2014 was the Year of Stephen King for me: although I had read his books before, it wasn't until last year that I recognised what a wonderful storyteller he is: not the mere writer of horror stories his reputation suggests - King writes about people, makes you care about them, and then, once you've grown attached, he makes you fear not just whichever monster they face, but fear for his characters. And as such, It really isn't "a horror story about an evil clown" at all. Yes, it is gruesome and unsettling at times, but the novel did not frighten me half as much as the idea of it did - and the clown does not appear nearly as often as I'd been led to believe. I still don't think I'd be up to watching the 1990 TV film adaptation though. I really. Don't. Like. Clowns. (I learned that a young Seth Green - Oz in Buffy - played the younger version of Richie Tozier. YES. Perfect.)
Just as someone once described Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, (a very different book, with similar themes) what happens in It really isn't what it's about. Yes, there is a shape-shifting monster whose favourite disguise is as a murderous clown called Pennywise, but really the book is about the perils unique to childhood, it is about a hostile place, the power of people to ignore what is going on under their noses, it is about the strength in friendship to overcome monsters visible and unseen. At over 1500 pages, It was nearly double the runner-up for longest book read last year, but not a word was wasted, not a page dragged. King has a rich prose, taking his time in building up the town of Derry, inducting the reader into the Losers' Club with Bill, Ben, Richie, Beverly, Eddie, Mike and Stan, and weaving together past and present as our characters' forgotten memories of the summer of '58 slowly return to them as required in the battle against It.
Key quotes: "That's what happened when you got back to your used-to-be, as the song put it. The frosting on the cake was sweet, but the stuff underneath was bitter."
"If there are ten thousand medieval peasants who create vampires by believing them real, there may be one - probably a child - who will imagine the stake necessary to kill it."
The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome – Roland Chambers.
To most people, the name Arthur Ransome is synonymous with quaint English adventure stories for children, full of decent English children in a time when they were allowed to run free, sail, camp, climb mountains and play at being adventurers, explorers and pirates with no supervision from anyone older than the age of twelve or thirteen. All as jolly and wholesome as anyone can wish for! But before he came to write the Swallows and Amazons books, Ransome lived a very different life as a journalist, witnessing first-hand the Russian revolution and cosying up to many of the biggest names of the Bolshevik movement so well that ultimately, his every motive and movement came under question. In The Last Englishman, Roland Chambers attempts to unravel the mystery of Arthur Ransome, only to find the writer to be a slippery fish indeed!
I have to confess myself very ignorant about such a momentous period in history, and as such I found this biography heavy-going at times, but also fascinating, leaving me wanting to read and understand more about early twentieth-century Russia. As a biographer, Chambers draws Ransome as a curious, enigmatic figure, but shows little admiration for him as a man, showing him to be a far more difficult, sometimes naive or irresponsible, and curmudgeonly figure than his character “Captain Flint” – Nancy and Peggy Blackett’s Uncle Jim – the retired adventurer who might be closer to how Ransome would prefer to be remembered.
Flowers for Algernon - Daniel Keyes
Flowers for Algernon is an important novel, as important now as at the time when it was written, raising discussions of personhood, and the treatment of the mentally disabled. It asks how far identity comes from one's perception of the world, and raises the question of the ethics of pushing the boundaries of nature through science: is it a miracle or an abomination best left alone?
Key quote: "Here in your university, intelligence, education, knowledge, have all become great idols. But I know now education that hasn't been tempered by human affection isn't worth a damn."