adventuring Again

As you can see, many of my Christmas must-reads are childhood favourites, books that have been a part of my life since primary school. Many of Enid Blyton's Famous Five series are fairly generic - the woman did write more adventure stories than most people read in their lives! - but Five Go Adventuring, the second book in the series, is one of my favourites, even now.

Set at Christmas time, when we are still getting to know the characters, Julian, Dick and George are required to take extra coaching in the school holidays, and Uncle Quentin has hired a tutor for them. George doesn't trust him - he doesn't like dogs, you see, and her faithful dog Timmy doesn't like him! And he will insist on calling her Georgina! But her cousins think Mr Roland is wonderful, can't do a thing wrong, and wish she would just buck up and be decent and not spoil Christmas. And for Christmas day, at least, she tries - and there are lovely scenes, describing the family's presents to each other and Anne's joy at being given the fairy doll from the tree. I don't recall seeing any other Christmasses depicted in Blyton, though with hundreds of books to her name there must be some.

The quintette spend a lot of time over at the nearby farmhouse, which, it is rumoured, contains all sorts of secret tunnels and cubby-holes. I'm sure that when I wasn't checking my wardrobe for an entry into Narnia, I used to hope fervently for a false back that was also a door into a secret passageway! Alas, there was none. They find a map, with coded hints to other passageways, and the solving of this mystery appealed, and still appeals, to my inquisitive imagination. When valuable papers are stolen from Uncle Quentin's study, and there seems no way to track the thieves due to the house being snowed up, the secrets of the map become very helpful indeed!

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 2: Treasures of the Snow

I received Treasures of the Snow by Patricia St John as a Sunday School prize when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It reminds me a lot of Heidi due to its setting and some of its themes, a tale of anger, friendship and forgiveness between two children, Annette and Lucien. With its Swiss mountainous setting, the entire book is a lovely read for the winter months, but it is the opening chapter, before any tragedy starts, that earns its place in my Twelve Days of Christmas series: two children walking home up the mountain from the Christmas Eve church service with gingerbread bears in their hands - and in Lucien's case, his tummy! There is a tone of magic and awe as Annette reflects upon the nativity scene, which is paralleled by her family's own cattle shed, and her arrival home to discover that she had a new baby brother.
The house was very, very still, and the Christmas star shone in through the unshuttered windows. So it had shone on that other Christmas Baby in the stable at Bethlehem, and so had Mary sat and watched God's little Son, just as [Annette] was sitting by the stove watching little brother.
She put out reverent fingures and touched the top of his downy head, which was all she could see of him. Then with a tired sigh she leaned her head against the cradle and let her fancy roam where it would - stars. shepherds, new little babies, shut doors, wise men and gingerbread bears - they all became muddled up in her mind, and she slid gradually on to the floor.
Sadly, the magic does not last long, as, little does Annette know that her mother did not survive long after giving birth, and her brother Dani becomes her own responsibility. It is a long, difficult road for all three children before they find their happy ending.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Twelve Days of Christmas 1: The Wind in the Willows

This year, I thought that I would celebrate the twelve days leading up to Christmas by sharing twelve favourite bookish Christmases, those classic scenes or even whole books that really help me to get into the Christmas spirit.

I have to confess that as a child I was never overly keen on animal stories. I read them but didn't enjoy them so much as stories whose focus was on human characters. But The Wind in the Willows was - still is, I think - my sister's favourite book of all time (I believe she has at least 3 copies of the book in her collection - four if you include the audio cassette narrated by Alan Bennett, and always intended to call her first house Mole End.)

After abandoning his spring-cleaning, timid Mole was befriended by the Water Rat, and taken to live with him, where he spent the year making new friends and exploring the world above ground. But as winter fell, he felt his old home calling to him. When Mole is unable to contain his homesickness, Ratty insists they go back, right then! But after the luxuries of the River Bank, Mole feels quite self-conscious of his humble home. But Ratty loves it, and after all it is Mole's home.

"This really is the jolliest little place I ever was in. Now, wherever did you pick up those prints? Make the place look so home-like, they do. No wonder you're so fond of it, Mole. Tell us all about it, and how you came to make it what it is." 

A group of carol-singing young field mice come to call, and are invited in to supper. This chapter is a simple, but cosy and atmospheric celebration of the little pleasures that are the most important of all.

