Tag Archives: Terry Pratchett

Book Review Saturday – ‘Lords and Ladies’

I can’t let Terry Pratchett’s death pass without looking at one of his masterful Discworld novels, particularly this one, which I love. (Well, I love them all… but you know what I mean).

Image: taken by SJ O'Hart.

Image: taken by SJ O’Hart.

While I was at university studying to complete my PhD, I loaned my original copy of Lords and Ladies to my doctoral supervisor. Cutting a long story short, I never got it back – not because it vanished into the pestilential pit of his office, but because he loved it so much that persuaded me to give it to him as a gift. There was actual eyelash-fluttering involved (and he did buy me a beer to sort-of make up for it), so I had very little hope of withstanding. I relinquished the book, and that was that. For several years – almost a decade, in fact – my Pratchett collection had a hole, right in the middle.

Then, one day, my beloved came home with a small, paper-wrapped package in his hand, which he gave to me without a word. I opened it, and the wonderful red-coloured cover in the photo above came into view. The book I now have is a different edition to the one I gave away, but it hardly matters. My favourite Discworld novel had returned, and I was delighted to welcome it.

Lords and Ladies is a book about the collision between worlds – as so many Discworld books are, in some form or other  – and this collision happens in a lot of ways. On the most basic level we have the world of the Disc coming into contact with the world of the Gentry (or the Shining Ones, or the Fair Folk, or – of course – the Lords and Ladies), as the Elves, the baddies of the piece, have come to be referred to over the years that have passed between their last appearance and the present time. These are not the gentle, wise Elves of Tolkien, by the way; we are not in Lothlorien, here. These are Elves of an entirely different breed. We also have the collision between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ styles of magic, embodied in Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg (who are as old-school as it’s possible to be) who come face-to-face with Perdita (real name: Agnes) and her friends, whose naivety has given them corrupted ideas about the magic they wield. Their ‘new-fangledness’ has led them to dabble in things they do not have the experience to understand, and it is through their attempts to work magic without first learning what it is that the world is left open to the influence of evil. We also have Magrat, the third and youngest of the witches, who leaves behind her magical life (sort of, at least) in order to marry Verence, King of Lancre, a man who began his career as a Fool, and the book explores the relationship between king and people, nobility and commoner, and man and woman, all through their gentle, awkward relationship. In fact, I think part of the reason I love this book so much is because we have a chance to see Magrat as she is, not through the lens of being the ‘third witch’; we see her learning how to defend herself and those she loves against terrifying odds through her own ingenuity and bravery, and not through her magic.

But it’s the story wot matters, and here it is.

in the countryside of Lancre, there is a circle of standing stones known as the Dancers. Birds divert their course so as not to fly  over it; clouds separate and flow around the circle, rejoining again once they’re past it. The weather inside the circle is different to the weather outside it. Once, the stones were guarded and feared, and the grass around them was kept short, and people stayed away. But time passed, and the fear began to dissipate. The grass grew. The old stories were forgotten. Young, unschooled witches begin to have their sabbats around the stones, and careless hunters disturb it by driving animals, against their will, into the gaps between the Dancers. If something goes in, then something must also come out… In this way, the power of the Gentry is awoken, and the Elves finally manage to find the crack in the world which they have long been searching for. It is up to Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, as well as a brave band of Morris Men, to send them back where they came from. For these Elves are not benevolent, or kind, or interested in being guardians or custodians of mankind. Their power is not on the wane. They are cold, and treat humanity as though it were a bug beneath a magnifying lens, and they love to cause pain just to watch what happens. They rejoice in their own power. Over the years, people have forgotten the cold and the cruelty, and remember only their beauty and the glamour they shroud themselves in, and nobody fears them any more – nobody but the witches, at least.

Until they come, and their true nature shows itself…

Everything about this book is a triumph, from the wizards of the Unseen University and their cross-country trip to attend the wedding of King Verence and Ms Magrat Garlick (and the adventures which ensue), to the courtship of Nanny Ogg by Casanunda, the Disc’s second-greatest lover, to Granny Weatherwax’s secret past, to the legend of Queen Ynci whose fearsome iron armour becomes a useful weapon against the Elves. There are scenes which make the reader snort with laughter (like the Stick-and-Bucket dance, or the moment when Verence takes delivery of what he thinks is a guide to ‘marital arts’, but turns out to be something quite different), and there are scenes which chill the blood, and there are scenes which bring tears to the reader’s eyes because they’re so real and moving. And, of course, on every page there are sentences so perfect that you just sigh in admiration as you read.

Every Discworld novel has something to recommend it, and every fan of the series will have their own particular favourite – this is mine. If you haven’t already found yours, I hope you’ll read and re-read the books until you do.

THE TURTLE MOVES.

GNU Terry Pratchett.

All Change

It’s been a weird few days.

Not, perhaps, in terms of my actual, personal existence – I mean, I still got up every morning, and went to visit friends, and spent time with my beloved people, and I even laughed, like everything was normal.

But, never far from my thoughts, there was a sparkly-eyed man beneath a big black hat, and the ache of knowing that he’s gone.

Image: taken by SJ O'Hart. 2013 reissue (Corgi), cover art by Josh Kirby. 'Lords and Ladies' originally published 1992, Victor Gollancz.

Image: taken by SJ O’Hart.
2013 reissue (Corgi), cover art by Josh Kirby. ‘Lords and Ladies’ originally published 1992, Victor Gollancz.

