Six Degrees of Separation – From Larrson to…

Chain links…

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly meme hosted by Books Are My Favourite and Best. The idea is to start with the book that Kate gives us and then create a chain of six books, each suggested by the one before…

the-girl-with-the-dragon-tattoo

This month’s starting book is Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In truth, I wasn’t a fan of this trilogy, finding it all rather long-drawn out and tedious, and I never could get up any affection for the weird Lisbeth Salander. I abandoned book 2 and never got around to the third one.

The dragon in the title made me think of…

Click for review

Sharon Bolton’s novella Here Be Dragons. It’s part of her brilliant Lacey Flint series, but this time told from the perspective of the lovely Mark Joesbury, one of my (many) fictional heroes. It’s such a great little thriller, I had to create an entirely new rating system for it – it was the first to score 5 on the Yippee Ki Yay scale, thus making it a Bruce Willis!

Yippee Ki Yay rating:    😮😮😮😮😮

It's a Bruce Willis!
It’s a Bruce Willis!

The action all takes place on the Thames, which made me think of…

fearie tales

Neil Gaiman’s short story Down to a Sunless Sea, which I came across in an excellent anthology of horror stories based on fairy tales, Fearie Tales. Gaiman’s story is a take on The Singing Bone, though in many ways much darker. A woman wanders the Rotherhithe docks ‘as she has done for years, for decades.’ She tells the story of her young son who ran away to sea and signed on with a stormcrow ship – one cursed by ill luck…

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.

I find it impossible to think of Neil Gaiman without thinking of another story of his…

the truth is a cave

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. This dark tale is superbly illustrated by Eddie Campbell and the pictures and words complement each other perfectly to create something truly stunning. It is the 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. 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…

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.

DSCN0545

The Misty Isle is based on the Isle of Skye, which is part of the Inner Hebrides, an island group off the coast of Scotland. Which made me think of a book set in the Outer Hebrides…

The Blackhouse

Peter May’s The Blackhouse. This is the first of his trilogy set on Lewis, and was the book that shot him onto the bestseller lists when it was selected as a Richard and Judy pick.  DS Fin MacLeod is sent back to Lewis to investigate a murder that resembles one that took place earlier in his Edinburgh patch. It gradually emerges that the shadow of the past may be involved in the current investigation.

Peter May on Lewis
Peter May on Lewis

Before he wrote the Lewis books, Peter May wrote a series based in China, which made me think of…

imperial woman

Imperial Woman by Pearl S Buck. This is a fictionalised biography of Tzu Hsi, who ruled as regent and Empress of China from 1861-1908, effectively the end of the empire, which collapsed just 3 years after her death. Tzu Hsi is portrayed here as a beautiful, ambitious tyrant, scheming to become and then remain Empress. The language is rather too stylised for my taste but Tzu Hsi’s story is a fascinating one and certainly worth the telling.

In the fourth moon month the wisteria blooms. It was the duty of the Court Chief Gardener to report to the Empress the exact day upon which the vines would blossom and he had so reported. The Empress did then decree that upon this day she would not appear in the Audience Hall, nor would she hear any affairs of state.

Portrait of Tzu Hsi by Hubert Voss (1906)
Portrait of Tzu Hsi by Hubert Voss (1906)

And thinking of female rulers reminded me of…

the rival queens

The Rival Queens, Nancy Goldstone’s romping history of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen of France, and her daughter Marguerite de Valois, Queen of Navarre. It was a great time for Queens. Over in England, Elizabeth was working up to the beheading of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. But the shenanigans of Catherine and Marguerite frankly make the British Royals look tame. A little biased in Marguerite’s favour, I felt, but hugely enjoyable, complete with a fair amount of ribald humour. At points it reads like a great thriller, complete with cliffhanger endings to chapters, and then at others it becomes like an episode of Dallas, with Catherine in the role of JR and Marguerite as sweet little Pamela.

the-rival-queens-portraits
Catherine and Marguerite

 * * * * *

So Larrson to Goldstone via dragons, the Thames, Neil Gaiman, the Hebrides, China, empresses and queens!

Hope you enjoyed the journey. 😀

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.

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!

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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

* * * * * * * * *

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!

DSCN0545

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

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link