Saturday, January 28, 2006

Re-reading an old favourite - Greenmantle, Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is one of my favourite authors. He is a musician, writer and artist. I have probably got every single one of his books - not that I am obsessive or anything!

I picked up Greenmantle this week to re-read as I don't have anything new to read, having spent my allowance on presents for friends (send free books, in other words!).

I can only one day dream of being able to write as well as he does. He writes what can be termed "urban fantasy" - every day "normal" people happen across magical beings and suddenly, their world and their perceptions are turned upside down.

Greenmantle is no different.

It tells the story of a retired Mafia soldier - Valenti - who leaves the business behind and buys himself a love house in the woods. His neighbour turns out to be a young single mother called Frankie who has a fourteen year old daughter by the name of Ali. Frankie also has a nasty ex-husband who is after the few thousand dollars she had won on the lottery and he gets thrown into the mix of is about crime, mafia, music, magic, and believing in the impossible.


Meanwhile things are stirring in the forest - beautifully haunting music is played on a pipe, deep within the forest. Ali and Valenti go in search of it and find something no one expected - an entire village of English people who have returned to the old ways of nature worship. The young boy who is the piper calls the "mystery" to him - a large beautiful stag, that represents both the Green Man, Pan and Cerunnos, all at once. The music awakes within those who hear it, whatever they bring to it - be it anger, loss, pain, lust. It is powerful stuff and the first time I read it I was completely taken aback by the things written and said in there - the fact that Christianity is a fledgling religion, that it stole and borrowed from other religions to become what it is today...that our imagination is indeed strong enough to create beings of mystical power and to enable them to roam the world.

It is an eclectic book - beautifully written with so many questions being asked by all the characters that it is, in retrospect, not sumat you want to pick up and flick through and skip paragraphs and pages "cos they don't talk too much in this, do they?".

It is a fantastic read and for those of us with a bit of a New Age slant, it goes down very well. Heavy decisions are made by the characters in the book and they are all genuinely interesting people with faults and failings which makes you feel for them when they succeed or just crumble when you realised they did the wrong thing.

Good fun - give it a whirl.

And now for something completely different...!

I am a sucker for anything to do with myths and legends, magical and mystical creatures. The above book was sent to me as the Editor's choice from my book club. I was thrilled.

This weekend I will be dipping into said treasure trove of creatures - who knows if inspiration might strike! For instance, from one of my other books in the same vein, I learned that Hagrid actually means giant in one of the Germanic/Scandanavian languages...very cunning Mrs. Rowling!

This is from the creature book itself - only one of thousands of entries:

In Greek mythology, Achelous was a river
god who took three different shapes when
he chose. He could take the form of a bull, a
speckled serpent or a bull-headed man, like
the Minotaur. He wrestled with Hercules
for the hand of Dejanira and, while in the
latter form, lost a horn. The blood that fell
to the ground from the horn became the
Sirens, while the horn itself was discovered
by Naiads who took and filled it with flowers
and fruit. Classical myth tells us that
Achelous’ horn was then presented to
Plenty (Amalthea) who made it her cornucopia
(the ‘horn of plenty’).

How can you not be excited about having such an invaluable tool at hand? Yay for Thorsons Element for publishing a unique book!

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Seeking whom he may devour - Fred Vargas

I couldn't wait to start reading this book.

The premise is fantastic - Disturbing things have been happening up in the French mountains; more and more sheep are being found with their throats torn-out. The evidence points to a wolf of unnatural size and strength.

Which of course leads us to the concept of it being a werewolf and I am a sucker for anything remotely lycantropic or anything to do with wolves. They are our primal fears embodied!

Its a slim book, I thought to myself, a quick easy read. Phsaw. How wrong can one be?

I started reading it and I was swept away on a slow, scary ride of a thriller plotted well and written in beautiful prose.

This book had me sitting outside my house - after I forgot my keys and had to wait for hubby to come home in the evening - on the doorstep, in the moonlight, squinting at the pages. I then looked up and noticed the moon.

It was ghosting through the sky under cover of whispy clouds and it was oh so very very dark.

And I was reading a book about wolves attacking people and sheep. I was petrified. I closed the book and put it back in my bag. What, I kept musing to myself, if it was real? What is that sound? I jumped it in alarm. I sighed in relief. It was hubby coming back from walking the dog and it was the dog's nails clipping on the pavement.


It is a tense, taughtly written piece of fiction with fantastically interesting characters who exude mystery and charm. It is set in France in modern times but in a very rural area where, in my mind, anything can happen. Myths and legends still abound and people live close to the land, where paganism and folklore live side by side with going to Mass, where superstitions are rife and where people can be whipped up into a lynch mob to hunt down a suspected werewolf - an inside out man - at the mere hint of the thought of one being amongst them.

I would really recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well written fiction. The end is a scorpion's sting and I didnt' see it coming at all.

Well done, Mme Vargas. I now look forward to reading The Three Evangelists!

