Tag Archives: books

Books for Christmas! (Or, just because!)

The main problem I had compiling this post was one of space. I’ve often said it before, and I’ll say it again: for fans of children’s literature, this is a golden age. There are so many excellent books to choose from this year that any round up of ‘the best’, besides being entirely subjective, will have to be far too short.  The following list is a good one to look over if you have someone to buy books for as a Christmas gift (or a birthday gift, or just because you love ’em), but it’s by no means comprehensive.

So. Here is my list of top choices, ranging from picture books to YA, published within the last couple of years:

Picture Books

Shh! We Have a Plan (Chris Haughton)

Chris Haughton has a wonderful, unique visual style, and his books are immediately recognisable. Like my other favourite of his, Oh, No George!, this lovely little story (about a bunch of unscrupulous hat-wearing hunters who plot to capture a beautiful bird) has eyecatching font and art and a pleasing colour palette – and it’s huge fun.

I’m A Girl! (Yasmeen Ismail)

An Irish picture book maker of renown, Yasmeen Ismail is another of my ‘reliable’ authors. I love recommending her work. I’m a Girl! is a story about being yourself, no matter what the world tells you you should or should not like, and I just love that message.

The Day the Crayons Came Home (words: Drew Daywalt; art: Oliver Jeffers)

The sequel to The Day the Crayons Quit, I just love this book. The idea of crayons having personalities and leaving messages for their owner – and, in this case, getting lost and describing their adventures under the sofa and in the dryer, among other places – is so cute and heartwarming. Plus, anything drawn by Oliver Jeffers is worth checking out.


Image: bostonglobe.com


Irelandopedia (words: John Burke; art: Kathi (Fatti) Burke)

It is what is sounds like: an encyclopedia of Ireland! Packed full of interesting and unusual facts and dotted liberally with lovely illustrations, this book is a gorgeous gift for readers of any age.

Shackleton’s Journey (William Grill)

A stunning depiction of Ernest Shackleton’s journey to Antarctica, this book’s beauty is matched only by the depth of its research. I’m fascinated by polar exploration anyway, but for any adventure-loving young reader, this lovely book is sure to be a hit.

Thing Explainer (Randall Munroe)

A book about how things work, and why, in simple language and with a humorous twist (Randall Munroe also writes the very funny comic xkcd), this is a great gift for an older reader.

Middle Grade/Older Readers

Once Upon a Place (various authors; compiled by Eoin Colfer; art by P.J. Lynch)

A beautiful and lavishly-illustrated collection of stories and poems, all based around locations in Ireland, this is truly beautiful.

Darkmouth: Worlds Explode (Shane Hegarty)

The sequel to Darkmouth, this book sees Finn entering the realm of the Legends and hoping – just hoping – to get out of it alive and in relatively few pieces. Fun and fast-paced, this is an appealing book.

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow (Katherine Woodfine)

Edwardian, elegant, gripping, and lavishly presented in beautiful covers (and with line drawings by the cover artist, Julia Salda) this is a fantastic mystery with a well-drawn cast of characters. Its sequel, The Mystery of the Jewelled Moth, has just been released, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

The Wolf Wilder (Katherine Rundell)

Katherine Rundell’s writing is always gorgeous, and this book is no exception. Her swooping, beautiful prose tells the story of a young girl and her mother who live in the Russian wilderness, teaching wolves to be wild, and who come under threat from the forces of the Tsar. And it looks gorgeous too.

wolf wilder

Image: goodreads.com

The Lie Tree (Frances Hardinge)

It’s Frances Hardinge. What more do you need? If you have never read her, start. (Though I counsel beginning not at the ‘beginning’, with her first published novels, but with this book or Cuckoo Song or A Face Like Glass, all of which are works of genius).

Phoenix (S.F. Said; art by Dave McKean)

A beautiful, epic journey through space illustrated wonderfully by Dave McKean, Phoenix is a memorable and monumental book. Gripping to the end, and wide in imaginative scope, it’s a definite favourite of mine.

The Black Lotus (Kieran Fanning)

Ninjas! Death-defying stunts! Time travel! Superpowers! This book has it all, and a kick-ass cover, too. I loved this debut from Irish author Kieran Fanning.

The Book of Learning (E.R. Murray)

Ebony Smart is a girl unlike any other – and it’s up to her to save not only her family but their entire way of life before it’s too late. Set in Dublin and Cork, its evocative places are as much a character in this story as any of its (memorable) human players.


One (Sarah Crossan)

I read One while in hospital, just beginning the process of labour as I gave birth to my child. For that reason, it will always be special, but it is a wonderful book besides that. Telling the story of a pair of very special twins, it is deeply moving and uniquely written, and I love it.

The Rest of Us Just Live Here (Patrick Ness)

One of the best, funniest, smartest and most moving books I read this year, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is just what you’d expect from Patrick Ness: epic greatness. Following the ‘ordinary’ kids through a near-miss with the apocalypse, it’s clever and full of flawed characters, and it’s fabulous.

rest of us

Image: goodreads.com

The Dead House (Dawn Kurtagich)

Written in a ‘found’ style – pieces of diaries, transcriptions of video and audio footage, newspaper reports, and suchlike – this book tells the story of Carly Johnson, a pupil at Elmbridge High, which burned down twenty-five years before the story opens. Among the papers found in the school’s ruins is a diary belonging to Kaitlyn, Carly’s twin sister – but did she exist at all? Creepy and psychologically unsettling, this is a great read from my fellow Greenhouser, Dawn Kurtagich. Great for dark nights!

The Accident Season (Moira Fowley-Doyle)

A lyrical, unique and memorable book about a family which seems cursed to suffer accidents and injuries every October – some of them fatal – and their journey to uncover why they are burdened in this way. Coupled with a search for a girl whom nobody but this family seems to remember, and Cara’s feelings for her sort-of-ex-stepbrother, it is one of the best books I read this year.

Alors, mes anges. There you have it. A semi-cobbled-together-on-no-sleep list of great books which you might consider purchasing for the readers in your life – though, really, you can’t beat walking into a good bookshop and asking the advice of a knowledgeable bookseller. So, that’s my real recommendation. Ask an expert. And try to buy offline, if you can at all. Let’s keep our bookshops the way they should be – open, and solvent.

