TBR Thursday 146…

Episode 146…

The Big Drop has begun! The TBR has fallen by a massive two this week, to 214. Told you! You just wait… you’re going to be stunned at how fast it comes down…

Here are a few more that have their skis on…

Nature

This has been on my TBR since September 2013, so it’s probably time to get around to reading it! It comes highly recommended by my oldest* blog buddy, Lady Fancifull.

(*oldest in the sense of going furthest back – like myself, she’s eternally youthful…)

The Blurb says: For many years Andrew Greig saw the poet Norman MacCaig as a father figure. Months before his death, MacCaig’s enigmatic final request to Greig was that he fish for him at the Loch of the Green Corrie; the location, even the real name of his destination was more mysterious still. His search took in days of outdoor living, meetings, and fishing with friends in the remote hill lochs of far North-West Scotland. It led, finally, to the waters of the Green Corrie, which would come to reflect Greig’s own life, his thoughts on poetry, geology and land ownership in the Highlands and the ambiguous roles of whisky, love and male friendship.

At the Loch of the Green Corrie is a richly atmospheric narrative, a celebration of losing and recovering oneself in a unique landscape, the consideration of a particular culture, and a homage to a remarkable poet and his world.

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Crime

Who knew actor Robert Daws writes books? Certainly not me, till I read about it on The Quiet Geordie’s excellent blog. Since I love his acting, I was intrigued, so entered The Quiet Geordie’s giveaway – and won! The prize was two of his books, of which this is the first…

The Blurb says: The Rock. Gibraltar. 1966. In a fading colonial house the dead body of a beautiful woman lays dripping in blood. The Rock. Present day. Detective Sergeant Tamara Sullivan arrives on The Rock on a three-month secondment from the London Metropolitan Police Service. Her reasons for being here are not happy ones, and she braces herself for a tedious 12 weeks in the sun. After all, murders are rare on the small, prosperous and sun-kissed Rock of Gibraltar and catching murderers is what Sullivan does best. It is a talent Sullivan shares with her new boss, Chief Inspector Gus Broderick of the Royal Gibraltar Police Force. He’s an old-fashioned cop who regards his new colleague with mild disdain. But when a young police constable is found hanging from the ceiling of his apartment, Sullivan and Broderick begin to unravel a dark and dangerous secret that will test their skills and working relationship to the limit.

* * * * *

Crime

Courtesy of Endeavour Press via MidasPR. No little story behind this one – I just thought the blurb sounded intriguing…

The Blurb says: Chris Peters loves his work in a multi-national bank: the excitement of the trading floor, the impossible deadlines and the constant challenge of the superfast computers in his care. And he loves his beautiful wife, Olivia. But over time, the dream turns sour. His systems crash, the traders turn on him, and Olivia becomes angry and disillusioned. So much bad luck.

Or is it? A natural detective, Chris finds evidence of something sinister in the mysterious meltdown of a US datacentre. A new kind of terrorist. But can he get anyone to believe him? His obsessive search leads him to a jihadist website, filled with violent images; a man beaten to a pulp in a Dubai carpark; and a woman in a gold sari dancing in the flames of her own destruction. Slowly, a tragic story from decades ago in Yemen emerges.

Too late, Chris understands the nature of the treachery, so close to him. His adversary knows every move and is ready to strike. Even his boss agrees: if this program is run, it will destroy this bank as surely as a neutron bomb. And Chris Peters has 48 hours to figure it out…

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Mythology on Audio

I picked this up as one of Audible’s Daily Deals. (In case anyone doesn’t already know, each day they reduce the price of one of their titles to a pound or two, and you don’t need a membership to buy them. I’ve snaffled some great sounding books over the last few months, including this.) I’m not so sure about the reading outside on a freezing night – I’m more of a comfy sofa, blanket and hot chocolate kind of girl…

The Blurb says: Norse mythology forms the delicate backbone of countless modern stories. Fascinating, dramatic and deliberate, with a gripping tension and vitality, the best-selling author of American Gods brings these Norse tales to life.