There was an adorable short animation based on this chapter, made in the mid-1990s and featuring the voices of Richard Briers and Peter Davison. This was required viewing in my household every year as I grew up.

Monday 12 December 2011

Movie Monday: Christmas must-sees

I'm sure all have our favourite Christmas movies, the ones that we watch every year and have become part of our own Christmas traditions, as much as the tinsel, tree and turkey (or alternative.) Just as I have to reread A Christmas Carol and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, go to a candle-lit carol service and dig out my earrings in the shape of Christmas trees, there are certain films that just have to be watched in December. Others are less compulsory, but help me to feel that yes, Christmas really is coming.

1. The Muppet Christmas Carol. I have seen so many adaptations of Charles Dicken's famed ghost tale, and yet this version, with the Great Gonzo as the narrator, claiming to be Dickens himself, much to his friend Rizzo the Rat's disbelief. There is a wonderful mix of human and Muppet actors, with such great names as Michael Caine as the avaricious, cold-hearted Ebeneezer Scrooge, supported by Kermit the Frog as his good-natured employee Bob Cratchit (Miss Piggy, of course, is Mrs Cratchit!) and Statler and Waldorf as not just one ghost of Marley, but two! Despite the anachronisms, heckling, fourth-wall-breaking and other muppetry, it is a faithful adaptation of the novel, and with lots of memorable songs.

2. It's A Wonderful Life. Oh, how I love this film, though every time I watch it, I find myself blinking back tears in the first minutes. George Bailey is a bright, ambitious man, but his life hasn't turned out quite the way he planned. When George finds himself in desperate trouble, due to be arrested for fraud as a result of his uncle's carelessness and business rival's cruelty, he decides the world would be better off without him and contemplates suicide. Enter Clarence, a funny, bumbling little chap who claims to be his guardian angel. Clarence shows George what a dark place the world would be if he'd never been born, and he learns what a profound effect his ordinary life has had on everyone around him. A flop at the cinema when first released, It's A Wonderful Life has become one of the must-see films of Christmas.

3. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When I first saw the trailer for the film adaptation in cinemas, my friend and I just hugged each other with excitement, barely even taking in the details, but knowing that the feel of it was perfect. This is the earliest story I can remember reading/viewing the TV series when I was three and an old animated film that just wasn't quite right. The 2005 film was perfect, magical, my childhood brought to life on the big screen. Although the 1980s BBC series was good for its time, watching it nowadays it seems dated and the acting a bit clunky. This new film, well, it just was Narnia. I can't fault it. The moment when Lucy walks through the wardrobe into the snowy wood, and sees the lamppost is just sheer magic. The casting is superb, the setting wonderful and the CGI a long way from the flying lion effect of the BBC drama. Wonderful.

4. The Hogfather. Not technically a film so much as a two-part TV dramatisation, Hogfather is the first live-action adaptation of any of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. A strange, surreal tale of when Death had to step in for the Hogfather - the Disc's version of Father Christmas - to save the world from catastrophe. Sky One did an excellent job of bringing the Discworld to life, and it feels less of a fantasy story, and more of an alternative Victorian-esque reality which just happens to contain magic. The level of detail is astounding, the casting spot-on, especially the Wizards, the Assassins, and Susan (Michelle Dockery, now known as Lady Mary in Downton Abbey.) The kids are wonderfully real - not cutesy-poo but a bit ghoulish and cynical. Marc Warren is creepy as disturbed Assassin Teatime ("It's pronounced Teh-ah-tim-eh.") Every time I watch this, I feel like I'm seeing the Discworld brought to life for the first time. 

5. The Holiday. I often protest that I don't do the mushy stuff, but I have two "chick-flicks" on my Christmas film list. The first, The Holiday tells of two women (Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz) who, wanting to get away from it all, swap houses for the Christmas break. Kate Winslet finds herself in a luxury LA mansion, befriending an elderly screenwriter and a young musician, while Cameron Diaz discovers a cosy cottage in the middle of nowhere, and Jude Law, who plays Kate Winslet's brother. Kate Winslet's cosy cottage is far nicer than all but the fanciest English homes I've ever been to, and it's a very idealised sort of middle-of-nowhere, but it really is a lovely film that touches the heartstrings and makes me feel all cosy inside.

