Book Review: And the Wind Sees All

In a fishing community in the north of Iceland a young woman cycles to the village hall where she is to conduct the local choir in a much anticipated concert. As she passes by the reader is introduced to the characters who briefly observe her, many of whom have lived in the village for most of their lives. The narrative covers just a few minutes in time, like a wind blowing through the streets in which these people are going about their day. Whatever they are doing, minds are wandering. Lifetime memories can be triggered by a moment, before that moment drifts away.

And the Wind Sees All, by Guðmundur Andri Thorsson (translated by Bjørg Arnadottir and Andrew Cauthery) is a study of the never ending train of thoughts that individuals live with yet rarely share. Snapshots from the past are cherished – their significance is personal, sometimes hurtful to others. A young woman may have sparked feelings in a man that his wife has never generated – feelings he will linger on as he ruminates over what might have been. A wife may despise her husband for his habits but put up with them for the sake of family harmony. It can be wise to avoid drawing attention to that which is better lived with silently.

One group of long time friends is sitting outside enjoying a pre-concert drink and listening to an anecdote, each remembering events from their pasts involving others known to all but significant in differing ways. These personal perspectives interlink but with unacknowledged importance and consequence. There are: loves, betrayals, resentments, regrets.

The reader learns of the lonely and the guilty. Fortunes have been made and lost. Secrets devastatingly shared. Children have been raised and loved before dying or moving away. Events that felt like endings were survived, marking change.

A poet waits patiently for words that continually flutter away. A priest drinks and gambles in privacy. An old man drowns memories of childhood abuse in alcohol before collecting himself and resuming his quiet existence. A sister grows exasperated with her brother and they cease speaking.

The writing is lyrical and poetic, the sharing of hopes and dreams that sparkled and then faded. Life continues beyond disappointments, marking time with occasional small happinesses. The village knows many of these secrets but chooses to accept and look away.

Lives are complex. Words for intimate feelings prove elusive, the feelings themselves fleeting. The metaphor of the wind passing through and observing just a few minutes of individual lives brings to the fore how little people are aware of what is happening to others, even those close by.

This is an affecting approach to portraying the ordinary as personally extraordinary. A poignant yet hopeful read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

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Book Review: Sunny and the Ghosts

Sunny and the Ghosts, by Alison Moore, is quirky and captivating. It is the author’s first book for children (there is wise advice for aspiring young writers on her linked website). The tale is enhanced by appealing pencil illustrations by Ross Collins. It is the first book in a proposed series.

The protagonist is eight year old Sunny who lives with his mum and dad in the flat above their antique shop in Devon. When not at school Sunny helps out with tidying, polishing and arranging the stock. His dad mends any items that are broken. Sunny’s mum then describes them as ‘good as new’, a phrase that Sunny and his dad find curious. They like old things and Sunny feels regret when favoured items from the shop are sold.

The story opens with the arrival of a Victorian piano and a blanket box. Inside the box Sunny finds a ghost. His parent’s accept this disclosure calmly even though they cannot see the apparition. Sunny isn’t sure if they believe him.

A regular visitor to the shop is Mr Ramsbottom. He browses until well after closing time and sells more things than he buys. Often he then changes his mind and wants the items back, paying no heed to the fact they may now be mended.

Over the course of days and weeks more stock is brought into the shop and Sunny finds more ghosts. They play the piano at night, read books plucked from shelves and move things around leaving the shop untidy. Sunny’s parents ask if he is responsible. Even the ghosts deny culpability. Sunny discovers that, just like living people, not all ghosts are well behaved.

Sunny takes the ghosts along on a trip to the seaside. He teaches one of them to read. He comes to realise that it doesn’t really matter what others believe so long as they remain open to possibilities.

The writing is clear and well structured, avoiding over simplification. Interest and momentum are maintained. There is humour and kindness alongside the mischief and mystery. A delightful and satisfying read for any age.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Gig Review: Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins in Bath

On Friday of last week I travelled to Bath for what I expect to be my final book event of the year (I avoid festive season crowds). It proved to be well worth attending. Held in the Maven Gallerywhere the original artwork for The Blue Salt Road is currently on display, Joanne Harris and Bonnie Hawkins gave a fascinating talk on their collaboration for both this latest work and its predecessor in the series, A Pocketful of Crows. The setting added to the pleasure and interest. Bonnie’s art is exquisite.