The great Norse myths are woven into the fabric of our storytelling – from Tolkien, Alan Garner and Rosemary Sutcliff to Game of Thrones and Marvel Comics. They are also an inspiration for Neil Gaiman’s own award-bedecked, best-selling fiction. Now he reaches back through time to the original source stories in a thrilling and vivid rendition of the great Norse tales. Gaiman’s gods are thoroughly alive – irascible, visceral, playful and passionate – and the tales carry us from the beginning of everything to Ragnarök and the twilight of the gods. Galvanised by Gaiman’s prose, Thor, Loki, Odin and Freya are irresistible forces for modern listeners, and the crackling, brilliant writing demands to be heard around an open fire on a freezing, starlit night.

* * * * *

NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads or Audible.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

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Five of the Best!

FIVE 5-STAR READS
JULY

SMILEYS

Each month this year, I’ll be looking back over my reviews of the past five years and picking out my favourite from each year. Cleo from Cleopatra Loves Books came up with this brilliant idea and kindly agreed to let me borrow it.

So here are my favourite July reads…click on the covers to go to the full reviews, though it must be said my early reviews were somewhat basic…

 

2011

 

testament of a witchThis is the second in a series of historical crime novels set in the late 17th century just before the dawn of the Scottish Enlightenment. On checking it appears that the next one has just been released, 4 years later. Douglas Watt is a ‘proper’ historian, so one assumes his day job must have got in the way. This works excellently as a standalone, though – well written, historically insightful and with a solid plot based on the concerns of the time – treasonable plots, religious division, superstition and witch-hunts. Through the two main characters, rationalist John MacKenzie and Presbyterian Davie Scougall, Watt sheds a good deal of light on the political, religious and cultural concerns of the times and foreshadows the move towards Enlightenment thinking in the following century. But he doesn’t let the history get in the way of the story-telling, as MacKenzie must try to prevent the daughter of a friend from being burned as a witch.  The descriptions of how witches were identified and dealt with are both fascinating and horrifying. A couple of chapters are written in Scots dialect but not broadly enough to cause problems for a non-Scottish reader to understand.

 

2012

 

shakespeare's restless worldThis set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor (of A History of the World in 100 Objects fame) discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day.

MacGregor is excellent, clearly an enthusiast both for his subject and for sharing his knowledge. Each episode focuses on one object linked to an aspect of the plays – for example, a model ship leads us to the witches in MacBeth – and then MacGregor tells us of how that would have resonated at the time, when witches were still credited with the power of raising storms, causing shipwrecks etc. Every episode, though short, is packed full of information, interestingly told. If you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series, which is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself.

 

2013

 

burial rites

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is a fictionalized account of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, condemned to die for her part in the murder of two men, one her lover. While waiting for the date of execution to be set, Agnes is put into the custody of Jón and Margrét Jónsson and, at Agnes’ request, a young priest, Reverend Tóti, is given the task of preparing Agnes spiritually for her death. At first the family are horrified to have a murderess amongst them, while Tóti doubts his own experience and ability to help Agnes find some kind of repentance and acceptance. But as summer fades into the long, harsh winter, Agnes gradually breaks her silence and begins to reveal her story of what led to that night…

Beautiful, sometimes poetic, writing, excellent characterisation and a haunting and heartbreaking plot, but what lifts this to the top ranks of literary fiction is the atmospheric depiction of the life and landscape of this remote community in the cold and dark of an Icelandic winter. A fabulous book that I felt was cheated by not being included on the shortlist for that year’s Booker.

 

2014

 

the truth is a caveI described this book as stunning at the time and that still seems like the right word. A dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth – the story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. Do click on the cover to see the review, where I included some pictures of the illustrations. As the story gets darker some of the later pictures are truly macabre and unforgettable. And the story itself is wonderfully haunting – one I remember very distinctly more than a year after reading it. I’ve read this in another collection without pictures, and it’s only about half as effective, so I strongly urge anyone who wants to read it to go for the graphic version – the paper one. A superb book.

