Monday 27 February 2017

1602 - Neil Gaiman

I'll confess it right away: most of my knowledge of the Marvel universe comes from the films, and general popular culture osmosis. I've been borrowing some of the comics recently, from the library and friends, but am well aware that I've barely scratched the surface. Even when I pick up a new series, there are so many other stories that have come before that point, and so many characters, that even though they work as stand-alones, and give the reader what information they need to know, I find myself working backwards to fill in the gaps of my knowledge.

1602 is a new story, a stand-alone graphic novel in eight issues. Set in England, at the end of Queen Elizabeth I's reign, it is peopled with some strangely familiar faces and names: the Queen's physician Doctor Stephen Strange, for example, and Sir Nicholas Fury, her head of intelligence, alongside his servant, a boy named Peter Parquagh. There are strange forces at work; storms and rumours of the end of days. Is it witchcraft? Could it be the work of Carlos Javier, master of a school for the sons of gentlemen, who are rumoured to be "witchbreed" with unnatural powers? Or does the source come from a young woman called Virginia Dare, returned from the colonies across the Atlantic with her quiet and huge "Indian" protector?

I wrote a post a year ago celebrating modern updates of classic stories, and the different ways to adapt the details in such a way as to emphasise the timelessness of the tale. In 1602, Gaiman does the same in reverse, cleverly using Elizabethan explanations and variations on the familiar characters and motifs. It was a lot of fun spotting the nods to the characters' more familiar incarnations, such as the teasing of Peter Parquagh's connection to spiders, and the blind and unmusical Irish minstrel Matthew Murdoch, with his song about "The Four from the (ship) Fantastick," the heroes of which become a part of the story itself; Carlos Javier, with his school for mutantur or "changing ones," including Scotius Somerisle and Master John Grey (whose true identity was never meant to be a secret.) Then, there is the Inquisitor, unnamed until late in the book, whose backstory is complex, conflicted and devastating. Other characters took their time for me to figure out their identity, whether through unfamiliarity or ignorance on my behalf, and the climactic revelation towards the end was so obvious retrospectively that I could have kicked myself. That twist was not, I feel, without its problems, and yet - as I so say time after time about Neil Gaiman's writing - it made so much sense on multiple levels, and left me gasping with the cleverness of it all.

1602 is a Marvel superhero tale, told as only Neil Gaiman would tell it; a glorious mixture of old and new. 20th century heroes and villains fit seamlessly alongside historical figures, obscure folklore and unsolved mysteries of the past. It is an extraordinary work of art that earns a high ranking in the canon of Marvel comics, and no doubt it will offer a deeper understanding on every reading.

Thursday 23 February 2017

The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber

Peter Leigh is a man with a mission - literally! For this mild-mannered Christian minister to be selected to cross the galaxy to preach to and live among an alien race, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. But Peter leaves behind his beloved wife, Beatrice, and while he's out living the dream, Bea is trapped in a nightmare. How can a marriage survive such a distance?

In a literary culture saturated with dystopian futures, Oasis is aptly named as a seeming Utopia. It takes Peter a while to adjust to its days that are three times as long as an earth day, the peculiar regularity of the rains, and the crops and creatures that grow on the planet. The people themselves are difficult for him to connect with, at first; the way they look is hard to picture, the way they speak impossible to translate onto the page, and some of their words and consonants are pictured in symbols the reader has no frame of reference for. I was reminded of last year's film Arrival, where the linguist has to try to communicate with an alien race without any way of translating their language.

But that doesn't really matter. The Oasans are reserved, but kind-hearted, open and eager to hear Peter's message, and the work he puts in to translating the Bible into language they can understand and words they can pronounce is truly a labour of love. They open their hearts and homes to Peter; building a church together and working at the harvest. Probably this is the easiest missionary work ever. It all seems too good to be true. For the pages and chapters where Peter is alone among the Oasans, there seemed to be no conflict at all. And as someone who has studied the craft of writing, this made me uneasy. You just can't have a story without conflict. When, and how, was it going to go wrong?

