Month: December 2015

A Year in Books (2015 edition)

At the start of the year, I found this beautiful, huge, suede-covered notebook on sale when I was wandering through central Bath. It was too lovely to leave… and too lovely to use for just any old thing. So it became my book journal: all it contains is a list of books.

But to my surprise, looking back over the list, the names have triggered memories of my year: reading Elena Ferrante on Ischia. My heart breaking over and over as I read “H is for Hawk” in front of the fire. Reading about surfers in Cornwall on a beach full of surfers just round the bay from St Ives.

Somehow, my book journal has become my journal.

So, instead of the traditional “Here’s how my year went…” post, here are the books I read in 2015.* I’m not passing judgement on any of them; they’re presented in chronological order. But it’s fair to say that looking at the list, I’ve read some wonderful books over the past 12 months…

 

  1. The Taxidermist’s Daughter: Kate Mosse
  2. Spoiled Brats: Simon Rich
  3. We are All Completely Beside Ourselves: Karen Joy Fowler
  4. H is for Hawk: Helen Macdonald
  5. The Dolls: Kiki Sullivan
  6. The Opposite of Loneliness: Marina Keegan
  7. Phoenix Rising: Bryony Pearce
  8. Wolf Hall: Hilary Mantel
  9. Life – An Exploded Diagram: Mal Peet
  10. Possession: AS Byatt (r)
  11. The Old Ways: Robert Macfarlane
  12. The Little Stranger: Sarah Waters
  13. Etta & Otto & Russell & James: Emma Hooper
  14. Murder Most Unladylike: Robin Stevens
  15. Us: David Nicholls
  16. England, England: Julian Barnes
  17. Chop, Chop: Simon Wroe
  18. The World Beyond Your Head – How to Flourish in an Age of Distraction: Matthew Crawford
  19. The Sin Eater’s Daughter: Melinda Salisbury
  20. Fearney: James Long
  21. Poldark – Ross Poldark: Winston Graham
  22. Anna & the French Kiss: Stephanie Perkins
  23. All the Light We Cannot See: Anthony Doerr
  24. I’ll Give You the Sun: Jandy Nelson
  25. The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow: Katherine Woodfine
  26. Remix: Non Pratt
  27. Pompidou Posse: Sarah Lotz
  28. The Dead House: Dawn Kurtagich
  29. My Brilliant Friend: Elena Ferrante
  30. The Line of Beauty: Alan Hollinghurst
  31. Curtain Call: Anthony Quinn
  32. The Talented Mr Ripley: Patricia Highsmith
  33. Yes Please: Amy Poehler
  34. In the Light of What We Know: Zia Haider Rahman
  35. A Month in the Country: JL Carr
  36. A Place of Greater Safety: Hilary Mantel
  37. Blue: Lisa Glass
  38. The Year of Reading Dangerously: Andy Miller
  39. The Paradox: Charlie Fletcher
  40. The Buried Giant: Kazuo Ishiguro
  41. Ghostwritten: David Mitchell
  42. ZOM-B Fugitive: Darren Shan
  43. The Hunted: Charlie Higson
  44. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Susanna Clarke (r)
  45. Carry On: Rainbow Rowell
  46. The Magicians: Lev Grossman
  47. Spectacles: Sue Perkins
  48. Master & Commander: Patrick O’Brian
  49. The Loney: Andrew Michael Hurley
  50. The Story of a New Name: Elena Ferrante
  51. My True Love Gave to Me: ed. Stephanie Perkins (r)
  52. Landmarks: Robert Macfarlane
  53. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Hilary Mantel
  54. A God in Ruins: Kate Atkinson

 

Happy New Year, and may your 2016 bring you all the wisdom and words you could wish for.

 

*A couple of provisos: there’s a few proofs I’ve read which I haven’t included, and I don’t include anything I read for the Bath Novel Award long & short lists. Books marked with an (r) are books I re-read.