 

2015

 

sunset song 2Considered to be one of the greatest Scottish novels of the 20th century, this first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, is a lament for the passing of a way of life. It tells the story of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. As war approaches, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. But he also shows that the community was changing already, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. And as he brings his characters together once again after the war ends, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again. A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman (Audiobook)

trigger warningMixed bag…

😀 😀 😀 🙂

This collection of short stories turned out to be something of a mixed bag. Ranging in length from a couple of minutes to an hour and a half (I was listening rather than reading), some of the shorter ones are so fragmentary as to be rather pointless, while a couple of the longer ones feel too long for their content. However there are some excellent stories in here too and, as I’d been told by so many people, Gaiman is a wonderful narrator.

As a fairly new convert to Gaiman’s work I was surprised to find that there are several stories in here that I had already come across elsewhere in other formats. This made me wonder how much new stuff there would be in the book for established fans, so it would probably be wise to check the contents list before purchasing.

There is a long introduction in which Gaiman explains the rationale for the collection. This may have been better if I’d been reading rather than listening, but on the audiobook it takes over an hour, most of which is made up of short introductions to each story explaining the inspiration for it. Some of these short introductions are as long as the stories themselves. I fear I clicked out of the introduction after 20 minutes – snippets of how a story came about because of something some bloke called Jimmy said down the pub one night failed to hold my attention. One of the drawbacks of audio is that it’s not possible to scan read sections like this, as I would with a paper or e-book.

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman

I found the first few stories quite disappointing to be honest. The title, cover and introduction had all led me to think that the stories would be dark and chilling, but a lot of them aren’t. And while I think Gaiman does dark and chilling exceptionally well, I was less enamoured of his musing on the writing process by using a metaphor of making a chair, for example. I also found, and this is down to personal preference, that, of the stories I knew, I had on the whole preferred them in written format. Both Down to the Sunless Sea and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains had worked brilliantly for me when I read them – the first as straight text and the second as a graphic novel – but didn’t have quite the same effect when listening, mainly because, although Gaiman’s narration was excellent, the voices didn’t gel with the ones I’d heard in my head. However, where I hadn’t read a story before, Click-Clack The Rattle Bag, for instance, then the narration often worked superbly.

These three stories were still amongst my favourites in the collection though, and here are another few that I particularly enjoyed:

Adventure story – a son sits with his elderly mother having tea and discussing his father, now deceased. In the course of the conversation his mother reveals the story of an adventure his father once had long ago as a young man. The adventure becomes progressively more fantastical, and the appeal comes from the matter-of-fact way the mother tells it and the son’s astonishment. Quite a short story this one, but cleverly done and enjoyable. I suspect the narration made this one work better than it would have on paper.

The Case of Death and Honey is a rather good spin on the Holmes stories, which provides an explanation for why the great man went off to keep bees at the end of his career. It’s set in China with Holmes on the trail of the answer to the ultimate mystery, and while it is somewhat far-fetched it’s well-written and interesting, and Gaiman’s Holmes feels quite authentic. This is another one I had already come across elsewhere – in the Oxcrimes collection published last year.

Nothing O’Clock is a Doctor Who story and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. It fits perfectly into the Doctor Who style and Gaiman’s narration of the many characters gives a unique voice to each. The story is imaginative and nicely chilling, but of course with the traditional happy ending we expect the Doctor to provide.

So quite a lot of good things in here overall, but also some that I found rather dull or a bit lightweight. A mixed bag – I’d say most readers will find some things to like in the collection but, like me, may also find there’s quite a lot that leaves them a little underwhelmed.