And happy Bookmas!








Taking Refuge

Over the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time re-reading one of my most favourite series of books. They feature a wisecracking wizard named Harry (no, not that one) who – along with his friends and sidekicks, and an assortment of spirits, ghosts, demons, fallen angels and agents of God’s will – fights evil around his home city of Chicago. I was really enjoying them, not only for what they were but also for the memories that reading them brought back to me – until, that is, I got to the last one I had bought.

Photo Credit: joelogon via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: joelogon via Compfight cc

I should have remembered that there was a reason I stopped buying these books. I never collected the full series, despite having been a devoted fan, and I guess over the years I just convinced myself I just got lost in a wide world of other books, where shiny distractions abound. However, no. There were reasons why I stopped, and I have now remembered what they were.

Since my last purchase I had entirely forgotten the plot of the final book I own in this series. It starts out very cleverly indeed, narrated from an unexpected and hard to pull off viewpoint (someone, without wishing to give away spoilers, is ‘beyond the mortal coil’ and tells the story from the perspective of their own afterlife, or a version of same) and this means there’s plenty of scope for philosophising and deep thought about what constitutes life, anyway, and how important it seems to be remembered, and remembered well. The characters I love are still there, by and large, and there are even some poignant bits where unexpected people are met on other planes of existence and the truth behind a murder is revealed – but still.


So much about this book let me down, with a major bang. So much of it fell so flat that I never bought another in the series. This is important, and I’d forgotten all about it.

The lead character in the series (who I do love, I must admit) likes to think of himself as an old-fashioned gentleman. Maybe he is. But because the books are all written from inside his perspective, we see what he sees. We, therefore, see all women he encounters through the lens of his hormones, and that can sometimes be a problem. These aren’t books for children or even teenagers (though I’m sure teenagers would enjoy them); these are adult urban fantasy books, and they’re clever and well-plotted and funny and fast-moving and boy, it hurts me to even admit how much I hated the last one I bought. But I did. Because there’s only so much ‘appreciation’ a female reader can take, when it comes to this character’s perspective on female characters. There are only so many descriptions of long, lean legs and fantastic bodies and undulating hips and so on that can be borne before it all gets too much. F’rinstance, there is a character who is much younger than the hero, whom he has known since she was a child – but every single chance he gets, the physical beauty and appeal of this character (who is now, of course, a grown woman) is described. ‘I’m not interested in the kid,’ we’ll be told. ‘But still. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate her beauty.’

Ack. No. No, all right? Tell us once, maybe. Give us a description. And then stop. We do not need to be reminded, all the time. We do not need to imagine the lead character as a lecherous old twit. We do not need it.

Women are assessed primarily by how hot the lead character finds them. If they’re not sexually appealing, he’ll be quietly respectful of them. If they are sexually appealing (and a surprising amount of them are), he’ll let this be the most significant aspect of their character, despite everything else they’ve got going on – and admittedly, these books do have some of the best and most kick-ass female characters I’ve read, including a firebrand cop and an actual Valkyrie, for God’s sake. There is a wide range of female awesomeness on display here – we just have to wade through a curtain of breasts and wiggly walks and well-turned calves to get there, and jeesh, does that get tired after a while.

But the thing that upset me the most about this book, the final one I bought, the one after which I thought: After this, no more? The resolution to one of the most complex and painful and interesting love-situations in the series.

Well. I say ‘resolution’. I mean ‘cop-out’.

We have characters who, due to their complex magical heritage, can’t show one another physical affection without incurring serious injury because they share true love, something which is anathema to the sort of demons they carry in their souls. So far, so brilliantly Buffy-and-Angel, except even better. But then, at the end of this book? It all gets solved. Through a pointless, stupid, utterly male-gazed, borderline misogynistic and completely irritating plot device that – if it was really how the author had intended to solve this painful, complex and interesting issue – could have been utilised at any point during the course of the previous five or six books. But it wasn’t. And so it seemed like a ‘whoops, look, we’ve got to get rid of this thing here, and so here’s how we’ll do it, right, with a gratuitous and pandering scene which will really appeal to the boys. Heh heh!’

Yeah. Not so much.

Photo Credit: saebois via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: saebois via Compfight cc

So. I finished the book. I put it away, sighing regretfully as I did so, among its peers. (It’s a hardback, and it’s pretty, so at least there’s that). And then I picked up The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first in Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking trilogy for YA readers, and I started reading that instead.

And you know something? I’m a much happier reader today. That’s the beauty of books, and of having stuffed bookshelves which you can visit at any point – there is always something else there to read, and some new-old stories in which to take shelter, and no bookish injury is ever permanent.

And in five years’ time I’ll probably re-read the problematic series, once again forgetting why I stopped the last time, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy my righteous indignation all over again. Fun!

Travels with a Gargoyle

Hullo, everybody. I’m Cuthbert.

How d'you do!

How d’you do!

No – don’t run away! Wait. I’m quite nice, really, even though I am a gargoyle. The truth cannot be hid in the matter of my appearance, sadly, but the soul within the body is what’s important. Right? Anyway, I’ve lived with the human who writes this blog for years and years now, and I’m very important.

How important, I hear you ask?

This important.



Yes. That’s me – hello again! – and my buddy Buddha (geddit?) in our roles as guardians of our human’s Terry Pratchett collection. I’m not sure if you know how much our human loves Terry Pratchett, but let me just tell you it’s a lot. A whole lot. Probably more than she loves anything, except maybe that other tall human who we sometimes see lumbering about the place talking about server arrays and bandwidth and static ISPs (no, I don’t understand any of it, either). They seem to be fairly fond of one another, though.

Not that we’re jealous. Are we, Buddha?