  

The two books were inspired by Child Ballads – indigenous stories of the British Isles. These dark and challenging folk tales, mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, exist in different versions and have been sung by musicians such as Joan Baez, Fairport Convention, Pentangle and Steeleye Span. As a folk musician Joanne knew the stories – she believes they ought to be our Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

The draft version of A Pocketful of Crows was written in two weeks – much faster than Joanne normally writes. She was on a deadline to finish The Testament of Loki and attending a book festival on the Isle of Skye. The journey to and from the festival, the landscape, inspired her to start writing something different. She gave herself a day, then two, then a week, and realised that the story was almost complete. She then had to persuade her publisher that the idea was worth pursuing. She envisaged a beautifully bound hardback – illustrated fairy tales for adults – with illustrations by an artist who would produce detailed work such as would have been common in books published in Victorian times – vignettes, an almanac feel. When it was agreed that three stories should be written she needed to find an illustrator.

Joanne’s publisher provided a huge dossier of potential artists but none seemed quite right. Then, unexpectedly, Joanne received a drawing through the post from Bonnie.

Bonnie told us that, at the time, her daughter had recently been introduced to Ted Talks at school. Bonnie listens to the radio while she works so started listening to some of these talks. Most were from people explaining how wonderful they were and how much money they had made. In her Ted talk Joanne focused on her family and the power of stories, how important it is that we share things together, that we value people more than money (you may listen to the talk here). Bonnie hadn’t read any of Joanne’s books but was inspired to get in touch with this speaker.

Joanne added that narratives are about making connections. This was a perfectly timed connection – like magic.

Bonnie told us that it almost didn’t happen. The letter from the publisher asking her to create the drawings was binned as she thought it was junk mail – Look! We can put your drawings in a book! Luckily the publisher sent a follow up which she read.

By this time all the words had been written and the art was needed quickly. Bonnie had 8 weeks to produce 24 illustrations. Nevertheless she loved working with Joanne as she was given free rein. She knew that the publisher wanted the illustrations spaced. The prose was so poetic she could have illustrated everything.

Joanne introduced us to The Blue Salt Road by talking about the Child Ballads. They reflect real events such as rape, abuse and other forms of domestic violence. The selkie story is a Scottish legend, often of a young girl bound into slavery by a man. She wished to subvert this and consider: in a patriarchal society how can women gain empowerment? In her story a young woman, Flora, is living on an island with a limited gene pool. She has an agenda.

Joanne gave a reading from where Flora first meets her selkie.

The Blue Salt Road is a love story but one of entrapment. The selkie is tamed and must find work. The limitations of island living mean he ends up a whaler, killing sea life. Unlike the other men, it feels wrong to him and he doesn’t understand why.

Flora also has limited options and convinces herself she has done the selkie a favour. Their environment is harsh. Life is about survival. Joanne wished this to be reflected in the illustrations but also to show the beauty of the sea. In its rawest sense, this is a story about where we have all come from.

Bonnie talked about stories being a way of understanding ourselves long before psychologists offered their services. They provide a means of talking about dark and difficult subjects.

She based several of her drawings on people she knows. In A Pocketful of Crows she drew a 14 year old whose personality seemed to fit. Flora is also based on a real person – a girl who has wild hair and a dissatisfaction with life. When asked, the teenager was blasé about her likeness appearing in a book. Bonnie did change certain features as she wished Flora to look a little sly.

Bonnie had longer to produce the drawings for the second book than the first. She wanted to include rock pools, crabs, to show the folds of the walrus’s skin. Drawing waves was a challenge so she made them stylised. Each seal that is a selkie has a little spiral tattoo. Bonnie would have liked to draw the scene on the beach where Flora and her selkie are nude but the publishers weren’t keen.

  

Joanne told us that often author and illustrator don’t work so closely together. She talked of the view that illustrated books are only for children. One hundred years ago many adult works were lavishly illustrated. The drawings enhance the story providing a visual mood board.