NB This audiobook was provided for review by the publisher, Audible UK.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible US Link

Tuesday Terror! Click-Clack the Rattle Bag by Neil Gaiman

Turn out the lights…

 

On Sunday night, for some reason I couldn’t sleep – a very rare occurrence for me. So I decided to listen to a bit of my current audiobook – Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning – in the dead of night with the lights off. And this little story raised my hair and tingled my spine in the most delicious way, so it just has to be this week’s…

 

Tuesday Terror

Click-Clack the Rattle Bag by Neil Gaiman

 

trigger warning

 

The narrator is staying in his girlfriend’s new house – a rambling old pile with long corridors, creaky floors and dodgy electricity. His girlfriend has gone out to get a takeaway meal, leaving our narrator to look after her young brother. It’s the boy’s bed time, and he asks the narrator to walk up to his bedroom with him and tell him a story before he goes to sleep because, as he explains, he feels a bit scared in the old house and his bedroom is all the way up in the attic. He knows the narrator writes scary stories but says maybe he should tell a not-scary story instead.

spooky house

 

Now our narrator is just a young man himself, so he’s quite proud to have both his bravery and his story-telling skills appealed to in this way. So they leave the sitting-room and go into the corridor. The narrator clicks on the light switch…but nothing happens. Taking the boy’s hand, he sets off along the corridor and up the stairs, lit only by the pale light of the moon shining through the stairwell window. The narrator keeps up a brave face for the boy’s sake even though he’s feeling just a little spooked himself. And as they go, they chat about what story he should tell. The boy asks him if he knows the story of ‘Click-Clack the Rattle Bag’. No, our narrator replies, and so the boy begins to tell him…

Spooky_Moonlight_by_kiebitz

 

It’s only a short story but brilliantly effective, one of these ones that’s really enjoyably scary! The kind of story that a wicked adult might tell to a bunch of kids round a campfire late at night. But I’m going to tell you no more. I don’t think it would be half so much fun to read as to hear, so here’s the man himself reading it superbly. But don’t listen now! Wait until it’s dark, and you’re alone, and the wind is gently rattling through the branches of the trees outside…

 

 

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:         😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!!
It’s a fretful porpentine!!

 

 

TBR Thursday 48…

Episode 48

 

Oh, dear! The TBR has risen to its highest ever level of 138! And since nearly every book I’m reading at the moment is about a million pages long I seem to be getting through fewer than ever. Oh well – could be worse. The chocolate factories could have gone on strike…

Anyway, if I ever get through my current batch, here are a few upcoming delights to tantalize or appal you…

Factual

 

the innocents abroadSince I’m just about to read Huck Finn’s America, I thought I’d follow it up with his travelogue of “Abroad”. Will he convince me he’s an “Innocent” though?

The Blurb says ‘Who could read the programme for the excursion without longing to make one of the party?’

So Mark Twain acclaims his voyage from New York City to Europe and the Holy Land in June 1867. His adventures produced “The Innocents Abroad”, a book so funny and provocative it made him an international star for the rest of his life. He was making his first responses to the Old World – to Paris, Milan, Florence, Venice, Pompeii, Constantinople, Sebastopol, Balaklava, Damascus, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. For the first time he was seeing the great paintings and sculptures of the ‘Old Masters’. He responded with wonder and amazement, but also with exasperation, irritation, disbelief. Above all he displayed the great energy of his humour, more explosive for us now than for his beguiled contemporaries.

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Fiction

 

the amazing adventures of kavalier and klayPart of the Great American Novel Quest. I loved the writing of Telegraph Avenue but wasn’t so sure about its depth. How will this one stack up…?

The Blurb says Joe Kavalier, a young Jewish artist who has also been trained in the art of Houdini-esque escape, has just smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague and landed in New York City. His Brooklyn cousin Sammy Clay is looking for a partner to create heroes, stories, and art for the latest novelty to hit America – the comic book. Drawing on their own fears and dreams, Kavalier and Clay create the Escapist, the Monitor, and Luna Moth, inspired by the beautiful Rosa Saks, who will become linked by powerful ties to both men. With exhilarating style and grace, Michael Chabon tells an unforgettable story about American romance and possibility.