Advertisements

Strange Days (or why Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell deserved better than we gave it)

We’re only just past the solstice, and yet the internet is already awash with “Best of 2015” posts, listicles (Christ) and countdowns. And as I am an easily-herded nerf, I thought I might as well get in on the act – but with one slight difference. I’m not going to talk about the 10 Best Things I Watched (one of those would almost certainly start a fight. I’ve already come to near blows with one friend about it, and I can probably do without setting myself up for a scuffle with the entire online world…). I’m going to talk about the one thing that really stuck, and to suggest that – if you haven’t already – you give it a look.

Yes, I’m going to bang on about the TV adaptation of Susanna Clarke’s JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL.

Sorry, but as I’m the one with the metaphorical microphone here and it’s my name on the url… my rules.

To come entirely clean: when this was announced, I was… shall we say, cautious? It’s my favourite book. I remember buying the book when it came out (on the day it came out, if memory serves. In Waterstones on Gower Street. What an oddly specific thing to remember) and loving it – but I also remember that it took me months to get through, partly because I was afraid if I fell asleep reading in bed at night, the hardback would fall on my face and break my nose.

I mean, I’ve not got a great nose, but I’m kind of used to it by now.

To summarise: it’s a big book.

And it’s not just big, it’s dense. It’s a whole world, intricately bound up in real and borrowed history and its own mythology… and its footnotes.*

How the hell do you turn that into a television series?

I dodged all the promo I could: the interviews, the trailers, the production stills. Everything. I think I saw one teaser for it and then shut my eyes and stuck my fingers in my metaphorical ears and sat there shouting “LalalalalaI’mnotlisteningIcan’thearyoulalalala” until the first episode.

Whooof.

I say again: whooof.

IMG_3170

Somehow, writer Peter Harness managed to take this enormous, complicated, footnote-heavy** beast of a thing and unspool it, line by line. Somehow (and I can only assume this was by Actual Magic) he gave us a story which felt like being inside the novel to watch – even with the cuts and shuffles and conflations that have to happen in the process of an adaptation.

The experience was the same, even without the pineapples or Jonathan Strange’s hallucinated candles-inside-heads (which you’ll just have to read the book to understand. But when you do, know those candles are the most perfect depiction of living with manic depression I have ever come across.) It looked wonderful, too: the fairy ballroom at Lost Hope was as desperate and menacing as anyone could have hoped, and Hurtfew Abbey’s library was the library I’d always dreamed of.

Could anyone have made Vinculus as wild and as wily as Paul Kaye did? Would Childermass have been a more businesslike man-of-business, bound more tightly to his cards than to his master, in the hands of someone other than Enzo Cilenti (whose Yorkshire-ninja eyerolling was an utter, utter joy)? Doubtful.

Lord & Lady Pole, Lascelles, Drawlight, Arabella, Wellington, Stephen, Major Grant (a character drastically different from his novel-self… and yet somehow still *right*) – all felt as though they had simply strolled off the page, complete in themselves. How much work must that have taken, somewhere in the background, to make it look so easy?

Then, to Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Where do you even start? Perhaps by noting that Mr Norrell seemed a lot… nicer, in his own way (sympathetic, perhaps? Although he still had his moments…) than book-Norrell***. But in the hands of Eddie Marsan, his journey from the solitary last magician in England to the wild-wigged Norrell of the final episode was a joy. The same was even more true of Bertie Carvel’s Jonathan Strange, who became – through war and loss and madness and magic – who he was always capable of being. I’ve always had a lot of time for the Strange of the novel, and so he was the one I was most nervous about. And yet… this Strange? What a Strange he was. I could go on about him, and how right he was, for days, but I shan’t. Ask me sometime over a drink.

