Annabel's House of Books

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

Month: February 2012 (page 1 of 2)

Let it snow

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

This lovely modern fairytale is that rarity – a book that lives up to the hype. There have been many reviews, in both print and on blog over the past couple of months. Without exception I think, all have been glowing and gushing about this book – I’ll now add mine to the collection…

Jack and Mabel are homesteaders in their fifties, having retreated into the Alaskan wilderness to lose themselves after the death of their baby, who was still born. Both are still suffering, Mabel especially, mostly being confined to the cabin while Jack works the land. Each of them is lost in their own sadness.

That night in bed, she had a heightened awareness of him, of the scent of straw and spruce boughs in his hair and beard, the weight of him on the creaky bed, the sound of his slow, tired breaths. He lay on his side, turned away from her. She reached out, thinking to touch his shoulder, but instead lowered her arm and lay in the darkness staring at his back.
‘Do you think we’ll make it through winter?’ she asked.
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he was asleep She rolled away and faced the log wall.
When he spoke, Mabel wondered if it was grogginess or emotion that made his voice so gravelly.
‘We don’t have much choice, do we?’

Then one day it snows, and in a moment of uncharacteristic playfulness, they have a snowball fight, and build a snow figure which Jack carves into the shape of a young girl. The next morning, the snow girl is gone, and there are small footprints going into the forest. The over days and months that follow, they see fleeting glimpses of a girl running between the trees, followed by a red fox.

The Snow Child of was inspired by Arthur Ransome’s re-telling of the Russian folktale, Little Daughter of the Snow, which I re-read last week. Ransome’s version is tragic, and Mabel is familiar with it – a book of Russian fairytales having been a childhood favourite.  Her sister sends her the book, and in her letter she comments…

What a tragic tale! Why these stories for children always have to turn out so dreadfully is beyond me. I think if I ever tell it to my grandchildren, I will change the ending and have everyone live happily ever after. We are allowed to do that, are we not Mabel?  To invent our own endings and choose joy over sorrow?

Mabel is determined that the girl could be the daughter she and Jack never had, even if she is a child built from snow.

I won’t tell any more – I’ll leave you to read it if you wish and make up your own minds about Faina the snow girl – or not, for the author is absolutely brilliant at making her seem like a feral child surviving in the wilderness at one moment, and then an ethereal sprite born of snowflakes, in an instant. Is gaining the unconditional love of would-be adoptive parents the transformational force that occurs in so many fairy-tales where a magical being changes into a human one?  Ivey’s light yet sure touch with these possibilities make reading this novel a magical experience.

Jack and Mabel are wonderful characters.  They have to endure many hardships to make a go of it as homesteaders, and they are not just physical ones. Before Faina’s arrival it would be hard to see them surviving for long on their own in this wintery wilderness.  It is wonderful to see them come into bloom again after years of dormancy – I was so happy for them, yet knowing the fate of Ransome’s snowgirl, scared too.

Contrasting with Jack and Mabel are their nearest neighbours, the Bensons, who live a good wagon ride away. Esther is a big-hearted woman, and provides Mabel with much relief from her cabin fever and luckily the two women get on like houses on fire.

The other star of this novel is the landscape of Alaska itself. We really feel that we’re there back in the 1920s with Jack and Mabel, experiencing the long, cold winters, the frozen forests, and all too brief spring and summers. Farming may be hard, but nature itself has much to offer if you know where to look for it all year round.

I was delighted to see a quote from Ali Shaw, whose latest modern fairy tale I reviewed here on the back, which reinforced how magical this book was for me.  This is a lovely, lovely book, and my first five star one of the year. I hope you’ll love it too.  (10/10)  

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I received my ARC via Amazon Vine. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. Pub 1st Feb by Headline Review. Hardback, 432 pages (including the Arthur Ransome story)

It’s. Bill Shatner’s. Autobiography. Yes. Captain Kirk…

Up Till Now: The Autobiography by William Shatner with David Fisher

I can’t remember if I’ve confessed up to it since I’ve been blogging, but I used to be a full-blown Trekker – a Star Trek fan.  I managed to stop just short of buying a uniform, but had all the videos of all the episodes of all the series, plus the 60+ novels, episode and making of guides etc, a model enterprise, and loads of other ‘collectables’.  One day I decided it was too much, and snapped out of my collecting obsession and started to sell all the stuff off.

