Spec Fic Reading Challenge

Okay. I don’t know why I’ve done this, especially as it is already July but I’m doing a Worlds Without JTEnd “Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge” – 12 books in 12 months. The idea is to read spec fiction and fantasy by women writers you haven’t read before. Looking over my ‘read’ books for this year, I notice I have already read a few:

  • “Juniper Time” by Kate Wilhelm. This spec fiction novel was written in 1978 and I was drawn to its funky cover. Jean is a post-grad linguist working in a university in the US in a time of society breakdown. If you have a job, you’re protected but she can’t continue to work for her compromised boss so she leaves and for a time lives in a decaying ‘new town’. After being attacked she flees to her grandfather’s old abandoned ranch. Meanwhile her childhood friend Cluny is an astronaut but the space station he works on is slated for closure until a mysterious object is found Witchweekfloating in space near it. Both Cluny’s father and Jean’s were astronauts – both dying in suspicious circumstances. The threads link when Jean is called on to try to decipher what is written on the extraterrestrial object. I enjoyed this book but it was extremely strange and oblique with a lot of philosophising.
  • “Witch Week” Diana Wynne Jones. This is a wonderful children’s book about orphan children of witches who have been liquidated by the state. In school any hint of magical abilities could prove fatal. It is funny, clever, tense, with great characters. Written in 1982, it predates “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, but it is similar in many ways. Fantastic – I definitely will read the others in the series.Uprooted
  • “Uprooted” by Naomi Novik. This fantasy, again featuring a witch, is influenced by Eastern European fairytales. Agnieszka is a peasant girl who is chosen by a wizard, the Dragon, to live in his castle for ten years. Girls (as servants) are selected in return for the wizard protecting the villagers of the valley from the sinister, encroaching forest. Agnieszka turns out to have magical abilities much to the annoyance of the Dragon. She has to learn to use them in time to help him ward off the growing power of the forest. Quite a lot of fun but it gets darker as the story progresses.
  • “Blythewood” by Carol Goodman. For some reason this novel is not on the Worlds BlythewoodWithout End database so I can’t include it in the challenge. This is YA boarding school fantasy. It starts with Avaline being rescued from a fire at the sweat house where she’s forced to work after her mother dies. The rescuer is a strangely attractive man who flees the scene afterwards. Her mother’s strange past is crystallised when Avaline gains entry to the prestigious Blythewood Academy. Naturally the students aren’t normal students and Blythewood is a place where they train to fight evil forces. There are some YA aspects that are a bit annoying, but on the whole it is an exciting and absorbing read. There are two sequels so far – “Ravencliffe” and “Hawthorn”.

So now to find some more women SF writers that I haven’t read. I have Marge Piercy’s “Woman on the Edge of Time” in my sights.

Gentlemen and Players – Joanne Harris

Gentlemen and PlayersJoanne Harris is a interesting writer – very diverse in her output. I started out with her where most people did, “Chocolat” in 1999. It wasn’t really my sort of book but the fantasy element with its whiff of witchcraft was intriguing. Over the years, I looked at her other books but they didn’t appeal (“Five Quarters of the Orange”, “Coastliners”). I then came across “The Evil Seed”Harris’s first published book (1989)– a wonderful contemporary vampire thriller. I have no idea why this terrific book is not better known. A lot of her bibliographies, don’t include it at all. I then read Jigs and Reels, a satisfying collection of her short stories, and then the horribly titled “Lollipop Shoes”, which follows Chocolat’s heroine Vianne and her two daughters who are now living in Montmartre, and what happens when the seductively sinister Zozie comes into their lives. (I note that this book was later retitled The Girl with No Shadow for some editions).

I gave “Gentlemen and Players” to a relative for a present. When they didn’t read it for a couple of years, I repatriated it back to my place. They missed out on a fantastic suspense novel, cleverly constructed and compulsively readable. It is set in a boys’ boarding school, St Oswald’s, and has two narrators. One is the working class offspring of the school’s loyal ‘poThe evil seedrter’. Harris portrays a character who is both envious of the advantages of the wealthy boys at the school, who is unconfident and jealous, but also, especially in this person’s older voice, deliciously cynical, cutting and conniving. The other narrator is the about-to-retire classics master – also cynical about the school and the powers that be there but someone who is good at his job and liked by the boys (this is a lovely portrayal reminiscent of Mr Chips or, albeit is a less schmaltzy form, the teacher in Dead Poets Society).