Be carefull what you wish for - Alexandra Potter

A guilty secret. I hate chick-lit. I hate these little pink fluffy books on the bookshelves being hailed as best-sellers. It makes me want to shout and scream as there are other "real" authors out there who deserve to attention these books get.

And then, after some retrospect, I realised how unfair I am being. Chick-lit caters to a certain group of women in market. And why shouldn't their needs be fulfilled?

Many people out there who read "serious" novels in the "acceptable" format of literary books, crime novels and thrillers, look at other writings in different genres and call them "fluffy" "not serious books". Science fiction and fantasy authors have been fighting for years against the stigma of their work not being called "real". I sometimes wonder if it is a case of sheer jealousy? Those who can't...turn into bitter jealous types who refuse to acknowledge hard work.

The blood, sweat and tears to get that manuscript out is as real as any other author struggling to get his or her own work out, no matter the genre. I will NEVER, I hope and pray, be nasty about other authors, ever again, no matter the genre.

I picked Be careful what you wish for up fromWH Smith as an offer when I bought Fred Vargas' Seeking whom he may desire. I wanted to see, for the first time in absolute years what was going on in the chick-lit genre. I girded myself and reached out to the bookshelf with a quavering hand and picked it up, hastily paying for it and hiding it in my handbag.

And, I am glad I did buy it, in the end. It is a rollicking good read. You immediately like the main character Heather and can identify with her mishaps, her job, her own insecurities and how utterly hilarious some of the situations are she gets herself into. This is far better than I expected and I applaud the author wholeheartedly for giving a real character who interacts genuinely with her family, friends and two men her life.

This is the synopsis from Amazon:

A sassy romantic comedy to delight fans of Sophie Kinsella, Freya North and Helen Fielding. You couldn't wish for a better book! 'I wish I could get a seat on the tube...I hadn't eaten that entire bag of Maltesers...I could meet a man whose hobbies include washing up and monogamy...' Heather Hamilton is always wishing for things. Not just big stuff - like world peace or for a date with Brad Pitt - but little, everyday wishes, made without thinking. With her luck, she knows they'll never come true...Until one day she buys some heather from a gypsy. Suddenly the bad hair days stop; a handsome American answers her ad for a housemate; and she starts seeing James - The Perfect Man who sends her flowers, excels in the bedroom, and isn't afraid to say 'I love you'...But are these wishes-come-true a blessing or a curse? And is there such a thing as too much foreplay?

I would, out of five bookish stars, give it...four book stars.

It also taught me not to pigeonhole books. Now, all I have to do is overcome my aversion to science fiction books!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Long Way Round - The book, not the TV show

I didn't watch The Long Way Round when it aired on TV last year - I thought "yeah, yeah, another publicity stunt by two actors wanting to make yet more money".

But, in the end, at a loose end as what to buy hubby as a stocking filler, I opted for the book written by Ewan and his mate Charley. I didn't think it would be anything special but since it had to do with motorbikes, leatherclad boys and travelling the world, it would the stocking and be an interesting thing to chat about.

Both hubby and I are ex-bikers (I was the pillion as my own bike escapades ended with me selling my bike - Black Betty (eventhough she was purple) to friends of ours as her souped up engine was too much for poor me to handle) and I thought it would be a nostalgic way to look back on our crazy days of camping out with other insane bikers in the freezing cold or the boiling hot.

Hubby finished the book, loving it, laughing out loud sometimes and out of curiosity I picked it up and was instantly immersed in the two boys' adventure. I admit to being very wrong about it all. They weren't just out to make another quick buck. They were scraping money together to do what they have dreamed of doing for years - travel around the world. It struck a chord. I felt sorry for them as they ran around trying to do get funding for this trip, eventually agreeing to do a tv show just so that they could make the trip.

I sit back, having finished reading it last week Monday night and can't help but feel that this is something I would love to do myself. I told Mark and he looked at me as if I had just sprouted another head. Yes, right, he said, burying his head in playing Splinter Cell on the Playstation, clearly thinking that I had a fever.

Isn't that what books are supposed to do though? Make you want to run out and do things?

I followed the lads on their journey, loving their tongue in cheek way of writing, meeting hundreds of people through them, seeing that there are very few strangers out there, just potential friends. I felt sorry for Ewan though as he was being recognised wherever he went, even in Russia. The Kazaks told him blatantly that Moulin Rouge was not their favourite movie, not his best either. It was very funny. I think it took him aback as it just showed how far into the world one has to go to be anymous.

Charley was very funny - he was the angry one a lot of times, shouting at the back-up chaps and generally having fits about things. Which surprised me a bit as I thought Ewan would be the one throwing the prima-donna fits. Although he did, according to Charley, going into sulks and then being fine the next minute. Which amazed me even more - aren't us women supposed to be the ones with hormonal problems?

They had a rollicking time - eventually clocking that this journey which had started out so well, had turned into a schedule keeping malarky and once they relaxed, things went tonnes better. They travelled and saw things very few Westerners get to see, ever. I take my hat off to their cameraman Claudio who travelled with them and filmed them and their escapades. He was indeed the unsung hero of the book.

