Monday 15 October 2012

Katie's Adventures in Storyland II

Winter is coming, the nights are getting darker and the bookshops are getting busier. This can mean only one thing - a new Cecelia Ahern book! (Actually it means many things. Christmas. Crunchy autumn leaves. Woolly jumpers. Hot chocolate.) Though I am usually averse to chick-lit, Miss Ahern's novels come at just the right time, when I am in need of some reading material that is fluffy and comforting, but without being utterly mushy. And her book covers are so pretty! How can you resist something that looks like this?

One Hundred Names is an original concept: journalist Kitty Logan asks her dying friend and mentor what is the one story you always wanted to write? The only answer is a list of names, and Kitty has to search all across Dublin to find the story that links these hundred people. One Hundred Names is quite a short novel, and I wondered whether Kitty would actually meet all hundred people on the list. Of course she doesn't, but the characters she does meet are lovable and memorable, a selection of people of all walks of life. Ultimately, the great mystery of the novel turned out not to be very surprising at all - I guessed it early on, but this in no way affected my enjoyment of the story. This book is all about the journey and the people, with an uplifting message that everybody, without exception, has a story to tell.

In between the other books I've been reading in the last couple of weeks, I have been spending some time with the Andreas girls in Eleanor Brown's The Weird Sisters. This is a quite gentle tale of three sisters, very different in temperament, who return to the family home when their mother falls sick, each bringing their own struggles and secrets with them. The Weird Sisters was quite a slow read, but by the end I found myself really invested in the Andreas family. Rose, Bean and Cordy are really Rosalind, Bianca and Cordelia, named for Shakespearean heroines by their obsessed father.

The family is an eccentric one, structured around Mr Andreas' love of the Bard which, though not fully shared by his daughters, plays a huge part in their identity. Trivial matters and deep truths are wrapped in a blanket of quotations - a delight for a literature-lover like myself who also sees the world through the lens of story, but I can see how it could prove irritating to a reader of a different disposition.

What stands out for The Weird Sisters among other family stories is the narration. Though scenes featuring one sister is a standard third-person, the sisterly relationship is almost a fourth character and is a fluid, omniscient "we" that could refer to any two of the trio, or all three. The sisters bicker and fight, are filled with envy and resentment for each other, but their identity is as one part of three. A crucial theme of the story is of the three girls finding where they belong in the world individually, not just in relation to the other two.

After reading a novel with its plethora of Shakespearean quotes and references, I had to return to the Bard himself, and so to the library I went to look at its selection of plays. I have read, studied and watched several of the Comedies and Tragedies, but I had never read any of Shakespeare's History plays, so I chose to read Julius Caesar. Much to the disappointment of my father, I have next to no knowledge of Roman history, so I went into Caesar with only the knowledge that the title character is murdered. In actual fact, Julius Caesar only appears in about three scenes of his play, and his death occurs halfway through. The story revolves around the conspiracy and assassination of Caesar - the build-up to the event, and its aftermath. If there is a protagonist, it must be Brutus, moralist and betrayer, but there are no heroes, only villains and anti-heroes. Reading this play, I found it difficult to take sides, but only impartially watch a historical event replayed in iambic pentameter. Still, Shakespeare humanises the great names of history, showing multi-faceted characters. Take Caesar: arrogant before the men, gentler and perhaps more vulnerable at home with his wife, shown for his strengths as well as his weaknesses in soliloquy, and all this in three short scenes.

Of course, Shakespeare wrote for the stage, not for the page, but I get as much pleasure from reading his plays as I do watching them, being able to enjoy the poetry and philosophy of his words at my own leisure, rereading favourite lines or passages I did not understand the first time. But although Shakespeare has a reputation for being long-winded and impenetrable, I do not find him so. Caesar is a relatively short play, without any padding, but each scene building plot, tension and character, as tightly-crafted as the best thrillers.