We soon find out that our first narrator has infiltrated the school as a teacher and is now bent on wreaking revenge for a wrong that is slowly revealed through the story. The revenge starts out in small ways, things going missing and innocents being blamed, graffiti scrawled on teachers’ homes, but is then ratcheted up: pornography found on teachers’ computers and students going missing. Our narrator is keeping the classics master for a final coup de grace or, more appropriately, check mate. My edition of the novel has chess pieces to represent the two narrators – a white king for the classics master and a black pawn for the other narrator. The sections of the book also refer to a game of chess, and that’s what it is in the end as the two narrators battle it out for who will survive.

I’ve been careful what I’ve said here because there is a huge twist at the end that it would be unfair to reveal. Most reviewers have praised this device but I felt it wasn’t necessary. It is one of those twists which make you go back over the book to work out how you were fooled. Nevertheless “Gentlemen and Players” really is a virtuoso example of suspense writing.

Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles

EW HarpI stumbled across this American Civil War novel and was enticed by its lovely cover (the horse one). Reserve it at the local library and when it arrives it has the Fourth Estate UK 2002 cover of made-up soulful woman, wistfully staring down emphasising the so-called love element. Did they actually read the book? Yes, our heroine, Adair Colley, after her father is attacked and taken away by Union militia, after her house burnt down, after she and her young sisters join the trail of refugees, and after she’s wrongly accused of collaboration and hauled away to prison, having to leave her sisters to their fate – yes, only then, after all that, does she find herself attracted to her Union interrogator who just wants to leave the war behind and make a new life out West.

But no sooner do our erstwhile lovers declare their feelings, than Adair has to escape the prison before being hanged, while her lover, Major Neumann, is sent to join a fighting unit. Adair is on the run again, and believing her father is dead, she intends, as a fugitive, to make her way back to the remains of the family farm.Enemy Women orig cover

This is a dark, dark story where murderous militia roam the land attacking and looting farms, raping and murdering. Adair’s one true love (and, yes, I know that should be Neumann!) is for the horse Whiskey that her father bought her just before he was arrested: she will do almost anything for Whiskey who was stolen, along with anything else of value, from their farm. Horse stealing and trading was a lucrative business and Adair stumbles on the stolen Whisky. She steals him back and girl and horse go on an epic, dangerous journey. But it’s not pretty, it’s frightening, gory and some parts I just couldn’t read.

Adair is a wonderful character: wilful, resourceful, strange, and Jiles’ portrayal of a nightmarish, but also stunningly beautiful, Missouri is fairly amazing. Apparently the role of the militias was swept under the carpet after the Union victory and Jiles did years of research to bring us this tale. The violence was way too graphic for me but I guess part of what the author wanted to do was bring it into the light. So, beware the romantic cover – the later cover with dramatic horse and rider gives a better indication of what the novel is really like. It’s a rollicking, wild, absorbing read.

Black Rabbit Hall – Eve Chase

Black_rabbitLuckily, with novels, usually you can tell from the subject, the tone, the style of writing and the characters whether it is going to be your sort of book or not pretty much straight up. Black Rabbit Hall by Eve Chase was unusual for me in that I loved the strand set in the late 60s with young heroine, Amber, and her family but was left cold by the contemporary strand centred around Lorna. While there was drama and interest in the first strand, and a tragedy that pulls the family apart with far-reaching consequences, twenty-something contemporary Lorna is self-satisfied, dull and annoying – the plot device that links her to Black Rabbit Hall is unbelievable and unlikely, and while she has to confront something in her past, her tribulations are trivial compared to those of the earlier family. There is also a light-hearted silliness in the contemporary strand that sat uneasily with the tension and growing unease in the 60s storyline, for me. This miscalculation was such a pity as Chase creates-a wonderful portrait of the Alton family, especially the children and Amber’s close, but fraught, relationship with her twin brother Toby. When the tragedy occurs and all sorts of strains are placed on the family, we really do get drawn into their world and a sense of rising crisis when a step mother and her handsome son are inserted into it. Amber’s innocence but also her need to grow up is poignantly and sensitively done.

