Gig Review: Marcus Sedgwick in Bath

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Regular readers will be aware of how fond I am of Mr Bs Emporium of Reading Delights in the City of Bath. However, up until Tuesday night of this week, I had yet to attend one of their author events. I had been waiting for the right author to visit the bookshop itself, not one of the larger venues where events are sometimes held. Marcus Sedgwick, whose writing I adore, was a perfect fit.

The ticket had seemed a little pricey but included music, wine, a plentiful and delicious wintry feast, and a 15% discount on all purchases made on the night. For a full evening of such congenial entertainment it turned out to be excellent value. The size of the bibliotherapy room ensured that this was an intimate gathering, and Marcus was happy to mingle while supper was eaten.

Attendees were welcomed with a glass of wine and invited to browse the shelves before moving upstairs for the main event. This opened with music by The Bookshop Band who performed a specially written song about Snow. If you haven’t heard of these guys then do look out for them. They set the scene beautifully for a cosy and entertaining evening.

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Marcus was there to discuss a recently published monograph about Snow, the seventh in a series of nature themed books commissioned by Little Toller Books. He talked briefly of the work that this small publisher supports, how they have recently opened an art gallery in Devon and offer residencies to artists in the Toller valley. This helped explain the gorgeous look and feel of the book. I was privileged to have been sent an early copy – you may read my review here.

Marcus now lives full time in the French Alps, at a height equivalent to the peak of Snowdon. He talked of how science has proved that the natural world has health benefits, how exercise outside is more beneficial than in a gym, and how hospital patients on the sunny side of a hospital ward respond better to treatment. Our emotional response to natural events remains childlike throughout our lives. We point out a rainbow, a sunset, heavy rainfall or a covering of snow. Businesses monetise this when they charge more for a room with a view.

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As well as the science of snow, Marcus talked of its inclusion in literature. He mentioned his favourite book, The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, which is set in and around a sanatorium in the Swiss Alps. Living where he does he understands the pleasure of the rarefied mountain air and the introspective world he can enjoy in such a remote location.

Marcus talked of his interest in etymology and the century long debate over how many words the Innuit people have for snow. He pondered why the early explorers to the poles chose to risk their lives to bag a world first, and how only now are some of their remains being located. The indigenous people could have shared this knowledge much earlier but few were willing to listen, convinced as they were of their own superiority.

There was mention of climate change, of how much less snow now falls, how when it does there is a muffling of the regular world as a cleansed pallet is offered. It is also, of course, a danger. The music of Schubert evokes this darkness.

There were many more questions but much of what Marcus revealed is covered in the book which I recommend you read. He writes so beautifully and this is obviously a subject close to his heart.

The evening ended with a signing and I was delighted when Marcus drew a little snowflake in my book. He is a warm and fascinating speaker. This was a special event.

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Snow is published by Little Toller Books and is available to buy now.

Book Review: Snow

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“we live in a world of over-simplification. Few people have the time, energy or desire to see the world as any more complex than they can cope with.”

Snow, by Marcus Sedgwick, is the latest addition to the publisher’s monograph series – beautiful books which explore aspects of the natural world and the rich variety of places in which the authors live. Echoing the six sides of a snowflake, the six chapters in this highly readable study delve into the science and art of snow – its impact on literature, folklore, exploration and scientific progress, on those who have experienced its power to trigger awe and fear.

The author now lives in the French Alps but spent his childhood in rural Kent where he remembers there being more snow than typically falls today. Despite its ability to throw travel plans into disarray he associates it with freedom. A deep covering would have prevented him and his brother from attending their hated school leading to fun and imaginative play. The transformed world offered a blank canvas, an empty page on which to create. The muffled silence and crisp cleanliness belyed the potential dangers. He goes on to discuss this in some depth.

Music and literature use snow as a backdrop to terror. Historic explorers have been trapped, frozen or maimed. Snow has physically shaped the mountains and valleys. The modern world is impotent when a heavy fall cuts off communications.

The author looks not just at the physical but also the emotional impact of snow on the human psyche. He talks of ancient stories, mythical figures, and the powerful forces an accumulation of these flakes can unleash. There is much to consider and take in.

The quality of the writing ensures that the ideas are never difficult to process. As befits the subject, it is a captivating read.

“Snow ranks amongst the greatest forces in the natural world […] the result of the humble snowflake, tiny and almost weightless. Minuscule, intricately beautiful too”

Snowfall has transformed the world in many ways. This book will enable readers to look at its arrival this winter through a newly polished lens.

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

Book Review: Killing the Dead

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Killing the Dead, by Marcus Sedgwick, is one of this year’s World Book Day £1 books for young adults. Having read and enjoyed The Ghosts of Heaven I noted the spiral on the cover and was eager to get hold of a copy before bookshops sold out. These specially produced offerings are only available for a short time.