That question is answered when Peter gets back to the base and reads his messages from Bea. All is not well on Earth. Every message from home brings news of some great catastrophe, whether a natural disaster, economical collapse or political chaos. And it is this dissonance that is the emotional heart of the novel. Like Peter, at first, you can compartmentalise what is happening on Earth, and on Oasis. The events are shocking, but you only hear about them from Bea, and the story you see first-hand is Peter's. And then Peter goes back to the Oasans, and you can relax a while and just enjoy the headway he is making with getting to know these people. That's what feels real.

But you just can't put your spouse to one side like packing a toy away in a cupboard until the next time you want them. They have their own lives, and a relationship must become strained if both parties are living in different realities. Tensions grow between them, as back at home Bea is overwhelmed by personal tragedy, professional struggles, social unrest and religious doubt, all things that Peter can't be whole-heartedly part of. It is devastating to read their messages (conveyed by a primitive email system called The Shoot) as they try to reach out for each other.

The Book of Strange New Things is powerful because of its authenticity. I don't know if Faber's writing was informed by any personal religious faith but Peter and Bea felt real, presented with compassion and with no impression of being seen from the outside. Both have overcome painful pasts to become a strong, supportive team at the heart of their community. Their love for each other quite literally spans the universe. And yet a love story does not end with the "happily ever after." The best relationships have their downs as well as their ups, and require a lot of work. Love is a choice, not just a feeling, and a choice that a couple has to make day after day after day. The Book of Strange New Things ends in one way just as you might hope, and yet there is a bittersweetness to the ending because it is not neat, it is not easy, and it is not over yet. But such is life. Faber has taken a gentle, quite simple tale and made of it an extraordinary examination of humanity, of what is worth living for, of faith, hope and love.

Saturday 11 February 2017

Rereadathon #5: Day 6-8 - The One That Got Away

This week has been all about returning to books we've read before, whether it's the second time of reading, or the seventy-seventh. But is there a book from your past you'd like to read again, if only you could find a copy? Maybe it's out of print, or maybe it's half-forgotten but you can remember just enough details to make you want to return to that book if only you could identify it. Feel free to tell us what you can remember, and maybe your readers can help you track it down.

The first book was, I think, called Red, White and Blue, and I read it at the age of twelve or thirteen. It was narrated by a teenage boy called Gawain (his brother was Lance; his parents had a rather romantic streak, evidently) and the same story was told in three ways on three different coloured paper. White was a school project, red was his personal diary, and blue was his fantasy novel which drew heavily from his experiences. It charted his fraught relationship with his bullying older brother, coming to terms with his mother's new boyfriend - I seem to recall he was a writer named Richard Curtis, but surely not Four Weddings and a Funeral Richard Curtis. Even Goodreads isn't helping, as I guess it's a very common title.

I read the other book a couple of years later. Both came from the teenage section of the public library. Teen fiction wasn't such a huge market back in the early '00s, and the books were rather faded and dull-looking paperbacks for the most part, and padded out with books for younger readers, such as Karen McCombie's Ally's World and the Babysitters' Club. One book  I checked out a few times was Annie on my Mind by Nancy Garden, the first  book I read depicting a romance between two girls. I'd encountered a few gay side characters in fiction - usually a boy the female narrator had an unrequited crush on - but this was the first time they got to tell their own story. I don't suppose it would stand out now, when the YA market is so far ahead of mainstream adult fiction in LGBT* representation, but that faded green paperback was important when I was a teenager.

Friday stats:

Books read from today: Kindred by Octavia Butler
Pages read: 75
Total books finished: 3
What else have I been up to?: Went to Chocolate Island cafe in Godshill with a friend, lots of pottering about doing nothing. 

Saturday stats:

Books read from today: Kindred by Octavia Butler
Pages read: 36
Total books finished: 3

Sunday stats:

Books read from today: Kindred by Octavia Butler, All of the Above by Juno Dawson
Pages read: 504
Total books finished: 5
What else have I been up to?: Designed and knitted a fair isle hat.

