Friday, 22 April 2011

Is this the real life?...

...Or is it just fantasy?

I have a very funny relationship with fantasy novels. There are a few authors that I adore and read and reread regularly and then there are the rest.

Just recently I have been reading books by Trudi Canavan, I love the books that she sets around the Magician's Guild. The characters come to life in a wonderful way and it makes me want to believe in the world of magic. However her books in the Age of Five trilogy leave me cold.

Tamora Pierce was the first fantasy author that I found and loved, right back in about year 9 at school. 20 years on I still pounce on her new books and everything else on the reading pile is neglected until I'm finished.

This has become harder in recent years as she no longer has a UK publisher, thankfully we now have the Internet. And good friends. Sam over at Books, Time and Silence, recently visited the States and very kindly tracked down a copy of the latest Pierce book and delivered it to me on Wednesday.

This is a collection of short stories that mostly link to characters or places that feature in her other novels. I've become a real fan of the short story over the past year and these do not disappoint. I think it must be a hard genre to write in as you have to tell a whole story, believably, in a short space of time. None of these tales left me wanting, they were all great vignettes with the trade mark strong characters and the subtle feminist message.

There are other fantasy novels out there that I like, some (limited) Pratchett, Nix, Nicholson and Gaiman all are great but ultimately there is something about the strong female characters that Canavan and Pierce create that draw me back time after time.
The Protector of the Small quartet is probably one the series that I have reread the most out of all my books and I would certainly want all four books (bound in one volume) on my desert island.

Now all I have to do is wait for the autumn and the next book in a series...I don't think it will be published before I travel to America so I think that pre-ordering is the way to go.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Old Friend

Bracelet of Bones by Kevin Crossley-Holland.

A new book by Kevin Crossley-Holland has always been a treat and this one is no exception.

This is a book about a Viking girl's quest to find her father after he breaks a promise to her, and even in the time of great Viking exploits this stands out as an incredible journey. Solveig follows her father from Scandinavia through the inland waterways of Europe all the way to what we know as Constantinople.

As in all of Kevin's books there is great suspense and adventure mixed with a wonderful amount of mythology and legend. However unlike so many writers the strands weave together perfectly and each is essential to the plot.

I know very little about Norse mythology and I am now inspired to find out more but this lack of knowledge didn't spoil the book at all it just made the story feel more magical in someway.

I knew a little more about the Volga Vikings however as there was a fascinating In Our Time episode on these people last autumn - which is still available on the BBC Listen again service here.

There are usually a few words at the end of a book that strike fear into me as a read, those being "to be continued" but in this case I can't wait. Kevin Crossley-Holland will be coming to the library where I work very soon to talk about this book and I can't wait to ask him how long I will have to wait for the sequel.

My other question is going to be about how he creates such wonderful female characters. Gatty has long been a heroine of mine but Solveig's mixture of boldness, shyness, fear and curiosity has instantly tipped her to the top of my favourite characters.

I've heard Kevin speak on several other occasions and he is inspiring - best of all he usually has some artefacts or illustrations that have inspired his work and I'm hoping that this will be the case for this book too.

I know that this is a book I am going to want to re-read soon but this time I will have a guide to Norse mythology on hand to refer to so that I don't miss any of the detail.

In the name of full disclosure I should say at this point that I have known Kevin Crossley-Holland for many years and like him immensely but this review is of a library book and not 'sponsored' by either the author or his publisher.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Oops still no books!

Cabin Pressure recording (Drill Hall, 11th April)

I'm still not doing so well with the reading, well no I am doing fine with the reading - there are about half a dozen books that I am half way through - it is the finishing that is a problem.

My excuse this time is that I spent 6 hours traveling to and from London just to hear a 30 minute radio show recorded. And I wouldn't change that for the world!

Radio is a passion of mine, especially spoken word radio. I think that I could live quite easily without a television but if radio vanished I'd find it hard to cope. BBC Radio 4 is my station of choice, I don't like everything on it but there are some real crackers to be heard. Comedy in particular.