6. Love Actually. I only discovered this film recently, having previously been sure I'd hate it, but instead I found myself feeling all soft and gooey inside during the opening minutes, when Hugh Grant's Prime Minister narrates about how love, actually, is all around. There is an all-star cast, everyone who's anyone in the British film industry appears, including many of the faces familiar from Jane Austen adaptations and Harry Potter. About ten different stories are told in this form, about love in all its forms: father and son, friendships, new and old romances, unrequited loves and happily-ever-afters. Another (mostly) happy film, though there are a couple of teary moments too.

Interestingly, when I saw this recently, about the time when Bill Nighy was performing "Christmas Is All Around" - naked - my sister texted me to say she'd just passed him in the street in London. "In the two seconds of eye contact the thought that I'd seen him playing guitar naked did spring to mind," she said.

7. The Lord of the Rings. Though not actually Christmas films, these were released into cinemas at Christmas time from 2001-2003, and have since become part of my traditions to watch in December or early January.

8. Harry Potter. Similarly, though most of these films have Christmas scenes, it is the magic and possibility and childlike innocence coupled with adventure - especially in the early films - that makes this series perfect for a cosy festive marathon in front of the fire on dark winter nights. Alas, I have only the Christmas and New Year weekends off, but I have plans to watch each of these films in the evenings over the next few weeks.

9. The Doctor Who Christmas Specials. We never used to watch TV at all on Christmas day - except, sometimes, the Queen's Speech if we'd finished lunch and done the washing up on time. But in the last few years, an exception has been made for Doctor Who. From David Tennant's first episode when he spent most of the hour in his pyjamas and defeated the aliens with a satsuma, this was immediately established as a tradition. During the Tennant era, most of these episodes took place in-between companions, so without that familiar viewpoint character, the quality was patchy. A one-off companion, Donna, the Runaway Bride returned for a series in the Tardis. With Steven Moffat as writer, the Christmas Specials appear to be tackling familiar stories from a new angle. Last year it was A Christmas Carol, this year is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe's turn. And Matt Smith's Doctor, with Moffat's writer, is strong enough that you don't necessarily need the regular companions. I got so excited to recognise what this year's special was going to be.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Will Grayson, Will Grayson/Dash and Lily's Book of Dares

Will Grayson, Will Grayson: John Green and David Levithan

I'd read a lot about John Green on young adult book review blogs, and the general consensus was that I ought to go out and buy all of his books! So, gift card in hand I wandered down the road to the other bookshop and perused the shelves. Should I go for An Abundance of Katherines, about a boy who only dates Katherines - because guess what? Katie is short for Katherine. Or Looking for Alaska? In the end I was won over by Will Grayson, Will Grayson's shiny cover and the novelty of the idea of two main characters with the same name - Will Grayson.

The book is written in the first person, alternating between the two Wills, with each author taking on a particular Will Grayson. Both Wills are quite lonely individuals. The first tries to live quietly and unobtrusively, his two rules being "Don't care" and "Shut up," out of fear of getting hurt. To his dismay, his best friend, Tiny Cooper - who he isn't even sure he likes very much - is the exact opposite, big, loud and flamboyant, falling in love every other day and the writer, director and star of a school musical - about his own life!

The other Will Grayson is clinically depressed and trapped in a state of self-loathing, putting up barriers between himself and the world. I've read a lot of reviews where people have found Will 2 to be moody and unlikeable, but I felt that he was a very real character who I could identify strongly with. The two Wills meet by chance in Chicago, and their lives change and take on new directions, in a rollercoaster of a story that is at times hilarious, heartbreaking and really, really corny - but in such a way that you can't help but grin.

Despite the title of the book, it is really Tiny Cooper who is the central character, and plays a crucial role in both Wills' lives. At first seeming to be a lovable but somewhat stereotypical "gay best friend" supporting role, gradually you come to realise that this boy has a huge heart beneath all his posturing, someone who genuinely lives to try to make other people feel better about themselves. He was truly lovely.

Because both Wills were written by different authors, I found it interesting to see how the characters were alike, and how they were different. In many ways, their "journeys of self-discovery" echoed each other's, but not in a self-conscious way. There were two authors, each writing their own version of a coming-of-age story, so their characters had both similarities and differences that came across more realistically than if a single author were to assign different characteristics to the different narrators.