Final rereadathon stats:

Books read this week: 5
Pages read: 1325
Average pages per day: 165.6
Best reading day: Sunday (12th)
Worst reading day: Saturday
Favourite reread: Kindred

Thursday 9 February 2017

Rereadathon #5: Day 5 Mini-Challenge - Bookish Collections

I've accumulated several bookish-themed objects over the years (quite aside from the books themselves.) There are several Harry-Potter bits of merchandise, for a start, and last year I finally completed my Malory Towers series in the editions that I grew up with, a quest that started back in about 1994. But today I'd like to show off my Lord of the Rings Lego sets, because, let's face it, I never really grew up.

And of course I have my Anne of Green Gables collection. Up until last year I resisted calling it a collection. I had a very sensible three copies: the big two-in-one hardback with Anne of Avonlea that my parents bought me when I was eight, the 100th anniversary paperback to keep in my bag when out and about, and a second-hand Puffin classics edition for reading in the bath or other times when it might get a bit battered. But then I discovered the little hardback with gold edges and the original illustrations and it really, truly would fit into your pocket, and how could I resist that? Then, my sister ended up with a spare copy and brought it home for me, and when you've got five copies of the same book you might as well go all out and do it properly, right? Not the whole series, of course - that would just be silly. And then there's quite a few bits of stationery as well: Notebooks and journals, address book and pens, and even a colouring book. If it's Anne, it's mine.

Do you have any bookish collections? Maybe you've got one publisher whose books look so good on your shelves that you have to complete the set, or like me with Anne you have several editions of the same book. Or maybe it's bookish tote bags, mugs, or other merchandise. If so, do please show me or tell me about it, linking in the widget below. 

Thursday Stats:

Books read from today: The Handmaid's Tale
Pages read today: 199
Total books finished: 3
What else have I been up to?: Chores.

Wednesday 8 February 2017

Rereadathon #5: Days 3 and 4 - Different Perspectives

Hi all. Hope you're enjoying becoming reacquainted with old books this week.

One quick notice before we begin: I'll be hosting a Twitter chat tonight at 8PM (using the hashtag #rereadathon) so we can get to know each other a bit better and chat about what we've been up to. Hope to see you all there.

Different Perspectives mini-challenge.

This mini-challenge is hosted by Gee, who writes:
Today I'd like you to reflect on different perspectives that a re-read has given you, for the better or the worse. Maybe you've re-read a book and found it wasn't quite as good as you've remembered. Maybe you've re-read a book and found it was actually much better than you first thought. Maybe you've picked up on little details you missed first time around. Good or bad, I want to hear about it.
When I was sixteen, I fell into the fantasy genre in a big way. It's easy to pinpoint how and when that happened, as the first of the Lord of the Rings films was released that winter. I couldn't wait another year to find out what happened next, so I picked up my dad's illustrated hardback and zipped through it in about a week flat. Then I set off to the library - not having very much money - to see what else I could find in the genre. And one thing I learned was that epic fantasy rarely came in stand-alone novels, and there were few series that the library had in their entirety. One of the shorter ones I managed to find was David Eddings' Elenuum trilogy. The first book had a gorgeous cover depicting a beautiful queen encased in diamond. The story followed her protector knight Sparhawk as he gathered together another band of knights to break the curse and restore her to life. So far, so fairy-tale. But I loved the cast of characters, I liked the affably "misguided" villain, the sadness that he and Sparhawk had once been friends. And it was partially responsible for me starting to write my own fantasy novel at the age of seventeen.

Years passed, books upon books were read, and an English Literature with Creative Writing degree was earned. A few years ago I picked up the first Elenium book again, and to my amazement and dismay, I really struggled to finish it, this magical fairy-tale that I reread several times in my teens! Whether it was because I'd studied how to write well, or because my tastes had moved away from high fantasy into other varieties, or because I'd just read so many better books since, I got bored. The dialogue sounded stilted, the prose simplistic, and even the characters felt one-dimensional. Plus, having since read Eddings' other series, The Belgariad, I recognised that he was an author with one story, one cast of characters, who would change the names, perspective and details, but use the same shape of the plot over and over. I never picked up the second and third books - although I can't bring myself to get rid of them. There are two other series of books I fell in love with sitting alongside them on my bookcase and I'm a little afraid to reread them now, in case the same happens with them.

