Search

Irregular Fiction

Comfort in Books: David Edding’s Belgariad

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article for Den of Geek about comfort geek. Finding solace in he books, the films, the television that makes you happy. There were many Buffy quotes. It was rather lovely to read people’s comments following the article, celebrating their geekness in whatever form it took. You can read the article here. 

In the article I included David Eddings as a starting point for my odyssey into fantasy geekdom. I still remember the first time I held Pawn of Prophecy in the book section of Fenwicks Department store way back in the dim mists of 1986. I was fourteen. I was about to meet my first real book love. That day I started to read The Belgariad.

IMG_1482

I suspect if these books were published today they would be classed as cross over fiction between fantasy and young adult. I was walking the adolescent tightrope when I held that scruffy little paperback in my hands, and my soul had the bruises and scrapes that comes from falling off it many times.

In Pawn of Prophecy we meet Garion, the orphaned kitchen boy and a motley crew of characters who slot in around him as he faces both adolescence and the realisation that adults sometimes hide things. Big things. Oh, and the magnificent if somewhat scary Aunt Pol and her vagrant father Belgarath. All of these characters are drawn with skill and love – and each has a clearly defined place within the tapestry of the plot.

Eddings was my first introduction to world building across a multiple book story arc – and he does it beautifully. Yes, it’s simplistic – the will and the word, the seven nations split by seven gods, etc – but it is executed beautifully. A superb starting point for the novice fantasy reader such as myself. If I had to point to a current counterpart I would probably place Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series as the most recent series to give me that same sense of absolute immersion and security in this fantastical yet structured magical world.

belgariad
The iconic original Pawn of Prophecy image

At fourteen it was bliss to fall into this world and follow the boy Garion’s struggles as he discovers his path in life both through magic and through his hormones as he meets the feisty Ce’Nedra in the second book, Queen of Sorcery. Red headed, smart, tempestuous – and a short arse like myself to boot – Ce’Nedra was my female heart of the books. Where Polgara was stern, Ce’Nedra was my contemporary who often blundered in head first when she should have been walking. Except for when she was attacked by serpent centred tree men. Then she needed to run!

Friendships are complicate beasts when you’re a teenager. Garion and Ce’Nedra’s friendship stuttered along with added magical complications and verbal sparks. In the second novel Garion meets his first firm friend that crosses over into adulthood when he meets the somewhat dim but ever loyal archer Lelldorin. Ok, so he yanks him off his horse in temper but from little acorns grow great pals. We are learning about THE QUEST and who the Big Bad is (very big, very bad, legions of heart burning followers etc).  We are also picking up on the deep affection that is blossoming between the characters.

2017-08-01 10.46.18

Magician’s Gambit changed the landscapes. We move from what is broadly familiar to walk with the ghosts of Maragor (a cautionary tale if ever there was one) into the Vale of the solitary god Aldur which borrows heavily from the Norse legend of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. We walk the dim caverns of the Ulgos that shimmer with their never ending song to Ul. We enter the horror of Cthol Murgos where we see Garion begin to understand his birthright as he steps into his magical heritage.

Friendship, first love, a sense of uncertainty about your place in the world, taking substances that fry your mind and lead to compromising situations with unsuitable partners (and a disturbing lack of clothes), beginning to understand the concept of responsibility both for yourself and those around you – sound familiar? The landscape of our teens is littered with the detritus of our growing sense of self as we coalesce into adulthood. We’ve observed all of this through Garion’s eyes as we enter the forth book Castle of Wizardry. Here the portents of prophecy take centre stage and heritage is revealed (though by now most of us have worked that bit out!).

2017-08-01 10.47.15
The barbs of first love: Garion & Ce’Nedra

Quest number two begins here – and one of my favourite characters – Silk the rat faced Drasnian spy – takes centre stage as the Guide as he and Belgarath sneak Garion past Pol’s watchful eye on a journey that could potentially end in disaster. You can feel Garion’s panic but also his overwhelming need to do the right thing. That strong sense of duty and practicality instilled in him throughout childhood from the person in the novels I love above all others – Durnik the Smith. The man with two lives.

