away with the fairytales

‘The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things – all manner of beasts and birds are found there.’ said J.R.R Tolkien in his essay On Fairy Stories.

And recently, one of the beasts to be found there has been me.

I’ve been venturing forth into those wide and deep and high realms on a quest for story treasures – armed with a notebook and pen to document my findings (when I remembered to be organised), and an embarrassing amount of tea to keep me going (which I always remembered because tea is life).

Here are a few of the treasures I discovered…

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman (illustrated by Colleen Doran)

‘I think of her hair as black as coal – her lips, redder than blood – her skin, snow-white.’

This book was dark, gruesome, macabre, explicit, and disturbing. And I loved it.

It’s an unsettling reimagining of the Snow White fairytale by Neil Gaiman, in graphic – sometimes very graphic *blushes* – novel form. First published in the nineties, it was rereleased earlier this year with illustrations by Colleen Doran.

The story itself is a wonderfully twisted take on the more traditional version of the tale, but it’s the illustrations that really make this book. They are stunning.

Definitely not one for the kids, though.

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Colleen Doran, 2019 edition

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

‘He is the fear in the dark, the monster under the bed. He is a thing out of stories, and he is here in my house…’

Anna is our heroine here – an eleven-year-old Greek refugee living with her emotionally distant father in 1920s Oxford. The pair are the only members of their family to have survived an attack on their home city, and not only is Anna still grieving for the friends and family she lost in the attack, she’s also struggling to fit into her new life in England. She’s incredibly lonely, cast adrift. But she’s also adventurous, wanting to follow in the footsteps of all the great characters of Greek mythology, and that spirit of adventure draws her into a world full of supernatural dangers.

This was an unusual gem/rough diamond of a book. It’s a hard one to define. There are a few things that aren’t quite right with it – it sits uneasily across genres and target audiences, the narrative voice seems to wander about at times, the pacing feels slightly off, plus there are awkward cameos from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. And, technically, all of those things put together should have made for a bad reading experience… but *throws hands up in the air* I actually really liked it.

What can I say?

It’s by no means perfect but it’s by a lot of means enchanting.

The Wolf in the Attic by Paul Kearney

Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

‘In an ancient inn on the Thames the regulars are entertaining thenmselves by telling stories when the door bursts open and in steps and injured stranger. In his arms is the drowned corpse of a child.

Hours later, the dead girl stirs, takes a breath and returns to life.

Is it a miracle? Is it magic?

And who does the little girl belong to?’

This was an interesting book. I liked it a lot, especially its magical, folkloric elements.

I loved the ever-present spectre of Quietly the ferryman. ‘He appeared when you were in trouble on the water… He spoke never a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day. But if you were out of luck… it was another shore altogether he took you to…’

Ferrymen who guide souls to the otherworld are a favourite mythological figure of mine. *taps pen against nose secretively*

And all the living characters are richly drawn too. Their individual stories intertwine and twist and turn beautifully. But the plot is quite a slow-burner, a meanderer like the Thames itself, which felt a little disappointing.

Although it was certainly an enjoyable world to meander through.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield book review

♦ Have you read any of these? ♦ What did you make of them if you have? ♦ What fairy-story realms would you recommend to a bookish explorer? ♦ The Tolkien quote at the start of the post is one of my favourite quotes on fairytales… what’s yours? ♦

Let me know in the comments!

Frightfully Good Reads – One

Ah, October.

The month of not knowing how many layers to wear. Of feeling boiling hot then freezing cold then Goldilocks warm, and back again. Of crunchy leaves under raggedy boots. Of apples, apples everywhere. The month of silver clouds, torrential rain, and sometimes-golden sun. Of wood-smoky fires. Of nights drawing in and of Halloween creeping its way closer and closer on a pair of spider-webbed tippy toes.

So in honour of all things Halloween, I’ve turned my reading focus to the dark side.

And where better to start than a graveyard?

TheGraveyardBook
The Graveyard Book written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell

Neil Gaiman and Halloween are a match made in heaven.

Well. Maybe more like a match made in hell.

The Graveyard Book is everything you would hope for and expect from a YA story set in a cemetery by Neil Gaiman (with illustrations by Chris Riddell). There are ghosts and ghouls and witches, angels of death, vampires and werewolves, a sprinkling of cut-throat baddies, plus a goodhearted but sometimes misguided hero.

