Adventures of a Story Turtle

I recently wrote about a blog post about a few books in my TBR list that intimidate me.

The common theme with them?

Bigness.

The common theme with me?

Fear of commitment and laziness. *pulls guilty face*

I’m not a quick reader. I used to wish that I was, but I’ve grown to accept my tendency to meander through the pages of a book – and I’ve grown to be happy with my meanderings too. It takes me time to process a story. It takes me time to switch off from the outside world/the worry-filled world of my head.* It takes me time to decide how I feel about characters and it takes me time to settle into an author’s voice.

In other words: I’m a story turtle. Slow and steady.

Unlikely to win any races, though.

No matter how much I like the blurb, no matter how many rave reviews I read, my slowness means a big book always makes me nervous. A big book is a big commitment for me. Weeks – possibly even months – worth of a commitment.

And turtles are renowned by scientists for their fickle nature and total lack of commitment.

Okay, that’s not true.

It could be true.

I don’t know.

Anyway.

This story turtle is throwing caution to the wind.

This story turtle won’t let commitment nerves get the better of her any more.

I’m diving into the deep, Mariana Trench-esque waters of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. It sounds too good and too wonderfully magicky to keep on avoiding. Who cares if it’s one thousand and six pages? *hyperventilates*

One thousand. And six. Pages. *hyperventilates more*

Wish me luck.

Send tea and chocolate.

You’ll probably hear what I think about it in October. Maybe November. Perhaps December. What even is time anyway? *tries to look philosophical and clever*

This turtle is making no promises.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

*this has historically been the single biggest problem for me with reading (and pretty much everything else in my life). The chatter of worries flying around my brain was relentless, exhausting, infuriating, and maddeningly distracting. Literally maddening. Thankfully, it’s got a lot better in the last year. One day, I’ll write about it. Even if no-one wants to read about it. *sticks out tongue*

Reads – Good Omens

GoodOmensBookB&W

Eleven years before the scheduled Armageddon, two world-loving other-worldly creatures – one a demon, the other an angel – accidentally misplace the antichrist with a little help/hindrance from a scatter-brained satanic nun. Chaos ensues – with all the forces of heaven, hell, and a village in Oxfordshire trying to keep up as the appointed dayeth and hour draws near.

*

I love Terry Pratchett books. I love Neil Gaiman books.

So a book written by both of them about the end of the world?

Well, it sounded pretty perfect to me.

Plus, with a TV adaptation of Good Omens set to be released later this month – trailer here – now felt like the ideal time to dip my toe into this epic co-authoring waters.

And it was pretty perfect.

Once I got into its absurdly wonderful flow it was hard not to fall head over heels in love with how ridiculous it all was.

Clearly, Gaiman and Pratchett had a lot of fun writing the book. Ninety-nine percent of the time that translated as fun to read. One percent of the time, though, and I feel like killjoy R.P. Tyler* for saying this, it translated as slightly irritating because the storyline seemed to lose out to a two/three/four paragraphs long (plus a detailed footnote) gag. Hence** the pretty before the perfect.

Good Omens is definitely a Marmite kind of book – you’ll love it or you’ll hate it depending on your sense of humour. It’s very British, very Monty Pythonesque, very weird and wacky, very over the top, and very unapologetic for it.

I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

*my favourite secondary (maybe thirdondary, possibly even fourthondary) character. There are loads of these brilliant minor characters throughout the book.

**yes, I used the word hence. Yes, I am a hundred years old.

And finally, can we all just take a moment to appreciate Poppy, my wonderful photography assistant…

GoodOmens&PoppyBW

PoppyAndGoodOmens

PoppyAndGO

Reads – The Winter of the Witch

Right. I think I can do this.

I can totally do this.

*breaks down*

img_20190111_092450_705
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

Okay, so this is going to be harder to write than I thought when I first started reading the book.

The Winter of the Witch is the final novel in the Winternight trilogy by Katherine Arden. The trilogy follows Vasya as she grows from a headstrong and away-with-the-fairies girl into a powerful young woman. You can read about my love for The Bear and the Nightingale here and my love for The Girl in the Tower here. There’s a lotta lot of love there.

There is slightly – emphasis is really important on the slightly – less love here.

*closes eyes, scrunches up face, and waits for boos and hisses*

Most of my lack of love is for the first half of the book, which I found (and I will go ahead and use this word, because I am apparently a hundred and fifty years old) befuddling. I’m perfectly happy to accept that my beffudlement might be due to a combination of January brain, juggling five books (not a good move), a cold, and my aforementioned a hundred and fifty year oldedness*, but I felt like there was a lotta lot of story stuff going on and it seemed *scrunches up face again* more melodramatic than dramatic to me.