I could hardly bear to read the pat ending to this book, when Lorna comes into her own. I don’t think she deserved her redemption. I won’t do a spoiler but the ending really made me angry like it was some sort of tacked on finery designed to pretty up the picture, but which in reality dragged it all down.

Top books 2015

A_Thousand_AcresIt’s probably a bit late in the day for this but here goes. Of course I loved all seven of the Harry Potters as I unabashedly admit here – they will always have a place in my heart. Nevertheless, my top read for 2015 was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I had heard of this book, first published in 1991, so I bought a secondhand copy that, unfortunately had Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange in a schmaltzy embrace on the cover, so I put it aside (I seem to have missed ‘winner of the Pulitzer prize’ at the top). For some reason I picked it up early last year. I was sucked in to this muscular family saga immediately. She’s such a great writer – her characters might, at first glance, look like all-American mid-west people, but they are anything but – they seethe with ambition, jealously, violence, lust. With resonances of King Lear (a father who decides to leave the running of the rich family acreage to his three daughters) it zings with tension and betrayal. Smiley is Book-cover-Wildwriting a new family saga trilogy starting with Some Luck and Early Warning. They are big books so I’m leaving a bit of space before I tackle them.

My second favourite book for the year was Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. Some readers might be put off by the ‘self-help’ implications of the title but this is an extremely cleverly-written book. Just how Strayed can make a story of walking by herself through the wilderness for a couple of months so compelling, to my way of thinking, is a masterclass in non-fiction writing. By the end, you’ve really gone on that body-breaking trip with her: she’s an everywoman of her time. I did cry when she came to the end of the trail and the story.

Thoughts on Harry Potter covers

HP French DeathlyThe French editions have very evocative covers – take the one for The Deathly Hallows. A title that always sounded funny to me, although beautifully sad. Apparently hallow means:

1.  to make holy; sanctify; consecrate.

2. Obsolete to honour as holy.

Perhaps the French title is more accurate: et les reliques de la mort.

On this cover Harry stares out pensively to the sea as he does when he is at Bill and Fleur’s cliff top house, Shell Cottage, and wrestling with his own destiny.

On the new Bloomsbury cover below, they concentrate on the final fight between Voldemort and Harry and, strangely make Harry look quite young, although he is 17 in this book. The covers have ravishing colours and are very dynamic but they manage to keep the cartoonish element of the original covers.

The Telegraph (UK) newspaper has a comparison between the old and new covers, which is quite interesting.New deathly Hallows

I also love the French cover for the first book. The bemused, but also hopeful, expression on the faces of Harry, Hermione and Ron kitted up in their robes and witches’ hats. Interestingly the French weren’t too squeamish to highlight the witch/wizard aspect with related paraphernalia. Remember the brouhaha in the US about the supernatural elements? The original Scholastic (US) edition cover for The Sorcerer’s Stone did include Harry riding his broomstick but in a fairly understated way where the broomstick in question could easily be a BMX bike. I could only find a small thumbnail of this cover but you can make him out zooming into a tower at Hogwarts, tiny cape flying ans wearing jeans and a sweater.

Sorcerer's_stone_coverharrypotterfrance

A year of reading Harry Potter

HP-and-the-philosophers-stone-original I was a bit of a book snob in my younger years and eschewed Harry Potter, buying in to all the other snobby things that were said about JK Rowling – that she was a pedestrian writer, that it was infantile for adults to read the Potter books, that the best thing you could say about Rowling was that she got kids reading.

Of course there is something annoying about one writer becoming so incredibly wealthy and feted, while other fantasy writers, arguably just as good, sold many fewer books and were much less well-known. There is something not right about a publishing industry that concentrates so much on a small number of authors who they promote to the hilt, while letting others wither. But all this should not have stopped me giving the Potter books a go.

I’m sure I would have been hooked, even back then. I remember a co-worker suggesting I buy The Philosophers Stone for one of my young nephews when it first came out. I dropped in to Better Read Than Dead in Newtown but thought the cover looked silly and Harry-potter-new-chamber-of-secrets-cover-630comicky and didn’t buy it (the publishers did recognise this fact and put out various editions so that adults and older readers wouldn’t be embarrassed to be seen reading them). I bought The Subtle Knife instead and so got us all hooked on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (equally fantastic).