My enthusiasm for the shows themselves has not waned though. I remain a huge fan, even watch the occasional episode in the re-runs, and adored the last film which went back to Starfleet Academy.  If pushed, although I truly adore Patrick Stewart, my loyalties ultimately reside with the original.  Captain Kirk was fearless, handsome, decisive, and had a sense of humour; Kirk has a swagger about him that made it all such fun, contrasting brilliantly with Spock’s coolness and Bones’s old-fashioned Southern gent.  I’m old enough to remember seeing some of the episodes in their original showing on British TV too.

All of this brings me to William Shatner’s autobiography, Up Till Now, written with David Fisher, which is refreshingly honest and up front about nearly everything. It’s also very funny, but has plenty of touching moments too. William Shatner is a man of grand passions and big emotions.

Shatner’s acting career has been long, and so much more than Star Trek.  He started off in the Canadian theatre, playing small and supporting parts in much of the classical repertoire, before moving to New York and a new life in TV dramas – many of which were aired live.  He was in demand, and turned up on time, lines learned, got great reviews playing a wide variety of parts including leading men.

Part of the reason I was becoming better known was what people perceived to be an unusual. Speech. Pattern. Apparently I was becoming know for. Pausing, between words, in. Unusual Places… I have no idea where that. Came from… but the reality is that I don’t even hear it. I can mock the idea. I understand people hear me speaking. That way. They’ve even put a name to it, calling it Shatnerian. As in, ah yes, the character spoke with true Shatnerian eloquence.
But it’s certainly nothing I’m doing intentionally, nor do I do it in real life. I have seen several William Shatner impersonators speak in that. Clipped. Punctuated manner. Okay, if people recognize the impersonation as me, then it must be me.

Bill’s the big break didn’t come until well after he moved to LA.  Even after three series,  Star Trek wasn’t a hit until it later sold into syndication around the world, and so the hard-working Shatner continued plugging away.  It was the long-running series TJ Hooker in which he played a veteran cop that finally made him a TV star, later leading to the acclaimed Boston Legal, along with the Star Trek movies.

TV series like those tend to have a different director for each episode, and Shatner talks interestingly about this experience: “It’s the job of the actors who work there every week to proetct the integrity of the program. Because I cared about the quality of the show I tested every new director. And if they didn’t know what they were doing I would complain about it. That was my job.”

Another funny bit is when he and the voice cast of the animated film Over the Hedge got sent to plug the film in Cannes.  “As we were walking up the red carpet, surrounded by photographers, we were introduced to the French actors who had played our characters in the French version.  Wait a second, I wondered, we’re the stars of this film, right? I knew we were stars, our names were in big letters on the lobby cards and in the credits. Bus as this is an animated film our faces weren’t on the screen, and now our voices were being replaced by French actors. So we were the stars of a film in which we didn’t even appear.”  He forgets that the animators usually embed some of the personality of their voice actors into the characters…

Along the way he’s had four marriages, the third of which ended with tragedy, when his wife Nerine, an alcoholic, accidentally died in their swimming pool.  He threw himself into his horse business, and through that met Elizabeth his fourth wife.  His first marriage was to an actress, Gloria.  They had three daughters, but she never made it into the limelight, and it faltered once they moved to LA. Shatner talks openly about the mistakes he made, and the actor’s ego, that made him a poor husband at first.

What shines all the way through this memoir is Shatner’s sense of humour. Once he found it, (he was a very serious actor to start off with), he let loose, and takes every opportunity to laugh at himself.  He can even laugh at the way his spoken song performances in his 1968 album The Transformed Man have been taken, although they were recorded in all seriousness and remain cult tracks today.