This tremendous, sprawlingly neat (neatly sprawling?) adaptation deserved better than it got. I’ve seen a handful of award nominations, particularly in design and effects categories – and there’s another thing. It wasn’t awash with effects, but when they were there, they were good. Really good – but it should have found a wider audience. Was it because there was magic (and therefore must be one of those “fantasy things” – insert a Childermassian eye-roll here)? Was it because it was period (and therefore must involve Mr Darcy-alikes sitting around discussing a maiden aunt’s health and copious subtext)? Was it because it built, rather like the novel, enveloping you and wrapping its raven-winged world around you?

Maybe the scheduling had something to do with it: it ran through the late spring, despite feeling like it really should be something to watch in the winter, when the wind was howling outside and the rain was lashing against the windows****. I can only assume it ended up where it did so that the episode featuring (an absolutely immense take on) the Battle of Waterloo ran the same week as the anniversary of the battle itself – which is a lovely nod to the history, true, but perhaps served the endeavour a little less well.

Whatever the reason, it feels like JSAMN should have had more. More coverage, more viewers, more love. It certainly earned it. It felt like it was a labour of love – the feeling that is stitched into certain books and films and shows; a feeling that can’t be faked. I wish that had been better repaid – or perhaps I should say, more widely repaid, because as far as I can see, the people like me who loved it really loved it.

So, I’ll hang my fangirl hat back on the peg for now – as I say, ask me about everything this adaptation did right sometime, and make sure you’ve not got anywhere to be for a while. In the meantime, in this endless, grey, wind and rain-lashed winter, do yourself a favour: whether you’ve read the book or not (and I can’t urge you strongly enough to do that, if you haven’t) find the box set of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, either on DVD or Blu-Ray or from the BBC Store or wherever else you buy your media. Turn off your phone. Draw the curtains and light a candle… and watch.

And I’ll see you on the other side of the rain.

 

###

 

*It seems pretty apt to include footnotes on a JSAMN post, so here’s something I discovered when I was re-reading the novel on a never-ending train journey through Yorkshire this autumn: if you want to find the women in the novel, look for them in the footnotes and they’re everywhere. Women as magicians, women as pupils of the Raven King himself. Women of importance; women who matter. Because, for the most part, where do women throughout history end up? In the footnotes.

** So. Many. Footnotes.

*** I suspect the hand of the author: in this case, Peter Harness. I rather wonder if he doesn’t have a soft spot for Mr Norrell and his books. Don’t we all?

book-jonathan-strange-gif

****Rather like today, come to think of it

All he wants for Christmas is you

I was trying to think of something to put up on here ahead of Christmas. I’ve had an idea for a Christmas horror(ish) story knocking around in my head for about four years now, and one year I’m going to actually think about it in enough time (for which read: in about June) and write the wretched thing. But alas, not this year.

So instead, I thought I’d do something else – partly inspired by this:

If you’ve read either of the Blood and Feathers books, which are my (technically) non-YA books, you might remember that I like to write to music, and to fit songs to specific characters or sections of the story – and this version of that song made something in my head go “click” in a good way.

I don’t have a Christmas story for you, but I thought… how about the first draft of what was originally intended to be the prologue to a third Blood & Feathers book?

A couple of disclaimers, caveats, provisos and so on:

  1. This will spoiler the hell (pun intended) out of the previous 2 books. So if you’re planning on reading them / reading them at the moment / care about that sort of thing… caveat lector.
  2. First draft. Firstest of the firstiest drafts. Because, actually, I think there’s something quite fun about you seeing just HOW many commas, dashes and semi-colons I throw at a piece of writing to make my sentences even longer and even more unwieldy before someone far more sensible than I am comes along and makes me take them out. By force if necessary.
  3. I’m not really in a position to talk about what’s happening with a third book. I get asked from time to time, and the honest, most straightforward answer I can give is always “If and when I can give you an answer, I will.” So… yeah. That.
  4. It never fails to worry me how much I enjoy writing this guy. I should probably get that looked at.

 

So, all that said: welcome to St Michael-in-the-Hollows…

(more…)