Saturday, 29 August 2009

Recent novels

Two books I have been wanting to read. Any book of Margaret Mahy's is a treat to look forward to and Linda Buckler-Archer's Time Quake is the third in the trilogy that began with Gideon the Cutpurse. It continued with The Tar Man and for along time this last book was announced as Lord Luxon, which would have been tidier. But somewhere along the way, someone decided it was going to be called The Time Quake Trilogy and so the last title was changed (unnecessarily to my mind).

Margaret Mahy's book has also had a different title. In New Zealand where Harper Collins published it last year, it was called The Magician of Hoad. And if you go to the Faber website in the UK it has a huge subtitle shown on the jacket as The Battle for the Heart of Hoad.

I promise to get on to the content soon but must just add that Heriot's stylish cover shows a huge dragon clutching and gnawing diamonds. It's a nice image but I would just like to point out that there is no dragon in the story and the only diamond in the book is the name of a town. If I were a paid-up Ann McCaffrey or Christopher Paolini fan and had bought this handsome hardback on the jacket's promise, I might want my money back!

Mahy has created the closest thing to a High Fantasy that she has written for a long time; it's a complex plot covering a long period so I won't summarise it all. Heriot is the hero, a boy with special powers - a common enough theme. But he also is inhabited by another consciousness which is usually dormant and that is splendidly done. He has prophetic visions though oddly the one he has right at the beginning is apparently forgotten; it is certainly never returned to.

Then there are the three princes of Hoad - Betony the megalomaniac, Luce, who wants to be the Hero and Dysart, the one who is supposed to be mad. Dysart and Heriot become friends and Heriot is forced to become the King's Magician. He goes from being a boy to a strong young man, with a thieving street urchin as his companion, but knows that one day he must make his mind whole again by coming to terms with his "occupant."

Margaret Mahy is one of my all-time favourite writers and, though I don't think this is her best book (the Changeover still has that status for me), it has some wonderful ideas and moments in it. And there is more to come from her, I hope.

Linda Buckley-Archer too promised much with the first two books of her trilogy, featuring Kate, Peter, the 18th century Gideon and the anti-gravity Time-Travelling Machine. (If you look on the net, you will find that the first two book titles have been changed to The Time-travellers and The Time Thief, but I must just get over it!).

There is no way that any reader could start with the third book and have a hope of knowing what was going on, in spite of several recaps. There have been so many comings and goings between the 18th century and ours and so many proliferating versions of the characters in parallel universes that no amount of "Previously in this trilogy ..." could help.

Perhaps because of the long wait for the third book, I felt a little let down by it. Kate, the feisty heroine brought up on a farm, suffers the most from her re-location in time. She is fading and has a tendency to "fast-forward" if not earthed by holding on to Peter. This leads to some repetitive descriptions. And I think it's a real flaw that we find, after all the hoo-ha with time machines, that the Tar Man can travel to other centuries just by holding on to totemic objects and using his willpower.

Still, the Tar Man, Gideon and the villainous Lord Luxon are great characters and I shall look with interest at anything else by this author.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

If people would only behave sensibly, there'd be no plots at all

I was going to blog about a couple of YA novels, which I will do very soon but two trips to the theatre have reminded me of some unrealistic feelings I sometimes have as a reader/spectator, which I don't have as a writer.

On of the plays was Racine's Phèdre, in the Ted Hughes translation at the National. I've always been a tad sceptical about "Vénus toute entière à sa proie attachée" because it appears to exonerate the character from all actions. Its all very well in real Greek myth, where characters behave according to predestined patterns, and in Greek tragedy which still seems close to it but by 17th century France it seems a pretty feeble excuse.

And the play is so monolithic, with nothing by way of sub-plot or entwined plot strands that you are left with this two hours of "incestuous" lust which is eating this middle-aged stepmother up. (Actually Helen Mirren is in her 60s but the age gap between Phaedra and Hippolytus would not have been so great - there isn't really the toyboy element that the casting of Mirren and Dominic Cooper introduced).

You can tell I wasn't really engaged and I wanted to tell her to pull herself together! It reminded me of watching a good TV dramatisation of Conrad's Nostromo many years ago. There are two men and two women - very neat but both men are in love with the same woman (shades of Midsummer Night's dream but Conrad had no Moly juice). I remember grumbling at the screen, "Why can't you just love the other one?"

Has anyone else wanted to say to Cathy "How can you like that horrible man Heathcliff? Don't you know he hanged Isabella's little dog?" Or begged Dorothea not to marry Mr Casaubon?

But life isn't like that and nor is fiction. People don't do the tidy thing and I never expect them to when I write about them. In fact they behave in all sorts of unpredictable ways even to me who have the ridiculous notion that I created them.

And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Beyond Black and Red - the Best books?