Anyway, I’m taking over the blog today because my human has ‘run out of brain space’ – or, at least, that’s what she tells me. Lots to do, she says, and no time to do it, and so she asked me if I’d take her lovely readers on a quick tour of her bookshelves. She and the tall human got some new ones at the weekend, y’see, and they’re ever so proud of them. There used to be piles of books all over the place – reminded me rather a lot of that dusty old tower I used to live in back in the day, lots of bells ringing if I remember – nope, it’s gone. Clean forgot the name! I’m sure it’ll come back to me. Anyhow, the piles of books lying around looked rather pretty, but my human and her human got a bit down in the mouth about all the mess, so they moved some stuff around and now they have more space for books! And that’s wonderful, of course.

(I just hope they don’t adopt any more gargoyles. One gargoyle per household is plenty, don’t you think?)

Here’s the first wonderful thing about the new bookshelves.



My human loves this lady, Frances Hardinge, nearly as much as she loves Terry Pratchett. But before – you remember, when all the books were piled around the floor – her Frances Hardinge books were all over the place. She could never find them when she wanted them. But now, look! They all live together happily on one shelf, and whenever my human sees them snuggling up together like this, she actually claps.

It’s embarrassing, really. But we put up with it, Buddha and me, because we’re loyal guardians. Also, we’re very patient.

Here’s a bigger view of two of the new sets of shelves. Can you imagine that, once upon a time, all these books were on the floor? It was very hazardous for little people creatures, like Buddha. Not me, though – I’m far too tough to be squished by books.

Still, though. It’s nice to have them neatly placed. High up. Where they won’t fall over.

I included myself for scale. D'you see me? Helloo!

I included myself for scale. D’you see me? Helloo!

But my human’s favourite new thing is this:

Me with some silly book. I don't know. Humans are weird.

Me with some silly book. I don’t know. Humans are weird.

This book (the one facing out, I mean, which I’m taking extra care to guard because that’s how I roll, okay) was a present, she says, from someone very lovely and important, and now that there’s loads of space, she can put it in pride of place.

I don’t know. It’s a book about some island called Tasmania, right? But it’s not a book about gargoyles. I don’t see how it could possibly be interesting, but then my human is a pretty weird creature, so we have to make allowances for that.

Well, that’s about it from me. I hope you enjoyed this little tour of my human’s bookshelves! It was great to meet you all, and remember – no home is complete without a gargoyle. Just sayin’.

(You can’t have me, of course. I’m taken. Just so you know. But there are loads of others who are just waiting to be loved… I mean, employed. As book-guardians and confidantes. And things.We’re multi-functional, you know? Definitely not just pretty faces. If you like the sound of bells, even better…)




There Comes A Time

You bring them home when they’re new, and you spend some time getting to know one another. You treat them gently, speaking softly and calmly in their presence, carefully placing them into their comfortable, well-appointed cradles, and then you watch them flourish. They make you laugh, they make you cry, they make you think and feel and sometimes – quite regularly – they break your heart.

And then, there comes a time for letting go. For saying goodbye. For bidding them farewell as they move on to the next stage of their (hopefully) long and love-filled lives. Your life is richer for having had them, just for a short while, and you daydream about where they’re going to go, and who else is going to love them.

And you hope they don’t end up pulped, or in some random recycling bin.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

What? Of course I was talking about books all along. Great Scott! What else could I possibly have meant by all that?


This weekend, we did something brave, my husband and I. We finally hauled the boxes of books we put away after The Great Book Cull of 2012 out of our shed, where they’ve been languishing in spider-infested darkness for all this time. We dragged them out into the light. We sorted through them (I saved three!) and then, with heavy hearts, we bid them farewell.

The only consolation we have is that – with any luck – these books will be going to good homes, and also earning us some major karma points into the bargain. For we wouldn’t just give away our preciouses to anyone, oh no. Our books, with any luck, will not only enter into a new phase of their life, where they’ll be loved and cherished by new hands and fresh eyes, but they’ll also help to raise money for charity.

Last year, when we attended the inaugural Hay Festival in Kells – which is returning this year, to our very great delight – we met a couple of fellas who hold a massive Book Fair in a town called Delvin, in the picturesque and wide-open-sky county of Westmeath, every year. They were great fun, and very knowledgeable about books, and delighted to talk about them to anyone who shared their enthusiasm. So, of course, my husband and I felt right at home.

‘Bring along your second-hand books to us,’ they said. ‘We’ll sell them at the Fair, and all the money raised goes to the local area, to fund community development and sports facilities and the like.’ So, we took a note and remembered to look them up. This past Saturday was the day when people with books to donate could make the trip to Delvin to drop off their offerings, and so that’s exactly what we did.

Image: business-opportunities.biz

Image: business-opportunities.biz

I thought I’d be okay, you know. I thought I’d cope with driving away and leaving our books there, by the side of the road (all right, so not really by the side of the road, but it adds to the desolation, so go with it), being pawed through by strangers, sorted into genre and age group, separated from their beloved box-mates… *sniff* It was harder than I thought. I may even have blinked back a few tears, but don’t tell anybody.

As we were leaving, one of the volunteers sorting through our donation found a copy of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (before you judge us for donating this book, let me just make it clear that when my husband and I merged our book collections, we had several duplicates, of which ‘LOTR’ was one. Okay? Calm down), and the joy on his face was unmistakeable. Then, I spotted someone else flipping excitedly through a book with a pale blue cover, and I thought – for a heart-stopping moment – that I’d donated my copy of ‘The Once And Future King’ by mistake.

Image: thewrittenwordreviews.wordpress.com

Image: thewrittenwordreviews.wordpress.com

I hadn’t, of course. But I came within a whisker of demanding that my husband pull over so that we could rescue our beautiful darlings, such was my panic.

Then, even if I had demanded we pull over, I’m quite sure my husband would have given me a Look, one of those where your eyebrows practically walk across your forehead on stilts, and told me to Get a Grip. He’s a little more realistic than me, and is well aware that this is what we risk happening to our house unless we find a few more book fairs to which we can donate:

Image: jamsidedown.com

Image: jamsidedown.com

And I know he’s entirely, one hundred percent, without a doubt correct.

But I’m going to be buying books until they nail the lid down over me, no matter what.

So, let’s hope we don’t end up swapping one shed-load of books for another – because, of course, we plan to attend the book sale in Delvin in a few weeks’ time. It’s all for charity, right? Right. We’re practically obliged to go.