I thoroughly enjoyed this memoir, which is so not just for Star Trek fans, although the spectre of Captain Kirk looms large over much of it. I got a much better appreciation of Shatner, the actor and have-a-go hero, a would-be family man who learns by his mistakes, and unashamed self-publicist with a great line in self-deprecation.  I shall leave you with an urging though, to pop over to Youtube and watch his spoken interpretation of Elton John’s song, Rocket Man, introduced by lyricist Bernie Taupin. If you search for William Shatner Rocket Man, you’ll find it (sorry, can’t embed it). (8.5/10)

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I bought my copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Up Till Now by William Shatner with David Fisher (pub Sidgwick & Jackson, 2008), now in paperback.
The Transformed Man – William Shatner (CD)
Star Trek – The Original Series – Series 1 – Complete – Remastered [DVD]

Short Takes on Two Short Stories…

I don’t read many short stories, but this week, I’ve happened to read two …

The Small Miracleby Paul Gallico

Published in  1951, Gallico’s story is a charming fable of faith and love about an orphan boy Pepino, and his donkey Violette.

Pepino and Violette live in Assisi. They make ends meet by doing donkey work for everyone in the town. One day Violette is taken ill and the vet can’t help. Pepino goes to church to ask the priest if he can take Violette into the basilica of St Francis to pray for a cure. The Supervisor and Bishop forbid it, but Father Damico tells Pepino to ask the Pope, so off he goes to Rome …

Sweet, and with a light touch, this was a delightful tale. Unusually, it was published as a single illustrated story back then, and the charming drawings really help to show the spirit of St Francis alive in the love of Pepino for his donkey.  A charity shop find, it was well worth the 50p I paid.

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The Little Daughter of the Snow from Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome (pub 1916).

One of the books I’m looking forward to reading in the coming weeks is The Snow Childby Eowyn Ivey. It was inspired by this particular fairy tale from Ransome’s collected tellings of Russian fairy tales, (which I previously wrote about here). Before I embark on the new book, which everyone seems to love, and I’ve deliberately steered clear of reading too many details about, I thought I’d re-read the old tale, a mere ten pages, to set the scene for me…

In Ransome’s story, a childless old couple build a snow girl who comes to life. She is an elemental force, spending most of her time outside playing. But one day she gets lost in the forest.  A fox brings her home and think he’ll get a chicken as thanks, but the old couple plan to trick him out of his reward.  The snow girl melts away while telling them that they didn’t love her enough if they wouldn’t give away a chicken.

The cruel moral sting in the tail makes this one of the saddest in the collection.  I’m really looking forward to reading The Snow Child now!

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I bought my copies, to explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Small Miracle by Paul Gallico
Old Peter’s Russian Tales by Arthur Ransome

A Favourite Reference Book – About Books…

The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel ed Peter Parker.

I know that you bookish sorts like nothing more than a book about books, so today I shall introduce you to one of my favourites. Published back in 1994, and edited by Peter Parker, (consultant editor Frank Kermode), this chunky tome chronicles the twentieth century in novels, (well up to 1993), featuring over 750 titles from around 400 authors.

The main part of the book is arranged chronologically, with key events for each year preceding the Editors’ choices of novels for that year, many of which are given around a full page per entry.  Synopses are sometimes accompanied by quotations, and commentary. Added to this are short biographies of the authors, indexes of the books, by year and title, and authors.

Recently, after posts by DGR and Simon T, I treated myself to a 1p copy of The Modern Library – The 200 best novels in English since 1950. I’m pleased that they share many titles, but with its size The Reader’s Companion can suggest more titles per year, and of course it goes back to 1900.  One way of comparing is to pick a year … say 1960 when yours truly was born:

Modern Library

  • To kill a mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The Balkan Trilogy – Olivia Manning
  • The Rabbit Quartet – John Updike
  • Jeeves in the Offing – P G Wodehouse

