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‘Travel Light’ by Naomi Mitchison ***

Travel Light is the story of Halla, a girl born to a king but cast out onto the hills to die. She lives among bears; she lives among dragons. But the time of dragons is passing, and Odin All-Father offers Halla a choice: Will she stay dragonish and hoard wealth and possessions, or will she travel light?”(Amal El-Mohtar, NPR, You Must Read This). 

“From the dark ages to modern times, from the dragons of medieval forests to Constantinople, this is a fantastic and philosophical fairy-tale journey that will appeal to fans of Harry Potter, Diana Wynne Jones, and T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone.”

9780860685623-us-300I borrowed Naomi Mitchison’s Travel Light from my University library for three reasons: firstly, I had never read any Mitchison and felt I should rectify that, particularly as she’s a Scottish author; secondly, its original Virago green spine stood out to me on the shelf; and thirdly, the storyline sounded both weird and wonderful.  I must admit that I don’t ordinarily read books with elements of magic to them (with the exception of Harry Potter, of course), but I read the first page whilst I should have been looking for thesis-applicable tomes, and felt that it sounded rather promising.

I had earmarked Travel Light to be an inclusion in the final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon which I will be taking part in (largely because when in the process of PhD studies, your entire life often feels like a readathon in itself), but ended up reading the first three chapters the night before because I was too intrigued to let it lie until morning.  From the outset, I was reminded both of the Icelandic sagas and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series; it’s a fun and slightly strange amalgamation of the two at times.  There are touches of the general fairytale to it too.

Travel Light is one of those books that continually keeps the reader guessing.  Nothing quite takes the direction you expect, and elements of the plot are therefore quite surprising.  I’m normally very put off with the presence of talking dragons in fiction, but here they just seemed to fit here.  Well written and well paced for the most part (I must admit that it did become a little dull toward the middle, but it did soon pick itself back up again), I have come away wondering why Mitchison’s books aren’t more widely read.   If Travel Light is anything to go by, I feel that they have a lot to offer, particularly for fans of the mythical and mystical.  A strange little book, but a memorable one, which I’m pleased I chose to borrow.

NB. Travel Light might be difficult to get hold of as it looks to not currently be in print, but if you’re after something a little different, it’s well worth the effort!

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‘The Road Through the Wall’ by Shirley Jackson ****

‘In… an attractive suburban neighbourhood filled with bullies and egotistical bigots, the feelings of the inhabitants are shallow and selfish: What can a neighbour gain from another neighbour, what may be won from a friend? One child stands alone in her goodness: little Caroline Desmond, kind, sweet and gentle, and the pride of her family. But the malice and self-absorption of the people of Pepper Street lead to a terrible event that will destroy the community of which they are so proud. Exposing the murderous cruelty of children, and the blindness and selfishness of adults, Shirley Jackson reveals the ugly truth behind a ‘perfect’ world.’ 9780141392004

The Road Through the Wall is Queen of Creepy Shirley Jackson’s first novel.  In the foreword to the Penguin edition which I borrowed from the library, Ruth Franklin writes: ‘Compared to The Haunting of Hill House or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson’s masterful late novels, The Road Through the Wall is a slighter work.  But it is marvellously written, with the careful attention to structure, the precision of detail, and the brilliant bite of irony that would always define her style’.

The novel was published in 1948 to a ‘largely unappreciative audience’; its critics were ‘put off by the book’s unpleasant characters, its grim tone, and its violent conclusion’. The Road Through the Wall is a prelude of sorts to ‘The Lottery’, which was published the following year.  It takes place in 1936, on Pepper Street in small town California.  Instead of a familial saga, it is rather more of a neighbourhood affair, although the familial relations are nothing less than fascinating throughout.  We meet several families resident on the street, and come to know them intimately thanks to Jackson’s wonderful, measured prose.  Every single character has differing traits, and one of Jackson’s real strengths here (and there are many) lies in demonstrating the imagination and power of children.

The Road Through the Wall is not my favourite of Jackson’s works, but it is taut, surprising and compelling, and certainly an accomplished debut.  It took a final direction which I wasn’t expecting, but which made an awful lot of sense in retrospect.  The ending is marvellously and creepily crafted, and I very much liked the way in which Jackson left some of the most pressing questions unanswered.

