Tag Archives: Catherine Webb

Book Review Saturday – ‘The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August’

This strange, remarkable book is written by a ‘debut’ author (or, at least, it’s the first book to be written under the name ‘Claire North’), but the mind behind The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is a writing veteran. She has written under the name Kate Griffin, but I first encountered her as the extraordinary children’s author Catherine Webb. Harry August is far from being a children’s novel, though; it is a science-fictiony, literary fictiony, philosophical ramble through the history of the twentieth century, told through the lens of one man’s unusual, and well-lived, life.

Image: harryaugust.net

Image: harryaugust.net

Harry August is an ouroboran, or a kalachakra, a person who is reborn every time they die. Not reborn as someone else, however – as themselves. Every time Harry dies, he is reborn in 1919, just as he was the first time, and he lives as the same person, born to the same parents, in the same place, with the same family. The only difference is: he remembers being here before, and he knows he is not ‘normal’. His first life proceeds in the standard fashion, but in his second life he kills himself before he is ten, convinced he is insane – but this is a common problem with kalachakrans. As soon as he is born again, his memories of his first two lives intact, Harry begins to realise what is happening – and so begins his tale. Harry’s memory, it turns out, is unusual; he’s also a ‘mnemonic’, or a person with perfect recall of all their lives. Not all ouroborans are like this: most of them start to forget things after a few lives have passed, but not Harry. This, of course, makes him both powerful and vulnerable as the book goes on.

The most interesting thing about Harry’s lives is that even though they all begin the same way, and they all have similar aspects (he usually dies of the same disease, if he lives long enough; he is not really a fan of marriage, taking only one wife he truly loves in all his lives, though he does marry once more for convenience and another time out of respectful affection; he makes a lot of money through gambling, as he knows who will win every major race in every major sporting event), everything else about them is different. He meets different people, goes to different places, takes up different professions. This is a time travel novel, in many respects, and it deals with the complexities and paradoxes of the genre (the dangers of messing with the future, primarily), but somehow it is different, too. We’re not explicitly told what happens to the ‘worlds’ or timelines Harry lives in every time he ‘dies’; when he is reborn, does his previous life snuff out of existence, like someone has pressed Reset, for everyone but Harry himself? Does it continue in an alternate universe? We never really know, and truthfully it’s not really that important. I loved the concept behind the book, that of living one’s life over and over (it also turns up in a classic SF novel from the 1980s, Replay by Ken Grimwood), but it’s the setting, and the dialogue, and the espionage, and the thoroughness with which every possible imaginable consequence of this sort of existence is explored, which sets this book apart. Also, the research, and the lightness of touch which means we move effortlessly from 1930s England to 1950s China to a research base in the wastes of Siberia, and it all seems real enough to leap off the page.

It’s hard to give an idea of the story, because – being honest – I’m not entirely clear on all Harry’s ‘timelines.’ I can only imagine the size of the crib-sheets the author must have had to prepare in order to keep all the versions of Harry straight as she wrote this book. I can’t remember in which life he first meets his friend and nemesis, Victor. I can’t remember which life he’s in when he meets Virginia, the woman who is part of the Cronus Club, which is an organisation of fellow ouroborans designed to take care of and nurture those who are new to the lifestyle and who, understandably, find it a little overwhelming. Harry is far from being the only ouroboran in existence, but they keep themselves to themselves, amassing great wealth and leaving it in trust for future generations. They are able to pass messages up and down the timeline, though these can take generations to reach their destination, and it is in Harry’s eleventh life, when he is on his deathbed again, that a seven-year-old ouroboran girl comes into his hospital room and tells him a message which has been passed down through the lifetimes from a thousand years in the future: the world is ending. Not only that, but it’s starting to get closer and closer. Ouroborans are being hunted, wiped out by forces unknown either by being forced to forget their past lives or by being murdered in utero, and the clock is ticking.