Garion’s father is dead. My own father was absent. There’s a void to be filled, and Durnik steps into Garion’s life the way my own lovely, funny, sweet stepfather stepped into mine. Practical, solid, dependable men. Not the loudest, not the most seemingly significant. But always there, leading by quiet example. Both men in love with occasionally tempestuous women! Again, that thread of love and the seeking of the greater good that elevates these books from mere formula. Eddings does this so well – and when the books became successful he credited his wife Leigh as being instrumental in their creation. There’s a sense of a wonderful love there, a bond. The novels are suffused in it.

Ce’Nedra is forced to take a good hard look at herself in the forth book. Step out of her own selfishness to take command. Step up and form an army even if it literally makes her vomit. Admit what she’s been trying to hide. I read this one at a time when I hurt someone pretty badly. I ended a relationship I should never have started and I hurt a good person in the process. I vowed never to repeat that mistake. We’re at the tail end of adolescence now and shaping up into our basic adult form. Garion and Ce’Nedra bumbled along from one blunder to the next alongside me. I kind of needed it.

Then we come to Enchanter’s End Game. We have complicated, weak kings, exotic dancers, the hounds of hell, battles and gods. We have wonderful dialogue between characters we’ve come to know and love, playfully antagonistic to one another in order to hide the depth of their feelings. We have several conclusions, all neatly tied up with a smug stone (yes, stone) and wedding vows. Not all of it entirely sweet – there is a spikiness to Ce’Nedra after all. Too much saccharine leaves you sickly. As it it just enough sweet and sour brings you back wanting more. Which was duly delivered in The Mallorean.

I am very glad I picked up that paperback in Fenwicks that day. I was thinking of cake at the time, Victoria Sponge to be specific. I gained a great deal more. A moral compass, a fantasy world where the character’s development and growth clearly mirrored my own. A realisation that coming of age is messy and painful but not without humour and love. Thank you, Mr Eddings. Rest well.

Death & Her Maidens: Carla Valentine & Caitlin Doughty (& a little bit of Gaiman)

‘I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school…They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying’ – Rose Walker, The Sandman

Rose Walker’s Journal in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman

I first read Rose Walker’s words in the distant mists of the early 1990s. I got the bit about love. Walking away from love. But I didn’t yet understand the bit about talking to the dying. Sadly, I get that a little more now with twenty odd years of life (and death) under my footsteps.

The Sandman was also the first time I connected with a personification of Death herself. I was a twenty something perky goth charmed by – well, a twenty something perky goth! I’d just lost my grandmother to a stroke. I had this woolly idea that people died peacefully in their sleep in their own beds as both she and my grandfather had done. In reality, people die in messy, complicated ways that can be both protracted and painful, or sudden and traumatic. On roads, in hospital beds. There is no blueprint for death.

gaimandreamdeath
Morpheus & Death feed the pigeons

Similarly, there is no blueprint in our responses to death. My father died suddenly three years ago, though he was ventilated by the hospital to allow me to be with him when life support was withdrawn. What do you say to the dying? The best I could do was tell him I love him but I think shock had robbed me of a voice. Further down the line it’s not the tubes and the piping and the sterile atmosphere I recall from that day, or the terrible feeling of watching the world through shattered glass; rather I chose to remember the kindness of the care givers and the unwavering, unconditionally loving support of my husband.

IMG_1480

This is where Death’s maidens’ Caitlin Doughty and Carla Valentine come into my life. I noticed that my Kindle book shelf is showing a distinct pattern. There are rather a lot of books on there about death. The processes of death, the causes, the physical effect on the flesh, the people involved in the death industry. I’ve devoured them all. And two of them really chimed with me. For very similar reasons, which is why I choose to sing their praises together.

Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes reflects the life and work of a mortician who would found the Order of the Good Death as well as shedding an illuminating light on practices involved in cremation. I came to two immediate conclusions on reading this – I never wish to be embalmed, and I want to be buried rather than cremated. It takes you beyond the small room at your local funeral home to what actually happens to bodies once they are released to the family. My father’s was the first death that I had to process personally. It would be fair to say I was confounded by the amount of paperwork that goes into ending a person’s existence. My father lived a full and occasionally fruity life and it was my job to ensure that he left it with all his paperwork in order.