While reading Will Grayson. I was surprised to find a little handwritten note inside, from somebody named Alicia, advising me to look at John Green and his brother's vlog site at Youtube, and recruiting me into their "nerdfighters' army." I was ridiculously excited that someone was passionate enough about her favourite author to want to share her love of reading with random strangers in a bookshop like this, and it led me to think of reviews I had read of one of David Levithan's other co-authored books:

 Dash and Lily's Book of Dares: Rachel Cohn and David Levithan.

Dash is browsing the bookshop one Christmas vacation, when among his favourite author's books, he finds a little red notebook with messages in code from a girl named Lily. Instead of merely contacting her with his personal details, he leaves a dare for her in ret
urn, and so the game begins.

Like Will Grayson, this book is written in alternating chapters: one narrated by Lily, the other by Dash. It's a light-hearted, cheerful and hilarious festive read - I kept laughing out loud on the train and ferry - and a sweet, heartwarming romance. Dash and Lily are loveable, nerdy characters - he is a word nerd, she's a strange, lonely girl, both more or less home alone for Christmas. Their dare game takes them all across New York: through the bookshop, Santa's grotto, nightclubs and Madame Tussauds, with the aid of  friends and relations working in each place. Yes, there are a lot of unlikely coincidences and contrivances, but it is another cosy, feel-good novel for the Christmas season.

Thursday 1 December 2011


My blog has been on holiday, but never fear, dear readers, it is home once more, suntanned and rested and getting into the Christmas spirit. I have tinsel and fairy lights up, spiced apple scented candles and have been merrily mulling the wine. Yes, it is only the first day of December, but I've a busy month coming up at work, and with this week being the last week off before Christmas, I've been counting this as my Christmas holiday.

So, what have I been doing?

At the beginning of November I went to visit friendsandrelations in the London area. While up there, I took the tube up to Highgate, where I popped into a lovely little second-hand bookshop where I met fellow blogger Jen Campbell, author of forthcoming book Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. I visited her the day before she embarked upon her 100-poem-writing weekend to raise money for medical research. It was quiet in the shop, so we chatted a little about the perils of bookselling, and I asked her for some recommendations. Jen flittered around the shop like a bumblebee, pulling book after book off the shelves until I ended up with a decent-sized pile.

After saying goodbye and good luck for her poetry event, I wandered over to Highgate Cemetary. It wasn't open to the general public, but I whispered "Hello Bod" through the gates, and went for a walk in the park opposite. It was a dull, grey day, but the yellowish grass and golden-bronze trees set against the overcast sky had a beauty of its own. There was a dry chill in the air, which seemed to be the only weather to illustrate this iconic ghost-story setting.


I also took this month off from blogging in order to focus on NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month. Now, I will confess here and now that I didn't do it "properly" by starting a brand-new novel on the 1st November, but picked up an old story I began when I was a student, continued for NaNoWriMo 2009, and added to again this year. It's a werewolf novel which started life as a creative writing exercise and has evolved so much in the last five or six years that if you were to sit down and read it from start to finish - if it had a finish, which it still doesn't - it probably would not make any sense at all. I've no plans for publication, but it is amazing how cathartic it can be to write about werewolves, and it's keeping my imagination working and my fingers typing.

I did not "win" by reaching 50 000 words in a month, but I don't count myself as having failed either, with 32 000 words added to my story. And, for the first time, I can see my way towards an ending.

Where has my reading taken me this month?

I've been to prep school, Oxford and Austria with a narrator very like Stephen Fry in his first novel The Liar.
I've been on a treasure hunt around Manhatten with Kendra and Oscar Kaye and Frank Lee - Remember Me to Harold Square by Paula Danziger.
I've revisited a creepy old boarding school in the middle of nowhere with just four pupils - Down a Dark Hall, Lois Duncan
I've stayed in an old, run-down manor house in the years leading up to the First World War, with a horse-mad family, and the black sheep, Will, whose one love is aeroplanes. Flambards, The Edge of the Clouds, Flambards in Summer - K. M. Peyton
I've lived near Chicago with two boys named Will Grayson. Will Grayson, Will Grayson - John Green and David Levithan
Finally, I've spent time in Ireland with Lucy Silchester and the personification of her Life - Time of my Life, Cecelia Ahern.

I started The Night Circus in October, but for one reason or another I still haven't got very far with it - probably because, being a hardback, I've not been able to fit it into my handbag, and therefore smaller books have taken precedence over it. I'm enjoying it, but taking it very slowly.