There is to be a third book and Bonnie has seen the initial words even before the editor. Bonnie is working on another project and sent Joanne one of her works in progress. Joanne was so impressed that she decided to adapt her story that this wonderful, evocative picture may be incorporated.

Questions were opened up to the audience.

Q: Will there be more books after the third is published? These beautiful books look so good on a bookshelf.

It depends on how the first three sell. Joanne would like to write more. She is fond of the novella with its linear format. Time constrained people appreciate books that are quick to read and offer even more when reread.

Bonnie added that reading a book in one go is like eating a big slice of delicious cake. She reads the manuscript from start to finish to get a feel for the story and then rereads particular chapters to think of possible illustrations. Each chapter is a little story in itself.

Q: How do you tease a story out of a ballad?

The ballad is a starting point. It introduces themes, such as entrapment (man), agency (women). These are perennial concerns. Ideas are then built on, such as how would the selkie feel and react when offered seal stew which the folk often eat. The ballads are springboards.

Q: Why did you include your initial in your author name?

Joanne writes mainstream novels as well as fantasy. Some readers who enjoy psychological thrillers may not wish to read magical realism. It allows them to better understand what to expect.

Q: When you write how do you keep control of your imagination to get things down on paper quickly enough?

Joanne doesn’t wish to keep her imagination under control. She writes each day, even if only 300 words. She will start by revisiting the previous day’s efforts, reading it aloud to judge if it works. As a musician and linguist as well as a writer vocal patterns matter to her. Reading aloud also makes obvious what is superfluous.

Q: Do you have a structure to your working day?

Not so much as many other things are going on. When at home Joanne will start at 8.30am and work to lunchtime by which time a break is needed. When on tour she keeps working, writing in hotels or on trains. If she goes for more than three days without writing, the book goes feral. Even 20 minutes a day maintains the headspace of the narrative. As a full time writer there are many non writing tasks that fill the time she used to filled with her job as a teacher.

Bonnie has no particular structure to her day. She often works early in the morning and late into the evening with her day consumed by other demands. When she has deadlines the work just has to get done. She knows what she wants to draw but each piece takes a long time to complete.

Joanne talked of her dislike of deadlines. She is always aware that others are waiting on her work – editors and so on – but finds deadlines cause panic which isn’t conducive to the creation of art.

  

Q: What does a publisher’s art department do to the work – does Bonnie retain any control?

Bonnie scans her drawings at an ultra high resolution and submits this. Afterwards she has no further say over what will happen to the work.

There was some discussion about illustrated books and how children also appreciate more complex drawings – there is no need to simplify.

The jacket design was done by someone else as this is a different skill, requiring consideration of the placement of words and sales stickers. Bonnie would not wish to have to think of this when drawing.

As the evening drew to a close many books were purchased from the hosts, Toppings Bookshop. Joanne and Bonnie signed copies on request. The opportunity to have my book signed by both author and illustrator was too tempting to resist so I waited in line before heading home.

Joanne was kind enough to chat to me before the event. Both author and illustrator made this event even more special by being so open and friendly throughout.

The Blue Salt Road and A Pocketful of Crows are published by Gollancz (Orion Books).

  

 

 

Book Review: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

  

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, by J.K. Rowling, is the second installment in the popular series chronicling the eponymous boy wizard’s years at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This review is of the 20th anniversary edition and is a reread of the main story. As Pottermore sorted me into Ravenclaw and my daughter into Slytherin I had access to both house hardback editions. I reviewed the first in the series and wrote about these anniversary editions here.

The book opens with an introduction to the chosen house, naming key alumnae who will feature in the story. For Ravenclaw these include Gilderoy Lockhart (five times winner of Witch Weekly’s Most-Charming-Smile Award) and Moaning Myrtle (a ghost haunting a girls’ toilet at the school). For Slytherin there is Tom Riddle and Severus Snape.

A double page spread containing a map of Hogwarts reminds readers of key locations. It is then straight into the story.

