Tag Archives: David Roberts

Book Review Saturday – ‘Tinder’

I’ve had Tinder sitting on my bookshelf for a few months now, waiting for its chance to wriggle to the top of my TBR pile. If I’m being entirely honest, I let it skip a few places, just because I’m impatient when I’m waiting to read a book as beautiful as this one.

I mean, come on. Look.

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

The story is a retelling of the fairytale The Tinderbox by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s not one I’m familiar with, but – as fairytales are wont – it shares roots and ingredients from other tales I do know quite well, including Aladdin and his magic lamp. Essentially, the root of the story is this: a young man with a magical object can control the comings and goings of enchanted creatures bound to do his bidding, and all manner of chaos and adventure ensues.

But, of course, Tinder is more than just that.

Beautiful cover (and stunning illustrations – thank you, David Roberts) aside, this is a story about war, and devastation, and suffering. It’s a tale of the ghosts a person carries within them when they’ve witnessed dreadful things like murder and rape and mutilation, and how they attempt to carry on while burdened with memories and guilt. Our protagonist is a young man named Otto Hundebiss (which means ‘dog’s bite’), who encounters Death before the first page of the story has even been turned. He is on a battlefield, wounded, and Death comes to him. Filled with a desire to escape, he runs, only to wake up beside a fire in the company of a strange creature who describes Otto’s memories of his murdered family, despite never having met Otto before. Nursing Otto back to life and strength, this strange creature gifts him with a pair of new boots and a set of dice, the boots to walk in and the dice to tell him which way to go.

So, his quest begins.

Soon, he meets with a young ‘boy’ in the forest, who turns out to be a beautiful girl with cascading red hair. She is Safire, a mysterious girl from the land of the werewolf whose three brothers have gone to war. She is being hunted, and she won’t explain why. She and Otto spend a night in a cave, during which time he falls in love with her, but by the morning the huntsmen are hot on her trail, and Otto’s fever (caused by his battle wounds) is raging once more. He is too ill to move, and Safire needs to run to save her life. Separated from his beloved, Otto pleads with his enchanted dice to bring him back to her once more, and carries on his quest. He comes to a castle behind tall iron gates, wherein he finds shelter, but also apparitions, frightening visions and strange servants. The price for staying in this castle is high; the lady of the house is a strange, masked individual with one long, razor-sharp fingernail, from whom Otto shrinks in horror. She asks a favour of him – to go down to her cellar and bring up her tinderbox, which she has left there in error. Unsurprisingly, things are not what they seem.

The story is structured, paced and told as a fairytale. There is repetition (particularly around the number three), there is magic and superstition, things occur which should be impossible. Strangely, even though I normally have endless patience when it comes to this sort of unrealistic story structure, parts of Tinder saw even my attention waver. We know, for instance, that Otto needs to try, repeatedly, to get rid of the tinderbox once he’s found it; despite my awareness of this, it did drag just a little. I also can’t say I warmed to him much as a character. Fairytales aren’t known for their in-depth characterisation, to be fair, but still. I thought it was strange that a character who has been through so much, including war (the story is set during the Thirty Years’ War), the loss of his entire family, and being forced into becoming a soldier, could leave me with a sense of dislike. I don’t even mind the fact that he and Safire fall in love instantly; this is a fairytale. I don’t mind that he has to go through his quest in a methodical manner; again, this is a fairytale. It didn’t even bother me that things which should have been obvious didn’t occur to him – it’s a fairytale. Still, I found him selfish and interested only in his own promotion. Even his ‘quest’ to save Safire isn’t really about saving her (she seems more than capable of doing that herself); it’s about him, and his desire to marry her. He doesn’t want to save Safire and allow her to do what she wants with her life – he wants her for his own. I wish that had been different.

And then, that ending. I know, I know – it’s a fairytale. And there are going to be twists. And things don’t always go the way you want. And happy endings are there to be messed with.

But I didn’t like it.

However, I did enjoy Sally Gardner’s writing, because I always do. I enjoyed the subtle humour and the descriptions and the dark, unsettling passages when we are allowed to look inside Otto’s mind and memory, learning about what he has been through. I loved the illustrations more than I can express. The whole book is beautifully presented and an absolute treasure. But will I read it again?

I’m not so sure.

This book is worth owning, in its print form, for its sheer beauty. The story is worth reading, for sure. I can’t recommend it unreservedly, but I do think it’s worth checking out.

One of my favourite illustrations from the book, showing Otto and Safire in the cave on the night they first meet.  Image sourced: sallygardner.net. Artist: David Roberts

One of my favourite illustrations from the book, showing Otto and Safire in the cave on the night they first meet.
Image sourced: sallygardner.net.
Artist: David Roberts

The Art of Covers

Some deep part of me was thrilled last week when the cover art for Penguin’s newly released Modern Classics edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory caused such kerfuffle. This wasn’t because of any passionate opinion one way or the other about the cover art itself (for the record, I like it and I get what Penguin were trying to do, but it’s far from being my favourite cover and if I didn’t already own the book the new art wouldn’t entice me to pick it up), but because people were getting worked up over a book. More specifically, a book cover.