I read the Arden Shakespeare edition (pictured) but was not happy with the method of footnoting. This is evidently a study edition, with lots of useful notes taking up half the page - but I prefer to read the play straight through, with notes at the end of the book instead, where I can look them up if I want, or not if I don't want. They were not only a distraction, but also presumed upon the play not being read as a thriller, being free with the spoilers for the benefit of students on a reread (if it is not incongruous to talk of "spoilers" for a 400-year-old play whose events were centuries old even at the time of writing.)

Thursday 11 October 2012

Dodger - Terry Pratchett

It has long been suspected that although his books are universally classified as “comic fantasy,” Sir Terry Pratchett doesn’t really write fantasy at all. Sure, the majority of his literary output takes place on a flat world, carried through space on the backs of four humongous elephants, who in turn are supported by the gigantic turtle named the Great A’Tuin. And certainly this world is populated with witches and wizards, vampires, werewolves and zombies, trolls and dwarves and blue-skinned six-inch-high warriors. But all that is merely set-dressing. Over the years, the Discworld books have evolved from parodies of fantasy, to fantasy as parody of everything else, to satirical fiction that uses fantastical elements as a lens to view our own society.

When I watched the TV adaptations of Hogfather and Going Postal, I was reminded of nothing so much as the BBC series of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Little Dorrit. Perhaps this was in part because Ankh-Morpork had been designed to resemble Victorian London, all ricketty and grimy, and perhaps some shared actors helped (Claire Foy and Charles Dance, for example.) But I came to realise that it was not just the TV adaptations that had a similar style, but the works upon which they were based. Pratchett and Dickens make use of humour and caricature to challenge their readers to think about the ridiculousness of life, silliness to make a serious point.

So when Terry Pratchett brought out a novel set far away from the Discworld, in Charles Dickens’ London, the two worlds joined together seamlessly. Pratchett’s Dodger is not, as I first thought, Oliver Twist from the point of view of the more interesting semi-antagonist, nor a prequel. Instead, despite the shared nickname and outfit, Dodger charts the changing fortunes of another young urchin, a kind-hearted but streetwise lad who earns a living as a “tosher,” scavenging in London’s intensive sewer system. This Dodger has a strict personal morality, even if it doesn’t always necessarily match up with the law, and when he rescues a young woman from a savage beating, his destiny takes a detour and he finds himself mixing with some quite surprising characters from London’s myth and history. “Mister Charlie” Dickens himself plays a significant role in the story, and we see that Dodger influenced some of Dickens’ own writing. I repeat, this Dodger is not Dickens’ Jack Dawkins, but we can infer that he influenced some elements of Mister Charlie’s Artful - a subtlety that perhaps only a master writer like Pratchett could convey.

There are never any doubts over the authorship of this book - you can see that Ankh-Morpork owes a lot to Victorian London, especially now that it is well-established in the Discworld’s industrial revolution. And you really don’t miss the fantasy elements - as I said before, these are mere setting details for Pratchett’s explorations of humanity (even when this humanity refers to trolls, dwarfs and goblins.) London is a fascinating city, both above ground and beneath it, as stuffed with strangeness as anything you could make up. My curiosity, first piqued by Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, was tantalised and has been inspired to read more non-fiction about the secrets of the city.

I was strongly reminded of Pratchett and Gaiman’s friendship and collaboration on Good Omens, more than anything else either author has written in the twenty-odd years since. As well as the appearance of the surname Device in a bonus scene,* I noted a paraphrase of one of the few lines in Good Omens whose author I was sure I could identify. (I would have said it was absolutely a Neil line.) And Pratchett made reference to a curious brass bedstead found in the sewers. I last met this bed in the preface to Neverwhere. Truth really is stranger than fiction.

*bonus scene exclusive to Dodgers bought in WHSmith.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

A Dance with Dragons, part two: After the Feast, George R. R. Martin

contains spoilers

This afternoon, a lady came into the shop where I work and asked for the sixth book of A Song of Ice and Fire. I had to break to her that The Winds of Winter is, in all probability, still on George R R Martin’s personal computer, and that having finished the series so far only an hour previously, I shared her pain. The only consolation I had to offer was that at least we had a year and a half less of a wait than those who had read Dance With Dragons when it was first published in hardcover, and that we had been spared the six-year wait before that.