The book came into its own, though, in the second half and things began to make more sense to my old and withered January brain.

Here are just a few of my favourite things:

  • The Bear – is it bad that I was actually a little bit in love with Medved by the end? Well, if it is then all I can do is apologise. Obvsiously, I wasn’t a fan of the whole raising the dead thing (because that’s really not a very nice thing to inflict on the living or the dead) but I was a fan of all the mischief. He was endearing, if twisted. All I’m saying is that I think he would make for interesting company at a dinner party. Don’t judge me.
  • Sasha – he’s a legend and I think we can all agree that this time my love needs no apology.
  • It’s a twin thing – as one half of a set of twins (not sure if that’s the best way to put it, but it’s what I’m going with), my attention is always grabbed by a twin story-line. I love (or am amused by) all the clichés associated with us and I love the almost mystical qualities people who happen to have shared a womb at the same time are sometimes given by people who got a womb all to themselves for nine months. We’re not that interesting, I promise. In this case, though, the mystical qualities were obviously more than fair enough. Yin and yang, good and evil, light and dark, life and death, love and hate, summer and winter. The balancing act was nice to watch unfold.
  • The writing – Katherine Arden’s writing is beautiful. Her descriptions are rich but never heavy handed, and the world she’s made is mesmerising.
  • The ending – it’s bittersweet because the trilogy is over, but it’s also goldilocks-right.
The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden, UK hardback cover. Winternight trilogy, book review.
Poppy thinks you should read this book

The last seventy five or so pages disappeared in a blur and flurry of paper for me. Everything converged into a perfect story-storm, and I was actually left shaking and holding back tears by a certain… goodbye.

It’s hard not to write about it, but I won’t.

*breaks down again*

I really do wish I’d loved the first half of the book more.

But I loved The Winter of the Witch by the end and that’s more than good enough for me.

*note to self – must stop ruining the English language.

Reads – Fevre Dream

FevreDreamCover

Christmas time is a time for traditions – conventional plus the weird, wacky, and wonderful.

My weird Christmas tradition (that is a grand total of, ahem, four years old) is to read about vampires. Nothing says twinkly, tinselly, merry Christmas like a big ol’ vampire novel.

This year I chose Fevre Dream by George R. R. Martin because George R. R. Martin plus vampires sounded like too good a combination to resist.

The story follows Abner Marsh – a struggling, no nonsense, honest through-and-through steamboat businessman who receives an offer he can’t refuse from the mysterious, nocturnal Joshua York – and charts his adventures along the vampire-flooded banks of the Mississippi.

The first half of the story had me firmly under its toothy spell. I loved to love/hate all of the characters in their own special way and the Victorian South bled straight from the page into my brain. But somewhere in the middle of the book the story fell flat for me. Not completely flat, not flat-as-a-pancake flat, but flat like a cake that doesn’t rise as much as you were expecting. I can’t really explain why or how – helpful, I know – all I can say is it left me feeling like a passenger pacing the deck, waiting impatiently for my stop so I could get off. Which was a surprise.

At least I got my Christmas vampire fix.

I hope you’ve had a good Christmas, however you’ve celebrated it. Do you have any weird and wonderful Christmas reading habits? I’d love to know I’m not the only one if you do!

October Scares – Three

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman.

Halloween and Neil Gaiman. They just go.

Like Mc and Donalds. Like the stars and the moon. Like hot chocolate and cream and marshmallows. Like cats and crazy cat ladies. Like thorns and roses. Like Cadbury’s dairy milk and me (though this is a fraught and abusive relationship, so is perhaps not a great example).

Basically, I couldn’t do a series of posts about scary stories for Halloween and not include something by Neil Gaiman. It just wouldn’t be right. Especially as his short story collection Trigger Warning fits the Halloween book bill pretty darn perfectly.

I love all the worlds and characters he creates in these tales. I love the wackiness, the I-wasn’t-expecting-that-iness, the fantasticalness, the humaness and unhumaness.*

My favourites – picking one was too hard – are Click-Clack the Rattlebag and Feminine Endings. They’re super quick to read and just the right level of creepy (though I still wouldn’t risk reading them just before bed), plus Feminine Endings made me realise that my instinct to run and hide when I see human statues is not completely irrational.