And if some of our abandoned lovelies find their way home with us again, well – it’ll all have been a grand fine adventure for them, won’t it? Of course it will.


Book Review Saturday – ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’

I’ve been aware of the writer and illustrator Judith Kerr for many years, knowing her only as the creator of the wonderful classics ‘The Tiger Who Came to Tea’ and the ‘Mog’ series. Recently I watched a TV documentary about her life and career and realised that there was far more to this author than met the eye.

Judith Kerr Image: theguardian.com

Judith Kerr
Image: theguardian.com

In this – her 90th year – one of the ways in which Ms Kerr’s life’s achievement is being celebrated is by republishing some of her books for older readers in special commemorative editions. One of these books is ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit,’ the first in a collection of stories about her youth which has become known as ‘Out of the Hitler Time.’ The other books in this series are ‘The Other Way Round’ and ‘A Small Person Far Away,’ which I hope to get to as soon as possible.

I had no idea until a few weeks ago that Judith Kerr was German by birth; she had always seemed quintessentially English, to me. I never realised that she is the daughter of a prominent German-Jewish intellectual who had feared for his safety, and that of his family, because of his avowed anti-Nazi stance, and I never realised that, in 1933 – on the eve of the election which would bring Hitler to power – she and her family fled Germany for the relative safety of Switzerland, leaving all they had ever known behind. Judith Kerr went on to emigrate to England, where she has had a lengthy and successful career, first at the BBC and then as an author and illustrator, but it is in this book that we learn of how things were for her before she found the security of a safe and settled life. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is the story of a girl named Anna and her brother Max, who – along with their writer father and loving mother – are forced to leave Germany in 1933 because they are Jewish.

It is Judith Kerr’s own story, to a large extent. How she manages to tell it in such a matter-of-fact, clear-eyed way, then, is beyond me.

The 2013 Commemorative Edition of the book. Image: bookmavenmary.blogspot.com

The 2013 Commemorative Edition of the book.
Image: bookmavenmary.blogspot.com

Judith Kerr described in the documentary how her own son, as a child, watched the film ‘The Sound of Music’ and felt satisfied that he now knew exactly how things had been for his mother as a girl. The highly unrealistic, melodramatic escape from the Nazis as portrayed in the film pleased the young boy, but it did not please his mother. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is her attempt to show her son how it felt to be German and Jewish in the 1930s, and how it really was to see your father bent double with worry and stress, and your mother working hard to keep the family together, and you – as a girl of nine, turning ten – struggling to understand why all this was happening.

For a reader like me, who cut her teeth on ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ and ‘The Silver Sword,’ this book is not what I expected. ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is primarily a book about a family, and its efforts to stay safe and united in the face of great evil. We are introduced to Anna as she walks home from school one snowy day with her friend Elsbeth, and we meet her family – her genial, intelligent and gentle father, her ladylike and refined mother, her boisterous and fun-loving brother – until, one day, Anna wakes to find that her father has disappeared. He has fled to Zürich, where he wishes to prepare a new life for his family, and within a few weeks the others must follow him. They must also make haste, because all over Germany Jews are beginning to feel the iron hand of oppression – people are having their passports confiscated, and encroachments into their personal freedom are just beginning. Their family friend, ‘Onkel’ Julius, tells Anna’s father that he is being ridiculous – ‘this will all blow over,’ he feels. Anna’s father is over-reacting, he is sure.

Nevertheless, the family leaves with as much speed as they can muster without drawing undue attention to themselves. Within a fortnight, Anna’s mother has arranged their departure, and the removal of all their belongings, and they are making ready to flee. Anna’s father is quite famous, as a writer and journalist, and her life in Berlin is comfortable. The disappearance of such a high-profile figure as her father is hard to conceal, but they manage it, explaining his absence by saying that he is ill with ‘flu; then, finally, they take a fraught, tense train journey toward the Swiss border. Anna and her brother are delighted with the cat belonging to the lady who shares their carriage, and are happy to amuse themselves by looking out the windows at the new world zooming by – but Anna’s mother’s white-knuckled grip on her handbag, and her pinched face, tell the reader all they need to know about how much fear she was in. The story follows the family as they move from hotel to boarding house, to cheap rented flat, as their money begins to dwindle. They lose their household staff, and Anna’s mother must learn how to do tasks she has never before needed to perform in order to keep the children clothed and fed. Anna’s father cannot find well-paying work – nobody is willing to employ a writer with his profile, or at least not for the money he could earn in Berlin. They leave Switzerland for Paris, and then finally they go to London.

This is not a book about the war, as such. There are no moments of violence here, and no descriptions of atrocity. This makes the poignant scenes – the loss of childhood innocence, the leaving behind of beloved toys, the separation from friends and family, the death of a beloved person – all the more powerful. This is a story being told by a ten-year-old girl, trying to explain to us how it felt to live in these troubled times, and how little sense it all made. A powerful scene early in the book shows Max and Anna happily playing with two German children – that is, until the mother of their new playmates comes outside and catches them. “‘Siegfried!’ she called shrilly. ‘Gudrun! I told you you were not to play with these children!'” (p. 70); the German mother then removes her children from Anna and Max’s company and refuses to let them play together any more. To the children, this seems ridiculous, unfair and stupid – and to the reader, seeing nothing more than the names given to the young Germans (both of them taken from Germanic mythology and folklore), it is clear what sort of people these Germans are. However, we share one thing with our childish narrator – the separation of these children, two of them Jewish and two Aryan, but all German – is ridiculous, unfair and stupid. It is a brilliant point, cleverly and gently made.

‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ is a slow, seemingly slight, and simply-written book. It is not a war diary, and it is not a book filled with explosions and battles. It is the tale of one family remaining steady in choppy waters, and a powerfully moving testament to the ways in which war rips apart the fabric of normal life, severing families and separating loved ones. It is a piece of lace covering a dark black hole.

It is deservedly a classic.

Book Review Saturday – The Father of Lies Chronicles

Happy Saturday, all!

