Category Archives: books

Curiouser and Curiouser: My Favorite Alices – Post by Christina Henry, bestselling novelist

Blogging/editorial note from bobbygw: In celebration of the UK publication of Alice by bestselling novelist Christina Henry  (also author of the highly successful Black Wings trilogy, comprising Black Spring, Black Heart, Black City), this post is by her as part of her blog tour series to promote this great novel. There’s more info about her entertaining tour at the end of this post, so you can read all her posts in the series at your leisure. Note: Titan Books publish Red Queen, the sequel to Alice, on July 12 2016 in paperback and ebook editions.

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One of the most influential fantasy stories of all time is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I’ve written before that Alice and her story have become embedded in our cultural memory in such a way that even people who’ve never read the original story feel as though they must have.

Alice’s story is so iconic and has such a fairy-tale-like, almost mythical quality that many filmmakers and authors (including myself) have dipped into that sandbox to create our own Wonderlands (or in my case, more of a Nightmareland) and shape our own versions of Alice.

There have been lots of direct interpretations of the story, and I love many of them, but I’m especially interested in the stories that have Alice’s DNA without being specifically Alice stories. After all, any story that has a hole for the hero/heroine to fall through or a magical door to another world owes a debt to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Here are my four favorite Alices (and almost Alices):

4) Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland film – This is the first version of the story that I remember seeing, and it remains one of the most enduring for me.  The Cheshire Cat, in particular, becomes much more whimsical and charming in this version. In the book I always felt he just enjoyed thwarting Alice, but his mischievous expressions in the film mitigate that to some degree.

3) C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – Supernatural passageway to another world? Check. Young heroine who discovers a magical world and creatures and accepts them in a matter-of-fact way? Check. Much is made of both the Christian allegory and epic fantasy elements of this story, but at its heart this book is Lucy’s Adventures in Narnia.

2) Neil Gaiman’s Coraline – Here Alice is called Coraline, and the passage she goes through brings her to a place that seems wonderful at first but quickly turns dark and frightening. There’s even a black cat whose helpful unhelpfulness rivals the Cheshire’s.

1) Angela Carter’s “Wolf-Alice” from The Bloody Chamber and Other StoriesThis story has a loose tie to Through the Looking Glass and also to a version of Little Red Riding Hood. I adore Angela Carter and the way she interpreted the darkness in well-known fairy tales. In this story Alice becomes a self-aware adult, which is a theme that runs underneath the Carroll stories – all along Alice is becoming less childlike, more grownup.

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More about Christina Henry’s wonderful blog tour:

 

Alice Blog Tour Banner#2

Welcome to Nightmareland: A blog tour with Christina Henry, author of Alice and Red Queen

 

 

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Agota Kristof’s Trilogy of Novels: Remarkable fiction on loss, identity and the traumatic impact of war

Agota Kristof - book cover for her trilogy of novelsWritten by an unreliable narrator, the first part of this trilogy, The Notebook, won two prestigious European literary awards and was Hungarian writer Agota Kristof’s debut novel, published when the author was 51. It is, along with The Proof and The Third Lie, astonishing and brilliantly written in the tone of a moral fable. All the novels use beautifully simple, even clinical, language, from a first person viewpoint. What’s remarkable about them is the pure clarity of voice and language and – most importantly – morals without sentimentality, and the rejection of conventional, socially conformist behaviour.

With the onslaught of WW2, in an unnamed Hungary, identical twin brothers C(K)laus and Lucas record an ‘objective’ narrative of each day or days of significance that each agrees must be dependent solely on fact. This means that the brothers destroy any daily account that reflects judgement, whether implied or explicit, whether emotional, moral or even tonal in the words they use.

Only once they approve the best version of the day’s events, do they commit one as the permanent record of that day, to be written up in the Notebook.

Their purity of purpose and determination to lead lives grounded in their own way, extends to them deciding to strip themselves of emotion as they learn to disregard and be invulnerable to the devastating consequences of war. They also choose to act on occasion in ways that threaten and harm those who harm others, and always based upon their own distinctive, yet always logical, moral code. As a metaphor for the impact of war on children it’s a powerful and compelling one.

The more you read, the more troubling the stories of each novel, yet the more enriched and nuanced the overall story becomes.

The novels don’t shy away from the impact of war, psychological, social or physical. Limbs and people destroyed, antisemitism wreaked, loved ones blown apart. Life goes on, but always the factual narrative strips life of value and meaning as the war dehumanises and devastates. While the brother(s) survive(s), it’s clear not in any meaningful way living. There’s no joy felt or shared, no relief described, no coming to terms. The tone becomes ever more despairing and melancholic, as WW2 transitions into what is clearly meant to be Russia’s occupation of the country.