I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for this in advance. Indeed, it was a day to day  process once I’d secured a whole two weeks off work. I had to clear his socially rented bungalow in three weeks. Organise a funeral. You are so busy ticking boxes that the grief is almost secondary. I can remember the exact point that it slapped me in the face and tripped me on my arse. In that quiet room at the funeral parlour.

‘Sifting through an urn of cremated remains you cannot tell if a person had successes, failures, grandchildren, felonies. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” ‘ Cailtin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Cremains. That was my trigger. My dad wanted to be cremated. But he never said what he wanted to happen after that point. You get a call once you pay the funeral bills. Your dad is ready to collect? WTF? So collect him we did. The morning we completed the emptying of his home. I was due back at work the day after. They sat me in the lilac room, husband by my side. They brought a gift bag through. Cadbury purple it was. Little purple handles. I fixated on the bag. Took it when they handed it over.

Inside the bag was a plastic tub. Not an urn. A purple plastic bottle, the sort you see loose sweets contained in. Like gobstoppers. Or rainbow dust. Not people. His name and cremation date stuck to the lid with sellotape. I distinctly remember that being the point I broke.

I walked away from a lot that year. My job, my career. My peace of mind. Started reading a lot of books about death. It’s taken three years but I am finally finding peace with the process. And Doughty’s campaign for the Positive Death movement – The Order of the Good Death – has certainly opened up conversations in this household. Made us be very specific in how we want the ceremonies surrounding our demise to take place and talk about how we may wish to die. We’re all opting for woodland burials for a start!

The most recent book I read on the subject is Carla Valentine’s superb Past Mortems: Life and Death behind Mortuary Doors. Like Doughty she takes an autobiographical look at her life in which she knew she always wanted to work with the dead in some way. Also like Doughty, she deploys a wry humour to a sobering topic – but one which never crosses over into disrespect. In fact, her deep respect for our physical bodies is something that comes over in spades. It is an interesting read in discovering just what goes on during a post mortem in the UK, and also the level of training and the vast array of knowledge those involved in the process undertake, such as Carla as a mortuary assistant and now Death’s very own curator.

I did laugh out loud at the following passage – largely because I feel exactly the same way about my uterus from hell:

‘I’ll never forget the first time I saw the uterus of a normal, albeit deceased, woman during my early training. “That’s it?” I’d shouted furiously…I couldn’t believe how small they all were! After all the years of menstrual cramps and all the discomfort I’d experienced due to PMT, I’d imagined the uterus to be a bright red demonic entity covered in spikes which would bare its teeth at me as I attempted to remove it. Instead, it resembled a little pink plum, and the ovaries two matching fleshy almonds. They looked so harmless.’

Carla Valentine, Past Mortems: Life and Death behind Mortuary Doors

Both of these books have helped me to understand death that little bit more. To accept it as an inevitable process of life. Death herself has made a mark on me that will never completely fade – and that is only right and proper.

My father became dust. But he was – and is – so much else. After a couple of weeks where he resided rather uncomfortably in our dining room we took him home, to the beautiful green valley in which he spent his childhood and to which he returned in retirement. Let him go under the watchful eyes of his beloved red kites. Carl Sagan said in Cosmos, ‘The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together.‘  Our atoms may rearrange in death but they are no less beautiful. Star stuff, harvesting sunlight.

*Postscript: The Kindle image I’ve included shows a third book I haven’t reviewed here – Judy Meliner M.D. & T.J. Mitchell’s Working Stiff: 2 years, 262 Bodies and the making of a Medical Examiner. This is also a superb read, and the sections on 9/11 and her work on a case involving a scalded child in particular will stay with me for a very long time. 

** Final word! The ever awesome Den of Geek gave me space to talk about the actual day my father died in their Geeks versus Loneliness campaign. You can read about the worst day of my life here. 