Anyhow if I had become a Potter fan in 1997, like everyone else I would have had to wait a year or two between instalments (how on earth did all the kids bear that?). So in 2015 I finally got around to reading a second-hand copy of The Philosopher’s Stone that I had in the bookshelf for years. I was then ushered in to the mysteriously enveloping world of the Potterverse, as they like to call it. How on earth does she do it? What exactly is it about Harry Potter than is so utterly absorbing? I don’t know that I exactly have the answer because, in my opinion, what shouldn’t work, does absolutely, without a doubt.

I will note that with the later books, it did take me longer to get into the story but after HP good quality prisonerfifty or sixty pages, she always had me hooked. It’s like a big wave comes over you and you’re in.

So, what is it? Some of it is the misunderstood child – the child with special abilities shunned by their society (the Dursleys) having to find their place. In the beginning Harry is totally at sea, not knowing that he is from wizarding stock. Like the reader, he has to find out all about the new world of Hogwarts and the fun really begins in Diagon Alley when he has to select a wand, gets his robes, cauldron, owl etc.

The beautifully detailed world of Hogwarts is the next deeply satisfying element. Rowling creates a wonderfully described world, the type of school everyone would have liked to have gone to. Who doesn’t desire a dining hall where the ceiling dissolves to show the night sky above, where candelabras hover and scrumptious food magically appears on plates?

goblet of fireHarry, despite his scar and the mystery surrounding his birth, or perhaps because of it, is an outsider. He hooks up with two other outsiders, the bookish, too-serious Hermione and the fairly inept, lacking-in-confidence Ron. I loved Hermione and identified with her wanting to make the most out of what Hogwarts offered – the classes: ‘potions’, ‘herbology’, ‘transfiguration’, ‘charms’, ‘divination’, ‘care of magical creatures’ and of course ‘defence against the dark arts’ are some of the most fun aspects of the books (not to mention the fun to be had with the spells and their latinese names lumos, expelliarmus, protego, leviosa, reparo – so hard learnt in the early books and then used as second-nature in the later ones). Ron, I wasn’t so keen on but I saw, in the end, how his humour and matter-of-factness was a necessary aid to Harry as the books become darker and he comes to realise the full, terrible intent of his fight with Voldemort.

The other thing that is so satisfying is the way Rowling puts the books together. Each book is excellently plotted with its own complex mystery to be solved, but the sense of an HP Phoenixoverarching purpose is maintained. I was always a bit confused about how the Hogwarts/wizarding world fitted in with the ordinary (muggle) world but Rowling does explain this as the books progress. The whole narrative, that eventually brings in the backstory of Harry’s parents, Dumbeldore and Voldemort, is a huge, complex jigsaw puzzle that, in the end, you realise Rowling was totally in control of. (By the way, this is something that is missed in the films. Maybe it was because things had to be telegraphed to get into two or three hours, but it was hard to tell what was going on for most of the time. There was much that was fantastic about the characters in the films – Rickman as Snape, Smith as McGonnagall, both Dumbledores, and the three of Harry, Ron and Hermione were spot on – and the set design/mis en scene was wonderful – but the actual storyline??)

Does that explain it? Does Rowling key into the tropes of the hero’s journey, the story that is supposed to be hardwired into our consciousness – you know: the call to a quest, the  French_Book_6_Coverrefusal, the mentor, the cave, realisation, the facing of the enemy, the return etc.? Of course she does but so do many other writers who have not achieved her fame.

I feel it is more about the strong pull of childhood when we are free of responsibilities and can live in the imagination. Boarding school (for all its horrors in the real world) it a place away from the restrictive world of parents where we can be actualised as individuals, where new possibilities open up to us. I believe we are all terribly nostalgic for that time. I know I am.

Farewell Potterverse (sniff).