I think I will buy the dvd for Mark - of course - as it would be interesting to equate what was written in the book to what we saw on that.

Charley is currently doing the Paris to Dakar rally - but had apparently managed to break both his hands and is now merely travelling along as back-up to the other two chaps in the team. I am not sure what Ewan is up to but either way, I will always be a fan of them now and will always dream - even more - of going to farflung places and meeting interesting people. And have an Adventure.

Cinnamon City - Miranda Innes

I love travel writing books - it is a weakness, I will admit to. I love being carried away by other people's trials and tribulations whilst feverently wishing that it was me there, spending money on a home to be made beautiful, a trip to enjoy to the last...they are fantastic journeys, better than made-up fiction.

Cinnamon City was a book I was looking forward to reading when I first spotted it in Ottakars in Greenwich on one of our many coffeebean buying trips to the market there.

I finally bought a copy just before Christmas, started reading it haphazzardly and then putting it aside in favour of one or two other, more pressing books, and I am glad I did. This is not a book to sit down and read in one go. It is not for the feint hearted.

Poor Miranda and Dan's trials really had me shaking my head thinking that this was never going to work.

They were lured into buying a broken and sad riad in Marrakech. She relates all their troubles with heartfelt anxiety and worry whilst lyrically giving an account of this magical city, its people and the genuine friendships they had formed with their (eventual) manager, neighbours and workmen.

I had to grin and laugh, knowing how chaotic building projects in Africa can go and then shape up magically in a blink of an eye. She and poor Dan worried fretfully as suddenly, everywhere they looked there was chaos, mud and water and the plumbing didn't work. Their palace had been turned into a tip. It was terrible and they out of money and had to borrow from friends and family until a flat could be sold in Brighton. Thanks to perseverance and the good fortune of having hired the right man for the job, it all came together beautifully in the end and apparently, the end result, like the book, is a work of triumph.

It is a genuinely an enjoyable book and hopefully I will be able to visit the now finished palatial and beautiful riad to take in all I had read about. Their website is a very basic one, showing some of the pictures in both their riad in Morocco and their home in Andalucia - both of which are up to rent throughout the year, prices on the website!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

And today's lesson is...plot

Dan Brown. The man who has sold more books worldwide than any other author…his books have only been outsold by the Bible. Which is sort of funny, if you think about it.

I was chatting to a colleague at the watercooler – as you do – and he asked me what I did over the holiday…so I mentioned that I got quite a bit done on my novel (brave move for me as I try not to talk about it too much as it used to be an embarrassing thing….are all budding authors like this?). I digress. Young colleague, lets call him YC, to make things easier, and he asked me firstly:

“Are you writing a Mills & Boone romance?” at which I burst out laughing and said no, not quite.

Then he looked at me keenly and said… “Are you writing a Dan Brown novel?”

And I laughed even more. And said no, my writing is MUCH better than his. Which led – amongst other things - to the conversation about the sale of his books and if he is a good writer or not…

Now, I think he is a fantastic writer – he has the world wrapped around his word processor.

I admit this with a blushing face as I know my prose is better than his but what he hit upon was an amazing plot and a public willing to believe all he wrote – I am talking about the Da Vinci Code here, by the way. A hugely successful book which, like JK Rowling’s books firstly started selling by word of mouth, then the media picked it up, the marketing machine kicked in and it all just steam rollered it into a book so talked about and controversial that it had the Vatican up in arms, families not talking to one another….and all of this hype spawned off-shoot books about the REAL Da Vinci Code, including programmes about church organisations, the Templars and Roslyn Chapel in Scotland!

Which brings me to the real crux of this blog – you can be a rubbish writer, but if you have a fantastic plot and you can manage to weave your story together to make it plausible so that you turn people’s heads then you are a successful writer. As that is what writers do – create something altogether real and plausible and make you wonder what if

We discussed the Dan Brown phenomenon in our writing class last year and our tutor maintained that even though it wasn’t the most literary thriller in the world, it had all the ingredients that made it a best seller – fast paced plot, an attractive hero, a plausible heroine, conspiracies, scary baddies (what is more scary than a religious fanatic backed by an even scarier Vatican sanctioned order), yet more conspiracies…he admitted rightly that he read two pages of the book and had to throw it across the room as he couldn’t stomach the bad writing. We questioned him as to how it got past the editors if it was that bad and he circled us back to the plot, the thrill of the ride you get to go on with the characters and how, if you are clever enough at illusion, you could have a rollicking time writing your novel because you know so many people out there would be loving it, just because it is in places far-fetched! And face it, even if you aren’t a conspiracy theorist who doesn’t love a good cover up!?

It was a valuable lesson that gave us pause as we were quite happy to write it off as rubbish (more out of jealousy than anything else) but the core role is – plot.

This is a bit of blurb from the Writing section of the BBC website

In a nutshell, a great plot will be one which appears to develop inevitably, features credible events, and resolves itself in a way which appears to be a natural consequence of the chain of events you've inflicted upon your characters.

And that is the lesson for today.