However, not to end on a depressing note, the opposite happened to me with Neil Gaiman's American Gods. After Neverwhere, I didn't instantly "click" with the book generally held to be his masterpiece. I quite liked Shadow's tale, and I particularly liked the relatively quiet and normal part of the book set in the cosy town of Lakeside, but the story about the war between the gods, and all the little "coming to America" stories didn't grab me. There was too much going on, too many characters to care about all of them. But there was enough that held my interest to get me to reread the book a year or two later, and this time, being familiar with Shadow's story, I was able to pay more attention to the bits around the edges, pick up on details and nuances I'd missed the first time around. I've read it three or four times now, and every time I enjoy it more; I know where I'm going now, so I can focus more attention on enjoying the scenery.

Tuesday Stats:
Books read from today: Rainbow Valley
Pages read today: 158
Total books finished: 2
What else have I been up to?: Grocery shopping, chores

Wednesday Stats:
Books read from today: The Handmaid's Tale
Pages read today: 122
Total books finished: 2
What else have I been up to?: Made the most amazing chilli! (Tom Kerridge's recipe from The Dopamine Diet book)

Monday 6 February 2017

Rereadathon #5: Day 2 Mini-Challenge - That One Book.

I think we all have that one book. It's more than just something we read and loved, more even than an obsession. This particular book spoke to us personally, came to life within us and is something we've carried around with us ever since. Maybe we found ourselves represented within the pages for the first time, or the best time, and realised the power of an author to get inside our heads. Or perhaps we simply found it at just the right time and it helped us through a difficult time. This is the book that made us.

For today's mini-challenge, I'd like you to tell me what your "one book" is, and to create a visual representation of it. You can use a photograph, a collage, selfie, MS paint, doodles, stick figures or Lego bricks; be as arty or as plain, literal or abstract as you like. Then leave a link to your blog, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube or other post so I can come and see what you've done.

For me, (and I can see Bex smiling because she knows what I'm going to say) there can be only one choice. There have been a handful of books that have really changed my life, but the first one, the one that has been with me constantly throughout the last twentymumble years, is Lucy Maud Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables. I was bought the first two books in an omnibus edition when I was about eight years old, and its heroine, the fiery, imaginative and scatterbrained Anne Shirley was the first time I felt that a character was real and alive, a true "kindred spirit," and it really didn't matter that I was flesh and blood while she was ink and paper.

I'm cheating a bit with my picture, as it is a notebook that I covered a long time ago. (Though it's my challenge, I make the rules, and therefore I say it's not cheating. You can absolutely use something you made earlier.)

Monday Stats:

\Books read from: Rainbow Valley by L. M. Montgomery
Pages read: 67
Total books finished: 1
What else have I been up to: Dug an old writing project out of mothballs and pulled together all the false starts, notes and outlines into one place/

Sunday 5 February 2017

Rereadathon #5: Day 1 - Introductory survey

It's here! The Rereadathon is probably my favourite blogging event, and this year I've signed up to co-host the event with Bex and Gee. This week we've got a busy schedule of challenges and blogging prompts, and I'll be hosting a Twitter chat on Wednesday. You're welcome to take part in any, all or none of these; most importantly, it's about the reading. It's lovely to take some time out of your week to rediscover old favourite books and return to the story worlds that feel like a second home - or a holiday you loved once and have been long meaning to return to.

So, without any further ado, let's start with a mini-questionnaire from Bex!

1. Tell us a little about yourself. 

I'm Katie, I live on the Isle of Wight and as well as being a voracious reader, I'm a massive sci-fi and fantasy geek in other genres. I've written a book for children and I'm just about ready for it to leave home and go out into the world. I enjoy crafts such as cross-stitching, knitting and crochet, love bright colours and have a very sweet tooth.

2. Have you participated in a re-readathon before? How often do you re-read books?

Yes, I've been doing this from the beginning, but this is my first time co-hosting anything. I re-read fairly regularly, but not as often as I would like due to my feelings of guilt about my ever-increasing to-read pile.