I read my copy of Lords and Ladies (which is the fourteenth Discworld novel, and – when I pressed myself to make a choice – the one I decided was my favourite) over the weekend, which meant most of my laughter was at scenes like the Lancre Morris Men doing the long-forbidden Stick and Bucket Dance, or the exploits of Casanunda the dwarf, the Disc’s second-greatest lover (his motto: ‘I try harder’); I think it was an appropriate way to begin my send-off of Sir Terry Pratchett. The only thing is, I might begin this process, but I don’t think it’ll ever come to an end. I’ll be saying goodbye to him for the rest of my life.

I’ve been following the grieving process of other fans (over the past few days, I think the Discworld community has grown extremely close, despite us only knowing one another ‘in the ether’), and it has made me feel proud to be part of a fandom like this one. There has been no horrible ‘trolling’ (at least, none of which I’m aware), and – by and large – the family and associates of Terry Pratchett have been treated with kindness and respect, if some thoughtless but well-meaning attempts at consolation, by fans on social media. Money has been raised for Alzheimer’s awareness and research, and will continue to be, with any luck (here’s a link to a fundraising page, if you want to check it out), and Sir TP’s books have been selling in huge numbers – which is, of course, the best way to honour his memory. I’m glad I have an entire bookshelf full of his novels to read at my leisure, collected over the span of my lifetime so far, but if I had the money I would buy second and third copies of all of them and gift them to people who’ve never read them, or simply leave them tucked into nooks and crannies to be found by passersby as my offering to the universe. All humanity (and more – I’m not speciesist!) is to be found within their pages.

If you know someone, or you are someone, who has never read a Pratchett book, then now is the time. Now is the time to find one, and open the covers. Step onto the Disc, and stay with it a while, and you may never want to leave. If you want a Neil Gaiman-y introduction to the flavour and humour of Terry Pratchett, then try Good Omens; if you’re in the humour for affecting, meaningful, written-in-the-bone storytelling about family, bravery and the facing down of monsters while armed with nothing more than a frying pan, then start with the Tiffany Aching books, a series-within-a-series. If you’re interested in setting off on an adventure with Rincewind the wizard and getting to know the Discworld, then begin at the beginning, with The Colour of Magic.

Whatever you do, just start somewhere. Keep the ripples of Sir Pterry’s life going. Keep the flame of his memory lit. Keep laughing at his jokes, and keep being amazed by the worlds of knowledge packed into his stories, and keep being moved by the emotion at the heart of his characters. Maybe, that way, the horrible changed reality we’re living in, the one where he’s gone, can be forced back up the Trousers of Time, and we can go down another leg instead – one where he’s still with us, and in good health, and where he has time to write down all the tales he wants to tell us.

And if not, at least we have the stories he did manage to write, which are good enough for a lifetime’s reading and re-reading. I’m just so sad that there won’t be any more.

The End

Knowing something is going to happen, I’ve found, doesn’t seem to make it any easier to bear when it eventually does. I – along with all of Sir Terry Pratchett’s millions of fans across the world – have followed his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease over the past eight years, willing him on (for as long as he felt able), wishing him well, sending him strength and courage and hope.

But we all knew that one day, probably sooner rather than later, ‘the embuggerance’ (as he called his illness) would wear him down. Yesterday was that day.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

I learned of his passing on Twitter, which seems inappropriate somehow. I don’t know why. It seems impersonal, maybe; like the knowledge was second-hand. Terry Pratchett has been a part of my life for almost thirty years. I feel like I knew him personally. I feel like he was a dearly beloved uncle, one guaranteed to make you giggle at the most inappropriate moments, bound to make salacious comments over the vegetables at Sunday dinner, and the first to get up on a stool with a flagon in his hand and regale us all with verse after verse of Nanny Ogg’s famous ballad, ‘The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All.’ His smile, and his ever-present black fedora, are as familiar to me as the faces of my own family.

I can’t explain why he was so important to me. I loved his books, certainly. I loved his characters – his strong women, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany Aching, Anathema Device, even Magrat Garlick, who is strong in entirely different ways to the others; his complex men, like King Verence of Lancre, Captain Carrot of the City Watch, and the incomparable Sam Vimes, and I adored the stories and the worlds  he created – but it’s more than that. It’s the fact that you can pick up any of his books, at practically any page, and read a paragraph or two, and if you haven’t either laughed, learned something new or been flattened by an amazing image or perfectly constructed sentence by the time you get to the end, then I’ll be the guy in the corner with a bladder on a stick. Terry Pratchett was not university educated, but I learned more from reading his books than I did from any university course I ever took. Every page was packed full of allusions, inferences, puns (or ‘punes’, for those in the know), and jokes which, sometimes, only made sense years later. I often had the experience of reading something in a textbook and realising, with a start, that I’d come across the idea already in a Pratchett novel – I just hadn’t known it at the time. I have been, and I’m sure I’ll continue to be, amazed on a regular basis by just how much world there is in his books – not just the fictional worlds of his immeasurable imagination, but of our world, too. His was an intellect rarely matched.

