Sunday, 14 July 2013

Best of the books: May and June

I've been a bit busy lately, for which I apologise. (Wait, no, what am I saying? I don't apologise. I'm becoming too British.)

Anyway, I've been editing and reading and working and so on, and I haven't had any time to blog about it. So, while I've got a brief free weekend (there are only ten other things I should be doing, it's fine), here's a round up of my best-of-the-best recent reads.

The Abominables by Eva Ibbotson

I have a lot of favourite authors. Eva Ibbotson is one of them. But I don't think any other authors have affected the way I live my life more than she has. Ibbotson's main characters are not just good, they're nice, on a really micro level. They move worms off hot pavements, forgive the foibles of unsuitable family members and are kind to weird old people even though they smell a bit funny, and as a child I decided (god help me) that this was how I wanted to lead my life.

Of course, being an Eva Ibbotson heroine is impossible, because it involves essentially becoming Eco-Jesus, but I tried, and to a large extent I'm still trying. I rescue snails from the paths of cars. I chase after people who have dropped small items of baggage. And it's all because of Eva Ibbotson's books.

So I put off reading The Abominables for quite a while, because finishing it meant that I would have read the final words of my guru. And then I finally did read it, and I cried a little bit because it was so lovely.

It's all about a family of Himalayan Yetis who are discovered by a determined Edwardian lady. She teaches them to be kind and polite to all things (they are vegetarians, but still carefully say "sorry," to their food before they eat it), and that's fine for a while - until they're forced to go out into the modern world and seek their fortunes. The rest of the plot is all just classic Eva Ibbotson, with some especially lovely asides about death and how important enjoying life is even though you know it's finite. As a swan song, it's perfect - and as a story it's pretty great as well. Bless her.

4 stars.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Of course this one was going to be in here. I went to see his RSL lecture on it (oh yes, Warwick English professors who refused to supervise my dissertation on Gaiman because he wrote 'comix'. My proposed subject got a gig at the RSL being interviewed by Claire Armitstead. And A. S. Byatt reviewed his book. I hope you feel really bad now), and one of the best things he said as part of the talk (although there were a lot of them) was that the only real difference between adults' and children's fiction is that in adult fiction you get to leave in the boring bits.

Unfortunately, that doesn't really apply here, because there are no boring bits in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It's certainly an adult book rather than one for kids in that it's about how adults remember childhood, but what Gaiman does is pick you up and slam you back into his seven-year-old protagonist's mind.

Ocean is full of the joy of small things, like the way food tastes and the way it feels to run through a a secret overgrown path at the bottom of the garden. But there's also a lot of the everyday nastiness that is so much a part of childhood. Ocean describes how it feels to be small, to be ignored, to be punished unjustly and to be powerless to right that wrong. And then, of course, because this is a Gaiman novel, it's also full of the most amazing flights of imagination - an evil nanny from another dimension, a field that grows kittens, an ocean that can fit into a bucket. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is beautiful and terrifying and incredibly poignant because of how fundamentally real it is, and it's the kind of book that adults should be glad that they're being sold.

5 stars.

Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan

So, this is just one of the best books ever. A reimagining of the Snow White and Rose Red fairytale (and a lot more besides, I spotted Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Rumpelstiltskin and Red Riding Hood and I'm guessing there are more), it does things that I've never seen before in the genre and it's written so well that even her descriptions of furniture sent shivers down my spine.

This book isn't just about fairy tales. It reminds you of why people need fairy tales in the first place - as shield, as consolation, to make sense out of a senseless universe. It's full of magic, but magic used in a way that perfectly expresses some seriously deep truths about human emotions. It's also not afraid to deal with some of the darkest parts of human nature with the kind of rough black humour that's both astonishingly daring and oddly beautiful. Its brand of justice is shockingly, juicily, dreadfully well done (there is a scene at the end of the book so vivid that I read the whole thing with my mouth quite literally hanging open in shock) - ferocious enough to make you cheer, and nasty enough for your higher brain to be horrified at how you're reacting.