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Winter Reading Recommendations

The season is turning; trees are shedding leaves, the temperature is beginning to fall, and the Christmas decorations are already out in the shops.  That can only mean one thing; it’s time to crack out the hot water bottle, vat of hot chocolate, and a stack of suitably wintry books.  Below are eight recommendations which I think will be perfect to curl up with this winter.

1. Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson 9780312625412
‘Everyone knows the Moomins sleep through the winter. But this year, Moomintroll has woken up early. So while the rest of the family slumber, he decides to visit his favorite summer haunts. But all he finds is this strange white stuff. Even the sun is gone! Moomintroll is angry: whoever Winter is, she has some nerve. Determined to discover the truth about this most mysterious of all seasons, Moomintroll goes where no Moomin has gone before.’


2. A Winter Book by Tove Jansson
‘Drawn from youth and older age, and spanning most of the twentieth century, this newly translated selection provides a thrilling showcase of the great Finnish writer’s prose, scattered with insights and home truths. It has been selected and is introduced by Ali Smith. A Winter Book features 13 stories from Tove Jansson’s first book for adults,The Sculptor’s Daughter (1968) plus 7 of her most cherished later stories (from 1971 to 1996), translated into English and published here for the first time.’


97801413894003. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
‘Ethan Frome works his unproductive farm and struggles to maintain a bearable existence with his difficult, suspicious and hypochondriac wife, Zeena. But when Zeena’s vivacious cousin enters their household as a ‘hired girl’, Ethan finds himself obsessed with her and with the possibilities for happiness she comes to represent.’
4. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
‘The poems in Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, including many of her best-known such as ‘Lady Lazarus’, ‘Daddy’, ‘Edge’ and ‘Paralytic’, were all written between the publication in 1960 of Plath’s first book, The Colossus, and her death in 1963. “If the poems are despairing, vengeful and destructive, they are at the same time tender, open to things, and also unusually clever, sardonic, hardminded …’

5. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino
‘Calvino’s masterpiece opens with a scene that’s reassuringly commonplace: apparently. Indeed, it’s taking place now. A reader goes into a bookshop to buy a book: not any book, but the latest Calvino, the book you are holding in your hands. Or is it? Are you the reader? Is this the book? Beware. All assumptions are dangerous on this most bewitching switch-back ride to the heart of storytelling.’

6. The Waves by Virginia Woolf 9780141182711
‘Tracing the lives of a group of friends, The Waves follows their development from childhood to youth and middle age. While social events, individual achievements and disappointments form its narrative, the novel is most remarkable for the rich poetic language that expresses the inner life of its characters: their aspirations, their triumphs and regrets, their awareness of unity and isolation. Separately and together, they query the relationship of past to present, and the meaning of life itself.’

97819060401857. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
‘Rene is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building. She maintains a carefully constructed persona as someone uncultivated but reliable, in keeping with what she feels a concierge should be. But beneath this facade lies the real Rene: passionate about culture and the arts, and more knowledgeable in many ways than her employers with their outwardly successful but emotionally void lives. Down in her lodge, apart from weekly visits by her one friend Manuela, Rene lives with only her cat for company. Meanwhile, several floors up, twelve-year-old Paloma Josse is determined to avoid the pampered and vacuous future laid out for her, and decides to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. But unknown to them both, the sudden death of one of their privileged neighbours will dramatically alter their lives forever. By turns moving and hilarious, this unusual novel became the top-selling book in France in 2007.’

8. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey (predictable, but I could not resist recommending this beautiful novel!)
‘A bewitching tale of heartbreak and hope set in 1920s Alaska, Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child was a top ten bestseller in hardback and paperback, and went on to be a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Alaska, the 1920s. Jack and Mabel have staked everything on a fresh start in a remote homestead, but the wilderness is a stark place, and Mabel is haunted by the baby she lost many years before. When a little girl appears mysteriously on their land, each is filled with wonder, but also foreboding: is she what she seems, and can they find room in their hearts for her? Written with the clarity and vividness of the Russian fairy tale from which it takes its inspiration, The Snow Child is an instant classic.’

 

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‘Autumn’ by Ali Smith *****

Warning: gushing will ensue.  Please proceed with caution.