I wept for him yesterday, and I’m sure I’ll weep for him in the future. I can’t read the final few Tweets on his official timeline (@terryandrob) without blinking back tears, because they are so perfect. They are heartbreaking, but they couldn’t be more suitable. I’m staggered with admiration for Sir Pterry’s daughter Rhianna, who wrote the Tweets, and who pushed through her own terrible grief to share the news of her father’s passing with all of us who did not know him, but who loved him all the same. I know I am part of a huge fandom, almost a family, and that is a huge comfort. I know I’m not the only person who wept for Terry Pratchett yesterday, and I know that he will be remembered for many years to come. In his own words:

No-one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away. (Reaper Man)

By that Pratchettian logic, Sir Pterry will be with us until the end of time, and for that, and for his words and stories, I am truly glad.

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.

Oooo...

Oooo…

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?

No.

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.

Behold!

Behold!

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…)

 

 

 

Which Character Are You?

Today’s post is an homage, if you will, to this oneThe Loony Teen Writer‘s wonderful list of fictional characters with whom she identifies, which I read with a smile and a nod this morning. I’ve long had a similar post in the planning, but – as always happens when you sit on a good idea for too long – someone else beats you to the post.

Let that be a lesson, writers. And, indeed, everyone.

In any case, it’s a wonderful sunny Monday morning here, so what better time could there be for picking apart your soul and examining it for traces of literary-ness? None. Exactly.

So, out of all the characters I’ve read, which ones do I identify with most? Or, perhaps, if I could choose to be a character in a book, which one would I pick?

Top of this list, for me, would have to be Alexandra Bergson, who is a character I’ve mentioned already in a post about my important literary moments. She features in Willa Cather’s O, Pioneers! and I love her because she’s hard-working, full of deep-seated (and, sadly, too often unexpressed) passions, and at one with the land on which she lives. At the time I first ‘met’ her, I didn’t think I’d ever read a character which described me to myself quite as well as she did, for loads of reasons.

But then of course there’s the absolutely fabulous Tiffany Aching, who is a character in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels – or, a subset of them, at least. She first appears in the book The Wee Free Men, which benefits from being absolutely hilarious (due to the presence of the titular wee free men, and also because it’s written by Terry Pratchett – obviously), and I loved her from the very first word.

Image: thebooksmugglers.com

Image: thebooksmugglers.com

The second youngest of six children, Tiffany lives a quiet life of duty, largely being ignored by her family and trying to keep her sticky, sweet-obsessed younger brother Wentworth out of trouble. When, one day, she sees a load of tiny, blue-skinned, kilt wearing men who tell her that Wentworth is in danger from a green monster who lives in the river near their home, she quickly uses her brother as bait to lure the monster out of the water and hit it, squarely, with her sturdy frying pan.

I mean, come on. What’s not to love?

Tiffany goes on to have a range of amazing adventures in the four books which feature her as a central character. From the outset, she is single-minded, sensible, intelligent, and resolutely determined to get the job (whatever ‘the job’ happens to be at the time) done, no matter what it takes. I, too, have a younger brother who was always getting me in trouble as a kid (though not the sort of trouble that required me to use household implements to fend off river monsters, unfortunately), and I am a sensible, resolute and ‘no-nonsense’ kind of person. Tiffany, and her grandmother – who is a very important character in the series, despite being dead the whole way through – were characters who seemed to fit exactly with my conception of myself. Perhaps a slightly idealised conception of myself, but no matter.

I also adore The Dog Woman, who is a character in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry. Unfeasibly large, covered in smallpox scars, and with a mouth large enough to hold a dozen oranges at once, The Dog Woman is mostly mythical but also very strongly corporeal. She dreams of being a mother, but knows it will never happen because she will never meet a man who is a match for her; however, when she finds her beloved son Jordan floating in the Thames, she raises him as her own until, as is inevitable, he leaves her to discover his own dreams. Her story slips between her own day, seventeenth-century London, and our own, and she is a character of fierce passion, loving devotion, loyalty, intelligence and integrity. She is fabulously realised, and central to an utterly engrossing story.

There are many characters I love in the Harry Potter universe, but I think the one I love the most is Mrs Weasley.

Actress Julie Walters as Mrs Weasley. Image: battleroyalewithcheese.com

Actress Julie Walters as Mrs Weasley.
Image: battleroyalewithcheese.com

Of course, there’s bits of me in Hermione (the infuriating know-it-all swot who’s swallowed a dictionary, mainly), but I always latched on to Mrs Weasley as a character. The core of her family, the large-hearted woman who ‘adopts’ the orphaned Harry, who helps without question no matter what the personal cost to her and who is brave beyond measure, the definition of love, Mrs Weasley is probably not a character in whom I see myself, but in whom I wish to see myself.

In fact, I think all the characters I’ve mentioned so far have sort of been characters I wish I was like, as opposed to characters I really am like. But then, perhaps there’s no difference? I think coming across fictional characters who mean something to you tells you something not only about who you are, but also who you want to be, and what sort of personality traits and values are important to you. They can help you to uncover what you want in life and what your priorities are. If there are fictional characters you love – perhaps even without knowing why, on a conscious level – maybe it’s because something in them has chimed deeply with something in you. Not only is this an excellent reason to read (as if you needed a reason to read), but also a great way to get to know yourself a little better.

So – unless you identify strongly with Hannibal Lecter or Patrick Bateman or someone like that – do you fancy delving into your favourite characters and sharing who they are, and why you love them? Go on. You might surprise yourself.