I'm a late arrival at this party but you might have seen the list of the sixty best books of the last sixty years published by the Times on 3rd August. It begins with Orwel's Nineteen Eighty-four in 1949 and ends with The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. You can read the full list here:

Of the sixty, six are books written for the children's or teenage market: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950); A Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956); Watership Down (1972); Northern Lights (1995); Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (1997) and Twilight (2005). I have read all these though not all sixty.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is the last that has excited the most vitriolic comments. Now, one does not look at the Comments section of any Online post for the least crazy responses but it's interesting to see just how much acid is thrown Stephenie Meyer's way. I did a little trawl to see what else was published in 2005 and found: Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, The Sea by John Banville; 1599 by James Shapiro; Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood; A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka; Beyond Black by Hliary Mantel and many other heavyweight literary contenders.

So yes, there is a perversity in the choice (though they could have done worse and nominated the ghastly Saturday by Ian McEwan, or Kate Mosse's unspeakable Labyrinth, both also published in that year). But perhaps this is a new and different meaning of "best" as Arthur Dent might put it? Perhaps they meant "most influential" or "most significant" or "best-selling." But it can't be the last, since Dan Brown isn't on the list.

So hard to fathom what Meyer is doing there.

In the end, all such lists are subjective and this one is even a little prophetic, since 2009 isn't over yet. And in case Sarah Waters thinks they are pre-judging the Man Booker prize, she should note that Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, their choice for 1980 and Graham Swift's Waterland (1983) did not bear away the palm.

And Meyer, if she reads Comments sections at all, will surely be like Liberace, crying all the way to the bank.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Tender Morsels

I came to this book with tremendous prejudices, based on the synopses I had read. So I’ve decided not to précis the story. Most reviews mention that it is a re-working of the Brothers Grimm story Snow White and Rose Red, so I will re-cap that instead:

Snow White and Rose Red are sisters, daughters of a poor widow, who live with their mother in a remote cottage. They are devoted to each other though Snow White is the more domesticated of the two. One night in winter there is a knock at the door and a great black bear asks for shelter from the snow. Encouraged by their mother, the girls groom and cosset the bear, who is gentle and becomes a family friend.

He leaves in summer to guard his treasure from dwarves. Three times the girls see the same dwarf, trapped by his beard, in a tree, in a river and in the talons of an eagle; each time they rescue him by cutting off some of his beard or tearing his coat. The odious little man is ungrateful to them.

The fourth time they meet him, he is gloating over an array of stolen gems and becomes incensed at the sight of the sisters. Just then a black bear comes roaring out of the forest. The dwarf pleads with the bear to take the jewels rather than hurt him, or to eat the “tender morsels” of the “two wicked girls.” The bear kills him with a blow and reveals himself as a handsome prince in disguise, enchanted by the dwarf. He marries Snow White and his previously unmentioned brother marries Rose Red and they live happily ever after.

Now, Tender Morsels is not a re-telling of this story; it is what used to be called in my daughters’ schools a “creative extension.” And it extends both fore and aft. The short prologue, ignored by most reviewers, who can’t wait to get on to the rape and incest, is told from the point of view, first person, of the dwarf, whom Margo Lanagan names Collaby Dought. He has just had his first sexual experience, with a fellow-orphan named “Hotty Annie”. After the deed, she makes patterns with her fingers on his forehead which show him a land of his heart’s desire, where everyone is shorter than him and he is well-respected.

This makes it hard to hate him when you need to.

The other “fore-extension” is about what happened to the widow before she lived the idyllic life with her two differently-hued daughters, in the rural cottage and it is this part which put me off when I first read about it. But Lanagan is trying to create a situation so horrible that a young teenage girl could bring a whole alternative world into being just by wanting it enough. The sort of world Elizabeth Fritzl might have imagined. It might seem strange to say it but the repeated rape and incest and the gang rape are not the most important parts of the story; they are merely the catalyst that brings about the transition from one reality to another.

The “aft-extension” is about what happens when the mother and her two daughters cross back, at different times, into the real, dangerous world. In between there is the marvellous episode of the bears.

It is in the part about the bears which made me believe the exaggerated claims made for Lanagan’s imagination and writing style. In the real St. Olafred’s – a sort of all-purpose Teutonic town where people have names like Jans and Todda – there is an annual bacchanal where young men are clothed in bearskins and given licence to roam around chasing and kissing girls. (Lanagan says this is based on the bear ritual of a town in Catalonia).

One breaks through into the otherworld of Liga and her daughters, Branza and Urdda, and becomes the Good Bear of the Grimm story. But there are others less gentle and less gentlemanly. As I say, everything about the bears is quite wonderful and leads me to hope that there is a better book to come from Margo Lanagan.