Well, it was no great surprise that Ali Smith’s Autumn is incredible.  I had originally asked my boyfriend to buy me a copy as my Christmas gift, and whilst he was happy to do so, I simply could not pass up the opportunity of reading a galley.  I am far too impatient when a new Ali Smith is released; she is my favourite living author, as I’m sure everyone knows by now, and meeting her whilst studying at King’s College London is the only time in my life that I have felt starstruck.

9780241207000Autumn is the first of four books in a seasonal sequence, and in my mind, it is the best choice to begin such a series with.  I adore all of the seasons, but autumn is a real joy; there is so much beauty around.  The novel has also been billed as a serious post-Brexit novel.  Brexit – that horrible word that my laptop is intent upon changing to the more kindly ‘Brett’ – is a decision which I still cannot believe has occurred; I find myself saddened by my fellow man, that such a wonderful and secure alliance could be severed so easily.  I have a feeling that these are Smith’s feelings too; the inference here, particularly when one takes the character of Elisabeth’s mother into account, are that Britain has made a mistake of great enormity, which will affect everyone in horrid ways.  Of the novel, in fact, she stated the following in a recent interview: ‘It’s a pivotal moment…  a question of what happens culturally when something is built on a lie’.

As anyone who has read her work before will know, Smith is incredibly sharp, and she has created, once again, a fantastic range of characters to people her latest novel.  The conversational patterns which strike up between them feel both unusual and realistic.  As always, Smith says a wealth of incredibly important things – about society, and humankind, and decision making, and friendship, and love.  She writes of the young and the old, the past and the future.

Smith’s prose, as always, is both stunning, and often profound: ‘It is a privilege, to watch someone sleep, Elisabeth tells herself.  It is a privilege to be able to witness someone both here and not here.  To be included in someone’s absence, it is an honour, and it asks quiet.  It asks respect’.  I could happily quote extensively here to further prove my point, so I shall.  ‘Time travel is real, Daniel said.  We do it all the time.  Moment to moment, minute to minute’.  The prose about Daniel’s younger sister was particularly compelling:

‘She dances round the room shouting the word he can hardly say himself in her presence.
She is mad.
But she is uncannily right about that story.
She is brilliant.
She is a whole new level of the world true.
She is dangerous and shining.’

Unlike the Brexit result, Autumn is perfect.  The material is incredibly well handled, and it is certainly one of her very best books to date; perhaps the very best, in fact.  I keep thinking that she can never get any better with each new release, and lo and behold, she does.  The novel’s wordplay is exhilarating.  Autumn is a triumph; compulsive and compelling, timely and timeless.  It is a wonderful, wondrous book.  When I reached the all to brief end, I was tempted to go right back to the beginning and read it all over again.

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Flash Reviews: ‘Independent People’ and ‘O Caledonia’

Independent People by Halldor Laxness **** 9780099527121
Whilst in Iceland in February, I was lucky enough to pass the homestead where Laxness spent much of his writing life.  As a consequence, every single piece of work which I read of his feels even more vivid to me; it is as though, by seeing all that surrounded him, his already marvellously personified settings spring to life all the more before my eyes.

The beginning couple of chapters of Independent People were a little confusing in relation to the whole, but they certainly set the scene well.  The writing and translation are fluid, and the whole has been so well handled.  There wasn’t a single sentence rendered here which felt clumsy or underdone, and some of the prose is breathtaking.

Laxness has written with such depth; alongside the characters, one learns about Icelandic politics and history.  As with every one of his books, the novel has its sadnesses, but it is all the more realistic for them.  There are stories within stories within stories here.  Whilst I found parts rather difficult to read due to their subject matter and my squeamishness, Independent People is basically a masterpiece.

 

9780956567208O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker ****
I had incredibly high hopes for O Caledonia, and hoped it wouldn’t disappoint.  It did not; in fact, it is certainly one of the best coming of age stories which I have read in quite a while.  Startling, vivid, intriguing, and marvellously Gothic.  Troubled Janet was a fabulously crafted character, and I was so entranced as soon as I began to read her story.  I loved Barker’s prose style, and the delicious darkness to the whole.  O Caledonia is a mesmerising and incredibly well crafted novel, with a marvellous and surprising conclusion.