Husk by J. Kent Messum

Disclaimer: most books I read I pick up myself. Husk is an exception – a little while ago the excellent Den of Geek (who I write for on occasion) sent me a box of books as a gift. It was like Christmas. They covered the entire surface of my coffee table. Where would my sticky little fingers start?

huskjkm

At some point they fell on J. Kent Messum’s Husk. An innocuous skinny paperback among fat juicy hardbacks promising dragons and swords, genius detectives and strange time shifts. I wanted a quick commuting read and – purely on the basis that it wouldn’t break my spine with additional weight when added to my back pack – I grabbed Husk. Smart choice.

Husk explores the fascinating premise of procuring life after death by those who can afford to live post mortem. Set in a near future New York, husking refers to the illegal practice of pimping out the bodies of the living to wealthy deceased 1 percenters, enabled to remain in circulation thanks to advances in future technology.

The protagonist Rhodes works for a company that routinely hires his body out to the deceased. He quickly descends into his own personal hell of skewed perception and the nightmarish consequences of bodily take over by increasingly shady characters. Desperate to take control back and recover a sense of self, he begins to trace the activities of his body when under rental which leads to a horrific realisation about the trade he’s chosen to immerse himself and deeds he himself may have participated in while under the control of his renter.

This is an entertaining read taking very real current issues such as the Occupy movement, developments in technology that may not be entirely ethical and the mass underemployment of highly educated young workforces, twisting them into the narrative while pondering the ethics of illegal ‘husking’ – pimping the flesh quite literally.

Husk is not the first book to suggest that human consciousness could be uploaded into virtual existence post mortem –Tad Williams’ excellent Otherland series being a case in point. However, this is a short, sharp take on the idea which takes the virtual consciousness a step further by uploading in into willing human vessels. Very well written, a tad horrific (self enucleation anyone?) and with the occasional fruity line thrown in, this is adult horror highly recommended to anyone who likes their dystopian sci-fi fast, grim and darkly humorous. It really is not for those who dislike sadism. Not sure what that says about me!

Husk has been made into a film; I’ve not seen it but the trailer looks promising:

As someone who’s age just tips them over the midpoint of the median mortal coil, when everything is heading south, Husk hits a raw nerve. I read Otherland in my 20s when my mortality seemed a distant prospect. After a spell last year that involved MRI machines, many needles and the odd indignity with a speculum, I’m facing up to the declines of the flesh. Who wouldn’t want the option to step into beautiful, impoverished flesh and take it for a test drive? I have no religious believes so what will happen to my consciousness post mortem? If the option was there to preserve it beyond the cessation of my own flesh would I take it? Probably.

Husk is great fiction. It didn’t snap the straps on my rucksack. It’s stayed with me long after the initial reading. It gave me the wonderful Nick Cave & friends ear worm; hence the video. My own husk is fraying a little at the seams. Hopefully I’ll stay tethered a little longer and get to read more by this super author. Bait, anyone?

History: Edwardian Mining in Old Postcards, Black Diamonds & Pit Women

I live in a landscape shaped by mining. Specifically, coal mining. I am the grand daughter of two miners. The streets underneath my house are criss crossed with pit shafts and tales of sink holes opening up in peoples’ gardens – and a friend’s dining room – are not infrequent. I suspect that black diamond coal dust is in my DNA.

IMG_1430
Elsie Margaret supervises my reading

The local history sections of my nearby libraries and book shops are full of tales of mining villages, pit disasters, the impact on local communities in the north east of the closing of the mines and so forth. My pick of three specific books may seem a little random, but each of these has a particular hook for me personally. Thus I give you:

Black Diamonds is not specific to the north east of England, rather it looks at a very wealthy family who discover coal in their extensive lands and examines the impact both on the family and the massive divide between them and their estate workers – from the maids, groundsmen, miners etc. It takes you into the Downton Abbey of the coalfields – Wentworth in Yorkshire – and the crumbling lives of the Fitzwilliams across a century. We have death, illegitimacy, scandalous marriages, skullduggery, war – all contrasted with the growing discontent of the mine workers who strove to produce the ‘black diamonds’ for their overlords. This book is fact – but it plays beautifully to the fiction audience. My particular research interests cover late Victorian through Edwardian & Great War periods which this book fed well. For a fascinating and superbly researched insight into the ‘upstairs / downstairs dynamic’ of the coal industry during this period it can’t be beaten.