Nobody “Bod” Owens is the sole member of his family to survive a hit by a supernatural assassin known simply as ‘the man Jack’. Only a helpless toddler at the time of the murders, Bod is taken in by the ghosts of a nearby graveyard and is raised as one of their own. But as he grows up and ventures more into the world beyond the graveyard’s gates, the threat from ‘the man Jack’ – still on the hunt for his missed kill – becomes ever more dangerous.

I loved this book. It’s simple but fun; a gloriously ghoulish adventure.

And although it’s most definitely aimed at the children’s/YA market, its themes are ageless, timeless, and oh so wise. I was constantly scrabbling around for a notebook and pen as I read, trying to keep track of all its life lessons.

“If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained.” page 217.

“You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything.” page 165.

“Things bloom in their time. They bud and bloom, blossom and fade. Everything in its time.” page 136.

*raises hands in reverie towards book heaven/hell*

The Graveyard Book is a seamless blend of light and deathly dark.

The best stories always are.

Reads – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

*emerges from reading cave dazed and confused*

It’s been five weeks.

Five whole weeks.

But, yesterday, I finally finished my story turtle quest to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke.

It’s been an adventure.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke book review.

I feel like I have a hangover from it.

I’ve been drinking a lot of intoxicating words over the last five weeks.

Book hangovers make processing thoughts and writing reviews tricky. Which, considering this is a book review, is perhaps awkward.

But the black-out blinds are down, there’s a plate full of carbs by my side, plenty of book drugs to numb the pain, and copious cups of tea to keep me going. Plus, I have my trusty old bullet points to fall back on.

I’m definitely going to fall back on them.

There’s no other way with this level of hangover.

Overall, I loved it. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. It’s an extraordinary story and an incredible piece of writing. There were things I really liked about the book and, inevitably, some things that I liked a lot less. These are the things that I can currently remember…

Likes:

  • The footnotes. Each one was a teeny tiny magical story within a humungous magical story, and they were so cleverly done.
  • The fantasticalness. Ugh, man. This book is beyond magical and fantastical and wonderful. It’s everything you could ask for in an alternative-history fantasy book. Everything and more.
  • The writing. It’s whimsical and witty and charming and it just made my reader’s heart all warm and happy. Susanna Clarke has skillz. (That’s the only way I can think to describe it – probably because of my lack of aforementioned* skillz.)
  • The characters. There are pantomime villains; blundering but good hearted heroes; loyal friends; secretive masters; chattering servants; a missing, ancient faerie king; magical vagabonds; plus many, many more besides. They’re all richly drawn and brim with life.
  • Regency. Regency England made magical is as good as it sounds. I’m not sure that I’ll be able to read Pride and Prejudice again without being disppointed there’s no witchcraft going on.

Dislikes:

  • The footnotes. I know, I know. How can I like them and dislike them at the same time? I just can, that’s why. *sticks out tongue* Mostly, they were brilliant. One or two, though, felt overbearing and unnecessary and made me do eye-rolls worthy of a teenager.
  • Mr Norrell. Eeek. I’m certain Susanna Clarke didn’t intend for him to be a likeable character, which is fair enough and normally doesn’t bother me, but my lack-of-like for Mr Norrell stretches to pretty intense levels. He’s proud, arrogant, pernicious, dismissive, selfish, and one of his (many) ill-judged actions – I think bibliophiles everywhere will know which one  – pushed him over into becoming an unforgivable character for me.
  • Move to Italy – the section set in Italy just felt heavy to read. Most of the novel kind of bounces along happily/unhappily from one thing to the next, but this part felt more like it was dragging its feet.
  • Length. Okay, I know. This is totally unfair and completely irrelevant. A story takes as many pages as it takes to tell it. I knoooow. My dislike is just a personal bias against longer books because I’m a slow reader. Aaaand it’s also because I’m pretty sure my wrists have developed arthritis from trying to figure out a comfortable way to hold it.

All those dislikes, though, are more than outweighed by the book’s general brilliance. It’s like a force of nature. You just have to give in to it and let yourself be swept away in all the pages, footnotes, and storylines.

It’s worth it.

Right. I think it’s time for that plate of carbs.

*aforementioned is my new favourite word even though it makes me sound like I’m 100 years old. What can I say?

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*

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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.