Quite what Martin had been doing between 2005 and 2011 is his own business – writing Dance With Dragons was certainly no mean feat, and even authors with rabid fanbases need time for holidays, spring-cleaning and walking the goldfish. I suspect that Martin did a little bit of exploring in the forgotten depths of the dictionary, and excavated a new word – “leal” (adj. – loyal, true, faithful) which was proudly displayed on every other page - along with the misuse of “wroth” – angry, in place of “wrath” – anger, which towards the end made me wroth indeed.

Vocabulary aside, let’s get onto the story. I found that part two dragged somewhat, confirming my suspicion that books 4 and 5 were more about moving characters to where they were needed, than advancing the plot. Many characters seem to be taking a long time with many circumlocutions to go nowhere. Less attention was paid to the characters I cared for or was interested in, with the focus moving to one-chapter points of view, newer characters who are more vague acquaintances than friends or fierce enemies. Arya and Bran Stark seem to have found their final destinations far away from the action of the plot, and I can’t see how they might get back into the main story now. Tyrion,who is always entertaining, got himself sold into slavery in Daenerys’ part of the world, then weasled his way out of it to join with a gang of mercenaries – but the whole thing came off as rather a shaggy-dog story. But he’s still alive, for now. (Direwolf Shaggydog and his master Rickon Stark haven’t been seen and barely heard of since Clash of Kings.)

The focus of Dance With Dragons has moved away from Westeros to the former slave city of Meereen, where Daenerys has announced herself queen. Her Queenship, though made of good intentions, has not been going so well, and in an attempt to keep the peace, she has married a shifty character with whom she now shares the crown. Only he may or may not have tried to kill her, and now Dany has disappeared on the back of a dragon to who-knows-where, believed by many to be dead. I found the chapters centred around Dany, or her absence, quite disappointing, but the final one is eerie and dreamlike. In it we are reminded of what seemed to be a poetic piece of rhetoric, a long-winded way of saying that Daenerys would never see her first husband again. But details in this chapter hint that perhaps the improbable is not impossible. “When seas go dry” – Daenerys is at this point located on “the Dothraki sea,” an endless plain of grass “and mountains blow in the wind like leaves.” – we are treated to vivid descriptions of the grass blowing on the hills. Daenerys appears ready to start another grand chapter in her queenly career.

Elsewhere, Martin strikes one of his trademark blows. Jon Snow has been Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, up at the Wall to the north of Westeros. And he’s taken his role very seriously indeed, reminding his unwilling men that they have vowed to stay out of politics and defend “the world of men” – not just the Westerosi men. The men of the watch didn’t like that, though, preferring to think of the “wildlings” as their enemies, and ignoring the real, supernatural threat to mankind.

Then, once, Jon gets a letter that prompts him to do one selfish act, and for this he is - apparently - stabbed to death.


Though perhaps a bit of a goody-goody, I've always had a vague sense that Jon Snow is the real central figure of Song of Ice and Fire. (Then again, we thought that of Ned Stark before he suffered Sean Bean Syndrome in Game of Thrones.) The whole Stark family seems to be becoming more and more peripheral to the plot, and I'm not entirely sure who is to take their place. Daenerys? The surviving Lannisters? Little Tommen?

No, Martin, you can’t do that.

And I’m not entirely convinced he did do that. Jon’s last conscious thoughts are the last we see of this development, and without producing a body – especially with a detached head – I’m not going to be fooled. Martin has “killed off” so many characters, just to produce them alive and sometimes well, that I just don’t trust him any more.
Politics have been quiet at capital city King’s Landing. Queen Regent Cersei is imprisoned and disgraced, and with Jaime and Tyrion absent, and Joffrey and Tywin dead, the Lannisters are no longer the power in those parts. Who’s running the place now? Cersei’s uncle Kevan seems to have a measure of control, but it looks like the mad scheming is over.

Then came the epilogue. Oops! My mistake.

Now what’s going to happen? 


You can’t leave me like that.

Write, George, write like the wind.
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