To describe the plots would be to undermine the intensity of loss, sadness, disorientation and trauma of war inflicted upon the narrator(s). What matters most is the extraordinary perspective of the brothers/unreliable narrator. It’s a troubling, powerful, moving story, driven by conflict, often disturbed and disorientating. It never resolves, which, given the subject of war and loss, is surely a morally honest conclusion and one free from false sentiment. Utterly compelling (especially The Notebook), the trilogy is highly recommended for lovers of great, modernist literature.

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Biography: Simone de Beauvoir by Ursula Tidd

book cover for Ursula Tidd's study of de BeauvoirI absolutely loved this study of one of the twentieth century’s most brilliant and famous women writers and activists. It is the single most trenchant and insightful of the intellectual biographical studies of de Beauvoir.

Nothing of value in de Beauvoir’s life is overlooked. Context and circumstances are fully considered and the widest range of resources and key relationships are thought through: the influence of her parents, sister, lovers, friends and, of course, Sartre. Besides which you’re made aware of her serious reading of intellectual writers and philosophers such as Levis-Strauss, Hegel, Heidegger, Aquinas, Marx, Husserl, Leibniz, Kant, and the existential phenomenologists. A lengthier work would of course have had the space to consider the reading she did for The Second Sex alone, that included hundreds of historians, anthropologists, biologists and sociologists, but this is meant to be a brief study and its success as such is not diminished by this.

Tidd also sheds light on some of the influences on her growing sense of intersectional feminism and the lesser known yet critical influences for her magnum opus on women, The Second Sex, by reference, for example, to her strong interest in Gunnar Myrdal’s classic 1944 study American Dilemma, on race in America.

She doesn’t shy away from the complex and often troubling relationship Beauvoir had with Sartre: namely the ways in which it was supportive of each other, while often exploiting the affection of other lovers and writing about them and betraying their lovers’ confidences to each other.

Importantly, she quotes well from all Beauvoir’s work, so you get to appreciate her strengths as a memoirist, diarist, philosopher, essayist and polemicist, novelist, travel and letter writer, feminist and political activist.

I’ve read the full-length biographies by Deirdre Blair and Toril Moi, and this short study says everything of value while missing nothing of significance.

The highest praise I can think of for a biography of a writer is to say that it excites and compels you to want to go and read or reread the writer’s work. This brilliant study merits that accolade.

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Audrey Niffenegger, H.G. Wells’ Giant Brain and Speculative Fiction

NPG x16751; Herbert George Wells by BassanoNiffenegger - photo 2Audrey Niffenegger was among the many great women authors and artists attending this year’s Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. On 15 August 2014, the author, teacher, visual and graphic novelist and artist gave the inaugural speech for the annual English PEN/H.G. Wells Lecture.

She first spoke of Wells’ anticipation of the world of the future, including the ‘Giant Brain,’ as he prophesied it, and that all of us now recognise as the World Wide Web. She wondered if Wells would be disappointed in its proliferation and amassing not only of knowledge, but also of its relentless porn, spam and – with her characteristic and engaging humour – its “videos of cats and goats, and goats and cats.” No surprise she thought Wells’ epitaph could be “I told you so, you damn fools!”

Continuing the theme of speculation, Niffenegger focused on a story of his that impressed her, The Door in the Wall, which she first discovered in Black Water, an anthology of fantastic/speculative fiction, edited by Alberto Manguel, the prolific Argentinian writer.

The Door tells the tale of Lionel Wallace, who throughout numerous times in his life encounters the recurring presence of a green door in a long white wall, which is a portal to a garden and place “full of the quality and promise of heart’s desire,” and that acts as an escape from our “our world fair and common, the hoarding and the pit.”

And yet, apart from one time in his childhood and perhaps once late in his life – you will have to read the story to decide for yourself – when barely five-years-old, he resists going through it again because of the relentless call upon his time of the inconsequential busy-ness of his life and the pursuit of his career.

Niffenegger gracefully spoke of how the story captures for us all the mystery and importance of the imagination and of how speculative fiction is most “valuable when it tells the truth.”

The story and her speech also consider the dangers of our resisting the call to pursue – at least potentially – a better and truer, more beautiful world for ourselves. She questioned, as with the story, the pursuit too often of mundane, inconsequential successes in one’s life that, just as with the character of Mr Wallace, accumulate only as a body of regrets for actions not taken, because they do not speak to our “heart’s desire.”

Despite the fact “the world may still be messed up,” Niffenegger movingly concluded her lecture with a call to us that echoed both the story and its meaning, to “make art, make a garden, let them [the desires of your heart] in.”