 

My Top Ten Literary Turning Points

Life is full of ‘crucible’ moments, isn’t it? Moments which, when you look back, you recognise as being particularly important for one reason or another, influential in your development as a person, and pivotal in your individual history. I have plenty of these moments; not all of them revolve around books, but – me being me – the most important ones do. I’ve already discussed, at some length, the importance of books like The Little Prince and Elidor to me so I won’t revisit those here (you can check out this post if you’re interested), but what follows is a roughly chronological list of books which, when I first encountered them, had a profound effect on the direction of my life.

1. The Diary of a Young Girl

I was introduced to Anne Frank’s diary at around the age of seven or eight, when our teacher set it as a class text. We were only supposed to read sections of it but – of course – I ended up reading the whole thing in my own time. All our teacher told us about Anne Frank was that she had written her book when she wasn’t much older than us, and that she had lived at the time of a terrible war. I don’t think I can over-emphasise, then, how it felt to read to the end of this incredible book and learn, out of the blue, that Anne did not survive this war. By the time I’d read the first few entries, I was already in love with Anne and her family – a love which has endured to this day – and it broke my heart when I read the postscript describing how the Franks had been betrayed, and how they’d died. I felt like I’d lost a friend, and it was the first time I’d been faced with the evil that can exist in the world, made all the more terrible by being juxtaposed with some of the greatest good I’d ever read about.

Reading The Diary of a Young Girl changed my life and left an indelible impression on me, and so it was a shoo-in for my list.

Image: annefrank.org

Image: annefrank.org

2. Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters

I know I’ve mentioned pTerry on the blog before (by the way, if you don’t know why he’s called pTerry by his fans, I exhort you to find out), but he’s important enough to be included on this list again. The first Pratchett book I read was Wyrd Sisters, which I remember begging my father to buy me one sunny Saturday afternoon when I was about eight or nine. He’d long accepted the fact that I was a bookaholic by then, and in lieu of pocket money (an alien concept to my brother and I as kids) he’d agreed to buy me a book every week or two. So, on this particular book-hunting trip, I spotted the thrilling cover of Wyrd Sisters, fell instantly in love, and it was that book or no book.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

My dad was a bit dubious about buying this book for his teeny-weeny child (which, if you look at the cover, is entirely understandable), but he trusted my judgement and it came home with us. I devoured it, didn’t understand the plot at all, but loved it anyway. I told myself ‘I’ll put this book away until I’m bigger and I’ll read it again then,’ and I did exactly that.

I loved it, and I love it still. It was the first ‘big person’s book’ I read, and for that reason it’s one of my pivotal reads.

3. Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t

I think I’ve read pretty much every Judy Blume book in existence – Deenie and Tiger Eyes very nearly made this list, too – but I’ve chosen Margaret and Then Again because I read them both in quick succession the year I turned twelve, itself a pivotal age. Margaret taught me a lot about what was facing me as I teetered on the brink of adolescence, terrifying and tantalising me in equal measure, and Then Again gave me a much-needed window into the mind of the average teenage boy. From Margaret, I learned all about menstruation and complicated friendships, and from Then Again I learned that, underneath all their inexplicable mystique, boys were just like me. That was a mind-blowing lesson.

4. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights

I read loads of books during my time at secondary school, but for some reason this one sticks out the  most. I guess this is because I studied it during the last two years of my post-primary education and then took an exam on it, and during that time I probably read it six or seven times. I’d never really been in love with a fictional character before I met Heathcliff, and even though I now see him as an emotionally manipulative loon, some of my heightened hormonal adoration remains. I adored this book when I first read it, and it was my first classic.

5. Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!

I studied English Literature at university, and – naturally enough – I read a ton of books. I could have picked any volume out of hundreds, but this one made the cut as a pivotal read because its protagonist, Alexandra Bergson, nestled in my heart and has never left. A big-boned, hard-working country girl, Alexandra is determined to make the farm she inherits from her father viable once again, and she pours every drop of her effort into her land. At one point in the novel she has a dream where she is picked up and carried effortlessly by a golden man, a man the colour of her cornfields, whom she senses loves her with the sensual passion that is missing from her real life. She is particularly moved by the fact that he is strong enough to carry her, as in reality she knows no man who would be capable of such a feat, and she wakes in tears. Alexandra is all about deep-seated passions – feelings buried so deep she can’t even admit them to herself – and, at the time in my life when I first met her I identified with her in a very profound way.

6. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History

The Secret History is the book which almost got me fired from my first real job after college, because I was caught repeatedly reading it under my desk. It was, to the best of my recollection, the most unputdownable book I’d ever read up to that point in my life. It stuck straight to my brain because it described the kind of milieu I had just left – the world of the university – which was, at that time, the place in which I wanted to spend the rest of my career. I dreamed about a life in academia while answering phones and preparing mail-outs, and even though I’ve long since abandoned that dream, for very good reasons, this book gave me a taste of what I yearned for. It also made me feel glad that I was a literary nerd, which was a huge comfort.

7. J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

So, this book isn’t my favourite of the Harry Potter series (that would be The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, fact fans), but it’s on the pivotal reads list because it’s the one where… it’s the book in which… Oh, goodness. I just can’t say it.

