Annabel's House of Books

Noli domo egredi, nisi librum habes – Never leave home without a book.

Month: April 2010 (page 1 of 4)

Tales of beasts, wolves and crafty maidens

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

I tried reading one of AC’s novels many years ago, but it was the wrong book for me at that time. When Claire at Paperback Reader who is a huge fan decided to host an Angela Carter month, it was time to try again. I’m glad I did.  This time I chose one of her collections of reimagined fairy tales.

The Bloody Chamber has reworkings of several classic tales – Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.   Carter takes the essence of each original and creates  something that is the complete antithesis of the Disneyfied versions that dominate these days.  They are extremely earthy and sensual, full of blood and guts; they’re very dark, yet there are moments of comedy and brightness; and they’re still highly moral – but Carter plays about with the roles – her women give as good as they get!

My favourite was the Erl King – based upon the character of a woodland spirit who tempts travellers through the forest, rather than a classic fairy tale …

… On the trunk of a scarlet rowan a squirrel clung, to watch him; a cock pheasant delicately stretched his shimmering neck from a brake of thorn to peer at him. There was a goat of uncanny whiteness, gleaming like a goat of snow, who turned her mild eyes towards me and bleated softly, so that he knew I had arrived.
He smiles. He lays down his pipe, his elder bird-call. He lays upon me his irrevocable hand.
His eyes are quite green, as if from too much looking at the wood.
There are some eyes can eat you.

Maybe it was the unfamiliarity of the Erl King that really creeped me out on this one – well that and what he does to birds… 

I enjoyed all of the tales in this collection with the exception of Puss in Boots. This is the one tale told not from the innocent victim’s side, but from that of Mr Fixit and has a totally different feel to it.  However it does break up the collection – before it come three beastly tales going from a predatory monster to a lyon, to a tiger, to Puss – all feline in feel. Then in the second half from the Erl King onwards, we are in the forest and with wolves and creatures of the night. 

I am definitely inspired to read more of Angela Carter’s extraordinary fairy tales, and think it may be time to enjoy her novels too.  Thank you to Claire for bringing her to me attention once again.  (8.5/10)

Home is where the heart is

Roma Tearne The SwimmerThe Swimmer by Roma Tearne

The village of Orford, near Aldeburgh in Suffolk is not used to foreigners.  Someone’s killing animals by slitting their throats, and everyone is concerned about terrorists in their midst. 

Ria, a poet, lives in relative isolation in  her late uncle’s cottage by the coast in Suffolk – it’s home.  Eric, a neighbouring farmer, is like a surrogate father to her, having taken her eel-fishing since she was a child. Now single, she enjoys being on her own with with few distractions apart from her bothersome brother and his family arriving for an annual trip. Jack is always on at her to sell the house, so he can have his half, but Ria won’t – they’ve feuded over this for years.  Then one day she sees the swimmer…

I was just about to reach out for the switch of my table lamp when I saw him. My swimmer! He was much earlier than before, moving slowly across the surface of the water. I stood open-mouthed and astonished. Then I turned silently and let myself out of the kitchen door, rounding the corner of the house before I stopped. The swimmer had reached the bank and was clambering up it. He had his back to me as once again he began to dry himself with his shirt. I stood waiting. Under the darkening summer sky I could see that he was not a local boy. I watched as he shook his dark curly hair and water sprayed out. He had been swimming in his trousers again and now he reached for the shoes he had thrown down in the long grass. He was putting them on when something made him turn slightly. Then slowly he moved his head and saw me. For a while minute we stared at each other without speaking. Both of us shocked. He was the first to break the silence, surprising me by holding up his hand, one foot in a shoe. He looked ready to run.
‘Excuse me,’ he said, in perfect, though accented, English. ‘I’m very sorry. Please. I won’t do it again.’

Ben is an illegal immigrant – a Tamil from Sri Lanka who came to the area via Moscow. He’s living and working on a nearby farm while his application for asylum is being processed.  Ben is a medic who plays jazz piano and despite an eighteen year difference in their ages, they fall for each other and begin tentative steps towards a relationship – then tragedy happens. I won’t tell you any more of the story, but as the book moves on we meet other women in Ben’s life including his mother Anula, and they take on the tale. 