This weekend’s book review post is more of a ‘series’ review, really. I’ve recently finished ‘Arthur Quinn and Hell’s Keeper’, the final book in Alan Early’s ‘The Father of Lies Chronicles’, and it’ll be tough to do a review of it without touching on the two books which came before it. So, I’ll jumble them all in together here and hope for the best.

Image: argosybooks.ie

Image: argosybooks.ie

Very few things in life please me more than finishing a series. I love trilogies, and – unlike a lot of readers – I love waiting for the second and third instalments in a sequence of books. I’ve been following Arthur Quinn’s adventures for a while now – you may remember me mentioning him way back in January – and it was great to finally get my hands on the wrap-up to his story, and to finally find out the answers to some of the questions that have always hung over the character: why was it Arthur who was chosen to stand against the gods? What happened to his mother? And, most pertinently: is it even possible to slay a god?

The series began with Arthur and his dad Joe facing the prospect of moving away from their home in Kerry just after the death of Arthur’s beloved mother. Joe’s job is bringing him to Ireland’s capital, and Arthur isn’t best pleased at having to leave behind everything he has known and loved. This first book (‘Arthur Quinn and the World Serpent’) introduces us to the Jormungand, the terrifying snake which circles the earth in Norse legend; it has slept beneath Dublin for a millennium, and in the course of works needed to build a tunnel for Dublin’s new underground railway, the creature is awoken accidentally. It is up to Arthur, and some new-found friends, to stand against the creature. The Jormungand is, of course, one of the three children of Loki, the trickster-god of Norse mythology; as well as dealing with the serpent, then, Arthur also has to cope with its father, who wants to unleash Ragnarok, or utter destruction, upon the world. We see how skilfully the terrifying character of Loki weaves his way into Arthur’s life, manipulating him without Arthur even being aware he’s doing it. It takes all of Arthur’s strength, and the help of a band of long-dead (now reanimated) Viking warriors to see off the World Serpent… but, of course, Loki manages to escape their clutches, because that is what he does best.

The second book, ‘Arthur Quinn and the Fenris Wolf’, introduces us to Fenrir, the second of Loki’s terrible children. In mythology, Fenrir ate the sun at Ragnarok, plunging the earth into darkness and despair; in the book, he is a man who has been tasked with building an army of wolves, one which will help Loki bring about the end of the world. New characters are introduced in this book, including the Lavender siblings, Ellie and Ex, whose motivations are never quite clear; we also meet Ice, a puppy which Arthur’s friend Ash risks her life to save, and who turns out to be far more than appearances would allow. The book concludes with a fantastic showdown between Loki and the children, where help arrives from an unexpected place, and Arthur makes a huge personal sacrifice to save the world, once again, from Loki’s wrath.

Finally, then, we come to the final book in the trilogy. ‘Hell’s Keeper’ is the goddess Hel, who is – in mythology – a horrifying half-alive, half-dead creature, the guardian of a realm of the same name, where the dead live. In this book, the idea of ‘Hel’ is used to powerful effect, even if the goddess herself only makes a brief appearance. The book begins back in Kerry, where Arthur has not had long to recover from the exertions of his last adventure before a strange dream invades the sleep of everyone on earth, all at the same time (with exceptions made for time-zones, and so forth!) The dream shows a child being kidnapped, and Arthur and his friends know who the kidnapper is – Loki. They know he is planning something, but clues are scant as to what, exactly, he’s up to. Then, the trickster god appears, and tells Arthur a heart-shattering secret which asks as many questions as it answers; even more terrifyingly, he uses his power to destroy Arthur in front of his friends. Luckily, however, this is not the end: Arthur is transported to Asgard, and from there to an alternative version of Dublin, one in which he has never existed. In this ‘Dublin’, Loki is king, and Arthur not only has to face him, but also some familiar-looking enemies from his past.

I really enjoyed this series of books, for a lot of reasons. I love books set in Ireland, and/or written by Irish authors, for a start; I really enjoy reading stories which take place in settings I’m familiar with. I also love books which breathe new life into old stories, and which make myths and legends come alive in the minds of their readers. I am a big fan of children’s books which base themselves in the rich cultural legacy of their country of origin, and for that reason alone, I knew I’d love this series.  In the final book, I particularly enjoyed the author’s imagining of an ‘alternative’ Dublin, and how an apocalyptic disaster might affect humanity – it was a dreadful picture, but there were some sparks of compassion and kindness there, too. I found myself delighted with the character of Arthur; his courage and self-sacrifice, as well as his love for his friends and family, were wonderful.

At times, however, the style of writing in ‘Hell’s Keeper’ was a little description-heavy and a lot of things were ‘told’ instead of ‘shown’; it’s hard not to do this, though, when you’re writing a book of this nature, which relies so much on ‘stories within stories’. I also felt that ‘Hell’s Keeper’ could have been a little more compactly edited – bits of it felt too long, to me, and I thought the other books had a better structure, and better pacing. Overall, though, this is a series I’d recommend for anyone 8+ who’s looking for a fresh voice in children’s fantasy fiction, and who wants to learn a bit about Dublin and the Vikings, to boot!

'Loki's Brood', 1905, Emil Doepler. Image: en.wikipedia.org

‘Loki’s Brood’, 1905, Emil Doepler.
Image: en.wikipedia.org




The Gently-Turning Mind

Years ago (I mean, years ago), I wrote a book. I’m sure I’ve mentioned it on the blog before – it’s the one that has languished ever since in an envelope, currently gathering dust on top of my bookshelves in the living room – but it still counts as my first attempt at writing a full-length book. I had thought of it as being so bad that it wasn’t worth revisiting, and that there was absolutely nothing of any value in its pages. I actually felt revolted by the very thought of it, like reading it would be humiliating; I couldn’t bear to touch it, let alone face it.

Over the past few days, though, I’ve felt my thoughts start to turn, gently, and I’m realising something interesting: this book is not bad enough to evoke such a visceral response in me. Something else was tied up with my memory of writing it, and I’ve been carefully unpicking this for the past while. Here’s what I’ve concluded: the very existence of this book reminded me of a painful time in my life, a time when I thought I’d never be happy again. Even though it’s a children’s story about good overcoming evil and bravery overcoming tyranny, I wrote it during a very dark time. I know that this story took shape in my mind at a time when joy seemed very far away.