Because this one isn’t quite right. It is an uneasy mix, with a sort of Robin-McKinley- on-acid feel to it. Or Angela Carter meets The Truman Show. And the minute you are reminded of Angela Carter, you sort of lose patience with Margo Lanagan, who, for all her obviously huge imaginative powers somehow lets the story get away from her.

Because it is broken-backed. Once the mother and daughters are re-united round about page 320, there is still another third of the book to go. What could she possibly put in it? The story starts up again, introducing new characters, new bears even, and then, after a prolonged description of the women’s reintegration into the real world, an ending so piercingly sad for Liga, the mother, who was once the abused child, that it is unbearable (pun intended).

The message, or one of them – for it is as full of messages as a post-Bettelheim view of the Grimms can be – is that most men, with a few honourable exceptions are nasty, brutish (and sometimes short). Indeed the brutes come out better than the male humans. And the male humans who have abused Liga are given a horrific, though magical realist, punishment at the end, which no-one seems to have noticed. (Maybe some of those who rushed to condemn the book didn’t actually finish it?)

It’s not a book or a view of sexual relations that I should have wanted to offer my three daughters, all now living with good men, when they were teenaged. Not because I am outraged by the sex scenes but because I am depressed by the world view in which they take place. Lanagan imagines the beast within the man so much more vividly than the man within the beast.

But it is a terrific read for all its faults. And a book worth our serious consideration.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

History and Memory

Continuing from my last post about remembering the dead of 800 years ago, I have been musing on the writing of historical fiction. It seems to me that the novelist must give both halves of that phrase equal weight. That is, get the history right then write the book you want. And if you must tweak historical facts then you are in duty bound to give a note to that effect.

This is the UK cover of my latest historical novel for teens, Troubadour, out here on 3rd August and in the US, with a different, photographic, jacket on 16h August (Bloomsbury in both cases). This time I’m not apologising for the shameless plug – just trying to show this is something I have grappled with.

People are always trying to tell me that the historical novel is dead or, as a variant, the historical YA novel in dead. To take the first, have you seen the Man Booker longlist? Thirteen titles, of which ten in some way or another deal with the past and apparently around half of the 132 books considered by the judges had historical themes. That seems pretty healthy.

In YA books on this side of the pond, the success of recent novels by Celia Rees, Sally Gardner, Julia Golding, Linda Buckley-Archer and Marie-Louise Jensen seems to point to a genre far from moribund. Oh and Adèle Geras, Katherine Roberts, Mary Hooper and Ann Turnbull. Funny thing is: they are all women. Apart from Kevin Crossley-Holland, not many men are writing in this genre now. Interesting. History is no longer about or even by chaps apparently.

Perhaps this a legacy of the Georgette Heyer and Mary Renault days? Philippa Gregory and Tracy Chevalier certainly continue this tradition for adults but there is also C.J. Sansom, and less literary figures like Bernard Cornwell. The male writers in YA seem to prefer spy stories, gritty contemporary realism or dystopian futures.

In last Saturday’s Guardian there were two pieces that struck a chord with me. One was Anthony Beevor’s article Real Concerns:

“We play with facts at our peril,” says Beevor, author of Stalingrad and such other weighty books of modern history. He also coins the hideous word “histo-tainment” which will doubtless catch on, particularly since we Brits are currently being subjected to “Desperate Romantics” a TV series showing the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a sort of boy band – “Entourage with Easels” as its own publicity says - and previously Michael Hirst’s “The Tudors.”

"Showtime commissioned me to write an entertainment, a soap opera, and not history ... And we wanted people to watch it," is a comment attributed to Hirst in a section of the Wikipedia entry for the series headed ‘Departures from History’ (Yes, on Wikipedia!)

A recent historical novel for teens began with the death of Richard 1 (the Lionheart) in France. The name of the crossbowman who shot the fatal bolt was Pierre Basile; Richard, dying of gangrene, issued a pardon to his killer but the young man was nevertheless flayed alive and hanged after the king’s death. A gruesome tale but in this work of fiction the killer was given a new name and lived at least a further forty years to be a main player in the novel.

Fine, you might say; poetic licence. I might disagree but surely it was the author’s responsibility to add in a note at the end that she had changed history to suit her story?

The other article was a long interview with Booker prize-winning novelist Penelope Lively on Memory:

"I see myself," [Penelope Lively told Sarah Crown], "as someone manipulated by history." Presumably referring to her childhood in Egypt which she wrote about so beautifully in Oleander, Jacaranda, and the Second World War which determined where she lived and went to school. In that sense we are all manipulated by history.

But if we try to turn to the tables by manipulating history itself, we have an obligation be upfront about what we are doing. Most writers of historical fiction don’t want to produce “histo-tainment,” though we do want to entertain.