From here my reading becomes more personal. I am the grand daughter of two miners – therefore I am the grand daughter of their wives. It is well known how dangerous mine work was (still is). My maternal grandmother Elsie Margaret, was born in the early Edwardian era in a mining village in what was then considered County Durham but is now part of Gateshead. She married a miner, my granda John Robson Renwick and they settled in Dunston while he worked in nearby Swalwell Pit, starting his career in the 1920’s right up until the 1970’s.

gradadpit
My granda John Robson Renwick, middle, holding his lamp and pony

My copy of Griselda Carr’s brilliant Pit Women has a number of pages highlighted with post-it markers. This book basically tells me the story of my grand mothers’ lives, one who I knew intimately, the other a vaguely formidable figure who died when I was very young. Women were at the heart of coal communities. In the early 20th century these were often quite closed communities. Housing was provided by the pit (and I grew up in a council adopted former pit house) and standards varied according to the benevolence of the particular mine owners. There was no NHS, no welfare state. Miner’s Welfares sprang up as a result and the trade union movement began it’s unsteady progress. That’s a whole lot of history I’m summarising in one paragraph, so forgive me the simplification. Read this book! Carr provides an overview of this, then moves on to look in detail at the conditions women lived in. They were cook, nurse, mother, housekeeper, home accountant, midwife. They were resourceful, often impoverished. They relied on their menfolk to hand over their pay packets at the end of the week, and not to wander into the social on the way home and low it on booze.

Woe betide my granda if he didn’t hand over his wages untouched! There’s a strong tradition of the women in my family giving their menfolk ‘pocket money’ (not carried on in my household, I hasten to add!). Life was precarious – for the men who risked life and limb in the pits – but also for the women with both husbands and sons down the pits who’s lives and dwellings were tithed to that particular pit head. There is a beautifully explained section in Carr’s book looking at the working day of the woman of the house with husband and several sons on differing shifts in the pit. I believe she got about 3 hours sleep and much of what she did was backbreaking work – drawing water for baths (no showers in the pit heads as yet), heating the water, washing, cleaning, cooking, etc. If she was lucky she’d have two or three complete sets of clothing, one for the working week and then a Sunday best. My grandma always loved a smart hat for her Sundays.

As social histories go, Carr’s book is a fascinating slice into the realities of women who are only two or three generations away, who would not believe the relative ease and comfort of their granddaughters. I found this a humbling book, one that makes me reflect that I am lucky to live in a time and place that allows me a higher education, social mobility, gas central heating and a wardrobe of multiple frocks. Elsie Margaret and Hannah had difficult lives – but they had one thing that is perhaps slipping away despite our modern advantages – real, solid communities around them. I revisit the villages of their lives sometimes and look across the beautiful landscaped fields, the scars of mining now covered with green valleys, cycle paths and rivers in which you can still find black diamonds. Every generation gains something; perhaps we also lose a little too.

miningpcstanley
A colliery local to me, from John Hannavy’s excellent book

Finally, Edwardian Mining in Old Postcards. Postcards, you say? An entire book on postcards?! I’m not sure where I stumbled across this book but I am very glad I did. As a writer I often work very much from visual prompts and cues and this beautiful book is a treasure trove of them. I had never heard of the use of these as a device for chronicling every day pit life and more tragically the disasters that often happened in the early twentieth century. My paternal grandfather broke his back in the mines. John Robson was often home getting a flea in his ear from Elsie Margaret about his latest injury that meant there was no household income being earned. Hannvany has collected postcards that span not just disasters but also life underground, life in the villages, the ‘amazons’ of the pit heads (women’s work), trades associated with the mines (the railways played a huge part here in my native north east). The faces of the deceased killed in their thousands during this period are haunting, staring out frozen in time on postcards, their voices forever silenced.

These are my ancestors. These are the people who forged me, who lived their lives in the shadow of the pit heads that no longer exist other than as museum pieces or a monument to the fallen. There is an excellent museum at Woodhorn Colliery in Northumberland that I have visited several times which brings home fully the conditions that my grand fathers worked in. It doesn’t show me the lives of my grandmothers’ though. For that, I am very grateful for these books. More than thirty years on for their deaths, I raise my tea mug to my grandparents – my kind, funny, resilient folks. For them I wear the miner’s lamp charm on my charm bracelet. To remember.