Opening on Harry’s twelfth birthday, the boy has spent a miserable summer being bullied and belittled by the Dursleys, his reluctant guardians following his parents’ murders. Compounding his misery is the fact that promised letters from friends have not been received. Harry wonders if he has been forgotten and the invitation to stay with Ron at the Weasley’s home, The Burrow, rescinded. The reason for their silence is explained when a house elf, Dobby, appears in Harry’s bedroom demanding a promise that he will not return to school.

Ron has not forgotten Harry and, along with his brothers, mounts a daring rescue involving a flying car. This vehicle is also deployed when the boys miss their connection with the Hogwarts Express. Starting the year by risking expulsion puts a damper on their reunion with Hermione. It is not long, however, until further trouble attracts the trio of friends.

The academic year is marred by unexplained attacks on pupils at the school. There is a strange voice coming from behind walls that only Harry can hear. Graffiti written in blood claims that the legendary Chamber of Secrets has been opened. Speculation is rife as to who the Heir of Slytherin can be. Due to his unfortunate proximity to each attack, and his outing as a Parselmouth, Harry finds himself in the frame.

Determined to find out if the chamber exists, and what links there may be to events from fifty years ago, Hermione uses her books and magic skills to help her friends investigate. There are potential links to Hagrid whose expulsion from Hogwarts and ban on using magic has never been explained. And then there is a mysterious diary.

As attacks continue, Dumbledore is discredited leaving the future of the school in its current inclusive form at stake. Harry and Ron realise that they must piece together what little they know in an attempt to enter the chamber and face whatever is within.

In rereading the story with the benefit of having read the entire series there are many details to enjoy that foreshadow future events. Although there were now no surprises, it was still a highly enjoyable read.

The book ends with information on house elves which differ slightly in house detail. Ravenclaw focuses on the work the elves do, Slytherin on how harshly some are treated and how they may gain their freedom. There then follows a quiz on The Alumni of Hogwarts (I didn’t do very well) along with a line drawing of the appropriate house common room. The final extra content is a Q&A with illustrator Levi Pinfold on how he created the house crests. A line drawing of the relevant crest explains the symbols he employed and what they represent.

These editions of the book are beautifully presented and the extras provide interesting detail about Hogwarts and its history. The story at its heart remains well worth reading.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is published by Bloomsbury.

Book Review: Flare and Falter

Flare and Falter, by Michael Conley, is a collection of thirty-five short stories which present a somewhat cynical interpretation of man’s reaction to a wide variety of imaginative scenarios. Many are disturbing but all are written with an underlying dark humour. They brought to mind short stories by M. John Harrison but offer more clearly pertinent and piercing insights. They are, in a nutshell, brilliantly written.

The book opens with a memorable first line:

“He wakes to an echoing quack.”

This first story is titled Antidaephobia, a word that I was entertained to discover means “The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you”. Throughout the narrative is the question of whether the duck exists. As with many tales in the collection what emerges could be interpreted as metaphorical. In trying to avoid a fear, it breeds.

If the beginning of this first story drew me into the collection it was the final line in the second offering, Marked, that had me hooked. The alphabet falls from the sky permanently marking all it lands on. Although at first newsworthy, the world quickly moves on with people accepting change and continuing with their lives. In their lack of curiosity as to what the strange event may mean, what has been missed?

There are many stories that resonate with current events. When It Starts explores the suppression of news, Krill Rations the suppression of freedom.

The God Quetzalcoatl Has Retired and Now Runs a Pub in South Manchester is exactly what it says in the lengthy title. The god settles into life on earth, observing the behaviour of his pub clientele. He registers to vote in an election but then questions the wisdom of the exercise – of democracy itself.

“He doesn’t think much of either main party, but he does notice that the most objectionable people in the pub all seem to belong to the same side, so he registers in order to vote for their opponents. He marks his x with a pencil tied to a piece of string […] He looks at the pencil, the string. How can we be trusted to elect leaders if we can’t be trusted not to walk off with the fucking pencil?”

A number of stories reference the same character – a feared despot – and progress from the point of view of one of his body doubles. Given how many of these tyrants are currently in power around the world it is hard to guess which provided the inspiration.

Other stories explore reactions to beings considered different. Man likes to feel superior. When his position is threatened, violence ensues.

Toddler Ninety-Six is deliciously disturbing. A child in a scientific experiment does not behave as expected, however long they are given. The reaction of those who observe this quiet rebellion is disquieting and believable.