I've been buying books galore this past month - so much for my resolution to work my way down my to-read pile! Now we're in December, it's time to break out the old favourites, but there just aren't the hours in the day, and working full-time in retail in the run-up to Christmas means that I predict I will spend much of my designated reading time asleep. If only I could employ David Tennant, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Benedict Cumberbatch to take turns in reading to me...

Anyway, here are my November acquisitions:

What I've been watching:

Since Downton Abbey has come to an end, I haven't had anything to watch on TV, but I rectified a long-standing issue: I had never seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, or Love Actually. Four Weddings left me quite cold: it was a nice enough story, but quite thin, what it said on the tin, really: four weddings, one funeral, a love story. "My mind's made up by the way that I feel" indeed! Great basis for a relationship. On the other hand, I was expecting Love Actually to be much the same. - I don't do mushy stuff - but felt my hard heart turn into a pink fluffy marshmallow within the first five minutes. I loved it, and it will be added to my pile of Christmassy must-sees, taking my chick-flick collection up to three DVDs.

What's coming soon on this blog:

I've been using this week off work to prepare a series on "The Twelve Bookish Days of Christmas," in which I will be sharing my thoughts on my favourite festive scenes and novels. Most of these are childhood favourites that are revisited every year. I also intend to write a season Movie Monday post on the films that make Christmas, and of course some book reviews.

Sunday 13 November 2011

Ellie's Mixing It Up Challenge

With Christmas approaching - it's not just retail people who are preparing for the festive season, now, but normal people too - and the new year following on its heels, I've started thinking about blogging challenges for 2012. Now, I'm well aware of how I've neglected the challenges I set myself this year, but, hey, a new year means a new start, doesn't it? One challenge that has really caught my eye is the Mixing It Up challenge, the brainchild of Ellie the Bookshop Girl. (If you haven't come across her blog before, check it out!)

Ellie explains:

"It's all about mixing up your reading, pushing your boundaries and exploring new genres.  Take a look at the categories below, and choose one book for each category.  It's that easy!  You can choose to try anything from a gentle 4 to the full 16 different genres, and the book you pick for each is entirely up to you!"

I am going to be ambitious and go for ALL THE TRIMMINGS AND A CHERRY ON TOP, aiming to read something of every category listed. Many won't prove much of a challenge as I'm quite a wide reader anyway - at least in the realms of fiction. Other categories, such as science, both the natural and social varieties will be nearly new to me, and reading something of everything in the twelve months could be a challenge. I'm putting a few ideas down here, though they are subject to change.

So, the categories:

Initial ideas: Dombey and Son or Our Mutual Friend - Dickens
Vanity Fair - Thackeray

The Brontes - Patricia Ingham
The Fry Chronicles - Stephen Fry
Confessions of a Conjuror - Derren Brown

I saw something about The Real Mrs Beeton in the stockroom at work that caught my interest. Any other suggestions would be welcome.

The Battle of Britain - Patrick Bishop
Wedlock - Wendy Moore

As this is my most-read genre, I think I won't have much trouble finding something that fits this category.

I plan to continue Neil Gaiman's Sandman series.
Scott Pilgrim

Dexter in the Dark - Jeff Lindsey
Anything in the Dalziel and Pascoe series by Reginald Hill

I'm sure I can find something about werewolves or suchlike, although there is less of the outright horror in the shops now, and more "urban fantasy" or "paranormal romance." Maybe I'll reread Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger. That scared me all right!
Any suggestions or recommendations welcome.

Oh gosh. I watched Love Actually recently and enjoyed it - isn't that enough of the mushy stuff for the next thirteen and a half months? No?
Well, I might be able to find something.
Duchess By Night by Eloisa James, perhaps? That looks fun!

It seems a safe bet I will be rereading some Pratchett and Gaiman at some point during the year, as well as Harry Potter. Possibly Tolkien, too. 
Maybe I'll venture into some science fiction, to take me out of my comfort zone. Or Game of Thrones, or Terry Goodkind. 

Bill Bryson, probably. 

So much Shakespeare, so little time! Perhaps I will venture away from my favourite tragedies and read one of the historical plays - I've never read any of them, to my shame.

Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops, Jen Campbell.

The only scientist who's been able to hold my attention since I did the coloured-flame experiment about ten years ago at school, is Professor Brian Cox. It's got to be him.