Retro Read: Enid Blyton’s Enchanted Wood & David Eddings’ Belgariad

When you think back to the books that formed you as a reader, I wonder what comes to mind? Is it what you expected? Do they have personal connotations or did they just blow your mind into spaces you never even knew existed?

Books are a pretty huge part of my life. They are my single biggest non essential expense. Though frocks come a close second. I live surrounded by them, a book shelf in every room – except the bedroom. That remains a peaceful space – no shelves, no clutter, no electrical devices. That’ll be why my bedside clock stands on a tower of unread paperbacks then!

To the casual observer the shelves in my house have no discernible pattern. To me it’s screamingly obvious. There’s my treasures on the hardwood shelves in the living room, the books in progress or to be read in the study (and a rack of history books on the desk needing attention). My Atwood collection is on the quirky shelves in the hall, complimented by my Victorian gothic novels. There are dusty cook books in the kitchen.  Then there are the boxes hidden in the cupboard at the top of the stairs, a kind of Narnia of books should you step past the old coats. This is the side of my study bookshelf – just the side!

IMG_1418

In the dining room there are inbuilt shelves. On here are the older books.Not valuable, just old.  I’m not sure I’ll ever read them again but I sure as hell ain’t parting with them. Nestled next to the Pratchetts you’ll find the David Eddings collection. Battle worn and tattered – these books have travelled. They’ve been with me for 30 odd years now. And they will never leave.

Eddings narrates the girl I was. The teenager looking for a home. My first real engagement with fantasy – knowing that I’d found my spiritual genre. But before Eddings there was Blyton. Yes her books have aged. They belong to a whole different era and no amount of tweaking and name changing for modern tastes can ever obscure that. But Blyton remains the first author whose books I consciously chose to buy (followed by C.S.Lewis – I’ll witter about him another day).

As a child there were two sweet shops in my village – one a standard newsagents and the other the old fashioned kind where sweets came in jars and twists of paper. Bright primary coloured globules of sugar. They were well served by the actual sweet factory at the centre of our village, Dobsons, famous for it’s gobstoppers and jelly and custard boiled sweets. Rainbow pips were my favourite. For some reason both shops sold books as well as sweets. I probably bought their entire stock. Their Blytons were the hardback reissues of the 70’s, durable hardwearing covers. I loved them all; the adventures, the secret islands, hidden caves, the use of lemon juice to create invisible ink. Awesome. But none of them grabbed me by my ginger forelock more than the Enchanted Wood and its companion The Magical Faraway Tree.

These books were catnip to a 7 year old looking to escape the here and now. And I was looking to escape. I lived in a pub next door to a chip shop and then the newsagents and could see the sweet factory from my bedroom window. I was a feral creature, swigging back the bottled coke, swinging from the curtains, crawling under the bar seats through pools of stale beer to pocket the cash that fell from drunk peoples’ pockets. I used that cash to buy books. Because my family life was imploding around me.

blytonwood

Step into the enchanted forest. Climb a tree. Meet gentle, curious folk along the way. At the top of the tree you can step into a new world, a new place and find a new you. Reassuringly, not all worlds were good – some tilted and twisted and trapped. Others were like Wonka’s factory floor – covered in edible beauty. I needed those worlds. For years I would walk past trees with gnarls and whorls in the trucks and think that if I could only step through them I’d find myself in that wood, that place. Climb to the top of the tree and exit on the most exciting slide of my life.

The sweet factory burnt down one day. The tantalising scent of roasted sugar hung over the village for weeks. I watched it flare so brightly before the inevitable collapse and smoke from my window, fascinated. My old life was collapsing around me and as Rome burned, I read books.