Mr Bookworm and I came across the wonderful Cabin Pressure either just as, or just after, series one was broadcast and have been hooked ever since. Like the best sitcoms it can be listened to repeatedly and as well as great humour has unexpected depths and sadness too. The BBC offers free tickets to recordings of most of its shows and so I put into the draw for this and luckily I got enough tickets that a Mr Bookworm, a friend, my sister, my brother-in-law and I could all go to a recording.

None of us knew what to expect and it all turned out to be a bit fraught at one point due to slow moving traffic, inability to read a map and non-moving trains. However by the skin of our teeth all 5 of us got in.

The script was more or less read through from beginning to end (only small stops for line fluff and missed cues) with the sound effects that create the atmosphere played to the actors there and then. I had thought that all of these effects would have been added later so to here the whole script almost as is was wonderful.

I'm obviously not going to write about the plot but it was side splittingly funny with wonderful asides just dropped in throughout, including references to one of my favourite songs. The out takes and actor asides were just as funny too.

One of the great thing about radio is the pictures that it lets you create in your mind, and I was bit worried that seeing the actors just read the scripts into a microphone would ruin this for me. It hasn't, it has just highlighted what a superior medium radio really is.

The best news - I also got free tickets to the recording on April 29th so I get to do it all over again! Who cares that it is Royal Wedding Day, that the trains will be packed and that it is 6 hours of travel for such a short thing? Not me!

Cabin Pressure is written by the wonderful Mr John Finnemore (his blog is just as good) and all photos used here are taken from that page.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Theatrical Interlude 6

Frankenstein (National Theatre, 9th April)

Some might think that seeing one production 3 times in less than a month is a tad excessive, especially when there are so many good productions out there at the moment. In some ways I can see that point but I do feel that I have seen three different performances with this play.

This time it was live at the theatre, rather than on screen. The casting had Johnny Lee Miller as Creature and Benedict Cumberbatch as Victor Frankenstein and no understudies.

This was the first time I'd visited the National Theatre, and the space itself is almost worthy of a blog post. From the outside it does look a little bit of a concrete monstrosity, but then I went to a university made of concrete so I have a soft spot for this sort of building! Inside the first thing we found was a bookshop, which is always a good start. There was live music playing in the foyer and a photographic art exhibition outside the loos (plentiful and clean, always a good sign!).

Frankenstein is playing in the Olivier Theatre which isn't conventionally shaped, and it felt like we were right next to the stage even though we were 10 rows back. Our seats were practically next to the aisle as and actors used this during the performance we really did feel part of the production.

It was nice to be able to see everything on the stage this time, rather than what the cameras were showing. I loved seeing how the scenery moves and how the lights worked etc.

As expected the performance was amazing, I still don't know how the leads find the energy to perform 2 shows a day. Although Creature has more screen time I think that Victor's role is just as intense and to find the stamina to do this day after day is incredible. Various press interviews have hinted at the injuries sustained and from the gusto used yesterday you can all too easily see how this happens.

So was it excessive to see one play three times? Probably, but if I could get my hands on more tickets I'd go again like a shot. And should the National Theatre decide to release the performance on DVD I'll have it on pre-order instantly.

Seeing this has really made me want to see more live theatre (not just musicals), and I already have tickets booked for another 4 plays, plus plans to see at least another 6 as soon as I can get tickets. It is a good thing there are still libraries because with this much theatre my book buying is going to be seriously curtailed!

photo: Catherine Ashmore

Thursday, 7 April 2011

A bit quiet

I almost read myself to a standstill during February and March and so consequently don't have a lot of books to blog about at the moment.

In addition to this I was reading a lot of more academic books about All Quiet on the Western Front in preparation for the April meeting of the International Fiction group. It was a great meeting and I discovered that some of my reactions to All Quiet when I read it for World Book Night might have been because when I read the book before it was actually a different translation...
I'd purposely saved a few copies of my WBN version of the book to give to group members and they went down really well. The main consensus of the meeting was that you can't call the book 'good' per se but it really is one that everybody should read.

The main reason for not having a lot to write about is that I am reading in preparation for this year's Writer's Centre Norwich Summer Read campaign. The WCN kindly let me have the six books in advance and I am reading them ready to be able to talk/blog about them as soon as the promotion starts on May 3rd. Details for now can be found here but there is so much more to announce. 3 whole months dedicated to good books and authors - I can't wait.

And I'm even reading another poetry book!