Image: vadamagazine.com

Image: vadamagazine.com

I adored Dumbledore. I can’t even explain why. I prefer him even to Gandalf, which is saying something. When I read that scene, the one where he… anyway, I remember screaming ‘No!’ and weeping, uncontrollably, as though I’d just been punched in the solar plexus. I had to close the book, allow myself time for a good cry, and then attempt to finish it through a veil of tears despite the fact that all the sunshine had just been removed from my life.

Yes. This is how emotionally invested I can allow myself to become in fictional characters.

So. This is the book that taught me how to keep going with a book series even when the heart has been ripped out of it. Pivotal, I’m sure you’ll agree.

8. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

I wish I knew more about graphic novels. It’s a genre into which I’ve always intended to immerse myself, but I’ve never quite managed to get around to it. The only graphic novel series I’ve ever read in its entirety is Sandman, but – to be fair – if you’re only going to read one, then Sandman is a good one to pick. Based around a family of siblings known as the Endless, consisting of Death, Delirium, Desire, Destiny, Destruction, Despair and Dream, the latter being the central character in the series, it follows their interactions with the fate of the universe and the lives of humans both individually and generally. The Endless are not gods – they are older even than that – but they are more like personifications of their names, and each of them has a vital role in the correct running of our universe and all universes. They are definitely a dysfunctional family unit, but their adventures make for compelling and awe-inspiring reading. Also, the art is incredible. Several artists illustrated the series, but I couldn’t possibly pick a favourite.

9. The SF Masterworks Series

All right, so these aren’t a book, singular, but they were definitely a pivotal literary event in my life. I discovered the SF Masterworks series while I worked as a bookseller, and it was almost more than I could do to avoid ordering them all in for myself. I have managed to collect several of them, however, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Look out for their distinctive yellowish covers, and collect away. They are fantastic. They taught me how big a nerd I am, and how comfortable I am with that knowledge.

10. The Dream of the Rood

I couldn’t leave a list like this without mentioning a medieval text. The Dream of the Rood is an anonymous Old English poem about Christ’s crucifixion written from the point of view of the cross, which is exactly as nuts as it sounds. It’s a psychedelic piece of literature, and it transfixed me when I first read it. In my final year at university we were asked to write a paper on it, and even though there were plenty of widely available translations (or modernisations, really) of the text, I wrote my own, painstakingly working through the poem word for word. I’ve never been so absorbed by anything in my life, before or since.

I wrote the paper. I got a First. It was awesome.

Also, as a direct result of this text I did an MA and then a Ph.D. in medieval literature, which led – indirectly, but clearly – to the rest of my life’s happiness. So, pretty pivotal.

So, there you have it. My life’s defining moments, as expressed in books. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and if you have, please consider writing one of your own and linking back here. I’d love to read what your top ten (or five, or twenty) literary turning points are.

My Neil Gaiman collection, aka my pride and joy.

My Neil Gaiman collection, aka my pride and joy.

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday REWIND – Klaatu Barada Nikto*

There’s this really cool meme I’ve been seeing on all the best blogs (dahling) over the past few weeks, and it’s called Top Ten Tuesday. It’s hosted by the lovely people over at The Broke and the Bookish, and – I’ve got to say – I’ve been wondering about taking part for a while now.

So, in honour of the fact that I took the plunge back into submitting work for publication yesterday (because it’s the ‘being brave enough to submit’, not ‘actually getting the nod’ that counts), I thought perhaps I’d try this other new thing today.

Because, you know me. I love new things.

Image: marottaonmoney.com

Image: marottaonmoney.com

Anyway.

Today is a ‘Top Ten Tuesday Rewind’, which means you have the pick of a long list of Top Ten lists to choose from (the full list is on the Broke and the Bookish website); my choice is number 86 on that list.

Top Ten Books I Would Quickly Save If My House Was Going to Be Abducted by Aliens (or any other natural disaster)

Because aliens are so a natural disaster.

1. Elidor (but only if I can bring all my editions, currently three)

This one should come as zero surprise to anyone who has read this blog, ever.

Image: lwcurrey.com

Image: lwcurrey.com

The book which fed my childhood imagination? The book which gave me my love for medieval stuff? The book which frightened my shivering soul itself almost to the point of insanity – but which had me coming back for more? Yes. A thousand times, yes. I love this book, and so should you.

2. The Earthsea Quartet

Oh, wizard Ged and your wonderful ways! I couldn’t possibly leave you behind. Not even if giant silver humanoid killing machines were smashing through my window. What would I do without the magnificence of Orm-Embar, the calm dignity of Tenar, the terror of the Dry Land? No. I would bring my Earthsea Quartet, and I would try to smuggle in ‘Tales from Earthsea’ and ‘The Other Wind’, too.

Dash it all. I’d just clear off my entire Ursula Le Guin shelf, and have done with it.

image: aadenianink.com

image: aadenianink.com

3. Six Middle English Romances, ed. Maldwyn Mills

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

Image: bookdepository.co.uk

I don’t have a reason for this beyond the following: I am a huge giant nerd; I love Middle English, particularly these six texts, and I can’t imagine not having them to hand; I would want to save them from the huge squid-like aliens with their giant fangs and scant regard for human culture; most importantly, they rock. Seriously.

4. Lords and Ladies

Terry Pratchett has written a lot of books. I would, of course, want to save them all if something with far too many legs was attempting to rip off my head, but I think I would save this one as a representative volume. Mainly, it’s because ‘Lords and Ladies’ is my favourite of the Discworld books, but it’s also because my current edition was a gift from my husband. So, you know. Kudos.