* * * * *

Crime

 

The Shut EyeCourtesy of NetGalley. Love Belinda Bauer, so every new one is a much anticipated treat…

The Blurb says Five footprints are the only sign that Daniel Buck was ever here.

And now they are all his mother has left.

Every day, Anna Buck guards the little prints in the cement. Polishing them to a shine. Keeping them safe. Spiralling towards insanity. When a psychic offers hope, Anna grasps it.

Who wouldn’t? Maybe he can tell her what happened to her son…

But is this man what he claims to be? Is he a visionary? A shut eye? Or a cruel fake, preying on the vulnerable?

Or is he something far, far worse?

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Sci-Fi Re-Read

 

do androids dream...In line with my resolution to read more sci-fi, I thought I’d ease into it with a re-read. My memories of this one are quite vague, but the blurb makes it sound much duller than I remember…

The Blurb says A final, apocalyptic, world war has killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending the majority of mankind off-planet. Those who remain venerate all remaining examples of life, and owning an animal of your own is both a symbol of status and a necessity. For those who can’t afford an authentic animal, companies build incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep . . . even humans.

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Audiobook

 

trigger warningCourtesy of Audible UK. Everyone says Neil Gaiman is great at narrating his own stuff, so we shall see. This collection includes some old stuff and some new – but most of it will be new to me…

The Blurb saysGlobal phenomenon and Sunday Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman returns to dazzle, captivate, haunt, and entertain with this third collection of short fiction, following Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things, which includes a never-before published American Gods story, “Black Dog”. In this new volume, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath.”

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NB All blurbs taken from NetGalley or Goodreads.

So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?

FictionFan Awards 2014 – Genre Fiction

All stand please…

 

…for this year’s nominees and winners of the annual FictionFan Awards of 2014 in the Genre Fiction Category.

In case any of you missed them last week (or have forgotten them – you mean you don’t memorise every word I say?), a quick reminder of the rules…

THE CRITERIA

All nominees must be books I’ve read and reviewed between November 2013 and October 2014 regardless of publication date, but excluding re-reads. The books must have received a 5-star rating.

THE CATEGORIES

There will be Honourable Mentions and a Winner in each of the following categories

Factual – click to see awards

Genre Fiction

Literary Fiction

Crime Fiction/Thrillers

 

…and…

Book of the Year 2014

THE PRIZES

For the winners!

I guarantee to read the authors’ next book even if I have to buy it myself!

For the runners-up!

Nothing!

THE JUDGES

Me!

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So, without further ado, here are this year’s runners-up and winner in

GENRE FICTION

 

This is a new category, created because I’ve read several things this year that don’t quite fall into any of the others. The Transwarp Tuesday! and Tuesday Terror!  features have led to me reading considerably more horror, sci-fi and fantasy than I have done for years, and I’ve also enjoyed a tiny foray into graphic novels. So, since I had to think of a catch-all title for all these bits of things, Genre Fiction it is. And I must say some of my most enjoyable reads this year have come from this new category. An almost impossible choice, especially with the ‘comparing apples with oranges’ effect of this mixed-bag category, and as I type this I’m still not totally sure who the winner will be…

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

 

the birdsThe Birds and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

There are some true standouts in this collection of six stories, and if you don’t believe me, believe Alfred Hitchcock. As well as the title story, I loved The Apple Tree best, but the whole collection gives a great flavour of du Maurier’s style – rarely overtly supernatural and using elements of nature to great effect in building atmospheres filled with tension. From mountains to lakes, bright summer to freezing winter, frightening trees to terrifying birds, nothing can be taken at face value in du Maurier’s world. And her trademark ambiguity leaves room for the reader to incorporate her own fears between the lines of the stories – truly chilling.