Step forward David Eddings. I was dimly aware that my reading habits were falling into two main categories – books about horses (perhaps we’ll leave that topic!) and novels that took me to dim and distant places where noble people fought the odds valiantly, usually with the help of a hobbit. Which I enjoyed at the time, in a distracted kind of way. Because that’s the point where life got really hard. A homeless, lone parent family of 3 and a rather bedraggled dog. Relying on the kindness of strangers until after a year the council offered us a house. And I got my first book shelf (still own it in fact, though it’s now in the utility room full of strange unused tools).

There’s a department store in Newcastle called Fenwicks. In the 1980’s it had a pretty decent book section. As my teens hit I was allowed a little more freedom and would often head over there after school with a couple of friends for cake, books and beautiful stationary. And it was there I picked up Pawn of Prophecy. An innocuous looking little paperback. A boy, a statuesque woman and a wizard on the cover. A cornucopia of delights.

IMG_1419

It hit me right away that this was my series. My gateway into the world known as fantasy. This was my defining series. A rootless boy who found himself sleeping in barns on a quest, bewildered as the adults quibbled around him. A stern mother figure, a kindly father figure who I now realise subconsciously reminds me of my lovely stepdad, who was stepping up into our lives at this point. I emotionally imprinted with this series and I have read my copies almost to the point of extinction. And they will never leave that particular set of shelves.

If I were to look at the Belgariad with a (kind of) critical eye I’d say it genuinely is a superb entry level series for the younger fantasy reader. The world building is excellent, the magical structures clearly explained and adhered too. The characters have their own individual ‘quirks’ that they stick to. Perhaps a little too well defined – there are few shades of grey in this series. You have to wait for the Mallorean for that to seep in a little. Round the edges.

As a petite redheaded teenage girl the obvious self comparison would have to be with the Princess Ce’Nedra. In actual fact, it was always Garion for me. Sandy haired confused Garion, looking for stability in a world that has shifted in its axis underneath him, stripping him of everything he believed to be solid why at the same time shoving him rudely into puberty. Yep, hello my emotional doppleganger.

In the school library, front centre (red jumper), age about 11

Blyton and that smell of burnt sugar are indelibly etched on my memory, entwined together with clarity in what is often a blur of childhood. We’ll forget the dead hamsters and the shouting. Eddings is more permanent, more pertinent. He informed my sensibilities, offered a clear vision of finding home in the people around you, the family you make along the road. Of trying to be good and decent in the face of loss and pain. I’m so glad I found him on my road. Even if I was thinking about cream donuts at the time.

My childhood made me. But these books helped to shape the hidden product. Long may fantasy have that power – to elevate a child, a young adult, a crone such as myself – above the mess that may be seething a round them. Thank you, Enid. Thank you, David.

Quirky – Troll Bridge by Neil Gaiman

Oh Neil Gaiman. My writing god of the 1990s, it sometimes takes me a while to come back round to you. Not because I don’t love you anymore – but because sometimes authors belong to a time and a place where you don’t wish to disturb them in case the magic vanishes.

A long time has passed since a rather cute engineering geek thrust a copy of Preludes and Nocturnes into my sticky mitt in a remote computer lab at Northumbria University. That lab – E3 – was infamous for very little work and a great deal of pleasure. Ahem. I’ve kissed a few geeks in my time, and most of them were in E3.

I digress. I’d never read a graphic novel before. I had no idea that what he was giving me would open the door to a huge pleasure parade. For years I wallowed. Then I ‘grew up’.

IMG_1415

Correction. I got stuck in the mud. Mortgage, sensible job, night school (necessary after I blew my original degree snogging boys in E3). Life has a funny way of sicking bricks in front of your bicycle though, and as I came sailing over my own personal handlebars 3 years ago I landed in a soft cushion of graphic novel trade paperbacks. Back to the pleasure dome.

You may wonder what this has to do with Troll Bridge. Well, actually quite a lot. I’m lucky that my library has a pretty sweet graphic novel section. I was actually after Stephen King’s The Gunslinger Born when I came across Troll Bridge, with it’s rather twee cover. It looks like a kids picture book, excepting the large library sticker proclaiming it adult stock.

IMG_1416

I’ve read the short story before in some dim part of my past. I registered it enough that I knew I’d read it but couldn’t recall the finer details. There was a boy and a troll. OK. I checked it and The Gunslinger out and headed to a coffee shop. Three coffees and a caffeine buzz the size of Blackpool Tower later and it was finished.