Like all the best fantasies, every part of this book is real, and I just can't praise it enough.

5 stars.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Like The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this isn't really a book for teenagers. It's a book about being a teenager. That's not to say that teenagers wouldn't love it. They would! But Eleanor & Park is a quirky love story very much about remembering what it's like to be in your teens. It's about falling in love for the first time, and about all the sweetness and confusion and total insecurity you feel when that happens to you.

Eleanor and Park themselves are two wonderfully off-beat and realistic protagonists who subtly play with the conventions of male and female romantic leads, and it's important to appreciate how rare this is. There are so many impossible, Ayn Rand-style people in literature at the moment, especially in YA - heroines who can't manage to eat a whole lettuce leaf and but then manage to roundhouse kick five fully grown men while wearing a ball gown, for example - but Eleanor and Park, characters who in most novels would be 'too' fat and 'too' thin and 'too' weird and 'too' crazily dressed,  manage here to find very true love in each other. It's the most delicious antidote to all the romance novel nonsense that's out there. And did I mention that Eleanor and Park fall in love through the medium of comic books? Brilliant.

4.5 stars

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls has basically become my case-in-point when I go off on one of my love-rants about the power of children's fiction to address serious issues in ways that adult fiction sometimes can't manage. It's a heartbreaking discussion about the way it feels to lose a parent ... but it's equally, and just as literally, about the way it feels to have an actual, real monster turn up in your garden.

There are no metaphors in this book. Conor's mother is dying of cancer. A monster comes to his window every night to tell him stories. And both of these parts of his life are portrayed as equally real.

The kids' version is terrifyingly illustrated by Jim Kay - no matter your age, you must not make the mistake of buying the version of this book without pictures - and all in all it's one of the most frightening and heartbreaking things that I've ever read.

5 stars.

Skellig by David Almond

I never read this as a child. I was always afraid of it for some reason. I think I thought Skellig sounded creepy. I was totally right, he is creepy - but wonderfully creepy, and I know my childhood self would have loved this book. Oops.

The plot is exceedingly strange. A little boy called Michael finds a man called Skellig living in his garage. Although it's never directly explained, Skellig pretty obviously a fallen angel who's just given up on life. What he's done is never mentioned, and it doesn't really matter - the point is that he's a bit dirty, a bit tainted, but (although he doesn't realise it) still very much worth loving.

Michael is having a very difficult time himself. He's got a baby sister who was born prematurely, parents who are totally focused on her, and a new house that's basically an overgrown dump. Michael is lonely and confused, but when he discovers Skellig he's suddenly given a purpose. Then he meets strange, lovely Mina, who's homeschooled and who believes in the wonderfulness of the world, and she shows him what he needs to do to save Skellig. That all sounds kind of hokey, doesn't it? Believe me, it's not - instead it's beautifully presented, perfectly paced and totally unsentimental.

4.5 stars


  1. Hello,

    I am a subscriber to Bent on Books and linked into your blog through them. Congratulations on your book. I look forward to reading it and recommending it to my students. One of my favourite books as a kid was mysteries, and come to think of it, mysteries, well British mysteries are my all time favourite. Inspector Frost albeit older is still at the top of my list when speaking of t.v. mysteries.

    Reading your blog, I am enjoying your posts on research and history. I thought you might like to have a tidbit of murder history from Vancouver, B.C. Canada. This is the first site I got when I googled the key words, Bow Mac murder.

    Again congratulations,

    Gina Wane

    1. Hi Gina! Thanks for reading the blog, and I really hope you like the book! I'm a big Frost fan too, actually - I can't get enough of TV mystery shows.

      Your link to that murder case is fascinating! Wow, what a story! Arsenic seems like such a 'Victorian' crime, but it's interesting to see that it was still being used so recently. Thanks for sharing :)