Reader’s Companion

  • We think the world of you – J R Ackerley
  • The L-shaped room – Lynn Reid Banks
  • A kind of loving – Stan Barstow
  • The Sot-Weed Factor – John Barth
  • Bid to me live – H D (Hilda Doolittle)
  • The Alexandria Quartet – Lawrence Durrell
  • To kill a mockingbird – Harper Lee
  • The London Trilogy – Colin MacInnes
  • The Great Fortune (see Balkan Trilogy, 1965)
  • The Violent Bear it Away – Flannery O’Connor
  • The Country Girls  (see Trilogy, 1964) – Edna O’Brien
  • Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant (see Anthony Powell, 1975)
  • The serpent and the rope – Raja Rao
  • The Waters of Kronos – Conrad Richter
  • The Affair (see Strangers & Brothers, 1970) – C P Snow
  • This Sporting Life – David Storey
  • Rabbit, Run (see Rabbit Quartet, 1990

Not all years have as many entries though; the majority have between 6 and 10, some fewer, and some more.  It was interesting that the Modern Library puts series of books at the start of the series year-wise, whereas the Reader’s Companion puts them at the year completed.

How many have I read though?  Harper Lee and all three parts of the Balkan Trilogy – so the same two from each book!  One day I will read Anthony Powell, and try the Rabbit books again, and I do have Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes on my shelf.

For anyone who’s not scared by a large reading list to pick from, and anyone joining in with Simon’s Century of Books The Reader’s Companion is probably the one for you, if you can cope with its physical size. If you prefer a smaller and perhaps more personal one, and in a handy normal paperback size, go for The Modern Library.

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I bought my books. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Modern Library: 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950 – Carmen Calill and Colm Toibin (from 28p (no 1p ones left!), old version; updated one from £3.95)
The Reader’s Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel – ed Peter Parker (from 1p!)

Aaarrr! Here be Pirates, Aaarrr, me hearties!

This Easter, I shall be hotfooting it to the multiplex to see the latest film from the ever-wonderful Aardman (or should that be Aaarrr-dman, sic) Animations which is called The Pirates – Band of Misfits (Trailer here). With an all star cast of voices including Hugh Grant as the Pirate Captain and Salma Hayek as Cutlass Liz, it will be brilliant, I’m sure.

The film is based upon the first two in a series of delightfully silly books by Gideon Defoe, who also wrote the screenplay.  There are now four in the series, with a fifth due later this year.  I always prefer to read the book(s) before seeing the movie when I can and just happen to have these ones waiting for me in the TBR, Aaarrr!

The first, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists was published in 2004, and concerns the scurvy crew of the unnamed ship being sent on a wild goose chase in search of gold by Black Bellamy, the Pirate Captain’s worst foe, and instead bumping into Charles Darwin, and Mister Bobo, his Man-Panzee – a trained monkey who has become more human than most men.  Having sunk The Beagle, The pirates agree to go back to England with Darwin so he can show off Mister Bobo, and also search for Darwin’s missing brother Erasmus…

‘I should say we’d reach England by Tuesday or thereabouts, with a decent wind behind us. It would be a lot quicker than that if we could just sail straight there, but I was looking at the nautical charts, and it’s a good job I did, because it turns out there’s a dirty great sea-serpent right in the middle of the ocean!  It has a horrible gaping maw and one of those scaly tails that looks like it could snap a boat clean in two. So I thought it best to sail around that.’
Fitzroy frowed. ‘I think they just draw those on maps to add a bit of decoration. It doesn’t actually mean there’s a sea-serpent there.’
The galley went rather quiet. A few of the pirate crew stared intently out of the portholes, embarrassed at their Captain’s mistake. But to everyone’s relief, instead of running somebody through, the Pirate Captain just narrowed his eyes thoughtfully.
‘That explains a lot,’ he said. ‘I suppose it ‘s also why we’ve never glimpsed that giant compass in the corner of the Atlantic. I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.’

Once back in England, the Pirates and Darwin go off hot-foot to London where they get into all kinds of trouble. Highlights include an encounter with the Elephant Man, and a brilliant chase through the Natural History Museum.