So, in Harry’s next life, he determines to get to the bottom of this mystery, while also evading capture and destruction.

There’s a lot of interiority in this book; we spend most of its 400 pages inside Harry’s mind. I love reading dialogue, and there’s not a lot of it in this book, by my standards, and what there is seems a little formal and ‘samey’; it can be hard to tell who is speaking, for instance, during Harry and Victor’s discussions about philosophy, science, and the nature of reality. This, though, is because they are both academics at Cambridge in the 1940s, and it’s true to this setting and era. The relationship between Harry and Victor is the most significant one in the novel, and I loved how it was managed; in lifetime after lifetime, they meet and influence one another in so many different ways, until one betrays the other. But it is this very act of betrayal which might be the key to solving everything.

This book was no easy read. It is not action-packed, and it is somewhat slow in places, but when a novel is dealing with such huge concepts, this is no surprise. I was left floored by North’s imagination and technical ability, but I’ve read some of the books she wrote under another name, which were written while she was still in her teens, and they showed exactly the same precision of language and depth of imagery as this book does. Learning that Catherine Webb and Claire North were one and the same came as no surprise to me; I could see the same skills she displayed in her earlier work coming to the fore again here, and it was a very pleasing thing. In fact, I’m not entirely sure that Claire North isn’t an ouroboran herself; it seems unlikely, to me, that one young woman (not yet thirty, I believe) could be so accomplished, had she not had centuries of living already behind her.

Hmm. Something to ponder…

Underappreciated Stories

Sometimes, the flood of books surrounding us, as readers, can seem overwhelming. With the internet allowing anyone who wishes to self-publish, as well as the traditional publishing industry which, though under pressure, is still chugging away, and the sheer amount of books already published, in every language, it sometimes boggles my mind that so many books exist, and I will only ever read a tiny fraction of what’s out there.

Having said that, sometimes I look through my bookshelves (which are groaning, yes) and realise that even if for some reason books stopped being published tomorrow (what a nightmare!) I would have a collection of stories already amassed which would likely keep me entertained for the rest of my life. In preparing for this post I checked through some of my collection and found books I’d forgotten I owned, or ones I read so long ago that I could use a refresher, or ones which I love but which don’t seem to get talked about much anymore. Not every book can retain stellar status, of course: sometimes, really excellent books get published and for whatever reason fall beneath the flood. Hugely talented authors get ‘forgotten’, except among the people who love them.

This is a shame.

I adore Alan Garner, as anyone who knows me will be aware, but he’s an author whose (passionate, devoted) fanbase is small. I also love the work of Frances Hardinge, who – for some reason, unknown to me – is an author who is about one-fifth as well-known and widely read as she ought to be, but like Garner she attracts a passionate fanbase. It’s wonderful to have such a heartfelt following, but there are other authors whose work I love and who seem not to have the same sort of fanbase – so this post is for them.

Jenny Nimmo

The Snow Spider Trilogy, Egmont, 2005. Image copyright: SJ O'Hart

The Snow Spider Trilogy, Egmont, 2005.
Image copyright: SJ O’Hart

Jenny Nimmo has been writing for young readers for years, and she is probably best known for her series about Charlie Bone, the Children of the Red King books. However, my favourite of her works is her magnificent Snow Spider Trilogy, which encompasses The Snow Spider, Emlyn’s Moon and The Chestnut Soldier, and which are masterworks of fantasy fiction. The stories introduce us to Gwyn Griffiths, a boy who is given five magical gifts on his ninth birthday, and who uses them to get to the bottom of the mystery of what happened to his sister Bethan, who disappeared when he was a younger child. Gwyn has magical lineage, being descended from the wizards of Welsh folklore, but his parents don’t hold any truck with nonsense like that – and so it’s up to Gwyn to prove to them that it’s the truth, as well as deal with newfound powers. I love these books for loads of reasons, Nimmo’s beautiful writing in the main but also their sensitive and delicate treatment of Welsh mythology and folklore (which, incidentally, is something she shares with another author, further down this list). Nimmo is still writing, and her work has been adapted for the stage, but for some reason she’s not talked about as much as I’d like. So, she’s top of my list of underappreciated masters. Check her out.