3. What is your current favourite book? 

You'll hear all about my all-time favourite book tomorrow, but the best thing I've read in the last year is Becky Chambers' debut novel, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Set in a far-distant future, where the human race has quite recently joined an interstellar alliance, it follows the lives of a spaceship crew, an engineering team commissioned with the job of building a hyperspace wormhole in uncharted territory. But it's not about the job so much as the journey; Chambers has created a wonderfully diverse universe, celebrating the unity of different types of people discovering the things they have in common. I loved spending time with her characters and exploring her world-building, and the optimistic view of the future.

4. What do you love most about re-reading? Or what makes you wish you re-read more?

I love the feeling of being reunited with a good friend, and of noticing new things that you might have missed before, picking up on nuances and concentrating on different elements of what you're  reading, rather that racing ahead to find out what happens next.

5. What's on your TBR? What are you going to read first?

"Here's one I prepared earlier!" I've been adding books to my list over the last few months and came up with this lovely grey-and-orange pile.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. Apparently this book has shot to the top of the bestseller charts in the last week or two, for some reason... I studied this one for A-Level, and wrote an essay about how it seemed to predict the future. That was back in around 2003 - how much more relevant it'll seem fourteen years later, I am curious and a little fearful to discover.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb. Part of a series of trilogies; I read this one ten years ago, and it just so happened that three of my friends were reading it at the same time, so we had an informal series of book clubs involving wine and deep discussions - sometimes even about the book! Two of the friends have moved away now, one to Gloucestershire, the other to Canada, but the remaining two of us still have our very own mini book clubs from time to time, in memory of these days.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Another dystopia, another A-Level book, and another one that cries out to be read again in 2017.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. A time-travel story, but more historical than science fiction. We're used to white men travelling here, there and everywhere in fiction, where all they need to come to terms with is the right clothes and language. But for a black woman in Maryland, the past is a very dangerous place indeed. With her narrative, Butler joins the dots between past and present and reminds readers that it is not a straightforward thing to say "that was then, everything is different now." And again, sadly, I am reminded more than ever that the past does not stay safely locked away. I think this book, often harrowing and heart-breaking even the first time around, is going to be even more difficult to read today. But that's just what makes it so important!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. This is just pure fun and escapism, a treasure-hunt story stuffed full of nerdy '80s references. Some I know, some I am less familiar with, but they are a geek's delight.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I went into this novel the first time around knowing nothing about it, and I think that's the best way to read it; to gradually come to terms with what is going on in the seemingly idyllic English setting alongside the characters. It'll be interesting to read it with that extra knowledge a second time. There won't be the surprises, but I'll be curious to see what significant details I overlooked first time around.

All of the Above by Juno Dawson (published under the name James Dawson.) A book for young adults about a teenage girl trying to figure out her own identity while campaigning with her friends to save their favourite hangout spot.

The Earth Hums in B Flat by Mari Strachan. I really loved this book and read it two or three times a while back. A precocious young girl tries to investigate what has happened to a missing man from her Welsh village. I remember it being quite quirky, with a childlike innocence unwittingly revealing a darkness the narrator does not quite understand, but the reader does. 

But the first book I read for the rereadathon was one I started a couple of days ago: Anne of Ingleside by Lucy Maud Montgomery. It's the sixth book in the Anne of Green Gables series, chronologically, though written last. It's been one of my least favourites on my last readthrough, only ahead of Anne of Windy Willows/Poplars, but I warmed to it more this time around. The focus is shared between Anne and her children, and we see a down-to-earth reality of the ups and downs of family life after the "happily ever after" of Anne of the Island and Anne's House of Dreams. I've also got the next book, Rainbow Valley lined up for this week, or next - I do not expect to finish ten books in eight days. 

Sunday's Stats:

Books read from: Anne of Ingleside
Books completed: 1
Pages read: 164
On the menu: Pizza, cookies and ice cream, blackberry wine.
What else have I been up to?: Feeling bunged up with a cold, watching Labyrinth (again) with a friend and introducing her to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell BBC series.

You can use the linky below to share all your rereadathon posts.

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