 

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Reading Around the World: Canada

The books set in Canada which I have read are largely by three authors, all of whom I have included here.  This is not a varied set of recommendations, by any stretch of the imagination; rather, they are all relatively popular and well-known books which I have just happened to enjoy.

1. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
‘”Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.” Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

2. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields 9780143105503
‘One of the most successful and acclaimed novels of our time, this fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett is a subtle but affecting portrait of an everywoman reflecting on an unconventional life. What transforms this seemingly ordinary tale is the richness of Daisy’s vividly described inner life–from her earliest memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death.’

3. Runaway by Alice Munro
‘The matchless Munro makes art out of everyday lives in this exquisite collection. Here are men and women of wildly different times and circumstances, their lives made vividly palpable by the nuance and empathy of Munro’s writing. Runaway is about the power and betrayals of love, about lost children, lost chances. There is pain and desolation beneath the surface, like a needle in the heart, which makes these stories more powerful and compelling than anything she has written before. It is the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2009.’

97818604988004. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
‘Laura Chase’s older sister Iris, married at eighteen to a politically prominent industrialist but now poor and eighty-two, is living in Port Ticonderoga, a town dominated by their once-prosperous family before the First War. While coping with her unreliable body, Iris reflects on her far from exemplary life, in particular the events surrounding her sister’s tragic death. Chief among these was the publication of The Blind Assassin, a novel which earned the dead Laura Chase not only notoriety but also a devoted cult following. Sexually explicit for its time, The Blind Assassin describes a risky affair in the turbulent thirties between a wealthy young woman and a man on the run. During their secret meetings in rented rooms, the lovers concoct a pulp fantasy set on Planet Zycron. As the invented story twists through love and sacrifice and betrayal, so does the real one; while events in both move closer to war and catastrophe. By turns lyrical, outrageous, formidable, compelling and funny, this is a novel filled with deep humour and dark drama.’

5. The Flying Troutmans by Miriam Toews
‘Meet the Troutmans. Hattie is living in Paris, city of romance, but has just been dumped by her boyfriend. Min, her sister back in Canada, is going through a particularly dark period. And Min’s two kids, Logan and Thebes, are not talking and talking way too much, respectively. When Hattie receives a phone call from eleven-year-old Thebes, begging her to return to Canada, she arrives home to find Min on her way to a psychiatric ward, and becomes responsible for her niece and nephew. Realising that she is way out of her league, Hattie hatches a plan to find the kids’ long-lost father. With only the most tenuous lead to go on, she piles Logan and Thebes into the family van, and they head south.’

 

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Reading the World: Asia (Part Two)

The second part of our reading adventure around Asia!  Again, I must apologise for the lack of diversity and overrepresentation of Japan overall; I will work on my Asian reading in future, and that is a promise.

97800992864311. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie (China)
‘1971: Mao’s cultural Revolution is at its peak. Two sons of doctors, sent to ‘re-education’ camps, forced to carry buckets of excrement up and down mountain paths, have only their sense of humour to keep them going. Although the attractive daughter of the local tailor also helps to distract them from the task at hand. The boys’ true re-education starts, however, when they discover a hidden suitcase packed with the great Western novels of the nineteenth century. Their lives are transformed. And not only their lives: after listening to the stories of Balzac, the little seamstress will never be the same again.’

2. Geisha by Liza Dalby (Japan)
‘Liza Dalby, author of The Tale of Murasaki, is the only non-Japanese woman ever to have become a geisha. This is her unique insight into the extraordinary, closed world of the geisha, a world of grace, beauty and tradition that has long fascinated and enthralled the West. Taking us to the heart of a way of life normally hidden from the public gaze, Liza Dalby shows us the detailed reality that lies behind the bestselling Memoirs of a Geisha and opens our eyes to an ancient profession that continues to survive in today’s modern Japan.’