Click to see the full review

the birds

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p&p mangaPride and Prejudice (Manga Classics) by Jane Austen adapted by Stacy King

This is an utterly charming, witty and affectionate adaptation with some really fabulous artwork by Po Tse, (who is apparently a manga-ka, whatever that might be). Apart from the cover all the artwork is black and white, which apparently is the norm for manga, but this really doesn’t detract from the enjoyment. Most of the social commentary has been thrown out, but all the fun and romance of the original has been retained – enhanced, even – by the great marrying together of the original text with a beautifully modern outlook. I can see how this adaptation might annoy Austen purists (and you know that usually includes me). But this is done with such skill and warmth that it completely won me over. I adored it and I’m not alone, it seems – the book is through to the semi-finals in the Best Graphic Novels and Comics category of the Goodreads Choice Awards 2014 (not quite as prestigious as the FF Awards, but not bad…)

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

p&p manga 1

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the martian 2The Martian by Andy Weir

After an accident during a dust storm, Mark Watney finds himself alone on Mars. His colleagues in the Ares 3 expedition believed he was dead and were forced to evacuate the planet while they still could, leaving him to survive alone until a rescue attempt can be made. This is a fantastic adventure story set in the near future. It only just scrapes into the sci-fi category since all the science and equipment is pretty much stuff that’s available now – and though it’s chock full of science and technology, it’s presented in a way that makes it not just interesting but fun. Mark is a hero of the old school – he just decides to get on with things and doesn’t waste time angsting or philosophising. And he’s got a great sense of humour which keeps the whole thing deliciously light-hearted. It reminded me of the way old-time adventure stories were written – the Challenger books or the Quatermain stories mixed with a generous dash of HG Wells – but brought bang up to date in terms of language and setting. Superb entertainment!

Click to see the full review

mars and earth

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a princess of marsA Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Our hero John Carter is transported to Barsoom (Mars) and must save not only his own life but his beloved Princess, Dejah Thoris. A surprise hit – I truly expected to dislike this and ended up enjoying it so much I went on to read the first sequel and watch the movie. And I suspect I’ll be reading the later sequels too sometime. It’s silly beyond belief and, even making allowances for the fact that it was written in 1911, the ‘science’ aspects are…unique! But it’s hugely imaginative and a great old-fashioned heroic adventure yarn, from the days when men were men and damsels were perpetually in distress. The action never lets up from beginning to end, from one-to-one fights to the death, attacks by killer white apes, all the way up to full-scale wars complete with flying ships and half-crazed (eight-limbed) thoats. Great escapist fantasy, with action, humour and a little bit of romance – plus Woola the Calot! What more could a girl want? (And see? I didn’t even mention the naked people… 😉 )

Click to see the full review

a princess art2

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FICTIONFAN AWARD WINNER 2014

for

BEST GENRE FICTION

 

the truth is a cave

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

 

You ask me if I can forgive myself?

I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter…

So starts this dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth. Our narrator is a small man, a dwarf, but he’s strong and he’s driven; by what, we don’t yet know but we feel a slow anger in him, an undiminished determination despite his ten year search for the object of his obsession. As we meet him, he is about to hire a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle which is reputed to be filled with gold…

This book is nothing less than stunning. Gaiman’s wonderfully dark story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. Words, pictures and production values of the hardback combine to make this a dark and beautiful read – a worthy winner!

Click to see the full review and other illustrations

DSCN0545

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Next week: Literary Fiction Award

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman illustrated by Eddie Campbell

“…and that way is treacherous and hard”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the truth is a cave

You ask me if I can forgive myself?

I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter…

So starts this dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth. Our narrator is a small man, a dwarf, but he’s strong and he’s driven; by what, we don’t yet know but we feel a slow anger in him, an undiminished determination despite his ten year search for the object of his obsession. As we meet him, he is about to hire a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle which is reputed to be filled with gold…

DSCN0535

This book is nothing less than stunning. Gaiman’s wonderfully dark story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. To avoid spoilers the pages I have shown are all from the beginning of the book, but as the story darkens, some of the later pictures are truly macabre and unforgettable.

DSCN0543

I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her hair fiery-red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things.