In case you missed it, here’s the ‘offending’ art:

Image: bbc.com

Image: bbc.com

Now, of course, I’m well aware that the internet can get itself worked up into a foam of outrage over the stupidest things, and that the anger over this new cover had probably dissipated before it had even built up to a head, but I still thought it was interesting. In this era of e-books, it showed we still care about how our books look, and that cover art – and how covers are designed – still counts for a lot. I think a lot of people lost sight of the fact that this was a Penguin Modern Classics edition of the book (in other words, not really an edition designed for children), and so the cover didn’t have to have swirly, kid-friendly designs or luminous font or images from the movies, or whatever – that’s all been done. Some commentators lamented the fact that the work of Sir Quentin Blake wasn’t used in the design, and that made me wonder ‘what on earth for?’ What would be the point of a new edition if the artwork from a previous edition was used? I think the new cover’s emphasis on superficial, mindless children and their equally superficial parents, plus the weirdness in the little girl’s fixed gaze, suits the darkness at the heart of the story perfectly. When you think about it, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is an extremely dark book – which is what makes it an enduring favourite, of course, and it’s also a large part of its cultural importance – and it shows more effectively than any other book I can think of the dangers of fixing one’s gaze and effort on the wrong thing, and how damaging it can be. So, in that sense, the new cover is perfect.

I’m not an artist, and I’m certainly not a designer, and so I don’t have much idea of the thought processes or work involved in creating a cover. Nevertheless, cover art matters hugely to me. I have bought (and probably will continue to buy) books based on their covers; sometimes it works out, and sometimes it decidedly does not. I have often been seduced by a beautiful cover only to find the book inside is not so good, but somehow I don’t mind – the cover is a work of art in itself, and I admire the designers who can make the book look as good as it can while still reflecting the story in the image somehow. It’s not an easy task.

Some of my favourite covers (of books I’ve not listed before, at least) would include the following:

1. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (Reif Larsen)

Image: sourcesofgeek.com

Image: sourcesofgeek.com

This whole book is a work of art. Not only the story, but the ‘interactive’ nature of the text itself, which is full of drawings and scribblings and notes and maps, is wonderful. The story of T.S. Spivet (a prodigiously gifted twelve-year-old from Montana) as he journeys across the US to Washington, D.C. in order to collect a prize, is a gem. The edition I have is a large, oversized hardback, a real object in the hand, a weighty and precious thing, and I love it. Even if the story inside were nonsense (which it’s not) I would enjoy this book as a thing of beauty.

2. Tinder (Sally Gardner)

Image: goodreads.com

Image: goodreads.com

I have to admit that I haven’t read this book yet; it’s something I’m saving up for a treat, but I already know I’m going to love it. I had the pleasure of hearing David Roberts (the creator of this fabulous image, and also the art inside the book) speak about the process of bringing this cover to life at the recent CBI Conference in Dublin, and it was a joy to watch the different sketches of the cover art and how much sheer graft it took to get it right. This reproduction does the book no justice; it’s a sleek, handsome hardback with a beautiful texture and excellent paper quality – a real treasure.

The fact that I got David Roberts to sign my edition is icing on the cake.

3. Wildwood (Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis)

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

This is a huge, thick, handsome book too (I’m seeing a bit of a trend here), and the cover art – as well as the illustrations inside – are sumptuous. Colin Meloy is the author of this book and his wife, Carson Ellis, is the illustrator, which might explain why the book and the art are in such harmony. I had problems with the story itself (it’s rather overlong and somewhat overwritten in places) but one thing’s for sure – it’s a pretty thing, and the art is amazing. It’s the sort of illustration which shows you something new every time you look at it, and I love that.

4. Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories (H. P. Lovecraft)

I have the Penguin edition of Call of Cthulhu and its cover art, a ‘simple’ line drawing which reminds me of a stately, portly gentleman being slowly eaten by a strange, octopus-like creature, caught my eye when I was looking for this book. You can get cheaper editions, and you can get less ornate editions, but I wanted this one not only for the cover art (which, for some reason, my blog won’t let me insert here – clearly, the power of the Old Ones remains strong), but also because of the rough-cut edges on the pages. It’s a gorgeous edition and, even though I may never read all the stories in it, I treasure it.

5. Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales (Virago)

Image: rebloggy.com

Image: rebloggy.com

The contents of this book are the real treasure, but the whole thing is just beautiful. Another sumptuous hardback, it feels beautiful and is produced to a high standard, but it’s the cover – the font, the illustrations, the design and use of space – which really drew me. The stories in this book were originally published in two separate editions – The Virago Book of Fairy Tales, Book 1 and Book 2 – and I had bought Book 1 and was on the lookout for Book 2 when I came across this. Even though it meant ‘re-buying’ Book 1, I couldn’t pass it. It’s one of my all-time favourite books, in every respect.

So, there you have it. What did you think of the Charlie cover? Did it offend or horrify you – or, were you like me and quietly pleased with it? What are your thoughts on cover art in general, and do you have favourite books based on their covers and/or illustrations?