Set in an exclusive girls’ boarding school in the nineteen-sixties the story explores the aftermath of a pupil’s apparent suicide. Like the four stories in The Ghosts of Heaven it contains references to spirals and suggestions of superstition. The writing is taut with undercurrents of mystery and unanswered questions. The atmosphere evoked is spooky in places but always believable.

At just over 100 pages this book can be quickly read but is a complete and thought provoking tale. Within the confines of dormitory life what impact does one girl’s actions have on others? What secrets do they keep? While teachers continue to believe that the beautiful and clever are good how can those who go unnoticed survive the casual cruelty inflicted by the entitled? The denouement brings home how lonely and difficult life can be for those who do not fit within society’s view of that which one should admire and to which one should aspire.

This is the third book that I have read by the author and cements my admiration for his style of writing. He spins a compelling tale that is hard to put down.

“The most important person in this story is the one you will never meet. She is gone and yet she lingers, in the memories of those who knew her and lived with her. This is how the dead survive; they live in our memories, and some of the times that is a good thing and beautiful, and other times it is not good, and then the dead are like a virus in the blood, an infection of the mind. Then, although we might wish to get rid of them forever, we cannot. We might even wish to kill them, but that is a mighty and nigh impossible thing, for killing the dead is very hard to do.”

Book Review: The Ghosts of Heaven

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The Ghosts of Heaven was printed in Golden Ratio, from which the logarithmic spiral can be derived.

The Ghosts of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick, contains four separate yet interconnected stories that wind through time like the spiral from which they are each inspired. The writing is lyrical with dark undercurrents, disturbing in places yet full of hope. It is suggested that the tales may be read in any order and still make sense. Certainly each stands on its own but also adds depth to those read before.

The first quarter of the book is set in the time of prehistoric hunter gatherers when marks in caves were linked to magic and writing had not yet been invented. The second quarter introduces us to a young girl, newly orphaned, who becomes the victim of a powerful church hunting down witches. The third quarter is set in the last century at a lunatic asylum where the lines between madness and sanity become blurred. The fourth quarter is set in a futuristic spaceship where a lone sentinel discovers that all is not as it seems.

Each tale is richly imagined with compelling story lines and intelligent, questioning characters. It is the questions that they ask, the thought processes they explore, that add to the intrigue. The reader is lead to philosophise alongside, to consider where they have come from, why they are there, and where they may be going.

Although classified as for Young Adults I enjoyed this book for what it is, a work of fiction that entertains and gently challenges without preaching. The darkness that has always existed in the hearts of some men is examined alongside a perception of supposed progress. The denouement of the final tale is pitch-perfect.

Four quarters make a whole and life goes on, spiralling ever upwards or downwards depending on how it is viewed. It takes skill to present complex ideas in such an accessible way. This book is story telling at its best.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher through Goodreads as a ‘First Reads’ giveaway.

Book Review: A Love Like Blood

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A Love Like Blood, by Marcus Sedgwick, is about humans who are obsessed in differing ways with blood. I did not find it easy reading. There has been a lot of fiction written about vampires in recent years, but not so much about the desire to drink blood. This book is not about need (to sustain life) but desire. Perhaps to understand it one must be capable of empathising with those who struggle to differentiate between these two states, who feel justified in hurting others that their desires may be satisfied. They conflate desire with need and expect their actions to be understood and considered reasonable.

The book follows the life of Charles Jackson, a doctor who specialises in blood disorders. As a medic during the Second World War he stumbles across an unknown man in an underground bunker committing an act that horrifies and haunts him thereafter. When he unexpectedly encounters the man again a number of years later a series of events are set in motion that will eventually determine the course of his life. Love is mentioned but not acted upon. An apparent desire for justice becomes an obsession.

There are many points in the story when our protagonist could have walked away but chose not to. His career, his family and his friends become victims of his choices. He commits increasingly heinous acts that he justifies to himself as necessary for the greater good. It is only at the end that the reader is allowed to see how damaged this ‘hero’ has allowed himself to become.

The author raises some interesting questions, such as how the drinking of human blood can be regarded as abhorrent by so many yet is accepted as a form of worship in the Christian Church. He observes that the taking of human life, the spilling of blood, is punished as a major crime yet is encouraged in times of war. He ponders the paradox of meat eaters having such antipathy towards the consumption of human blood when they will ingest the blood of other species.

I found the constant references to blood throughout the book both educative and stomach churning. The turning of the artwork in the Sistene Chapel into something monstrous illustrates how even things of apparent beauty can become distorted by perception. Blood flow is necessary for life yet is also a cause of death.

The denouement was chilling but not a surprise. The story raised issues to ponder but also skewed meanings, just as Charles Jackson had skewed his thinking to justify the actions he wished to take. The progression of the tale reminded me of a clever orator who can sway a crowd with apparent logic, but whose consequential actions go against core beliefs. It is not the blood that is bad but what is done with it.

I very much enjoyed the way this book was written, its dark use of time and place, its chilling arguments and justifications. It was not an easy book to read but, having started it, I did not want to put it down. Recommended, but only for those with a strong disposition.

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