Tag Archives: To Say Nothing of the Dog

And So, the End is Near…

…of the year, that is. Not, like, of my existence or anything.

Hopefully, anyway.

Image: executiveresumeexpert.com

Image: executiveresumeexpert.com

Everyone who’s anyone in the blogosphere has started putting up their ‘best of’ lists for 2013 – their top 10 best books published in the last 12 months, top 13 best reads of 2013, that sort of thing. I, because I am chronically disorganised, have compiled a list – of sorts – of my favourite reads this year too, but where I differ from the others is that my list is made up of my favourite books read this year – but not necessarily published this year. I wish I was the type of reader who kept detailed start- and end-dates for my reading process, and filed the books away in a rational and ordered fashion on my shelves when they’ve been read, but I don’t think I’ll ever quite manage it. I’d also love to have the money to keep up with the flood of new books constantly being published – but sadly, that is another dream.

In any case, on with the show. Today’s post is going to look at books which I’ve slotted into the category of ‘General’ – i.e. not children’s books or YA books. I’m noticing a certain bent toward the SF end of the fiction spectrum, but heck. What can you do?

Favourite Books Read this Year (General)

The best book I read this year, I think, in the General category was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. I’ve had this book for years, waiting for its moment in the spotlight, and I eventually managed to make time to read it a few months back. It’s been around for a long time, so chances are you’ve read it already, but if you haven’t – well. I can’t say I recommend it, as such, because it’s almost as challenging a read as Mao’s Great Famine (Frank Dikotter), and it is full of descriptions and testimony which will leave you literally unable to think or speak, but it (along with the Dikotter book) is a book that everyone should read. If it does nothing else but reinforce your desire to see that the events described never, ever take place again on the face of the earth, then it’s done its job.

Image: en.wikipedia.com

Image: en.wikipedia.com

I also read (and loved) Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog, which is a masterclass in writing about time-travel – but also so much more than that. It’s 2057, and we’re introduced to Ned Henry, a professional time-traveller, and a wealthy woman named Lady Schrapnell (who would have been right at home in an Oscar Wilde play.) Lady Schrapnell is sinking millions into the exact reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral, which had been destroyed in the Blitz, and is causing a major headache for historians, academics and time-travellers alike with her painstaking and dictatorial manner. Everything is in place for the grand reopening – except, that is, for one mysterious object called the Bishop’s Bird Stump, which cannot be found. Ned is suffering from time-lag as a result of jumping back and forth between the 1940s and his own time searching for the Stump, but when another time-traveller appears to have broken the rules of the Continuum by bringing something forward through time from the Victorian period, he is the only time-traveller available to bring it back. Confused and addled, his adventures in the Victorian period begin… This book is huge, and though the plot is insanely complex, the reader never once loses track of where they are or what’s happening, because of the skill of Willis’ writing. It’s absolutely hilarious, as well as brilliantly plotted, executed and described. It’s not a new book, but it was one of my 2013 highlights for sure.

I also read Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, another title that had been lurking on my ‘to read’ list for many years. It’s a rich and rewarding story filled with meditations on humanity, ethics and the rights of patients, the treatment of the disabled, societal distaste for anything which is ‘different,’ prejudice against those who are seen as ‘lesser beings’, and the morality of tampering with a person’s brain without their full understanding of what will happen to them. Charlie Gordon, our narrator, is a kind, hard-working and gentle young man who is considered to have sub-par intelligence. The book takes us through the experiments conducted upon him and a laboratory mouse (the titular ‘Algernon’) with a view to increasing their IQ, and we learn about the effects of the treatments upon Charlie first-hand, in his own voice. Chilling and moving in equal measure, it’s a book that will stay with me.

Image: sffmasterworks.blogspot.com

Image: sffmasterworks.blogspot.com

One of the very lovely gifts my husband gave me during the year was a book titled When God Was a Rabbit, by Sarah Winman. It wasn’t the kind of book I’d have picked up for myself, which is what made it such a great present, and it’s about a girl and her brother, and the relationship between them as they grow to adulthood. It doesn’t sound like much – but it is. This is a book filled with eccentrics and oddballs, touches of magic realism, the maddening, infuriating and ultimately precious links between family members and – most importantly – explorations of love, in all the forms love can take. I found the relationship between Elly and Joe (the sister and brother) extremely moving to read, perhaps because I only have one brother, and we are very close. This fictional sibling relationship reminded me, on some levels, of my own real-life one. It’s a strange book, and parts of it stretch the ‘magic’ of ‘magic realism’ a little too far (I’m thinking of a scene where one of the most odd of the oddball characters gets his sight back when he is hit on the head by a flying coconut), but overall it was one of this year’s memorable reads for me.

I’m trying to steer clear of books I’ve already reviewed, which means Cloud Atlas can’t be mentioned here. Oh – whoops! Look what I just did.

I find it really difficult to narrow books down to a ‘best of’ list; usually, there’s something worth liking in everything I read. Perhaps if I was to draw up this list again tomorrow an entirely different selection of books would present itself, but that’s your lot for today.