I say that, but my time on the Misty Isle, that is also called, by the wise, the Winged Isle, reminds me of nothing but itself.

DSCN0538

Gaiman was apparently inspired to write the story by his visits to the Isle of Skye and the legends of the Hebrides. While the pictures quite clearly place the story in the Highlands – the kilts, the purples and greens, the blackness of the mountains – Gaiman has very wisely steered clear of any attempt to ‘do’ dialect. The book is written in standard English, but with the lush layering of traditional legends and with a rhythm in the words that really calls for it to be read aloud. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since the story was originally devised to be read by Gaiman himself at the Sydney Opera House with Campbell’s illustrations projected as a backdrop. I was the lucky, lucky recipient of a hardback copy of the book, but apparently the Kindle Fire edition has audio and video links, though to what I don’t know. However, the book is so beautiful that, devoted though I am to my Kindle, this is one where I would strongly recommend the paper version.

DSCN0539

All the way through, the story is foreshadowing the eventual end as if to suggest that all things are fore-ordained. It’s well worth reading the book twice in fact (it’s only 73 pages) – the first reading has all the tension of not knowing how it ends, while the second reading allows the reader to see how carefully Gaiman fits everything together to create the folk-tale feeling of inevitability. And then read it again a third time, just because it’s wonderful. I end where I began – stunning!

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NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.

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Fearie Tales: Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome ed. Stephen Jones

Not just for horror fans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

fearie talesStephen Jones is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of horror stories and anthologies. For this one, he has asked some of the best of today’s horror writers to come up with a modern spin on some old folk and fairy tales – most but not all are taken from the Grimms’ collections. These are not in the main re-writings of the old stories but instead are imaginatively inspired by some aspect of them. Some are in traditional fairy tale settings and some in the modern day. The stories range from only a few pages up to almost novella-length, and a short author bio is given at the end of each.

Each new story is preceded by a version of the original story that inspired it and, although I can’t find anything in the book to confirm this, I assume these original stories have been re-written or at least re-edited specially for this book, probably by Jones himself, since no-one else is credited for it. And very well re-written they are too, in standard modern language but without the intrusion of anachronistic modern slang. Although they’re really only there as a taster and prompt for the new stories, I found these versions of the originals a pleasure to read in themselves.

The meat of the book however is in the new stories. As with any anthology, both approach and standard varies a little from story to story, but overall I found all of the stories to be above average for the genre and some are really excellent. Regular visitors will know that I have already raved about Neil Gaiman’s entry, Down to a Sunless Sea – not a supernatural story as such, but spun very imaginatively from the old tale of The Singing Bone. But there were several other stories that I enjoyed just as much. Here’s a brief flavour of just a few of them…

Look Inside by Michael Marshall Smith is a modern-day take on the story of The Three Little Men in the Wood. Marshall Smith has also appeared before in “Tuesday Terror!” and this story shows all the same humour that made that one so enjoyable. Told by our first-person female narrator, Marshall Smith has a lot of fun being cheekily rude about feminism in a way that wouldn’t have worked at all with a male narrator, and while this story is pretty unscary it’s clever and amusing.

*******

Brian Lumley’s The Changeling is a very well written story of an aeons-old alien encountered by our unsuspecting narrator on a deserted beach. This is so in the style of HP Lovecraft that even I noticed it, and the blurb at the end confirms that Lumley has indeed specialised in that particular sub-genre. But – and Lovecraft fans will hate me for this – this is so much better written than HPL’s stories! It has a beginning, a middle and an end and does not involve pages and pages of unnecessary descriptions of tunnels, ruins etc. He brings out all the imagination of the world Lovecraft created without sending the reader (OK, this reader) off to sleep in quite the same way.