I’m beginning to wonder if this is the reason I’ve never revisited the book, and not its lack of literary merit. I’m not saying it’s the new C.S. Lewis, but the story had an arc, and it had characters, and it had an epic conclusion. It worked. There’s a story there, waiting to be properly told.

Hey! I think I found the story... Image: kernelsofwheat.com

Hey! I think I found the story…
Image: kernelsofwheat.com

Writing is such an emotional process. You can’t help but bring a little of yourself to everything you write, and – of course – the circumstances of your own life are going to have an effect on what you write, and how you remember it once years have passed. This book – I had called it ‘Emoriel’ all those years ago, but perhaps I’ll rename it – is so closely tied up in my personal darkness that it has taken me this long to even consider blowing the dust off it and having a look. I haven’t done it yet – as I write, the book is still in its wrappings, high on a shelf, lying quietly, waiting – but something tells me I will be doing it soon.

At the weekend, my husband and I started talking about this old book of mine. He has, of course, never read it, and sometimes mentions it in passing, probably in the hope that I’ll let him take a look at it if he drops a few hints here and there. Out of the blue, I told him: ‘You know – I think I might revisit it. I actually think I will have a look at rewriting it, once draft one of Tider is done.’ As he is wont, my husband smiled supportively at me, told me that would be a brilliant idea, and then we moved on with our evening.

I say this came ‘out of the blue’, but I wonder if it did, really. I’m sure this is something my brain has been working up to for a long time.

If you have enough drops, you'll eventually fill yourself to overflowing. Image: markgeoghegan.org

If you gather enough drops, you’ll eventually fill yourself to overflowing.
Image: markgeoghegan.org

As the book stands at the moment, from what I remember, it needs a lot of work. In fact, it needs so much work that a total rewrite is really my only option. It’s written in a style I loved at the time, one born out of the fact that, back then, I didn’t really read a lot of children’s books; my vocabulary and style was like something out of the 1930s. I based my ‘voice’ on the books I’d read as a kid – we’re talking Enid Blyton here – which, I’m pretty sure, would have most modern children weeping with laughter before they’d even finished the first paragraph. The only problem with that is, of course, that they’d be laughing at, rather than with, the story. There’s no mention of mobile phones, the internet, even video games; I think the most technological the book gets is when I mention ‘the radio’ (luckily, I didn’t call it ‘the wireless’), and our heroine gets to wear ‘galoshes and a sou’wester’. I’m wondering if I wrote this book in order to immerse myself in the joy of my own childhood reading, as a way to escape the reality of my life at the time; perhaps that’s why it has more in common with books of my grandparents’ generation than the current one.

All that can be fixed, though. I can bring what I’ve learned from ‘Eldritch’ and ‘Tider’ to bear on my old story, and I can cover the framework I built more than ten years ago with a bright new canvas, one which will hopefully be up-to-date and sparky, fun and good to read. I have already written this story to completion, so I know it can be done again; I have already created characters that I love, and I can easily breathe life into them again.

And – of course – I’m glad to think that, very soon, I’ll be able to take this book down again and face it once more. Opening the envelope in which it has stayed, quietly ruminating, for over a decade is far more than it seems. In opening that seal, I will be facing my own self, my own past, and laying to rest a lot of pain.

It couldn’t have happened any sooner than this.

Books and Authors

When you encounter a book you like, do you do what I do and Google the author’s name?

He *what?* A citation for not eating his lunch in kindergarten? Awful! Image: telegraph.co.uk

He *what?* A citation for not eating his lunch in kindergarten? Awful!
Image: telegraph.co.uk

I have to admit to being quite a nosy person. I’m interested in the minutiae of other peoples’ lives, like what they dreamed of being when they were young or what their favourite smell is, or how they feel about string. This is why Google is both the best thing in the world, and the worst, for a reader like me. It’s all very well when the author you’re Googling is someone like Neil Gaiman, who is unspeakably cool in every respect and whose every fleeting thought is a masterpiece (allegedly); what happens, though, when you absolutely love a book but then discover that its author was – or is – a raging misogynist or a self-confessed homophobe or a murderer or someone who really, really doesn’t like string?

Should it even matter? Should our feelings about the life of an author have any bearing over their work at all?

During the past week, there was a celebration of the work of V.C. Andrews over on the-toast.net. A whole day was given over to the work of Ms. Andrews, an author whose name sets of tingling thrills up the spine of most readers of my vintage, and I was delighted to see such kitschy pleasure taken in her work. I, like most people I know, was fascinated with Andrews as a teen: her work took me to a weird place which was almost magical-realism, almost something far more frightening and adult and distasteful, yet somehow compelling. My favourite of her novels was ‘My Sweet Audrina’, a book which gave me nightmares for years but which was also, in a strange way, like an addictive drug.

This was what the cover of my edition - I mean, someone else's edition - looked like. Image: goodreads.com

This was what the cover of my edition – I mean, someone else’s edition – looked like.
Image: goodreads.com

After I’d had a good old browse through the Toast website and realised I was far from the only Audrina fan out there, I decided to do my usual thing and Google the author. I’d never thought of doing this for V.C. Andrews before, mainly because it’s been the best part of two decades since I’ve read anything by her, and what I found was almost as weird as anything you might come across in her novels. Following a childhood accident, where she fell down a flight of stairs, Andrews had unsuccessful spinal surgery which left her with crippling injuries. She lived the rest of her life in pain, confined to a wheelchair a lot of the time. One interview with her editor recounted how Virginia sometimes needed to be strapped to a board, and was often reliant on her mother’s care. When you consider that her novels are famous for featuring children who were kept captive and who had complicated relationships, to say the least, with parents – particularly grandmothers and mothers – her ‘real’ and her ‘fictional’ lives take on a poignant sheen.