With her artist’s eye, Roma has conjured up a compelling vision of the landscape once again.  In her previous book, Brixton Beach,  the Sri Lankan coast came to life, and the same is so here for the rivers, marshes and pebbly beaches of Suffolk  – she has a great affinity to seascapes.  The characters are strongly drawn too, but none more so than Eric – who is a rock. He understands; he has his own sadness, but uses it to help others, and he provides continuity throughout the book. 

This is a sad book, yet there is hope too. I enjoyed it immensely, and in my hour of need would wish to have someone like Eric to be there for me.  The story highlights the frustrations and distrust experienced by illegal immigrants who have had to flee their own country, definitely something to make one think. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for Ben and other asylum-seekers arriving hidden in a lorry. But he had to escape Jaffna or risk being rounded up and shot in the still ongoing war in his home country. Somehow though, you sense that this dramatic move has set him free to find a new home – which is another theme weaving through this book.

This was an super read and I can highly recommend it.  (9/10, sent by the publisher – Thank you)

Whatever Happened to Snail Mail?

Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

I was really keen to read Nicola Barker’s new book. I’ve read three others of hers, (although not her Booker shortlisted chunkster Darkmans yet).

In those books I found she has a rare feel for ordinary people’s lives in and around London, capturing lifestyles and dialogue perfectly with great wit. Clear: A Transparent Novel was brilliant. Set during magician David Blaine’s stay in a suspended perspex box near Tower Bridge, it contained this gem close to the start of the book – an amazing simile describing the spectacle and egg-throwing public:

It’s like the embankment is a toilet and Blaine is just the scented rim-block dangling in his disposable plastic container from the bowl at the top.

However, her new book, Burley Cross Postbox Theft is a very different kettle of fish and marks new territory for Barker.  It’s set in a small Yorkshire village for a start – the sort of place where everybody thinks they know what everybody else is doing, but secrets and misunderstandings abound, and it ends up with nobody actually knowing what each other is doing, if you get my drift!    It’s also a crime novel, but with a difference… it’s written entirely in letters – epistolary to use the posh word for it.

Someone has broken into Burley Cross’s postbox, (I love the cover by the way), and taken the letters, of which 27 were found behind a hair salon in nearby Skipton. Sergeant Everill at Skipton has failed to crack the case and is passing it back to his old school pal PC Topping at Ilkley.   The book then comprises Everill’s letter to Topping telling him about the case, then the 27 recovered letters, then memos and letters from PC Topping closing the case.

There is absolutely masses of comedic potential there and we meet a huge array of characters, from the overbearing and sex-mad Baxter Thorndyke, Cllr,  to Unity who volunteered to sew a quilt in the village’s totally disastrous Auction of Promises. Then there’s local jobsworth Jeremy Baverstock who is at war with  batty widow Tirza Parry over her habit of bagging up other people’s dog poo. He writes (with footnotes) …

Given the idiosyncratic nature of the bags employed (TP prefers a small, pink-tinged, transparent bag (43) – probably better adapted for household use, i.e. freezing meat (44) – instead of the usual, custom-made, matt-black kind (45)) it was easy, from very early on, to understand that the person bagging up and ‘displaying’ these faeces was not only happy, but almost keen to leave some kind of ‘signature’ behind.

These are just a few of the denizens of this village in which things don’t go well. The pub is accepting coach parties, the am dram society are searching for Jesus (for their biblical epic),  there’s a mad, bad and dangerous to know duck and my favourite, a Congolese woodcarver whose tortured fetish is mistaken for Christ on the cross.  

Yet as a whole it doesn’t quite work.  In these days of email, writing a letter by hand is becoming a rare occurence. Given that most of the addressees and authors were local, you’d probably telephone or go round in person rather than write a very long letter if your email wasn’t working, wouldn’t you?  So the letters themselves are contrived of origin.  Then there’s the length – it would take me a couple of hours or more to write some of the longer missives by hand.  But it was the style of the letters that did frustrate me, as many were a one-sided conversation in nature, complete with digressions, anecdotes, use of the vernacular, and so much gossip, which you wouldn’t expect in letters of these types – for many of them are written in protest at one villager or another’s actions!  