*******

Angela Slatter’s story By the Weeping Gate is based on The Robber Bridegroom. It tells the tale of a brothel-keeper and her daughters, all but one of whom are forced into the life of the brothel. However Madame Dalita is keeping her fairest daughter pure – she is destined for better things. But girls in the town are turning up murdered…and no-one knows why. I thought this was a fantastic story – Slatter built up a brilliantly scary atmosphere with some great language and really effective story-telling, and again showed huge imagination in how she spun this story from the original. And introduced me to a lovely new word – ensorcelled – meaning enchanted or fascinated.

Stephen Jones
Stephen Jones

I’ve only highlighted these three, but could easily have picked another half-dozen or so that I also greatly enjoyed. And amongst the names that might only be familiar to horror fans, there are some that are known much more widely – Gaiman, of course, Christopher Fowler of Bryant and May fame, and Joanne Harris, best known perhaps for Chocolat.

Yes, there are a few less good stories in the book, or at least that appealed less to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed the collection as a whole. Some are scary, but there’s no gore-fest or chainsaw massacre in here – the horror is in the atmosphere created by some fine writing and a lot of inventiveness. A word of caution – Jones makes it clear that this book is aimed at adults, not children, and I would endorse that. But I certainly don’t think they’re only for dedicated horror fans either – this quality of writing and imagination deserves a wider audience than that. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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Tuesday Terror! Down to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman

Twisted Grimms…

 

Fearie Tales is an anthology of short stories by various horror writers giving an updated twist to some of the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. I’ve only read the first few so far, but have been very impressed by the quality and imagination – I’ll review it fully once I’ve finished it. Each of the new stories is preceded by the folk tale that inspired it. Like the originals, the new stories are more dark fantasies than straight horror, but none the less interesting for that. And that’s the case with the one I’ve chosen for this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

fearie talesDown to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman is a take on the traditional tale of The Singing Bone. In the original, a king offers to give his daughter in marriage to any man who kills the wild boar that is terrorising his forest. Two brothers set off, and one is helped to kill the boar by a ‘little man’ who recognises his goodness. The other brother then kills the good one, buries him, and steals the boar, thus gaining the Princess. But the murder is discovered when one of the murdered brother’s bones is turned into a mouthpiece for a horn, and each time the horn is blown, it plays a song telling the truth of the crime. The evil brother is punished by being sewn up in a sack and drowned…and quite right too!

* * * * * * * * *

The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.

Gaiman’s take on the story is quite different, and in many ways much darker. A woman wanders the Rotherhithe docks ‘as she has done for years, for decades.’ No-one knows her story, until during a deluge you take shelter under a canvas awning and find the woman there. Without prompting, she tells you the story of her young son who ran away to sea and signed on with a stormcrow ship – one cursed by ill luck. And as the ship made its way home from his first voyage, disaster struck and the crew abandoned ship – finding themselves adrift in a lifeboat with food supplies running low…

‘I told him not to go to sea. “I’m your mother,” I said. “The sea won’t love you like I love you; she’s cruel.” But he said, “Oh Mother, I need to see the world. I need to see the sun rise in the tropics, and watch the Northern Lights dance in the Arctic sky, and most of all I need to make my fortune and then, when it’s made, I will come back to you, and build you a house, and you will have servants, and we will dance, Mother, oh how we will dance…”

I may well be the only person on the planet who has never read anything by Neil Gaiman – an omission I intend to rectify. The writing in this story is quite superb, building atmosphere with the lightest touch. The story is very short, just a few pages, but leaves the reader with images of horror, sorrow and a touch of madness. Every word adds something – nothing is wasted. The use of the second person puts the reader right into the story, under the awning with this woman who is frightening in the intensity of her grief.  The connection to the original only comes at the end and would be a major spoiler, but it becomes very clear how Gaiman has used the Grimm tale as inspiration for his own, and the theme of family betrayal is present here too, though in a much different form.

To be honest, if this was the only good story in the book (which it isn’t), it would be worth it for this one alone. Not terrifying, but chilling, with emotional depth, and mesmerising in the way it is done, this is a rare example of how effective the short story format can be.

Fretful porpentine rating    😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