Local poets

I’ve been following local Bristol poetry group The Spoke since I reconnected with my former school friend and current Spoke member Lizzie Parker a few years ago. I’ve always read poetry but it’s never been a major part of my reading diet, so it’s been a learning curve for me to experience more of this most flexible of media. At the start of May, Lizzie and fellow Spoke member Claire Williamson published new collections with Seren, an independent publisher based in Wales. I went to their book launch at Waterstones in Bristol and was pleased to see such a big crowd for poetry. It’s reassuring.

Now I have read both their books I’d like to share my thoughts.

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Like a vision seen in a dream and scarce remembered

Castle Dor book coverCastle Dor
by Arthur Quiller-Couch and Daphne du Maurier

Well what a contrast to my previous read. After lingering for two weeks over The Evenings, I raced through Castle Dor in 24 hours. Was it a case of the right book at the right time, or is it just a cracking good read? It is Daphne, after all.

Except that it’s only sort-of Daphne. This book was started by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (better known to many by his pen name Q), who Daphne knew a little as her near-neighbour in Fowey, but he was much older than her, so it was his daughter Foy (named for their beloved home town) who became a close friend of Daphne’s. When Q died in 1944 he left behind one final unpublished work of fiction: the first half of a novel retelling the story of Tristan and Iseult, set in 19th-century Cornwall. Some 15 years later, his daughter Foy persuaded Daphne that she was the perfect person to finish the book.

Knowing that in advance, it is certainly possible to spot the signs that different hands start and end the novel. But it is skilfully done, with no obvious seam. (Apparently Q’s manuscript was left mid-chapter, even.) I can tell you that the opening chapters felt more flowery and more scholarly than any Daphne du Maurier book I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them now). And the closing chapters had a touch of the supernatural, even spiritualism, that felt very Daphne and certainly hadn’t been so prominent in the book. But the join between the two felt entirely gradual and invisible.

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Early summer reads: short reviews

I shouldn’t complain that life has been full of holidays and social events and lovely weather to be enjoyed (and work), and to be honest it hasn’t slowed down my reading particularly. But it does mean I am woefully behind on reviews, so here are some brief thoughts on recent reads.

the sandman vol 2The Sandman Vol. 2 The Doll’s House
by Neil Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III

How to explain The Sandman? It’s a whole mythology where Death and Dream and Desire and several others are immortal non-human siblings, sharing or sometimes squabbling over their power/responsibility. This review contains some minor spoilers of the first volume.

Dream, or Morpheus, has recently awoken from his entrapment by a magicians’ circle to find the Dreaming in chaos. While setting it all to rights, he senses that there is a Dream Vortex in the shape of a young woman, Rose Walker. She is trying to put her family back together, unaware of the danger that surrounds her or of Dream trailing her closely. Rose is a fantastic character and there are some wonderful comic touches here, such as the serial killers’ convention. But really it’s the combination of gorgeous art (with wonderful covers by long-time Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean) and writing that make this a great book.

“It seemed like the late autumn wind blew them in that night, spinning and dizzying from the four corners of the world. It was a bitch wind, knife-sharp and cutting, and it blew bad and cold. And they came with it, scurrying and skittering, like yellow leaves and old newspapers, from a thousand places and from nowhere at all. They came in their suits and their tee shirts, carrying rucksacks and suitcases and plastic bags, muttering and humming and silent as the night.”

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A story can even raise the dead

Gospel of LokiThe Gospel of Loki
by Joanne M Harris

I had very high hopes for this book, possibly too high, so that even though I really enjoyed reading it, I somehow feel slightly disappointed. I’m pretty sure I’m being unfairly harsh.

Yes, the Loki of the title is indeed the Loki of Norse myth. This is the story of his time in Asgard, from his recruitment by Odin, the Allfather, to the final battle of Ragnarok. Loki narrates the tale himself, putting his own self-serving spin on events as they unfold. In this accessible, relatable style, Harris successfully brings to life a complex set of myths without the whole thing feeling complicated (although I did have to refer to the handy character list a few times early on).

“Words are what remain when all the deeds have been done. Words can shatter faith; start a war; change the course of history. A story can make your heart beat faster; topple walls; scale mountains – hey, a story can even raise the dead.”

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Nothing said in that language can be a lie

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman

It’s not often I read a book within 24 hours of buying it but the combination of circumstances and it being a darned good read meant on this occasion I did just that. As I mentioned on Sunday, I was lucky enough to attend a “pre-launch event” for this book on Friday and got my 30 seconds with Neil Gaiman himself, during which I, as always, failed to have anything interesting to say. By Saturday lunchtime I was reading the last page and wishing the book could have been twice as long.