There is a series of stories involving robots which begin with the trope of lifelike and apparently submissive female ‘dolls’. Men may be drawn to violence if faced with an invading army wielding guns and explosives. They become easily overpowered when apparently consequence free sex is made available.

Robots also appear as waitresses, the predictable algorithms under which they operate generating anger from those who resent their presence. In Amok one man enacts a small, angry and futile mutiny when faced with such technology.

In Speed Dating this is taken a step further. People become paranoid about being tricked into dating “one of them”. Is this a necessary step to ensure the continuation of the race or a metaphor for supremacists who resent encroachment by or acceptance of any they deem different and therefore threatening?

The dying of bees is explored with a suggestion that robotic bees – “wound up during the night by poor people” – may be a solution if this serves to benefit senior staff at the Ministry. Bee keepers are regarded as troublesome and therefore expendable.

“Real bees would exist only in poetry.”

Dispatches From the Last Great War of Good vs. Evil questions how to define good and evil. As war progresses, atrocities on both sides increase as each enacts desperate bids for the upper hand, whatever the consequences.

Silence Is Golden depicts an inexplicable cruelty. If such behaviour were not known to happen it would be hard to believe, being senseless and upsetting.

Man’s selfishness is demonstrated to fine effect in All The Little Yous. The world is changed for the better, for all but one person. Those who feel hard done by will not always accept a wider good.

The People looks at the variety and multitude of street protests.

“The only ones who never get involved are the people wearing expensive suits, who remain in their high-rise apartments, silently high-fiving and taking all the most exhilarating drugs.”

There are stories of parents and children, the variations in how they come to regard the other due to perceived selfishness. There are stories of relationships in which casual and disturbing cruelties are accepted because this is now how society operates, whatever disquiet is privately felt.

As for the War ponders how a remote community may be reached when roads are impassable for most of the year.

“nobody has yet been up the mountain to tell the people of the village who to hate and why”

Kraken explores the national reaction when a murderous creature attaches itself to a bridge and feeds on passers by. The eventual solution to the problem is short term. Man’s approach to nature may not be deliberately malevolent but is usually short sighted and focused on the problems of today rather than longer term effects.

Not all the tales deal with such serious subjects. Who Are International Moon Team takes a delightful swipe at music fans who are convinced their knowledge and taste, especially if not pandering to widely enjoyed pop culture, is significant and superior.

Many of the stories are a mere page or two in length yet provide recognisable slices of life while asking apposite questions. Familiar problems and scenarios are presented in weird and wonderful confections. This is a clever, at times twisted, but always entertaining read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

Book Review: Aftershock

“The only time the world cared about rules was when you lost. If you won, any infractions became invisible.”

Aftershock, by Adam Hamdy, is the final installment in the author’s Pendulum Trilogy which started with Pendulum and continued with Freefall. These all action crime thrillers provide plenty of food for thought alongside fire, suspense and entertainment. Concluding a complex web of storylines to the satisfaction of both new and existing readers requires verve and skill. With Aftershock, the author delivers.

The story opens with Detective Patrick Bailey – now leader of a Metropolitan Police task force established to disable and dismantle the elusive Foundation – being brought back to consciousness by vicious assailants. They wish him to watch while they kill his girlfriend. Physically and emotionally damaged by the resulting nightmare of an experience, he calls upon the few friends he can trust to assist him without question as he seeks retribution.

Across the Atlantic, FBI agent Christine Ash is struggling with trust issues. She too is leading a special task force that is tracking down and neutralising the remnants of the Foundation. Unable to shake off her memories of being held hostage, and the treatment she was subjected to, she remains wary of potential infiltrators on her team. When she refuses to divulge plans and sources she leads them into a deadly situation from which she emerges with self knowledge that horrifies her.

In various prisons, apprehended Foundation members are attempting to strike deals with those on both sides of the legal divide. These people could provide essential information that Bailey and Ash are each eager to utilise. The Foundation may have been damaged but it still has reach. Many have been compromised. Not all Foundation members act due to the philanthropic recruitment promises of a societal wealth redistribution.

