The Book of Whispers – Kimberley Starr

9781925355512-1In the 11th century, young Tuscan, Luca de Falconi, joins a crusade with his father, the Conte. However, Luca isn’t any ordinary crusader – he can see demons and his father shows him a secret book held by the family written in an indecipherable language. It soon becomes apparent that there are some sinister forces at work, and the princes and clergy leading the crusade are inept, corrupt, or both.

When they reach Anatolia, Luca takes pity on a young woman, who wants to join them. Suzan’s mother is a mute, and is reviled by the members of a convent where she occupies a cell – like Luca, she is not what she seems, and neither is Suzan. Providentially Suzan is able to read the mysterious language of the book and she and Luca work out that the demons, who desire human bodies, are planning something when the crusaders makes it to Jerusalem.

There are trials and tribulations for Suzan and Luca along the way as they try to decipher the meaning of the book and survive the various skirmishes and sieges. Starr does not hold back on the violence and dubious nature of the crusade. The period description is rich in detail, even if the language, thoughts and relationships of the characters have a decidedly modern feel.

There is quite a complex plot, and the story is drawn along well by the device of the book, however, I thought some of the threads were tangential or not worked through properly, possibly because there may be a sequel in the making.

“The Book of Whispers” won the Text prize for an unpublished YA manuscript.

Spec Fic Reading Challenge 2

griffinOops. Having been doing too well with this one – supposed to be 12 books in 12 months of spec fiction by women writers I haven’t read before. Trying to find books to read, I realise how much more fantasy than science fiction there is by women writers, and I didn’t really want to commit to a lot of big fat fantasy books (though I do like fantasy). Anyhow I have read two more suspects for this challenge: The Year of the Griffin by Diana Wynne Jones – wacky and a lot of fun with an oversized Griffin, Elda, as the endearing heroine. Wynne Jones is very good at misfits finding a way to fit in to their world. The other book is The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E Pearson. Jenna has been in a car accident and wakes up after being in a coma for eighteen months. Her scientist parents have whisked her away to the jenna3country to recuperate. Jenna’s grandmother is strangely hostile to her and Jenna tries desperately to remember the past through videos her parents have made from key periods of her life. This perfect ‘Jenna’ seems quite distant to the Jenna watching them – her nightmares suggest something different – and why can she remember word for word the whole text of Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ but not what happened to her two years ago? An interesting novel about identity and ethics – not surprisingly it’s taught in schools.

Travelling to Infinity – Jane Hawking

infinityThe photo on the front cover of Jane Hawking’s autobiography of her long marriage to Stephen Hawking shows a bookish long-haired Jane and a mop haired, handsome Stephen Hawking – both look cool and stylishly 60s. Yes, they did fall in love in the sixties – he a brilliant PhD student at Cambridge, she a languages student in London. The window for young love was terribly narrow as Stephen was given the motor neurone disease diagnosis in his early twenties – when he asked her to marry him he knew his prognosis, and so did she. The doctors gave him only a few years to live – they thought they should enjoy married life while they could; Jane tells us she loved him, and so of course she would marry him.

Her parents were less sanguine, and so were his, although, as it transpired they appeared to hand over responsibility for Stephen totally to Jane, and it was not long until that responsibility was particularly onerous.

One of the problems, perhaps, with this book is that it is, necessarily one sided – it’s Jane’s story. But that is the interest of it – it appears to be scrupulously honest, detailed, reflective and unflinching. We are given enough detail and context to make up our own minds.

In another writer’s hands, this account of a marriage, an astounding career, the visceral trials of disability, a family under strain and, ultimately, various degrees of betrayal, could have been prurient. But Jane goes to great lengths to show her love and dedication to Stephen, and to give credit to his work but we also see the increasing strain of it all, and how the struggling family is left to cope on their own (amazingly, it was not until very late in the piece that they got any nursing or home help at all).

On the face of it, they had an enviable life – Stephen was recognised early as a brilliant mind and he was given a number of posts at a college at Cambridge university. They lived in a heritage house in Little St Mary’s Lane close to the uni and the river, but the reality was the ‘posts’ Stephen held were paid miserably and the house was small, cramped and uncomfortable (he couldn’t teach so he didn’t go through the normal academic trajectory). Children soon came and Jane had to raise toddlers as well as assist Stephen who deteriorated quickly. Stephen insisted she go with him overseas to awards and conferences, to further his career, dragging the kids. She was privileged to go all over the world (the account of Soviet-era Russia is particularly interesting) but it was an incredible strain, and Stephen’s wishes were always paramount.

Jane makes much of how the wives were known as physics widows. Many of these women (Jane included) were qualified and intellectually gifted, but the physics always came first, and it would be beyond the pale to put your own interests before, you know, little things like: ‘the origin of the universe’, ‘black holes’ and ‘the theory of everything’. As the years wore on and Stephen became more severely disabled, he seemed to become more determined, more autocratic and demanding. Jane would be the first to say he was courageous in his suffering – before he had a tracheotomy, he had coughing fits during which he must have thought he was dying – but he appears to have utter confidence in his superiority and importance, and complete belief that Jane should devote her life to him, even above the children.

My reading is that Stephen was a complete tyrant, maybe he had to be to survive. On the positive side he loved his children, even though, and much to Jane’s bitter regret, he relied heavily on his eldest son (Robert) to help him physically, the responsibility depriving Robert of part of his childhood.

I couldn’t help but be on Jane’s side in this book. She was not a paragon of virtue but she did devote much of her young adult life, and middle age, to Stephen – she did manage to complete a PhD herself in this time but it took her over ten years to do so.

As is often the case in marriage breakups, when Stephen made a significant amount of money from the immense success of ‘A Brief History of Time’ Jane didn’t get to see the proceeds. As Stephen became more and more successful and famous, his body became more and more infirm – in the later stages of the marriage they could finally afford nurses to help look after Stephen. But for Jane this wasn’t a much-awaited respite but just more worry as the nurses squabbled, or were neglectful, or treated the family with contempt. Jane hated that the family, especially the school-aged children, had to relinquish their privacy.

The advent of the nurses also, unwittingly, brought about the end of the marriage. Stephen left the family for one of the nurses, Elaine Mason. By all accounts, Elaine appeared to idolise Stephen – she would berate Jane, accusing her of not giving up everything for Stephen, the great man. Jane, by her own account, was shell-shocked at Stephen’s request for a divorce, however, from an outsider’s viewpoint her (admittedly platonic) relationship with another man – Jonathan – over many years, must have allowed Stephen to feel he was justified in looking elsewhere. Jonathan did help the family with assisting with meals, chores, transport and physically helping Stephen but, if Jane and he were in love, it must have been obvious to everyone and humiliating for Stephen, although he never said so. Perhaps it took Elaine to point it out.

The whole Stephen/Elaine thing takes up very little space in this long book, and Jane doesn’t dwell on it. You can learn more online about the accusations of abuse and the subsequent divorce. For Jane’s part, she married Jonathan, renovated a house in France and wrote her own very successful book. Latterly, it appears that Stephen and Jane have become friends again – apparently Stephen thought the film made of their early life ‘The Theory of Everything’ was a pretty accurate account – perhaps flattered at Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of him – that would be just like Stephen’s immense ego.

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.

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