5. The Dark is Rising Sequence

Aha. I see you are on to me. ‘What’s all this, then? Saving trilogies and quadrilogies and that? You’re cheating!‘ Well, yes. Yes, I am. But the ‘Dark is Rising’ books are all in one volume, so therefore it counts as one book. Stuff it, aliens.

image: yp.smp.com

image: yp.smp.com

This book is far too excellent. I couldn’t allow it to fall into the hands of an alien civilisation, possibly because they’d eat it and spit it out and that would be that. So, it’s coming.

6. The Little Prince

I have four editions of this. Two in English, one in French and one in Irish. I’m bringing ’em all.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

What would be the point of surviving an alien attack, I ask you, if I leave behind a book which teaches me about the love of a little boy and his flower, or the loneliness of a fox, or the fact that every desert has an oasis at its heart, or how laughter amid the stars sounds like little bells, or what a boa constrictor who has swallowed an elephant looks like? Non. This book is precious. It’s coming.

7. Perrault’s Complete Fairy Tales, ed. Christopher Betts/Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales/Alan Garner’s Collected Folk Tales/Grimm Tales, ed. Philip Pullman

This speaks for itself, I feel. Yes, they are four separate books but come on. How can you save Perrault without Grimm? How can you leave behind Garner’s British folktale treasury? How can you expect me to walk out the door Angela Carter-less? It’s not happening.

image: goodreads.com

image: goodreads.com

This isn’t just about saving my favourite books (even though these are all my favourite books); it’s about saving human culture from the ravening maw of destruction. These books are, collectively, a brilliant gem of human culture. Truth. (Also, they’re pretty.)

8. Neverwhere and/or American Gods

I’m beginning to get the feeling that I’ll be eaten like an oversized, screaming hors d’oeuvre by these alien overlords. I’ll be too busy dithering at my bookshelves to bother about running away. Perhaps I should prepare a grab-bag of necessities, just in case?

Image: list.co.uk

Image: list.co.uk

I cannot choose between ‘American Gods’ and ‘Neverwhere.’ I can’t! Could you?

Then, of course, there’s the graphic novel adaptation of ‘Neverwhere’ (as illustrated handsomely above), which I also love, and then – horrors! – there’s my ‘Sandman’ collection, which I could hardly bear to leave behind… curse you, Neil Gaiman, for being so talented. You, and you alone, will be responsible for my being chewed up by aliens.

9. What Katy Did/What Katy Did Next

Susan Coolidge’s masterpieces kept me company all through my childhood. I owned a beautiful hardback edition of these two books, all in one volume, which – now that I think about it – I haven’t seen for a while.

I was fascinated by Katy and ‘all the little Carrs’, and the lemonade they used to make and the swing outside their house and the descriptions of their area and Katy’s utter gawkiness and… all of it. Just all of it. I loved these stories as a little girl, and so they’re coming.

I just hope I find my copy of the book before the aliens get here.

10. Whatever Jeanette Winterson I can get my hands on before the killer death-rays start blowing the roof off my house

Yeah. So, I have a problem with Jeanette Winterson, too. Do I save ‘Oranges are Not the Only Fruit’? How can I save that and not save ‘Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy’? And then, how can I ask myself to live the rest of my (probably, rather short) life without ever casting my eyes upon ‘Sexing the Cherry’ again? I don’t feel life would be worth living without ‘The Passion.’

And that’s before we get anywhere near her children’s books.

Image: harlequinteaset.wordpress.com

Image: harlequinteaset.wordpress.com

I think what we can all take from this exercise is that if aliens do arrive on my fair isle, I shall not survive. However, at least I shall die happy, in the company of my books, and that is more than I deserve.

Happy Tuesday to you.

*Psst! Did you see what I did there?

Here we go again…

I start this morning with a heartfelt sigh. It’s not because the day outside is so dark it looks as if the sun has been switched off, or there is a high and wuthering wind tickling the eaves of my house, or because I’ve only barely got enough decaf left for one more cup, but because a friend shared this article with me.

If you’re not the ‘clicking on links’ type (and to be honest, I can hardly blame you), this is the title of the offending piece: ‘Children’s fiction is not great literature.’

Well, now. Let’s just think about that one for a minute.

Image: unrealitymag.com

Image: unrealitymag.com

My first issue with the piece is this: I have no time for articles about children’s literature and/or YA literature which rely on the work of J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer as their sole examples of the genre. This article mentions both these authors in its first paragraph, and doesn’t trouble itself to examine any other works of children’s fiction. Newsflash: there are far more books in the children’s lit. firmament than Harry Potter and Twilight. Honestly! To begin with, while I loathe the Twilight books with a passion, Meyer has also written a wonderful SF-themed, philosophical book titled ‘The Host’ which, despite being made into a movie, doesn’t seem to get enough credit – and which certainly isn’t mentioned in the article. ‘The Host’ deals with the idea of what makes a human being ‘human’, what it means to have a soul, how far one is willing to go for the people one loves, self-sacrifice, courage, and commitment. It is a book for teenagers which needs a large canvas; it examines everything an adult novel does, and more.