Jack of Spades – Joyce Carol Oates

spadesWriters like to write about writers and the hero of this comic thriller is Andrew J Rush, a successful mystery writer. Rush is quite chuffed when a reviewer calls him the gentlemanly Stephen King but as becomes more and more apparent as the novel progressives it’s probably the Stephen King likeness rather than the gentlemanly, that he values. Unbeknownst to his wife and his agent, Rush has an alter ego in the form of ‘Jack of Spades’, the name he uses as a pseudonym for  other books he publishes. While Rush’s other writing is ‘gentlemanly’, Jack of Spades’ work is brutal and crude, so much so that when rush’s college student daughter spies one of the Jack of Spades books in her father’s study and decides to read it, she is appalled.

Things start to unravel when someone called C W Haider sues Rush for plagiarism. The depiction of the flash New York lawyer that Rush’s publisher assigns to defend him is skewered beautifully by Oates, as is the machinations of Haider, who turns out to be a serial litigant (and, yes, she has also accused Stephen King of stealing from her [Haider’s] self-published works).

Rush, who, when we first meet him as a successful, controlled individual would have let the lawyer do his worst, and not become involved. But Rush has started drinking and can’t sleep: Jack of Spades is whispering in his ear, and by degrees, he starts to bThe_Museum_of_Dr._Mosesecome indiscreet and obsessed by Haider, and his carefully compartmentalised life begins to fall apart.

This is a slight book, but satisfyingly written. The spoof on writers, success, fans and publishing is spot on.

Oates’ dark edge is not so obvious here but is very evident in The Museum of Dr Moses, a creepy collection of stories I recently read by her.

Mocking-bird or why I won’t be reading Go Set a Watchman

watchblueWhy I won’t be reading Go Set a Watchman.

I have been watching the reviews of Watchman and waiting for someone to call a spade a spade, but the first reviews were insipidly, mildly positive, only commenting on the shock to readers that Atticus Finch, now 72, has turned racist.

Anyone taking an interest in how the manuscript was ‘found’ and the present life of Harper Lee must have smelt a rat, or to use a current turn of phrase, it doesn’t pass the sniff test. We know that Harper Lee is elderly, deaf and with diminishing eyesight. We know she lives quietly in Monroeville, the town on which To Kill a Mockingbird’s Maycomb is based, and has lived there since the 60s. We know that Lee has not given interviews over the years and that Lee had a protective sister, Alice (a lawyer), who died last year.

We also know that the manuscript for Watchman was ‘found’ in a safety security box a few years ago along with Lee’s will.

It is also evident that had Harper Lee wanted to publish Watchman she could have done so at any time in the last 50 years and she would have then been able to rewrite, revise etc. Obviously, given that the depiction of Atticus (reportedly based on her father) would have been hurtful, she may have been loath to do so, yet, also obviously, she was prepared to publish in the late 50s when she presented the manuscript to a literary agent.

At the time of first writing Watchman Lee was living in New York – a young woman trying to make her way as a writer in the big smoke and, we can assume, attempting to break away from her roots in Monroeville at a time of the growing civil rights movement.

WatchorangeAfter the phenomenal success of Mockingbird, Lee retreated from public life and returned to live quietly in Alabama.

From all accounts Watchman is not a polished work but retains many of the hallmarks of a draft novel.

What writer would be happy to have a preliminary novel published without the chance to revise? It is also reported that Lee did not want anything changed on the manuscript.

One may ask oneself, who wins from this publication? Not Lee and her reputation as a novelist. She must already be a wealthy woman and so would not need the money. The novel reportedly is critical of Monroeville, albeit, in the 60s, yet Lee still lives there, and is now embroiled in the controversy that has arisen from the novel.

As they say, follow the money trail.

Of course a lot of people will read Watchman out of curiosity but if you are going to spend your money on a novel why, oh why, not spend it on the hundreds, thousands, of other brilliant novels out there by new, emerging or mid-career novelists. Yes, I know the argument that when multinational publishers (HarperCollins in this instance) have a bestseller, it fills their coffers and they can then support (take a punt on) new writers. I’ll counter that with, when a reader buys a book that is hyped up and they are then disappointed with it, they may not be willing to buy another.

I am not sorry that Watchman has been shown the light of day. It is important for literary scholars and, as many have said, it does give a fascinating insight into the antecedence of To Kill a Mockingbird and how rewriting and ‘re-envisaging’ can work so well.

The best review I have read so far is by Robert McCrum in The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jul/19/go-set-watchman-harper-lee-review-literary-curiosity.