Q&A
Following her speech, there was time for questions from the audience. She said she was writing two novels – including one no doubt especially anticipated by her many fans – a sequel to The Time Traveller’s Wife, her 2004 novel that launched her to literary stardom. The other, already titled, Chinchilla Girl in Exile, is about a “nine-year-old girl with hypertrichosis.”

Asked about her writing process, she said she was “completely chaotic and silly and bad.” Yet when she spoke of her teaching – on top of everything else, she’s also taught for 28 years – for a creative writing workshop at a community arts centre in Lake Michigan, it was abundantly clear in that pursuit she is as wonderfully caring, rigorous and thoroughly dedicated as in her own creative work.

She ensures that her 10-12 students get to experience a working relationship with them as authors and she as their editor, which is “intensive, attentive and focused.” This approach, she informs us, is precisely the relationship she has valued and benefited from as a result of the editors in her own life and that inspired her to become a teacher in the first place. (Two of her former workshop students are already publishing fiction.)

Anticipating the Future: “What’s the biggest threat to the arts?”
This was the last question she answered. Fittingly, because it concluded her thoughtful lecture in honour of PEN and Wells, their shared history of campaigning for human rights, the importance of the freedom to write and publish, and on science fiction and imagining future possibilities.

Appropriate, too, because in her speech she called upon the audience to resist the decline of democracy and values by, among other things, voting in elections and speaking up for those of us who “don’t follow the well-worn path.”

Her answer?

“Oh, there are so many … But I would say the biggest is Amazon.”

Let’s hope her speculation remains a fiction, rather than a prediction of the shape of things to come.

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Let’s Celebrate! The Magic Wagon – A Classic Joe R. Lansdale Tale is Available Once Again

The Magic Wagon by Joe R. Lansdale - Kindle edition cover

Click on the book cover to buy this Kindle edition for $2.99

This new edition is a cause for celebration. First published in 1986 when Joe R. Lansdale was little known, and re-issued in 2001 by Subterranean Press, the wonderful US indie publisher, The Magic Wagon has sadly been unavailable since then.  Well, not only is it now easily available because it’s a Kindle edition, the price is a mere $2.99. It’d be worth it at triple the price.  And, even better, this early Lansdale fiction remains one of his very best.  In fact, it’s worthy of the title classic: a funny, quirky and utterly charming literary fiction, brilliantly told.

Set in Texas at the turn of the 20th century, The Magic Wagon is the tale of Buster Fogg’s life as well as other eccentric characters that he encounters. By the time he’s 17, his life has been pock-marked by tragedy, yet Buster tells you about each sad event in such a way as to make them Candide-like – tragic-comic, even farcical.

It reads like a combination of an S. E. Hinton novel (Rumblefish, The Outsiders), in its convincing account of a boy’s youth and, throughout, a feeling that if Jorge Luis Borges had ever written a literary, magical Western, I think he’d have been proud to have the result that is The Magic Wagon.

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A List of Top 100 Novels: stats and trivia

Always fun to see a top # list of authors and check who you’ve read and who you may have missed it like to add. Some fascinating stats here, too.

News from the Boston Becks

Before I put up the full Top 100 list (and do the post for #1), I am tossing up this bit of various trivia and statistics about the novels on my Top 100 list and on the 101-200 list.

Please note that none of the lists involving 101-200 have numbers attached because I didn’t rank them.

  • Longest Top 100 Novel:  In Search of Lost Time  (4651 pages)
  • Shortest Top 100 Novel:  Heart of Darkness  (96 pages)
  • Earliest Top 100 Novel:  Gulliver’s Travels  (1726)
  • Latest Top 100 Novel:  Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel  (2004)
  • Latest Top 200 Novel:  The Night Circus / The Tiger’s Wife  (2011)

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The battle of the sexes in fiction – Lawrence Naumoff’s Taller Women

Click on the image to buy this book for a penny, excluding postage & packing.

Occasionally a novel comes along that swallows you whole, making you sigh with pleasure, think deep thoughts, and blink with a delighted astonishment. Taller Women is just such a novel. Following hot on the heels of Naumoff’s previous novel, Rootie Kazootie (Harvest Book), it continues the theme of wise women, filled with hope and sadness, and near-silent men afraid of the truth in their hearts and the questions from their lovers.

In manic Lydia and whimsical Monroe, Naumoff portrays a tangled relationship that steers off the road into emotional territory for which neither has prepared. Like the shifting plates beneath the earth’s surface, they bump and grind, facing mutual confusion and a hope for something better around the corner. With off-beat humour and genuine insight, Naumoff recognises the sad, funny, scary and absurd battles that occur between the sexes.  He is a wonderful novelist and, absurdly, not well-known or appreciated enough.  Try him, he’s marvellous and I don’t believe you will be disappointed if you like the view above.

 

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