The Pirate Captain is very bad at remembering names, so there are running jokes aplenty with the names of his crew.  Much is also made of the pirates’ obsession with eating ham, the quality of the Pirate Captain’s beard, and as the book’s blurb says, it “is one of the very few books to deal with the weighty issue of science v religion, whilst also featuring lots of roaring and running people through.

I also loved that the inside covers are illustrated with wonderfully batty maps and the jokes continue in occasional footnotes and several appendices.  This book was very silly indeed, and I chuckled all the way through – it was plunderful stuff, Aaarrr!  (9.5/10)

The second, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whaling, has had Whaling substituted for Moby Dick in the new paperback edition, (bit obvious, why didn’t they re-name scientists Darwin while they were at it?)

In this adventure the pirates get to travel across America to get the money to repay Cutlass Liz the loan for their new boat, and failing at Las Vegas, they join the hunt for Moby Dick.

Although there were some brilliant jokes and nice set pieces to the second adventure, reading it back to back with the first made it too much of a good thing, and not quite as sustainedly funny for me.  The Appendix is brilliant though!  I shall have a gap before embarking on reading the others in the series.  (8.5/10)

Recommended for anyone who enjoys a good chuckle, and likes playing spot the joke.

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I bought my copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Pirates! in an Adventure with Scientists
The Pirates! in an Adventure with Moby Dick

Murder – the lawyer’s tale

The Child Who by Simon Lelic

After writing a spec fiction thriller for his second novel The Facility, review here, Lelic returns to give us a different take on familiary territory for his third. His stunning debut Rupture, review here, was a Whydunnit which explored how a teacher came to murder his pupils. The Child Who takes its inspiration from the tragic murder of Jamie Bulger, but frames its story through the eyes of a child murderer’s solicitor.

Leo Curtice is a jobbing solicitor based in Exeter, used to picking up all the drunk and disorderly cases at the weekends, and thinking there must be more to life than this. Then one day, he’s the duty solicitor when the call comes about a new case –  “I think you should take this,” he’s told, and he says yes. This is where Leo’s life changes forever.

Leo is introduced to Daniel.  Daniel is twelve, they say he murdered Felicity Forbes, his classmate. Her body was found in the river. Daniel has clammed up and Leo has to find a way to get him to communicate. The police have a witness and evidence.  Could diminished responsibility be a defence strategy?

This case should be the making of Leo’s career, but in defending a child murderer, Leo is unprepared for everything else that happens. In a kind of reverse Stockholm syndrome he finds himself bonding with Daniel, much to his wife and teenaged daughter Ellie’s utter disgust. They can’t understand why he’s putting the case before them, and he can’t see that it’s hurting their relationship. He hadn’t accounted either for the reaction of the public – everyone hates a child murderer, and they hate him for defending his client.  This hatred extends to Leo’s family, and it soon escalates out of control; his daughter gets bullied at school, he gets pelted with eggs going into court. He can’t let go of the case, but there’s a lot worse still to come…

In The Child Who, Lelic once more shows his abilities to get under the skin of his subject and by approaching it from a different angle finding a new way of telling a story. It may lack the freshness of Rupture with its unique reveal structure, but it doesn’t have his debut’s slightly clichéd lead character of a policewoman who has to try too hard.

Instead, in Leo we have a man who is jaded and on the edge of a mid-life crisis, a state of mind which, when offered this stimilus takes over until it is too late. Leo is fully formed, and we see almost everything through his lens, knowing no more than he does at any time. Because of this obsession, his wife and daughter become rather sidelined as characters at the start allowing Daniel to dominate, which allows Lelic to comment on how the system treats young offenders. Notably, the victim and her family scarcely feature at all.

Less of a legal drama, more a psycho-thriller, the moral dilemmas are disturbing which make this an uneasy yet compelling read, and confirm Lelic’s status as a literary star in the making. (8.5/10)

See what some others thought of The Child Who: Reader Dad, Farm Lane Books and David Hebblethwaite.

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My copy was supplied by the Amazon Vine programme.
To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
The Child Who by Simon Lelic, pub Mantle books, Jan 2012, hardback 320 pages.
Rupture, The Facilityalso by Simon Lelic, paperbacks.

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