The art work by Colleen Doran is beautiful. It took a couple of reads to truly appreciate it. We start with the bright palette of childhood then watch it gradually dim through adolescence until we reach the grey colours of adulthood. It’s subtle but once you see it – particularly through these older eyes of mine – it makes perfect, life crushing sense. I just wish they’d used one of the bleaker images for the cover, instead of making it a little too Gruffalo but that is a very minor quibble.

IMG_1417

I won’t spoil the story but suffice to say it’s a proper grown up fable with a sting in it’s tail. It’s readable in your lunch break. It’s the innocence and pleasure and missed opportunities of childhood stripped back to expose your own ugly underbelly. I loved it. I saw myself reflected in it. Right now I’m wading through the grey shades of middle age harking back to the primary colours of university. Perhaps it’s a reminder to live in the now, seeking the colours that we shed along the bike track every time we hit a stone.

I went back to E3 recently, out of nostalgia. It now sells shiny pin badges, hoodies and pens with the Northumbria logo on them. All my geeks have left the building but there was a part of me that smiled. And remembered the colours.

Quote: ‘It’s not that I was credulous, simply that I believed in all things dark and dangerous.

Verdict: 5/5. Outstanding. And I don’t say that very often.

Retro Read: Neuromancer by William Gibson

With the world going to hell in a handcart I figured I’d read some retro dystopian sci-fi. Many moons ago, in the distant reaches of 1984 when this book was published I was 12. Had I read it then – or at any subsequent point in my teens – I suspect I would have had my head boggled all the way to Timbuktu. Never mind I was cutting my baby sci-fi teeth on Interzone magazine (wrote my first ever cheque as a subscription to them). I was actually looking for Millennium in my local library when I came across Neuromancer.

It’s an odd read, from the perspective of 2017. The Matrix trilogy has been and gone and is now edging into vintage sci-fi itself. I have recently seen William Control, with his band the Neuromancers. I think of these bastard offspring of Depeche Mode and Joy Division when I consider the word. Lashings and lashings of spankings and rope. Not necessarily classic fiction. Here’s the boy in his tightie-whities (it was hard finding a blog appropriate video to add here!).

So consider me curious about this one. A short, sharp punch of cyber punk that sets up a trilogy. And I enjoyed it. Didn’t love it. There’s a fascination in there as to how the world of science and technology has advanced in comparison with the novel. I appreciated just how much of the ideas posited by Gibson made it wholesale into The Matrix (it being the other half’s favourite film, it has substantial watches in this household). It is also curious for the science that didn’t come to pass – there’s a wholesale acceptance of paper and print outs still existing, casting me back to my first job where I seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time stripping the edges off daisy wheel printouts and filing things.

There’s a lot of sex, a lot of swearing, much tight trouser wearing a la Molly (aka Trinity). Much cosmetic enhancement; fascinating to someone who’s guilty pleasure is watching Botched in their dressing gown. A flawed hero with cerebral plug-ins, a mysterious femme. I like the bad boys, I cannot lie. Case was a tad boring as he flowed through the Matrix. Perhaps it was all the drugs he was mainlining. Riviera and his visual tricks intrigued me. Mad men without their own faces. Cracking stuff. I’ll be honest, it took me quite a while to read because I had difficulty digesting the science and technology even with my 2017 eyes. The Jane of 1984 would have crumbled back into the safe arms of David Eddings within 5 pages.

Jane of 2017 enjoyed this as a starting point. Went hunting for the next volumes, Count Zero & Mona Lisa Overdrive (which sounds perfect for the Botched connoisseur in me). Banged head off wall and resisted the siren song of the Kindle app. Until they were re-released rather fortuitously last week in paperback by Orion Books with lovely creamy clean pages (libraries are great but Neuromancer was disturbingly grubby). Even suggested to the boy we do the Matrix trilogy again.

Quote: “We have sealed ourselves away behind our money, growing inward, generating a seamless universe of self.”

Verdict: Good solid start to the series even if some concepts drifted on high past my non-technologically inclined mind. 3 / 5 stars. 

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