Are you reading anything scary/ghostly/magicky in the run up to Halloween? I’d love to know if you are, and recommendations are always welcome!

*sorry for being so recklessness with my ruining of the Englishness languageness.

Reads – Nights at the Circus

Nights at the circus by Angela Carter book review

Back in August there was an brilliant documentary on the BBC about the author Angela Carter, called Of Wolves and Women (sadly not available on iPlayer anymore). I’d had a few of her books on my radar for a little while, but this fascinating film just sealed the reading deal. Nights at the Circus seemed like a good place to start.

I really loved how avant garde and strange it was – it brimmed and bubbled with a weirdness that was hard to grapple with but that was completely charming all the same. And I loved how angry it is – you can sense Carter’s indignation at injustice, sexism, class issues, etc., on almost every page. I’m guessing that’s what all her books are like.

But I didn’t love the book. My main annoyance with it was that – apart from the spellings of Fevvers’, Lizzie’s, and the Colonel’s actual literal voices – none of the characters seemed to have a unique voice beyond Carter’s and I struggled to connect with them individually (although I really did love Lizzie for all her old lady mischief). I went through long waves of feeling like I was barely hanging on in there with the narrative, followed by shorter waves of feeling completely entranced, and then back to the long, struggling waves again.

And Buffo the clown was honestly the stuff of my nightmares. *shudders*

Roller. Coaster.

I’m looking forward to trying out another of Carter’s books soon* – I’m sure there will be one where I love both the setting and the characters, and where I don’t end up having nightmares about Buffo. I have a feeling it will be a favourite when I find it.

But for now, seeing as it’s October, I think it’s only right to get my teeth into a ghost story or two.

*recommendations very very welcome!

Reads – A Darker Shade of Magic

A darker shade of magic by V E Schwab. Book review.

You know when someone says push and a cheeky part of your brain says pull?

Well, for a long while I had recommendations for A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab coming out of my ears. So many that my brain said pull. I actively resisted it. Skipped reviews for it, skipped passed its spine on shelves, blanked ads that popped up for it. Avoided, avoided, avoided.

That, let me tell you, was a really silly thing to do.

Because it’s brilliant.

I don’t know why I was so stubborn or what finally made the stubborness stop. *looks over shoulder for the giant computer cookie monster*

But I’m glad it did stop, because this was an amazing read.

I loved the world building. Four colour-coded Londons probably should have felt like too many, but it was cleverly done, and the descriptions were vivid and absorbing without being too much. I loved Kell and Lila. They were good company, full of magical, sparking life. I loved the plot. It twisted and turned – expectedly, unexpectedly, always entertainingly.

And, you know what made it even better?

Knowing it’s part of a trilogy that – because of all that avoiding – is complete.

*smiles smugly, as if it was always part of the plan*

If anybody needs me over the next few days, you’ll find me in a London – grey, red, white, or maybe even black.

Paddling

Antique Edwardian photograph, inpsiration for a short story. Paddling at Mudstone.
Antique photograph captioned “Paddling at Mudstone” found in an old album from a flea market.

The water is cold between Esme’s toes and the shingle is prickly against her skin.

The others giggle all around her, but she is silent.

Something isn’t right.

She can feel it in her feet, feel it tangling up her calves, growing over her knees. The sea is bleeding into her, melting to her flesh. Soon, she will not be able to leave.

She stumbles back and the others stop giggling. They ask what’s wrong.

She stumbles back and saltwater sloshes against her skirt. Worst of all, it sloshes in her heart. She feels the weight of it swim left and right inside her chest, feels it splash against her lungs.

She stumbles back and suddenly the cold is all around her. She closes her eyes and holds her breath – sinking and sinking, baptised.

Everything under is quiet. Everything under is calm.

Only her and her fuzzy heartbeat.

Before she feels them, she hears them – their shouts, their screams. And then their hands come – grasping, pulling, dragging her up until she is drowning in air.

Before she feels the sand, she hears the sand. It crunches against her ear and suckers to her face. Voices babble all around her but she cannot understand what they say.

Before she feels it, she sees it. She holds a leg up in the air and watches as her skin shimmers in the light and flashes in the sun. Blue and purple and green and silver. Scales.

She must get back to the water.

Land is not enough.

Reads – The Girl in the Tower

Oh. My.

I don’t have enough words to describe my feelings for this book. I just have lots of long, drawn out, unintelligible, half-language/half-noise things that I can’t figure out how to spell, which is making writing a review tricky.