As we read through the letters, we gradually get to know what’s going on behind the curtains in Burley Cross. It was nigh-on impossible to feel for any of the characters, most of whom were ghastly and profoundly irritating.  I was nowhere close to working out whodunnit either, but the trusty PC Topping does, which brings the book to a satisying close.  I also felt that the village could have been virtually anywhere – it didn’t feel very ‘Yorkshire’ to me, but I am a Sarf Lunn’ner!

This book was extremely ambitious and a little bit too clever for its own good.  I did sort of enjoy it and it has grown on me in the days since I finished reading it; as a biting satire on village life it really succeeds.  (6.5/10, I requested this book from the publisher. Thank you to 4th Estate).

Gaskella’s Midweek Miscellany #9

Along with all the tinkering I did last week, I had a change of template. This one is much more me!

Changing subject, this isn’t bookish, but I want to share this site with you – ASL’s Lego page. Now I love Lego, but this chap is totally obsessed with it, and particularly loves recreating Escher drawings in 3D in Lego. Scroll down to the bottom to see these projects – they’re wonderful!


I’ve had a great couple of weeks of new acquisitions, so rather than waffling on about nothing, I want to share my incoming books with you.

  • Mrs. Chippy’s Last Expedition: The Remarkable Journal of Shackleton’s Polar-Bound Cat by Caroline Alexander. This is a wonderful blend of fact and fiction – being the story of Mrs Chippy, the carpenter’s cat on board the Endurance with Shackleton. It combines fact from the journals of crew members with the fictional exploits of the aforesaid feline.
  • Angel by Cliff McNish. I loved McNish’s latest book Savannah Grey and Angel has great write-ups too.
  • The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen. This is set during the Great Depression at the tail-end of the gangster era. The Firefly brothers are bank-robbers who wake up on the slab dead but alive. Their girls and family believe them dead. The setting is irresistible.
  • Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking) by Patrick Ness. The final volume in the Chaos Walking trilogy. Volumes 1 & 2 of this dystopian series for young adults, The Knife of Never Letting Go and The Ask and the Answer, were amazing books and I am so looking forward to reading this one.
  • Will You be There? by Guillaume Musso. This was a charity shop find, and tells the story of a successful surgeon who gets the chance to go back in time to San Francisco in the 1970s in search of the love of his life who died thirty years ago.
  • The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan. A novelisation of the lives of the Bronte sisters. Although I realise this is a novel, I’m hoping that it will fill in a lot of gaps for me in my total lack of knowledge about these literary greats.
  • The Book of Fires by Jane Borodale. Another charity shop buy, about a girl who runs away to London in 1752 and works for a fireworks maker. As a scientist and fan of pyrotechnics this sounds intriguing.
  • Maus: My Father Bleeds History v. 1: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman. This and its sequel is probably the most important graphic novel of all, and spotting it on the charity shop’s shelves, it was definately time to add it to the TBR pile.
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is a somewhat terrifying thought to find out that so much medical research relies on an immortal cell-line taken from a black woman who died of cervical cancer back in the 1950s. This is the story of her and her ‘HeLa’ cells as they are known.

LOTR Readalong – The Final Post

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: Vol 3 by JRR Tolkien.

This month was the last part of the LOTR Readalong and everyone’s final thoughts can be found at Just Add Books. Having finished all 1076 pages of the three volumes of LOTR plus the Hobbit I think I’m going to miss them.

The final volume was certainly full of action. There are some memorable scenes – Faramir and Eowyn falling in love was lovely and heartwarming, Sam giving back the ring to Frodo, but one that affected me particularly was Denethor’s death. He had totally mis-read Gandalf’s actions after the loss of his oldest son Boromir; his other son Faramir was so badly wounded. Knowing that Aragorn is on the way to reclaim the throne, he is consumed with anger and rants at Gandalf:

‘Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south or west. I have read thy mind and its policies. Do I not know that you commanded this halfling here to keep silence? That you brought him hither to be a spy in my very chamber? And yet in our speech together I have learned the names and purpose of all thy companions. So! With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me.
‘But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be your tool! I am Steward of the house of Anarion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.’
‘What then would you have,’ said Gandalf, ‘if your will could have its way?’
‘I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,’ answered Denethor, ‘and in the days of my longfathers before me: to be the Lord of this City in peace, and leave my chair to a son after me, who would be his own master and no wizard’s pupil. But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, not love halved, not honour abated.’
‘To me it would not seem that a Stewart who faithfully surrenders his charge is diminished in love or in honour,’ said Gandalf. ‘And at the least you shall not rob your son of his choice while his death is still in doubt.’
At those words Denethor’s eyes flamed again, and taking the Stone under his arm he drew a knife and strode towards the bier. But Beregond sprang forward and set himself before Faramir.
‘So!’ cried Denethor. ‘Thou hadst already stolen half my son’s love. Now thou stealest the hearts of my knights also, so that they rob me wholly of my son at the last. But in this at least thou shalt not defy my will: to rule my own end’.

Apologies for the long extract, however I found this scene which ends with Denethor immolating himself very sad, dramatic and positively Wagnerian. After this the actual destruction of the ring was almost an anticlimax.

Given that this was a re-read for me, I’d forgotten that the coda, the tying up of all ends, the crowning of Aragorn, the Hobbits’ return to the Shire, and the sailing of the Elves and their friends from the Havens would take eighty pages, (plus the Appendix of the story of Aragorn and Arwen). 

I’m very glad to have re-read the books and have got much more from them this time, in particular understanding more about the politics between all the tribes and races. One thing hasn’t changed though, Aragorn remains my favourite character! Taking it slowly over a period of four months has enabled me to read plenty of other books in between yet keep them in the forefront of my mind. Lastly many thanks to Teresa who started the whole thing off.

An Education – See the film, read the book

Usually I always read the book before the film, but in the case of An Education by Lynn Barber, I saw the film on DVD first. In this case it didn’t matter, for the events that were adapted for the film, composed just a chapter in her memoir.  It was originally written as an article for Granta magazine and later formed the basis of the book.

First to the film, which has been much lauded and justifiably so.   Nick Hornby’s script really did seem to get under a bright sixteen year old’s skin, it was both extremely funny and touching when it needed to be.   It must have seemed to be a wonderful adventure, when an older man takes an interest in you and manages to seduce your parents too.  Carey Mulligan was marvellous as the teenager Jenny rebelling against her parents only to find them supporting her in it, although they didn’t really know what she got up to.  Peter Saarsgard was perfect as the older man with a veneer of sophistication, but a dodgy life.  The other supporting actors were wonderful too, Alfred Molina’s puffed up father, Emma Thompson’s scene-stealing headmistress, Rosamund Pike’s beautiful but dim floosie, and Olivia Williams as the lonely English teacher who gets Jenny through her exams.  The Soundtrack was also excellent, including Floyd Cramer, Billy Fury, Juliette Greco and Mel Tormé along with Duffy and Madeleine Peyroux sounding equally at home in the 60s.

You know that that affair was doomed from the outset, but luckily Barber got through it and has gone on to have a long and fascinating career in journalism after going to Oxford.  She tells us how her adventures as a teenager coloured her life ever after, she found it hard to trust people and flitted from bed to bed for some time before meeting ‘the one’, David who would be her rock all the way from Oxford until he died a few years ago.

Barber went on to work for the fledgling magazine Penthouse as features editor, which for a top-shelf mag then was a very different animal to those of today, and actually had proper articles and book extracts along with the lovelies.  She moved to the Express and then to the new Independent on Sunday and it was here that she earned the epithet of ‘Demon Barber’ with her in depth interviews and she says,

I’m still quite bemused by the Demon Barber reputation, I think it arises from the the fact that people remember the hatchet jobs more than they remember the friendly pieces. But whether this is because I write them better, or because of general Schadenfreude, I never know. The interviews I remember from the Independent on Sunday are the more thoughtful ones I did with Rudolf Nureyev, Roald Dahl, Muriel Spark, but they got less attention. The same thing happened again at the Observer – it was the hatchet jobs on, say, Harriet Harman, Marianne Faithfull or John Prescott that readers seemed to remember.

This memoir gives a great glimpse into features journalism by a mould-breaker. Barber is brutally honest and occasionally shocks, but also displays a great sense of humour and wit, combined with a deep love of her family which made it unputdownable. (8/10)

For other takes on the book / film, visit Dovegreyreader, or Bookbath

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