John Wallace is leading a nomadic life as he attempts to live under the radar and find a way to do good to assuage the guilt he feels at previous choices made. When Ash asks that they meet he is drawn back into the web of deception required if the Foundation is to be neutralised.

In a quiet corner of Arizona, the normally quiet and subdued Cheyanne has found comfort in a relationship she has quickly developed with new, local arrivals. Arno and Beth have set up home in a trailer located just outside town. They charge for private sessions in which clients talk out their problems. Cheyanne’s teenage daughter is conflicted by the resulting change in her mother. Encounters with Beth leave her suspicious of what the pair are planning which, when Arno’s history and location are discovered, leads to tragedy. With an eye on the power of the Foundation this pair harness the methods of cult leaders in their quest for acolytes.

The cat and mouse antics of these various players are portrayed in tense and violent encounters across London and locations in America. Ash and Bailey find more loyalty amongst their underworld contacts than with those who are looking at their careers and families – who may be susceptible to threats and bribery. This topsy turvy depiction of good and evil leaves the reader questioning the meanings of such categorisations.

“As he moved from a story about a bomb on a bus in Kabul, to a serial stabbing in London, a shooting at a school in Minneapolis, a family slaying in Florida, a drone attack in Yemen and an attack at a security checkpoint in Gaza, Rafa wondered whether the perpetrators all believed they were doing good.”

I felt a little frustrated that key men wished to be knights in shining armour, heading into battle to protect or avenge their women. There is a scene where one of our heroes seeks permission to divulge a secret that he may gain the trust of a woman he is sexually attracted to. These are, however, very human failings so have their place in the narrative.

I was wryly amused by the depictions of successful businessmen with their past shady dealings that enabled them to rise above their peers. There was bravery and honour amongst the gangsters and thieves despite their violence, drug dealing and arms sales. As is pointed out, governments are active in all of these areas, enabled by their self-declared legality.

Such questioning of the blurred lines around which laws are made and broken, and who is punished when lines are crossed, adds depth to the story. This remains though a hard hitting action thriller in which the reader can never be sure who will survive or who will be turned. It is a fine conclusion to a trilogy that sits firm within its popular genre yet punches seamlessly beyond. A recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: The Blue Salt Road

The Blue Salt Road, by Joanne M. Harris (illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins), is a modern folk tale from a master storyteller. It takes the legend of the selkies – seals that can temporarily shed their skins to become people – and weaves a dark tale of passion, loss and revenge.

On an island in the cold north sea, where for weeks in winter the sun barely rises, a community of hunters live with their families. Successful among them is John McCraiceann who wields the harpoon that enables boatmen to kill sea creatures – including dolphins, seals and the lucrative whales. John has a daughter, Flora, who seeks a husband more exciting than those available locally. Her grandmother has shared the secret of how she may capture a lover from the sea.

A young man of the Grey Seal clan has ignored his mother’s stark warnings and visits the island. Intrigued by the people there he sheds his skin and explores while they shelter in their houses after dark. When Flora approaches the coastline and makes her call he answers. He is happy with what she offers, unaware of her plans for him.

Too late the young man realises what Flora has done. Her cunning forces him to attempt to assimilate. To survive he must eat, drink and work as the island people do. He cannot fathom why this feels so wrong.

John convinces the skipper of the boat he works on to accept his strange, new apprentice – both men are happier out at sea than on land. The hunters look to nature for their livelihood and do not regard the sea creatures as sentient. The selkie can no longer understand their songs but is aware that what he is required to do by his new peers is horrific.

Flora tamps down any guilt she feels, convincing herself that her actions were necessary. Her grandmother looks on from a distance, aware that she is responsible. Banished by her daughter there seems little she can do.

Although simply told there are many details that increase the tension. The tale is disturbing and recognisable in its depiction of humans with their casual and accepted violence. The reader is conscious of the peril the selkie finds himself in. Those who would help can only do so at great risk to themselves.

With such a story the denouement is key. It is dealt with deftly, although not all practical questions are answered. The author balances well the need to maintain inherent aspects of the various characters. Despite its dark heart the story is beautifully written and enhanced by exquisite illustrations.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Gollancz.