Basically, in conclusion (introduction?), I really really, truly truly loved it.

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden. Book cover. Book review.
The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Why? Well, let me get out some trusty bullet points and give you a few reasons.*

  • The writing. Ah gosh. It’s magical. Captivating. Bewitching. [Insert all other synonyms here.] The descriptions are beautiful without being overbearing. Characters pop out of the page, right into your heart and brain.
  • The setting. The Girl in the Tower evolves brilliantly from the small town setting of The Bear and the Nightingale. Things are no longer exclusively lush and natural and wild – they’re also golden and glittering, bewilderingly human.
  • The relationships. They spark, falter, realign, flourish, and die – believably, joyously, and painfully. It’s an emotional roller-coaster of the best kind.
  • There are consequences. There were points when I worried that everything was all too easy and convenient, but the easiness was snatched away. It was perfectly timed and excruciatingly brutal.
  • Vasya. I’ve read criticism that Vasya is too headstrong, too stubborn, and too selfish. She is absolutely headstrong, absolutely stubborn, and sometimes she’s selfish. That’s the point of the story though, right? She’s growing. She’s learning to balance being resolute in her wants, beliefs, and dreams, and the world(s) she lives in. She’s learning how to navigate herself towards a life of freedom, without veering into selfishness and without harming others. She’s always gone with her heart and gut, now she’ll have to step up and factor in the cool, calm calculations of her mind too. She’s a great and flawed protagonist.

So as you might have guessed, I thoroughly and heartily (right from the bottom of it in fact) recommend this book. And if you haven’t read The Bear and the Nightingale please go read it now. Pretty please. Then read this one. If you like fairytales and wonder and magic, or even just snow and ice and winter, you’ll love the world Katherine Arden has created.

You’ll love it.

Really really, truly truly.

Right, now it’s back to the noises I can’t figure out how to spell.

*Disclosure: I am still completely and utterly book drunk at this point. Mixing bullet points and book drunkeness is not generally advisable.

Take Me Home

“Jacob?”

He turned, spine creaking, skin burning. A woman he didn’t recognise stood over him, dressed in yellow and framed in dying summer sun.

“You can’t stay here forever.”

Jacob looked back towards the sea, rubbing his eyelids with sandy fingers.

He could stay. He had to.

The woman didn’t go away like he’d hoped she would. Instead, she sat down next to him, pushing her bare feet into the sand and resting her arms on her knees. Big blue-green bruises patchworked across her ankles and calves, shimmering like fish scales in the light.

“You look tired.” she said.

Jacob closed his eyes. He was tired. His whole body hurt with it, and it hurt with sand and salt and sun. But it was so much nicer than the other hurt, the one that scrabbled at his belly, heart, and brain. That was the hurt he was afraid of.

“I can’t sleep.” he said.

“Not out here.”

“I can’t go home.”

The woman leaned a little towards him. “Not yet. Soon though.”

He shook his head. “Not without my sister.”

“No, I suppose not.”

The woman grinned and he stared at her strange face for a long while. Maybe he did know her? She wasn’t as old as he first thought – only just grown out of being a girl.

She sighed a long sigh and stood, holding out a hand for him. “I think we should go for a walk. It’s good to walk.”

He took the hand she offered – didn’t think it was odd, didn’t care if it was – and wrapped his fingers round her palm, gripping as tight as he could. His skin crackled as she hauled him to his feet and his muscles burned right through to his bones. She dusted off his shoulders, sprinkling sand and salt across his feet.

“We don’t need to go far.”

They walked hand in hand at first, but Jacob quickly slowed. The woman let his hand slip through hers, dawdling ahead. He stared down at the sand as he walked, trying to understand what was wrong with the footprints she left behind. But his eyes hurt and his head hurt and he couldn’t understand what was wrong.

Every now and then, the woman looked over her shoulder to ask how he was.

“Fine.”

Every time, she looked like she didn’t believe him. Every time, she carried on all the same.

The beat of the waves against the sand made Jacob feel better as he walked, and he smiled as he remembered how, just a few days ago, he had thought he’d never like the sound. At first – after his father had dragged him here, after he’d been kicked across the sand, dumped by the surf, pinned down and told not to return home without Lora – he had hated it. It had made him want to rip out his ears.

But now the sound wrapped round him like a blanket, cosy and snug, and he didn’t ever want to be without it.

The woman came to a stop by Cryer’s Cave, gazing up at the gaping scar of hollowed out rock.

“This is my favourite place.” she said.