There’s a sweet story behind this book, and also a very sad one (two different stories, that is). Gaiman’s wife went away for a few months last year on a tour of Australia and he missed her, so he decided to write her a short story as a kind of love letter. Not that it’s a romantic story, but it is a personal one, with a character heavily based on 7-year-old Neil and a setting heavily based on his childhood home and beginning with an incident that really did happen to his family when he was 7 years old, though his parents didn’t tell him about it at the time. Except this isn’t a short story, because he kept on writing and ended up with a novel. Which I think all Gaiman fans will be grateful for.

The un-named 7-year-old boy at the centre of this story is bookish and friendless, which is fine by him as he has his books. But the sudden and shocking death of the family’s lodger unleashes something terrible and powerful that only the three women who live in the farm at the end of the lane can possibly defend against. These are the Hempstocks – Lettie, who is 11 and has been 11 for a very long time; Young Mrs Hempstock and Old Mrs Hempstock. They resist the word “magic” but there is definitely something magical, or even mythical, about them.

“It was only a duckpond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big. Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country. Her mother said Lettie didn’t remember properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk. Old Mrs Hempstock, Lettie’s grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn’t the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country. She said the really old country had blown up.”

This is quite a dark story, in a fairy tale kind of way. And it gets genuinely frightening in places, as well as being happy and sad and wistful and of course funny. It touches on the different ways in which children and adults see the world, with children both missing certain things through lack of understanding but also seeing more through curiosity and not having yet built up that blasé acceptance of how things are that can blind us adults to possibility.

“I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real…nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything.”

Gaiman said on Friday that he felt writing this that he was creating a myth rather than a novel and that makes a lot of sense. He also said that the Hempstocks have been characters in his head since his childhood and this book certainly doesn’t clarify who or what they are, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they turn up again.

Published 2013 by Headline.

Source: Bought from Topping & Co at their author event on 14 June.

Some had a whole epic, others just a verse

Song-of-AchillesSong of Achilles
by Madeline Miller

I must admit, when I started hearing about this book everywhere, it intimidated me. I mean, it’s based on The Iliad, which I know I should have read but haven’t because it’s always struck me as likely to be hardgoing. But then everyone was just so enthusiastic that I thought, well I might give it a go. And then Simon of Savidge Reads kindly arranged with the publishers to give some copies to his readers and I was one of the lucky winners. And oh man am I glad. Best book of this year so far, no question.

What Miller has done is to take a relatively minor character – Patroclus – and follow his life through his voice. From a quick scan of Wikipedia I think she has changed some details but broadly followed the original story, just filling in the gaps with her amazing imagination.

Miller completely brings it all to life. There is no question that you are in Ancient Greece, that life is tough and war is brewing, and let’s not forget that I am no fan of war stories, but the narrative that Miller weaves had me entranced from start to finish.

The story is the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, which begins as friendship between boys, with Patroclus learning what it means to get to know a demi-god:

“He said what he meant; he was puzzled if you did not. Some people might have mistaken this for simplicity. But is it not a sort of genius to cut always to the heart?”

Miller’s innovation is to concentrate on the love story rather than the war and gods and adventuring, although that is all there as well. Apparently Plato considered the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus to be the ideal of romantic love, though it wasn’t made explicit in The Iliad and the exact nature of their relationship has been debated for centuries. Well, Miller makes no bones about it. This book makes it 100% clear and explicit that they are gay lovers. And in the most beautiful, heartbreaking, “life depends on this love” type of way. It is achingly romantic but never mushy. Because these are manly men. I mean, Achilles is a half-god-half-man warrior of legendary fury and skill.

Which brings me to another aspect of the story I was apprehensive of: this is a world where life includes gods and fantasy creatures and prophecies and magic. Miller handles this brilliantly. The historical setting allows people to be uncertain of the truth about stories they have heard about gods etc but superstitious enough to just accept magic when it appears. This is a very human story but somehow magical as well. In every respect of that word:

“‘She says that there is strangeness among the gods, that they are fighting with each other, taking sides in the war. She fears that the gods have promised me fame, but not how much.’
“This was a new worry I had not considered. But of course: our stories had many characters. Great Perseus, or modest Peleus. Heracles or almost-forgotten Hylas. Some had a whole epic, others just a verse.”

I’m not sure I am successfully communicating the beauty of this book, so you will just have to read it for yourself:

“This feeling was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head.”

Handily, The Readers is running a new book club and this is the first book on the reading list, podcast due imminently. And if you’re interested in the review that sparked my interest, you can check it out on Savidge Reads, here.

First published 2011 by Bloomsbury. Paperback edition published 2012.
Winner of the Orange Prize 2012.