The author of the article does, to his credit, admit that some children’s books are better written, and more creatively structured, than adult books – this is undeniably true, though that’s not to say adult books are all bland, vanilla copies of one another. There are adult books which are intense flights of fantasy, or which are structured (‘Cloud Atlas’, anyone?) in wonderfully arresting ways. There are also a lot of bad, boring, irritatingly simplistic children’s books – I am not trying to deny that. However, when a children’s book is excellent, it really shines. I think the transformative power of a children’s book, the potential a good children’s book has to change a whole life, affect the reader’s entire way of thinking, is much stronger than an adult book. This numinous power is even felt by adult readers – I know I often find myself far more deeply moved by the emotional range and weight of children’s books than those written for adults. The issues in children’s books – loneliness, abandonment, powerlessness, love, bone-shattering hate, fear, adventure, injustice, bewilderment, identity, forging one’s place in the world – can be raw, and vital, and wounding, and just as relevant to an adult reader as to a child. Despite this, the author seems to take greatest issue with the ‘fact’ that children’s books just don’t tackle the same issues that adult books do, such as the grey areas of life, or the moral challenges of modernity, or the huge existential questions posed by writers like Joyce and Kafka.

In answer to that, I say: clearly, sir, you have not read very many children’s books.

Image: cafepress.com

Image: cafepress.com

For life’s grey areas, I direct you to the work of the current UK Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman, or the moral ambiguity at the heart of Cal, the central character in Catherine Fisher’s magnificent ‘Corbenic’, or the ideas around fatherhood in Gillian Cross’ novel ‘Wolf.’ Can you be a good person while doing bad things? These books will tell you that. So many children’s books deal with existential questions like ‘why am I here?’ ‘why was I born?’ ‘what happens when we die?’ – a few that spring to mind are Terry Pratchett’s ‘Tiffany Aching’ series, in which Tiffany’s deceased grandmother is as important a character as any of the living people in her world, and the timeless ‘The Little Prince,’ a book which teaches me something new every time I read it. Sally Nicholls’ amazing ‘All Fall Down,’ a book set during the time of the Black Death in England, is an unflinching look at mortality and loss and a powerful story about how it is possible to pick oneself up and carry on after suffering more than anyone should have to. It is aimed at young teenagers, but speaks to all ages. A recent children’s book which made no effort to shy away from the brutality of life was Sally Gardner’s ‘Maggot Moon’, a book which examines the horror of fascism and oppression and pulls no punches about doing it. If you want a story about political intrigue, ways to rule a kingdom, justice and injustice, how to distinguish between good and evil, and the terrible necessity – sometimes – to mask your true self in order to live in peace, then look no further than Kristin Cashore’s trilogy of ‘Graceling,’ ‘Fire’ and ‘Bitterblue,’ all aimed at the 12+ market.

One of the lines from the article which really irritated me was this: ‘Life is messy, life is surprising and, most of all, life is full of compromises.’ The article’s author means that only adult books are large enough to encompass themes like this, and that children’s books are reductive, black and white, and too simplistic to engage with wider themes like the chaotic nature of reality. But that’s exactly what children’s books are best at – dealing with a world which is frightening, unknowable, utterly surprising, sometimes a total and inexplicable mess, and where a child’s will often has to take second place to that of an adult. Mess, surprise and compromise are three of the central props of children’s literature. What could be more chaotic, or surprising, or fraught with compromise, than having your home life devastated, or war destroy your country, or being thrust into a new family with little or no warning, or having a parent fall ill, or being made homeless, or stateless, or being forced to face up to a changed reality: ‘Tom’s Midnight Garden’? ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’? ‘Code Name Verity’? ‘The Silver Sword’? ‘I Am David’? ‘Elidor’? The ‘Chaos Walking’ trilogy? ‘A Monster Calls’? ‘Bog Child’? There are so many books about themes like this.

I could go on, but I’ve gone on long enough. Let me just finish by saying that I am the first to admit there are a lot of silly, overwritten, copycat books aimed at children and young adult readers – they are not all masterpieces of modern literature. As well as that, of course there are things children’s books (as distinct from YA books) won’t deal with, such as sexual relationships, or marriage, or anything in that realm, and that’s perfectly appropriate. However, if you’re willing to look for them, you’ll find children’s books – good ones – are just as profound, life-changing, meaningful, brave and beautiful as the best of literature written for adults; they pitch their ideas just as widely, and they deal with as full a range of human emotions, fears and needs.

And I won’t let anyone say otherwise.

Image: m.inmagine.com

Image: m.inmagine.com

 

What Sort of Writer Am I?

My body clock is all out of whack this week. I’m up late again, buzzing with energy at completely the wrong time of day/night, and I’ve no idea why. It could be something to do with stress, maybe – the results of the writing competition (which I keep going on about) are due to be released soon, and I’m pretty wound up about it. I have zero expectation of being shortlisted, of course, but I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t a bit nervous about the outcome. It’s natural to be curious and excited about it, even if you’re pretty sure it’ll have nothing to do with you. I’m looking forward to seeing who does succeed in being shortlisted, and how things work out for all those who entered. It’s wonderful to think that this one competition has resulted in hundreds of people, all over the country (and possibly the world) knuckling down and finally writing the novel they’ve always wanted to write. Just the thought of it is enough to make me feel like I’m crackling with static electricity! It’ll be great once the shortlist is announced, because I’ll be able to move on with my life – I’ll get some chapters of the WiP up on my blog, perhaps, and get some feedback on it. I’ll also start submitting it to agents and publishers, and start working on my next project. I’m anticipating all that with happy excitement, and it’s wonderful to feel that way. I don’t always feel that way, so when these moments of euphoria come around, I tend to make the most of ’em.

happy child

I’ve been thinking over the past day or two about my next project. I finished my edits on the WiP today (including rewriting that scene I talked about yesterday, the one between Maraika and her father – it works so much better than before!), and I’m planning to start outlining my next idea tomorrow. I’ve already described how I’ve realised the story I plan to write next would work much better as a book for younger readers (i.e. 8 years old and up) than for a Young Adult audience, and I’ve been evaluating myself as a writer ever since I had this realisation.