I think my new knowledge about Andrews and the reality of her life will affect the way I think about her work in the future; whether it will enhance my experience of her writing, or detract from it, remains to be seen. She’s not really an author I read much any more, so perhaps it’s a good thing that I only learned about her life now, and not as a younger fan. I’m glad I got to experience her books for myself, free of any knowledge of their creator. I was fascinated to learn about her on another level, though, because Andrews’ life was remarkable in a lot of ways: not only did she implicitly understand what it felt like to be ‘in captivity,’ but she was also a very successful commercial artist and fashion designer prior to her writing career. Perhaps it’s no wonder her novels have this soft-focus, hypnotic quality, like you’re reading them through a layer of tulle; in them, one could say, we’re reading Andrews’ dreams for her own life.

So, sometimes Googling an author can be interesting. Having said all this, of course, it’s not for me or anyone else to say how much influence Andrews’ life had on her work; in a way, it’s not fair to speculate. As a human being, though, I can’t help it. It’s one thing to find out that a person whose books you love struggled with ill-health during their life, but what do you do when Google uncovers something far worse? When you come across an author who holds abhorrent personal views on something you hold dear, or who you discover was a rather nasty person, does it affect the way you read their books?

A prominent SF author has recently declared his opposition to marriage equality and his stance on President Obama’s administration (he’s not in favour, to say the least). His criticism is a little off-the-wall, to my mind, and he’s receiving a lot of flak from readers and non-readers alike. I, personally, am a fan of this author’s work, but I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to read it with the same pleasure now as I used to. I’m also not sure whether this is fair – everyone is surely entitled to their own opinion, however much it may differ from mine, and an author is entitled to write about whatever inspires and excites them – but is it really so strange that I’d find my mind straying to what I know of the author while I read his work?

Maybe it’s just me. Perhaps my innate nosiness leads me into places I shouldn’t go, and I’d be better off not researching the lives of the authors I love. I should read their work in the bubble of ‘separateness’ from the rest of the world in which they were created, and – no doubt – in which they were intended to be read.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

Happy weekend, everyone. It’s Friday! Go read some Virginia Andrews.

Spooooky. Image: theheroinesbookshelf.com

Image: theheroinesbookshelf.com


Book Review Saturday – ‘Alone in Berlin’

This Saturday’s book review is something a little different. Today, I’ll be looking at a book which was originally published in German as ‘Jeder stirbt fur sich allein’ (Every Man Dies Alone) in 1947. It was translated into English only a few years ago, having been already translated into French in the 1960s under the title ‘Seul dans Berlin’; Penguin, the UK publisher, decided to follow the French lead in titling the book, and chose to call it ‘Alone in Berlin’ when their edition appeared in 2009.

Image: shereadsnovels.wordpress.com

Image: shereadsnovels.wordpress.com

This book was a mind-bending read. Its author wrote it in a white heat, finishing it in less than a month; shortly thereafter, he died. The style of the novel reflects, I think, the frenetic pace at which it was created – at times, I rather wished Fallada had had a chance to edit and refine the work, but then I found myself remembering the time at which he wrote it, and the circumstances in which it came to be, and I realised that pausing to edit a work like this would have killed its urgency and power, and diluted its message. This, you see, is a book which not only tells a compelling story, but which also carries a voice ripped from history, and one we’d do well to heed.

The novel takes us through the life of a simple couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, living in Berlin during the Second World War. Otto is a factory labourer, Anna a housewife; they live frugally, waiting each day for news of ‘Ottochen’, their son, who is fighting with the German army against the Allies. One day, inevitably, news comes that their son has fallen in battle; they are encouraged to think of him as a martyr, a man who gave his life for the regime, and to be proud of him.

They are not.

Otto – ill-educated, uncomplicated, unsociable, hard-working, and a man of good conscience – decides to mount a rebellion against the Reich after the death of his son. Privately sickened by what he knows of Hitler’s regime, but too cautious and afraid of retaliation to publicly renounce what is going on all around him, this decision is a huge and life-changing one. Up to this point, he has manifested his resistance in smaller ways, like refusing to pay a levy to the Winter Relief Fund, for instance. Moneys raised through this Fund were, ostensibly, used to help German families in need, but it was widely known that they were, in reality, put toward the German war effort. The Winter Relief Fund was, in effect, a tax levelled by the Nazi government; payment was voluntary, but if one did not pay, one could expect to suffer. However, Fallada does not depict the Quangels as being ‘perfect’ people, or ideal resistors; at the beginning of the novel, we see Otto recall how his livelihood had been saved by Hitler’s rise to power, and this must reflect the opinion of a lot of ordinary Germans at this time. The Quangels reach their tipping point, however, and their new lives as ‘traitors’ begins.

They – or, rather, Otto – begin to write postcards with seditious messages, words attacking the motivation and methods of the Nazi regime, and they carefully begin to distribute these cards all over Berlin, trying to keep their movements as random as possible. Anna is involved in the scheme from the beginning, but Otto maintains control of the creation and distribution of the cards, as he is afraid for Anna’s wellbeing if they are caught. They know what they’re doing is high treason, and punishable in the severest possible terms, but as time goes by and they remain unapprehended, their desire to continue grows stronger.

As the Quangels attempt to spread dissent, the book takes us through a series of other stories, ordinary lives which intersect with the Quangels’ and which, at various points, are investigated by the Gestapo – for, of course, the existence of the postcards is not long in being discovered, and the Quangels have no idea how much danger they are in. We meet Frau Rosenthal, an elderly Jewish widow living on the top floor of the Quangels’ building, and the risk to her life posed by the Persickes, a family of Nazi enthusiasts who live on the floor below her; we meet the good, kind Judge Fromm, who tries to help not only Frau Rosenthal but also the Quangels themselves. We also meet Emil Borkhausen, a small-time petty criminal who manages to involve himself in the investigation, along with Enno Kluge, a thoroughly reprehensible character who lives his life for himself alone and ends up also being sucked into the Gestapo’s enquiries, despite having no involvement with the postcard scheme. In this way we meet the ‘ordinary German’ of the war, the Nazi enthusiasts and those who hated the regime alike – but, most frighteningly, we also meet those who didn’t care one way or another, and who allowed terrible things to happen in their name out of nothing but apathy and selfishness. What was it Confucius said: All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing…

The book gathers huge momentum as it goes. The latter half is some of the most powerful writing I have ever read; scenes of interrogation, destruction, betrayal and cruelty that had me holding my breath, and scenes of courage and love that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, knowing that this book is based in fact makes it harder to take – there is an appendix in my edition telling the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, the real-life Quangels – but even if the core of the tale hadn’t been mostly true, it would be enough to know that the war actually happened, and the Holocaust actually happened, and that this book was written by a German during 1946. You can’t get more ‘on scene’ than that. As the story reached its conclusion, and I watched the fate of the Quangels unfolding, my heart hurt with every word. I felt sure I knew what was going to happen to them, and I was torn between a sense of fierce pride in Otto and Anna and such sorrow at what they were going through. The circumstances of Anna Quangel’s eventual fate, in particular, are almost unbearably moving, as is the sense of new beginnings and hopefulness in the closing lines.