Kevin Crossley-Holland

So, yeah. I have loads of reasons to love Kevin Crossley-Holland’s work, namely because as well as being a wonderful children’s author he’s also an Anglo-Saxonist who has lectured and taught for many years – so, he covers all the bases, for me. Only the other day I remarked to someone how often it happens that people who write for children are also medievalists – Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Crossley-Holland – or have an interest in medieval folklore or mythology. Clearly, if you have the sort of mind which appreciates the myths of medieval Europe, you’re onto a winner when it comes to imaginative literature. In any case, I’ve read Crossley-Holland’s creative and non-fiction work, and I love it all, but his trilogy of books about Arthur (later expanded with a fourth book), The Seeing-Stone, At the Crossing-Places, and King of the Middle March (with Gatty’s Tale being the latter book) are simply wonderful. They look at the life of a medieval boy named Arthur – but not the Arthur – who is growing up, becoming a knight in the usual fashion, and who has a magical seeing-stone which shows him the life of the other Arthur, hundreds of years before. In the seeing-stone, a piece of obsidian, he watches scenes unfolding which seem to him to mirror the challenges and stresses he is facing, and which his namesake – the glorious and legendary king – also faced. I adore these books; they’re beautiful. So, check him out, too.

Catherine Webb

Catherine Webb published her first book at the age of fourteen, and it was spectacular. Entitled Mirror Dreams, it was about a fantasy world wherein dreams – good ones and bad ones alike – exist within the Kingdoms of the Void. When the Lords of Nightkeep kill the king of Dreams, and people all over the world begin to fall asleep and not wake up, it is up to Laenan Kite – an inhabitant of Dream – to save the day. I couldn’t believe this book was written by such a young author; Webb’s command of language, dialogue and characterisation (not to mention the sheer scope of her plotting) left me flabbergasted. I adore her books about Horatio Lyle, too, a detective in a version of Victorian London who gets into all manner of scrapes with his two teenage sidekicks and his faithful dog, Tate. Webb has a gift for snarky, humorous dialogue and excellent interplay between characters, and I don’t feel her books get enough attention. She is currently writing under another name, and has achieved great success with that, but check out her early work, too. It’s marvellous.

Catherine Fisher

I’ve mentioned Catherine Fisher on the blog before, I’m sure (and check out this Saturday’s book review, wherein she’ll be mentioned yet again!) but the reason for this is: she doesn’t get half the credit she deserves, in my opinion.

Red Fox (imprint of Random House Children's Books), 2002, edition of 'Corbenic' Image credit: SJ O'Hart

Red Fox (imprint of Random House Children’s Books), 2002, edition of ‘Corbenic’
Image credit: SJ O’Hart

Catherine Fisher has written some of the most imaginative and thrilling stories I’ve ever read, and again she has a certain medieval-archaeological-historical feel to her work, which underpins but in no way overwhelms it. As well as Corbenic, above (of which more on Saturday), she has written the beautiful Snow-Walker Trilogy, the amazing Darkhenge, about the forces which can be unleashed when people unwittingly disturb things they shouldn’t, and the masterwork Incarceron, about a sentient prison, as well as many more. She has, in short, written so much that even an uber-fan like me hasn’t read all of it, but I really think she’s a writer who isn’t read widely enough or appreciated deeply enough. Her way with words, her soft touches of folklore, her use of Welsh mythology, her beautiful dialogue, her compassionate handling of relationships and the psychology behind her characters is second to none.

So. There you have it. Some of my ‘hidden gems’, which I hope you’ll check out (Christmas is coming, after all!), and perhaps, in time, you’ll be the one passionately spreading the word about these authors, and their work.