I have a whole bookshelf just of the classic kids' books - Enid Blyton, L. M. Montgomery, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Lois Lowry, etc. etc. Plenty of scope for rereads.

Hmmm... another fairly new genre for me. Maybe that Delusions of Gender thing I saw in the shop recently, or The Invisible Gorilla.

I welcome any suggestions and recommendations for all of these genres. For more info on the challenge and its rules, see Ellie's post.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

My Blog Takes A Holiday

Looking at my blog posts over the last few months I notice my reviews and even meme posts have become very few and far between. The autumn months at work are the most tiring of the year, as the "Christmas season" in retail begins as soon as the kids have gone back to school after the summer holiday. My inclination to read, and to write about what I've been reading, has slowed down. Books have taken me longer than usual to finish, and more often than not I haven't found anything to say about them - not enough to turn into a review, at any rate. I've been wanting to blog, but just haven't found the words.

The less I've been reviewing, the more I feel guilty. And the harder I scour books for something to write about, the less I actually enjoy reading them. That's not what blogging ought to be about. It's certainly not what reading should be about.

As November dawns, my workload gets heavier and I made the decision to compete in NaNoWriMo - to write a novel in a month, or, in my case, add another 50 000 words to an existing story. Seeing that the blog is likely to suffer even further from neglect, I've made the difficult decision to send it on holiday for a month, to give myself permission not to update. Knowing my contrary mind, and the creativity of NaNoWriMo procrastination, the chances are I may end up blogging anyway, with mini-updates or short thoughts. But I'm not going to force myself to do this.

I will still be reading other people's blogs and can be contacted through email at kae.bookworm at gmail dot com or found on Twitter under the name of KatieWhoCanRead.  I'll also be haunting the NaNoWriMo website and forums - finding endless ways of not writing my novel - where I'm ScribblerK80. (Fellow NaNo-ers feel free to say hi!)

Have a great November and I'll see you next month!

Sunday 30 October 2011

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

In an interview published in some editions of their partially Douglas-Adams-inspired novel Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman give one definition of "cult classic" as "books which [people have] read over and over and over, books they've dropped in baths and puddles and in bowls of parsnip soup, books held together with duct tape and putty and string, books that are no longer lent out because no one in their right mind would actually borrow something like that without having it clinically sterilized first." I would say that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is one of the cultiest of cult classics out there, one of those books that everyone knows bits of, even if they don't know the context: the Earth being destroyed to make room for a Galactic Hyperspace Bypass; always know where your towel is; the babelfish; the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe and Everything is 42... etc. etc.

That being established, it seems entirely appropriate that I left my copy of Hitchhiker's in the pub a couple of weeks ago. It's one of those books that it seems right to own several copies of in a lifetime, and I trawled the town's charity shops in the confident faith that one of them would have a copy for sale for £1 or so. In fact, two did.

Now, I'm not one for science fiction (excluding Doctor Who which to my mind is fantasy with aliens.) The fiction is all very well, but science? I'll leave that for someone else. As such, my feelings towards Hitchhiker's are a mixture of love and grudging tolerance.

Some parts make perfect sense in a very strange, surreal sort of way. Douglas Adams had a wonderful way with words, hilarious, sometimes profound, often spot-on.

"The planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy."
"The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't." 
"It is a well-known fact, that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it[...]Anyone who is capable of getting themelves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job." - something I have cynically said of politicians for years!
"There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss."
As the story progresses, elements of the story fit together perfectly in context, just as long as you were paying close attention to what came earlier. Other parts, I find to be near-unreadable, stuffed full of ridiculous names and pseudo-scientific waffle that makes my brain sulk. My favourite parts of the story are the Earth-set scenes in Hitchhiker's Guide, the cricketty part of Life, The Universe and Everything, and the entirety of So Long and Thanks For All The Fish, in which our reluctant hero Arthur Dent finds himself, improbably, back on Earth which was now not destroyed, and falling in love.

But my main reason for reading this book is, I'll admit it, Marvin. Poor, dear old Marvin, the Paranoid Android (who is not actually paranoid, so much as depressed. Really, really, utterly miserable. Poor metal man.) My affection for him was rekindled after I knitted the film version, a knitted doll that seemed to take on Marvin's personality before he was even sewn together. Of course, this meant that I found the last chapter of So Long And Thanks For All The Fish utterly heartbreaking.