Parts of this book are very hard to read. I found myself sickened by some of it, even though I thought there was nothing about the Nazi regime that I had yet to learn. Having said that, I think it’s a book everyone should read, with the caveat that some of it is upsetting; the story of the Quangels, and their personal – if ultimately futile – struggle against darkness, corruption and evil is one that should be widely known.

When you’ve read the book, go and Google Hans Fallada, like I did. His life is almost as interesting and tragic as his work.

Happy weekend, y’all. Happy reading, too.

Book Review Saturday: ‘The Night Itself’

So, it’s time once again for our weekly look at the latest thing to pass across my reading radar. This week’s review is of Zoe Marriott’s new novel, ‘The Night Itself,’ which is the first book in The Name of the Blade series. Here it is:

Image: the-zoetrope.co.uk

Image: thezoe-trope.blogspot.com

One of the main reasons I wanted to read this book was because it roots itself in a culture and mythology which fascinates me, but about which I know shamefully little: one glance at the (beautiful) book jacket will probably tell you that the culture I’m talking about is that of Japan. The book’s protagonist is a young British woman, Mio Yamato, whose heritage is Japanese. At fifteen, Mio is respectful of this heritage, but she chafes against her father’s oppressive, and rather cold, treatment of her, which she understands to be a consequence of his being Japanese. She loves her gentle mother, and remembers her deceased grandfather – Ojiichan – with affection, but seems to feel as though her brittle relationship with her father overshadows her happiness. As the book opens, we see Mio’s parents leave for a holiday to Paris, during which time she will turn sixteen – she feels as though her father doesn’t want to spend her birthday with her, and has arranged this holiday in order to ensure she is alone on her special day. She pretends not to care, and waves her parents off with the intention of having fun with her best friend Jack (Jacqueline). They plan to attend a fancy-dress party, to which Mio wants to wear her kendo costume, complete with a mysterious sword her grandfather once showed her. This ancient weapon lies in a box in the attic of her house, and has haunted her mind ever since she first laid eyes on it as a child. As soon as she picks up this wonderfully wrought sword, however, strange things begin to happen…

Disturbing the sword’s rest and, particularly, showing it to other people, unleashes a series of ever more terrifying creatures on an unsuspecting London; Mio, of course, is completely unprepared for any of it. She vaguely remembers her grandfather trying to warn her about the sword, exhorting her to keep it secret, hidden, and guarded, but she cannot understand the importance of this warning as he died before he could tell her everything she needed to know. Once it has been disturbed, however, it cannot be put back, and Mio barely has time to realise the sword is at the heart of something very strange before she and Jack become inveigled in a struggle between a terrifying cat-demon (never has the phrase ‘cat-o’-nine-tails’ been so at the forefront of my mind!) and a mysterious warrior who appears, apparently from nowhere, to defend her. This warrior seems familiar and dear to Mio, despite the fact that she has never met him before; his identity, and his origin, gradually become clear as the story unfolds. Mio has suffered from restless and disturbing dreams all her life, dreams which seem to make no sense to her, but the more she gets to know Shinobu, this strange boy-warrior, the more the dreams start to click into place.

Soon, they find themselves at the mercy of the horrifying cat-demon, and must rely on the unpredictable help offered by the inhabitants of the ‘other’ London, a magical Otherworld populated by figures from Japanese myth and legend. Travelling between the worlds is not easy, and fighting as a coherent group is even less so, but Mio has no choice: she must trust these strange beings, and her newly discovered yet somehow also ancient friend Shinobu, as they square off against a creature of darkness and horror which intends to steal her blade and use it to destroy the world. So, no big deal.

So much about this book was wonderful. It’s engagingly written, and fast-paced – the 360+ pages zipped by without me even noticing them – and I loved not only the character of Mio but also her friend Jack, a sparkily intelligent and unconventional ‘sidekick’ who is far more than just that. The girls’ friendship is lovely and ‘real’, and Jack’s love for her sister Rachel is touching, forming a huge part of the emotional heart of the story. This book is the first in a series, and so some of the things I didn’t like so much – Mio’s father, the relationship between Mio and Shinobu which comes very close to ‘insta-love’ (though, on this very point, here’s a blog post from the author about the use of this trope in the book), the secret behind the sword – may well be explained and expanded upon in future books. I was left irritated, but intrigued, at the story’s conclusion – I can’t say why, of course – but I’m hoping the sequel will help to soothe my furrowed brow. I only have a year (more or less!) to wait before I get my hands on ‘Darkness Hidden’, the second book in The Name of the Blade series, but let’s not worry about that part.

'Why can't I have it NOW??' Image: nittygriddy.com

‘Why can’t I have it NOW??’
Image: nittygriddy.com

‘The Night Itself’ is a quick read, but I was pleased by it. I know a quick read usually means the author has taken a long time and a lot of hard work to get the book ‘just right’, so I appreciate the skill on display here. It’s also great to see characters like Mio and Jack, by no means ‘stereotypical’ teenage girls, take centre stage in a well constructed story and kick some butt. I had problems with the book, but they weren’t enough to mar my enjoyment, and if Japanese nightmare demons and beautifully described swords (‘katana’ is the proper name for the sword Mio uses), as well as mythology, folklore, friendship and courage float your boat, then give ‘The Night Itself’ a try. Be prepared for the ending to infuriate you just enough to make you impatient for the sequel, though.