Beware the Crooked Man

John Connolly: The Book of Lost Things
Illustrated by Anne M Anderson
Hodder 2017 (2006)

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

What attracted me about The Book of Lost Things was, first, the title with its intimation of mystery and, second, the cover illustration by Robert Ryan with its suggestion of the sinister wild wood of the fairytale imagination. Then, as I read it, it morphed. At times it felt like a scrapbook filled with pictures, cuttings and ephemera saved as souvenirs. Occasionally it reminded me of a Commonplace Book, those more literary scrapbooks whose owners copy passages that catch their eye, aphorisms, and quotes, or of a jotter in which random thoughts are noted down in the hopes that they will make sense at some future point.

So what is it essentially? It is a novel about folktales and fairytales, especially the latter with their implicit morals and rules for living an honest life. It’s also a story about living in a fictional dream-like world in real time which somehow becomes real. And it’s a narrative about how living in a fairytale world can reveal secrets and the difference between truth and lies.

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Managing change

Alison Croggon: The River and the Book
Walker Books 2015

“All writing comes from the inside,” said Ling Ti. “It burns you with wanting to be written. It’s the writing that matters.”
— From Chapter 25, The River and the Book

Rivers and books have so much in common, don’t they? They each have a beginning, a middle and an end. They’re ever-changing, never quite the same — even a little way further on. If you ever revisit them they are different again, their compositions have somehow altered — either in their elements or the relationship between those elements — and outside influences have meant that your perception has had to permanently adjust. Which is why Alison Croggon’s novella, The River and the Book, works so well, each aspect of the title informing the other and complementing it.

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A tale told anew

The red dragon and the white found fighting under Vortigern’s castle

Horatio Clare: The Prince’s Pen, or Clip’s Truth
New Stories from the Mabinogion, Seren 2012

Imagine a dystopian future: most of England is reduced to an archipelago; the world is ruled by some nefarious world order; and only Pakistan and Wales have held out, the latter relying on its geography to mount a guerilla war against the occupying forces — much as it did in ancient times against the Romans and the English. Into the frame step sibling warlords, Ludo and Levello, who assemble a team to plan and coordinate an effective resistance. Barely literate, they rely on hackers and scribes to ensure their success, and thus it is that Ludo’s scribe, Clip, comes to be the narrator of this future history, providing the title and subtitle of Horatio Clare’s thoughtful novella.

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Drowning sorrows

Jem Lester: Shtum.
Orion 2017 (2016)

For many of us life already makes huge demands — relationships, health and wellbeing, financial concerns, managing a work-life balance — but when you have a dependent with severe autism those demands are compounded, and can bring one close to breaking point. However much love is given out. Jem Lester’s Shtum is about a man in just such a position; but while it is drawn largely on the author’s own experiences bringing up a son on the autistic spectrum it is nevertheless fiction. Still, autism runs as a major strand throughout. Shtum is also about how its manifestation here fits into a bigger picture involving individuals, institutions and collective responses.

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Dust off those cobwebs

Frederic Edwin Church’s 1865 painting “Aurora Borealis”: Wikipedia Commons

Nicholas Tucker
Darkness Visible: Inside the World of Philip Pullman
Wizard Books 2003

Fans of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy will have been cheered by the announcement of the publication of the (as they say) long-awaiting follow-up entitled The Book of Dust. Like HDM this will appear in three volumes, and the first — titled La Belle Sauvage — will be published in October this year by Penguin Random House Children’s and David Fickling Books in the UK, and Random House Children’s Books in the US, according to the author’s own website.

Eager to revisit HDM in some shape or form, especially as the series has been around a score of years since I first read the three books (rather less for the two slim spin-offs that appeared subsequently) I looked at Nicholas Tucker’s brief study as a kind of refresher course and to see if it duplicated or complimented Laurie Frost’s encyclopaedic Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials: The Definitive Guide first published by Scholastic in 2006.

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Poison pen

The Sargasso Sea, from a chart by O Krummel (1891)

Jean Rhys: Wide Sargasso Sea
Edited by Hilary Jenkins
Penguin Books 2001 (1966)

“Great mistake to go by looks, one way or another.”
— Aunt Cora to Antoinette, Part One Wide Sargasso Sea

As a study in disintegration Wide Sargasso Sea is relentless. The main protagonist is forced to watch her mother gradually fall apart, and then she herself follows a similar journey. In fact it’s hard to name a single character who doesn’t follow a downward spiral. There have been many analyses of this mid 20th-century novel that distinguish it as feminist, post-colonialist and postmodern, and describe it as a prequel or an example of ‘writing back’ or rewriting (it overlaps the chronology of its literary inspiration). Many make reference to ‘the madwoman in the attic’, thus bringing the most marginalised figure in Jane Eyre stage centre and turning Wide Sargasso Sea a reconfiguring of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel. No doubt all these things are true, but anything I add to these observations would be superfluous and, anyway, beyond my capabilities.

So I shall instead focus on just three points — madness, fire and poison — and put down my thoughts on how they inexorably lead to the disintegration of the significant actors in this tragedy.

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Human yet deliciously alien

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Headline 2014 (2013)

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
— Shakespeare: Hamlet

Like all good fantasy books, what makes this novel outstanding is not so much the magic (of which there is enough to sate the most avid of fans) but the essential truths that it contains: of human nature, of joy and pain, of choices and consequences, of life and of death. It strongly evokes what it’s like to be a child trying to make sense of an adult world, learning through books and above all through bitter experience. My main criterion when judging a performance, a work of art or a book is: Would I want to experience it again? In this case the answer is unhesitatingly Yes! And why? Because it is life-affirming; while conversely — and, seemingly, perversely — affirming that the inevitable consequence of life is death.

I confess I shall be hard pushed to mention everything that struck me as I read this, so exquisite was the underlay below the equally rich surface details. The unnamed narrator has been attending a funeral in Sussex — for his father, one soon realises — and afterwards drives off to the site of the former family home, and then on to a farm, curious about the pond that he remembers being there. It instantly brings back childhood memories, specifically when he was around the age of seven; and what memories they turn out to be!

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