Are there any writers who, in your opinion, are underappreciated? I’d love to hear about them! On second thought, my bookshelves are looking a bit thin…

Starting Early

Did you see this wonderful news story yesterday?

For those who don’t do clicking, or who can’t click on links, I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. Yesterday on Twitter someone linked to a story about a novelist who has just published his second book, and who is writing the final part in his trilogy about a pair of magician brothers. The books explore dark magic and the twisty intrigue of secret magical societies, as well as the complicated relationship between the brothers. The stories sounded amazing enough as they were, but when it emerged that the author is nine years of age (yes – nine), well. You could’ve knocked me down with a feather.

Joe Prendergast, for it is he, is far from being the only author who has been published at a tender age. Irish author Claire Hennessy, for instance, was first published while she was still at school, and Catherine Webb had written five books by the time she turned twenty – and all of them were brilliant.

Both Claire Hennessy and Catherine Webb are still writing, and have carved out successful careers for themselves in the literary world. Hopefully, then, if young Mr. Prendergast wants a career as a writer when he grows older, he should have no problem achieving that aim.

The young and talented Mr. Prendergast himself! Image: independent.ie

The young and talented Mr. Prendergast himself!
Image: independent.ie

It’s wonderful to see this young author meeting with the support and encouragement he needed to finish his series of books, and not only that, but to see them through to publication too. It goes to show the brilliant things that can happen when a person with talent, determination and a great idea for a book meets the technology to get it out into the world; Joe was first spotted by an online publisher, who championed him and made his books available through their website. There are also fantastic sites like Wattpad, used by millions of young people all over the world, allowing them to write for the sheer joy of it and share stories with one another with ease. Sometimes I wish these things had been available when I was young and at school. I’m not saying that anything I was writing at that stage was worth reading (not by a long shot!) but it would have been such a thrill to be able to publish work to a website, to see your words somewhere outside your own head, and to imagine what it might be like to be a published author.

Then again, I was a terribly shy and awkward teenager. I’m not sure that I’d have availed of a service like Wattpad, or even WordPress, as a young person; the very idea that other people might be able to read what I’d written might have thrown me into a fit of nerves so serious as to be life-threatening. I was certainly writing – prolifically – as a nine-year-old and all the way through my teens, but it’s probably a good thing that nobody ever saw a word that fell out of my fevered brain. Then, on the other hand, if I’d had the chance to share my words with the world via the internet as a younger person, perhaps I’d be winning literary prizes right now and be working on my thirty-fifth book – the earlier you start to get feedback, the stronger your work will become, of course. It’s a bit of a pain to be only beginning the whole process now, as a person in her *cough* thirties. I can only imagine how much stronger my writing would be if I’d been doing it seriously for twenty years or more at this stage.

Then, I guess it’s better late than never. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make up for lost time in the years that I have left to me. And if you’re a person who wants to write (no matter what age you are), then let this story be a lesson. You’re never too young, or too old, to get your ideas out there and share your words with the story of the world. There’s no excuse these days!

Today, April 23rd, is also an important day in the world of books, in case you didn’t know already. As well as being the birth (and death) day of Shakespeare, and the birthday of Cervantes, it’s also World Book Night tonight.

Image: mediabistro.com

Image: mediabistro.com

Designed to encourage and foster a love of reading among people who may not otherwise take up an opportunity to pick up a book, World Book Night is a fantastic endeavour. For, of course, if we’re going to encourage people to write, we’ll need to recruit a whole new batch of readers, too. I don’t think there’s anything more valuable that we can give to our children than a love of reading and a desire to create, share and consume stories. I’d love to see a world where reading, and a love of reading, came to people as naturally as breathing. I have a suspicion the world would be a happier place if this could be a reality.

So – start early, whether you’re reading or writing; ideally, do both. It’s never too late to start, and it’s always worth giving it a go.

Happy World Book Night! May your words flow.