Oh, and the answer to Life, The Universe and Everything may be 42, but what is the question? On my latest reading of the book of that title, I wondered if I had found the answer... or rather, the question! (You know what I mean!) After meeting a man who had sworn to tell the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But The Truth, and was obeying this to the letter, Arthur Dent muses:

"I'd like to hear what he had to say. Presumably he would know what the Question to the Ultimate Answer is. It's always bothered me that we never found out."

The next thing anyone says, seemingly unrelated, although not technically a question, could be answered by 42, and would make as much sense as an Ultimate Question as anything else.*

When the film adaptation was released just a few years ago, when I saw the Guide itself appear onscreen, despite its being voiced by Stephen Fry, I sniffed and said to myself, "You call that a book? It's got no pages!" 

Six years later, I wonder if there is a Kindle cover out there with the words "DON'T PANIC" inscribed in large friendly letters on the front. Or if there isn't, then why not?

*Spoilers: "Think of a number," said the computer, "any number."

Sunday 23 October 2011

A Graphic Novel Novice Reads The Sandman: Vol. 1. Preludes and Nocturnes

Since becoming a Neil Gaiman fangirl last year and reading my way through his novels and short story collections, it became only a matter of time before I embarked upon a new adventure: the comic books that made his name, The Sandman, now collected in graphic novel format. Aware that I was entering a new, inner-circle of geekdom, but recommended by my friend who went before me, I trundled down to the library to check out volume one: Preludes and Nocturnes.

I soon discovered that graphic novels require a different kind of reading to prose fiction, even illustrated prose. You have to read the pictures (which, they say, are worth a thousand words) at the same time as the words. It takes some training of the eyes, or so I found. I had picked up Preludes and Nocturnes at work, and flicked through it in the stockroom, reading a few pages, but out of context, it didn't make a lot of sense. It takes some time to get really started, introducing different sets of characters, some living ordinary lives, others distinctly extraordinary, who are connected, loosely to each other, or via the main core of the story, by their dreams. When the personification of Dream is removed from the picture, a nightmare scenario results.

Something that took me by surprise reading this was how different comic books seem to be part of the same world, in ways that fiction isn't. I'm used to one author being in charge of one story-world. But even I, comic book virgin that I was, recognised some of the names that popped up here: John Constantine, Arkham Asylum, and one or two others. To a connoisseur, I'm probably stating the obvious, but this interaction of stories was a new experience for me.

It took me a while to find my feet here, and I had mixed feelings about The Sandman as a story, and the graphic novel as a medium. Neil himself admits that this volume is patchy, as he (and the artists) were themselves trying to work out what The Sandman really is. There is beauty and strangeness and ugliness, and you can tell when different artists have drawn the same characters. The art style is one I have yet to get used to, even after getting into the habit of "reading" the pictures as well as the words. It caused something of a barrier against be being completely drawn into the story, and horror scenes just came across as gruesome and zombieish rather than enhancing a creepy atmosphere.

Yet there is much that shines. The story is fascinating, and even early on, there are moments that leave me breathless with their brilliances. The battle of wits was wonderful, and in the last story of the collection, "The Sound of Her Wings" was the point where Neil felt he had found his voice. I concur. This chapter serves as a poetic, pensive epilogue to the volume, where words, character and sheer Neilishness take a firm hold of the story.

This is where it gets good.

Saturday 15 October 2011

I have neglected you, dear blog.

Logging into my blog, I realise it has been a fortnight since I last updated, and my reviews before this have been rather infrequent. So, what have I been up to lately?

In the grand tradition of British weather, it has been unpredictable. After about three months of autumn, suddenly, at the end of September and beginning of October, the sun popped its head out from behind its cloudy blankets to give us a surprise week of summer - a week that, defying all tradition, coincided with my week off! I celebrated my birthday with a barbecue in the garden, and then, two days later, hunted out my winter coat, scarf and hat.

My reading has been on the slow side, and the books seem to have been all along the same sorts of lines of British, somewhat surreal comic fantasy or science fiction. My last review was of Rivers of London. After this came a reread of Pratchett's Witches Abroad, The Good Fairies of New York by Martin Millar - recommended by Neil Gaiman, who wrote the introduction of my edition, with the advice not to lend it out. Oops... Judith has it now. Then came The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Unfortunately, I had not got very far into the book, before I left it behind in a pub. For some reason, it seems to be the right sort of book to do this to - a cult classic, one which will need replacing many times in a lifetime. I trawled through the town's charity shops in search of a replacement, secure in the knowledge that one of them, somewhere, must have a copy. Like I said, it's that sort of book. My faith was rewarded, and I bought it for 50p.