Several years ago, when I began work on the new project (let’s call it ‘Jeff’, for ease of reference!) I had it in mind as a Young Adult novel, just because I saw myself as an aspiring Young Adult writer. It seemed like a natural assumption. I wrote nearly 34,000 words on it before abandoning the idea, but something about it always stayed with me. I liked the characters I’d created, and I liked the narrative style I’d used, which was not only different from anything I’d ever used before, but also different from anything I’d ever read before. It’s languished on my computer ever since, but I always intended to revisit it. I read the whole thing through the other day for the first time in years, and – putting aside the awful writing – it was nice to be back in that world again. Reading it again made me see that its failure was partly a result of the fact that I was trying to shoehorn it into a genre that it wasn’t really comfortable being in. (Partly, it’s to do with my failure to plot it out fully – but that’s another blog post!) Jeff, the protagonist, is only twelve (turning thirteen) in the book – he’s barely into secondary school. He’s young. The voice I was giving him was just too old, and too knowing. He’s a funny, warm and adorable creature, but he speaks with the mind of an 19-year-old, and it just… clanged. It’s discordant. I’m looking forward to resurrecting Jeff and giving him his proper voice, and maybe his story will flow a bit easier.

Do you identify with a particular ‘genre’ of writing, if you’re a writer? Looking over my list of Works-in-Progress and fragments of ideas, I get the impression that I’m actually a writer of children’s books masquerading as a YA writer. Most of my ideas would be happier between the covers of a book aimed at 8/9 year old readers, I think, even though I love to read both types of book. I read David Walliams’ ‘The Boy in the  Dress’ the other night; it’s aimed at young readers, but I found it profoundly moving and utterly lovely. That’s a skill I’d love to have – the skill of making a story which is definitively for children, but which can touch the hearts and minds of adults, too. I think children’s and YA writing do go hand in hand, but there are significant differences between them which need to be respected; I certainly don’t think it’s impossible to write across both genres, and I hope that I’ll be able to spend the rest of my life doing just that. I feel like my mind has been opened a little wider, though, just by reading over an old Work-in-Progress, and that more room for ideas has been created inside it – but, as Terry Pratchett once warned, ‘be careful not to open your mind too much, in case your brain falls out.’ I hope I’m not in danger of that! But it does feel strange – liberating, exciting, and wonderful, too – to have a conclusion like ‘there is more than one way in which you can write!’ strike your brain.

Do you identify with a genre, as a reader or a writer? Do you think you could change? Or, am I talking total hogwash, and is all writing more or less the same? I’d love to hear from you.

Just a Quick Word

Today, my ‘flesh life’ overtook me. I had to make a long and arduous journey to a land far, far away (well, the other side of the county), armed only with a book and a bottle of water. This is the first chance I’ve had today to sit down and have a look around ‘Clockwatching…’, and – well! It’s looking good.

I’ve basically done nothing today except spread germs around the midlands of Ireland, as I coughed and spluttered for the entire length of my journey, despite all the cough sweets I bought along the way. As I crunched my Strepsils and Hall’s Honey-Flavoured Soothers, I reminded myself of Nanny Ogg at the travelling theatre (I hope someone else will get that reference, or I’ll just have to collapse under the weight of my own geekdom!) – I didn’t spit anything at anyone, though. Just in case you were wondering.

Nanny Ogg Greebo smoking drinking

My idol! (Well, except for the smoking bit. We don’t like that).

I guess I’m in a Pratchett mood because my wonderful husband bought me a copy of ‘A Blink of the Screen’ for my birthday, which is a collection of Terry Pratchett’s shorter fiction. *Sigh* If I wasn’t already married to him, I’d marry him all over again!

On the way home, I realised that today is a palindrome, at least if you’re using European dating – 21/11/12. This was geeky enough, until my husband responded – ‘yeah, and you know the mad bit? The next palindrome date won’t be until November 2nd 2020!’* Yes, I am married to Rain Man. I love it.

The only other thing of note that happened today was I discovered a hitherto unknown bookshop, tucked neatly off the beaten path, in a town I thought I knew like the back of my hand. Naturally, I had to make a purchase – not only because the owner had her two beautiful children with her, but it was a big part of my decision-making process – and I’m delighted to know I now have a new place to hang out. I love finding new bookshops; it’s like when you put your jeans into the wash, and you find a twenty in your pocket. Not that this has ever happened to me, but I can imagine it must be wonderful. The selection of children’s and YA books in this shop was brilliant, and the owner’s little daughter helped me choose my book. How cool is that?

So, I now have to try to rustle up some dinner, and settle down for the night. Normal** service will resume tomorrow.

* February 11th, 2020, for Americans.

**Actual normality not guaranteed.