3. The Flamboya Tree: A Family’s Wartime Courage by Clara Olink Kelly (Indonesia)
‘When the Japanese invaded the beautiful Indonesian island of Java during the Second World War Clara Kelly was four years old. Her family was separated, her father sent to work on the Burma railway, and she together with her mother and her two brothers, one a six-week-old baby, was sent to a ‘women’s camp’. They were interned there until the end of the war. Clara’s descriptions of the appalling deprivations and impersonal brutality of the camp, easily recognisable as the same techniques used in the infamously cruel Japanes prisoner of war camps – standing in the baking heat for hours of ‘Tenko’ role-call, living on one cup of rice a day – are countered by the courage and resilience shown by all the internees, most poignantly her own mother.’

4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri ((partially set in) India) 9780006551805
‘”When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…” For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply BABY BOY GANGULI. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss…Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. ‘

5. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (Afghanistan)
‘Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.’

97807475683396. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min (China)
‘To rescue her family from poverty and avoid marrying her slope-shouldered cousin, seventeen-year-old Orchid competes to be one of the Emperor’s wives. When she is chosen as a lower-ranking concubine she enters the erotically charged and ritualised Forbidden City. But beneath its immaculate facade lie whispers of murders and ghosts, and the thousands of concubines will stoop to any lengths to bear the Emperor’s son. Orchid trains herself in the art of pleasuring a man, bribes her way into the royal bed, and seduces the monarch, drawing the attention of dangerous foes. Little does she know that China will collapse around her, and that she will be its last Empress.’

7. Brick Lane by Monica Ali (Bangladesh, in part)
‘Still in her teenage years, Nazneen finds herself in an arranged marriage with a disappointed man who is twenty years older. Away from the mud and heat of her Bangladeshi village, home is now a cramped flat in a high-rise block in London’s East End. Nazneen knows not a word of English, and is forced to depend on her husband. But unlike him she is practical and wise, and befriends a fellow Asian girl Razia, who helps her understand the strange ways of her adopted new British home. Nazneen keeps in touch with her sister Hasina back in the village. But the rebellious Hasina has kicked against cultural tradition and run off in a ‘love marriage’ with the man of her dreams. When he suddenly turns violent, she is forced into the degrading job of garment girl in a cloth factory. Confined in her flat by tradition and family duty, Nazneen also sews furiously for a living, shut away with her buttons and linings – until the radical Karim steps unexpectedly into her life. On a background of racial conflict and tension, they embark on a love affair that forces Nazneen finally to take control of her fate. Strikingly imagined, gracious and funny, this novel is at once epic and intimate. Exploring the role of Fate in our lives – those who accept it; those who defy it – it traces the extraordinary transformation of an Asian girl, from cautious and shy to bold and dignified woman.’

8. Life of Pi by Yann Martel (India) 9780739377956
‘”The Jungle Book “meets “Not Wanted On the Voyage” in a triumph of storytelling and originality: a novel, as one character puts it, to make you believe in God. Piscine Molitor Patel, nicknamed Pi, lives in Pondicherry, India, where his family runs a zoo. Little Pi is a great reader. He devours books on Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, and to the surprise of his secular parents, becomes devoted to all three religions. When the parents decide to emigrate to Canada, the family boards a cargo ship with many of the animals that are going to new zoological homes in North America, and bravely sets sail for the New World. Alas, the ship sinks. A solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the surface of the wild blue Pacific. In it are five survivors: Pi, a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. With intelligence, daring and inexpressible fear, Pi manages to keep his wits about him as the animals begin to assert their places in the foodchain; it is the tiger, Richard Parker, with whom he must develop an inviolable understanding. ‘

9. A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute (Malaya)
‘Jean Paget is just twenty years old and working in Malaya when the Japanese invasion begins. When she is captured she joins a group of other European women and children whom the Japanese force to march for miles through the jungle – an experience that leads to the deaths of many. Due to her courageous spirit and ability to speak Malay, Jean takes on the role of leader of the sorry gaggle of prisoners and many end up owing their lives to her indomitable spirit. While on the march, the group run into some Australian prisoners, one of whom, Joe Harman, helps them steal some food, and is horrifically punished by the Japanese as a result. After the war, Jean tracks Joe down in Australia and together they begin to dream of surmounting the past and transforming his one-horse outback town into a thriving community like Alice Springs.’

10. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (China)
‘This novel, told from the viewpoints of four Chinese mothers and their four American-Chinese daughters, examines the nature of the mother-daughter relationship, and the problems of cultural identity the characters face.’

 

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