I also watched the film fairly recently, and was inspired by one of the scenes to knit myself a Marvin doll. His personality started to come through before I had even finished sewing him together. I'm keeping a watchful eye on my teddies. I think they are all right, and won't need therapy...

On my week off, I went to Chichester for a couple of days to watch a production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton. It was a fantastic show, hilarious, creepy and at times terrifying.

I've just recently got stuck into the second series of Downton Abbey on TV. I missed series 1 the first time around, but recorded it when it was repeated, and watched in the run-up to series 2. I am hooked! I'm loving the escapism into a world very different from my own, and engrossed in the lives of both the family Upstairs and, even more so, the servants Downstairs. Previously unsympathetic characters are becoming more rounded, the ice-cold Lady Mary is becoming nicer, Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess is, without fail, brilliant. Only former footman Thomas still seems 2-dimensional, but I suspect that his hidden depths will be made known as the series goes along.

Do you remember me reviewing a book called Wight Moon: Out of the Shadows a little while back? It's a self-published book by a friend of mine, a local author, about a community of vampires on the Isle of Wight. I've spent the last few weeks editing book 2 for her, and I can reveal that this one is even better than the last, full of mystery and suspense that kept me glued to the screen long after I'd promised myself "one more chapter." There's a plotline that feels like a classic gothic novel, expansion of Elaine's version of vampire lore,  and secrets come to light about the characters we thought we knew. Excellent stuff, and I can't wait to read book 3.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Rivers of London, Ben Aaronovitch

I've had my eye on Rivers of London since it was published earlier this year. Having spent three years at university on the outskirts, I've left part of my heart in London. It is a city made up of so many layers that it is quite conceivable that fantasy could be just another of these layers. Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere is the best example of this, and Rivers of London made me wonder if it could be another Neverwhere. It is half crime story and half wizardry, with some element that reminded me of American Gods and others that made me think of Terry Pratchett's city watch if they were relocated to London. I didn't find Rivers of London as indispensible as the aformentioned two, but like Tom Holt's comic fantasies, it was an enjoyable read-once story.

Rivers of London is full of the dry, understated sort of humour that seems (to me, a Brit) as particularly British:
"Martin, noting the good-quality coat and shoes, had just pegged the body as a drunk when he noticed that it was in fact missing its head."
"One officer stated with a suddenly sober Martin while his partner confirmed that there was a body and that, everything else being equal, it probably wasn't a case of accidental death."
The book is peppered throughout with popular-culture references: Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lovecraft and possibly Doctor Who, among others. The narrator, Peter Grant, is a clever but easily-distracted policeman who is trying to avoid being assigned permanent paperwork duties. Peter ends up apprentice to a wizard, investigating a string of strange and unsettlingly familiar crimes, living in a Folly with the wizard, a dog called Toby and a creepy housemaid who wouldn't be out of place in a Japanese horror film.

Early on in the story, I had a mad-crazy realisation that I knew what was going on! (The big revelation comes about halfway through.) There are some clues in the book and even on the cover - if you know what you're looking for, and especially if you ever visited Covent Garden or the English seaside as a child. What is a nasty crime to start off with, feels even darker when the source material is identified. It certainly puts a new spin onto one of the Great British Institutions.*spoilers below. 

Although I enjoyed the humour and was impressed by the ideas of Rivers of London, I found the storytelling a bit confusing in places. The scene changes could be jumpy, not always clearly explained and I'd find myself having what I call "QI moments" after the panel show, where the loss of concentration for a split second could leave me utterly bewildered. There were a couple of significant plot advancements which made me wonder, how did we get here? How did he work this out? I had the feeling that Aaronovitch knew where he wanted to go with his story but not always how to get there. Still, it was an enjoyable read and I look forward to reading the sequel, Moon over Soho.

Rivers of London is published in the USA under the title Midnight Riot.

*The Punch and Judy Show. Out of the safe, slapstick context of the puppet theatre, this is horrible! Even in context. I saw part of a Punch and Judy show in the summer and wondered how they were still allowed!
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