Later in the week: my top children’s/YA reads for this year… Get your breaths bated in plenty of time for that.

Image: thenakedscientists.com

Image: thenakedscientists.com

Book Review Saturday – ‘King of Shadows’

There are some of you who will know that ‘King of Shadows’ is a Susan Cooper novel, and of you’re aware of this author and her work, you will probably also know that there is no such thing as a bad Susan Cooper novel. You might also be wondering why I’m reviewing a book which was first published in 1999; I hate to admit this, because I’m a huge fan of the author, but ‘King of Shadows’ is a new book, to me. I really wish I hadn’t left it so long to read it.

Image: boomerangbooks.com.au

Image: boomerangbooks.com.au

I am going through a ‘time travel’ phase with my reading at the moment. As well as ‘King of Shadows’, I’ve also read ‘Hagwitch’ by Marie-Louise Fitzpatrick in the last few weeks and I’m currently reading the (utterly marvellous) ‘To Say Nothing of the Dog’ by Connie Willis. This is largely because ‘Tider’, my own little book, features time-travel, of a sort; becoming familiar with the norms of the genre is important to me. I love books which use the idea of ‘time-slip’, where there are two interlinked stories being told side by side, one which takes place in ‘the present’ (whenever that is) and the other which takes place in the past, or the future; ‘Hagwitch’ is a book like this. ‘King of Shadows’ has some time-slip features, but it’s largely a book about a boy going back in time, for a very specific and important reason.

The book opens in a rehearsal room. A group of young actors are preparing themselves for a special performance of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, to be staged in the refurbished Globe Theatre in London; all the players are American, and to them, it’s the trip of a lifetime. They are a specially assembled troupe, all male, designed to mimic the original staging conditions of Shakespeare’s play – because, of course, in Shakespeare’s time women could not act on stage – and they have all been hand-picked for their particular acting talents. Among these wonderful young actors is a boy named Nathan Field, who, as well as being a marvellously talented actor, is dealing with the painful loss of his father and mother. The dynamics between the boys in the acting troupe – the inevitable bullying, friendship-forging, and competitiveness – is really well handled, and Cooper skilfully brings us into the heart of the group.

When the boys arrive in London, Nathan (or ‘Nat’) barely has time to acclimatise before he falls ill. After dinner one evening, he becomes extremely sick, and is rushed to hospital; he slips into unconsciousness, but not before having a vision of himself being taken out of the world, and flying over the surface of the earth like he was floating in space…

When he wakes, he finds himself in a strange place – a smelly, loud, overwhelming place, where people speak with strange accents. The strangest thing of all, though is this: everyone seems to know Nat. They know his name, they know who he is, and in this new and disorienting setting, Nat is still an actor with a dramatic troupe. He is engaged in rehearsals for a play – a new, exciting play called ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ – and gradually, Nat realises he has travelled back in time. He has, for some reason, wound up in 1599, and even more astoundingly, he is one of Shakespeare’s own players, and part of the play’s original production.

Image: shakespeare.mit.edu

Image: shakespeare.mit.edu

Susan Cooper is an author whose writing leaves me breathless. She never fails to reduce me to tears at least once during the reading of her novels, and this one is no different. The relationship which develops between Nat and Shakespeare is almost unbearably beautiful; Nat has lost his parents in a life-rending tragedy, and Shakespeare has just lost his son, Hamnet. The two bond, in a deep and loving way, over their shared grief, and Cooper explores this in a way which is never mawkish, but which is simply touching and true. As an actor, Nat knows how lucky he is to have ended up as part of this group of actors, and he makes the most of every second, never knowing where (or when) he will be when he wakes up or whether he’ll be wrenched out of this world at any moment. His initial disorientation and discomfort at Elizabethan life soon turn into deep attachment, both to the era and the people he meets, and every moment he spends there is filled with urgency and the poignancy of imminent loss. Every tiny detail of his life and of the Elizabethan world is described with such skill that the reader feels they are living in sixteenth-century London as they read; I felt, at all times, that I was part of the book I was reading.

Eventually, of course, things have to return to normal. The book’s ending is a little exposition-heavy, but I hardly even noticed: I was so busy enjoying the explanation for Nat’s adventure, and the connections between him and the past, that I was happy to ignore the slightly unrealistic way in which Nat’s announcement that he has met the real Shakespeare is accepted, eventually, by his friends. I found myself moved to tears by the story, and by the sensitive way Susan Cooper handled her material, but also because I loved Nat so much. As a character, he is marvellous. The burden he has to bear is one which would crush even the strongest of adults, but he has held on to his passion for acting throughout everything he has suffered, and the reader knows he is going to have a wonderful and beautiful life. He is exquisitely described, as one would expect of Susan Cooper, and the interplay between the modern and Elizabethan world is thrilling.

Of Susan Cooper’s books, nothing will ever replace ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence in my list of favourites. ‘Victory’ was my next favourite, after those, but it has now been knocked off that spot by ‘King of Shadows’. I loved this book. If you haven’t read it already, then read it now. If you’ve read it before, read it again.

Whatever you do, just read.

Happy weekend!