Jacob hung back from the entrance, scrunching up his face.

“Are you scared?” She crossed her arms and leant against the rock. “I didn’t ever think I’d see the day.”

He frowned. What days had she seen him before?

“I’m not scared.” he lied and started forwards, his heart blundering at a strange rhythm – too hard, too quick. He hoped she couldn’t feel it too, though he was sure it was making the air shake. He tried to focus on each painful step and ignore the woman as she watched him, but he looked up as he passed her, almost stopping when he did.

Her hair was wet.

How had that happened?

She didn’t seem to notice the way her hair stuck to her neck or the way water bloomed across the top of her dress. Instead, she smirked a little smirk and followed him inside.

The cave was like a church, walls of rock towering up and up, echoes crawling off every surface, their breaths bellowing.

“Hello?” the woman called, grinning as hundreds of hellos rattled back. “Is anybody there?”

The air lulled back to quiet. “Your turn.” she whispered.

Jacob shook his head.

“Go on.” she teased. “Yell from right in here.” She pushed her fingers against her chest. “Take all the air you’ve got and scream.”

He shook his head again.

“Oh go on, Jacob.”

“No!” he yelled, and a rush of pain scrambled up his throat. He doubled over, coughing until his lungs felt bruised and he spat phlegmy blood onto the sand.

The woman pushed dripping hair back from her face. “I’m sorry. Are you all right?”

Jacob closed his eyes and waited until he was sure he wouldn’t cry, gulping blood back down his throat.

“I just want Lora.” he said.

“I know.” said the woman, ruining the echo of Lora’s name. “I just want to help.”

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he froze. He blinked, then blinked again, sure his eyes were wrong. But what he saw didn’t change.

The woman’s face was bleeding.

A huge gash had torn across her cheek and blood poured from it, spilling down her jaw and neck. The taste of his own blood made him grimace as he looked at it.

“Is something wrong?”

“Your face. You’ve cut your face.”

“Oh.” She ran her fingers along the gash, frowning.

“Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No, not really. Not anymore.” She wiped the fingers across her dress and turned, scaling a crop of rocks and picking her way across them. “There’s something I need to show you. It’s here somewhere, I just…” She stopped and faced him. “You have to promise you won’t run away.”

He would have laughed if his lungs hadn’t hurt so much. Hadn’t she seen he could barely walk?

“I promise.”

She cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “You’ll want to, but you can’t”

“I won’t go anywhere.”

“Good.” She smiled, satisfied. “I won’t be long.”

She turned and clambered down the other side of the boulders, disappearing.

The sea and Jacob’s heart thudded in sync as he waited, and a horrible ache built under his skull.

I won’t be long.

The words went round and round, and made him want to scream. They were the worst words he’d ever heard and the worst words he’d ever said.

He tried to reach back four days and pull them out of the air, tried to erase them from his mouth and from Lora’s ears. He dug his toes into the sand and tried to go back, tried not to walk away, tried not to leave her playing all alone.

I won’t be long.

The sound of shuffling footsteps dragged him out of his looping nightmare. The woman reappeared at the top of the boulders, carrying something. Something with dangly legs and a floppy head. Something covered in shimmering bruises. Something wearing a yellow dress.

Jacob edged back as she descended the rocks towards him, the hurt he was afraid of rearing in his chest.

“Don’t run.” she pleaded. “You promised.”

The dangly legged, floppy headed something swayed at every limping step the woman took, its hair dripping and dress dribbling and face painted with purple-brown blood.

Water bubbled from each corner of the woman’s mouth as she handed the little body out to him.

“Please.”

He took the body in his arms and tried not think about how it was heavier than he remembered.

“I’m sorry.” he said, and the woman smiled.

“Take me home.”

Footprints in the sand at Lyme Regis, Dorset.

>>> No matter how hard I try, I can’t quite get this story right – but I’m releasing it into the wild anyway, because it needs to be free of my head and my laptop before it drives me mad with all the potential edits that can be made to it. The main idea for it comes from how people experience the unexpected death of a loved one. I was reading old accounts from families who lost relatives in World War I, and most of them wrote about seeing/hearing their loved one at the time they died – walking through the garden gate when they should have been (were) in France, appearing in a dream, etc. – and it kind of twistedly got me thinking about how there are no accounts where people see the death itself. It’s always very ethereal and rose-tinted, rather than visceral and horrible to watch. Here, the death has already happened and Jacob is witnessing the drowning retrospectively (and obviously a bit abstractly), to the woman Lora would have been. <<<