Category Archives: Magic Realism

Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge

Her head hurt. There was a sound grating against her mind, a music-less rasp like the rustling of paper. Somebody had taken a laugh, crumpled it into a great, crackly ball and stuffed her skull with it. Seven days, it laughed. Seven days. 

  I’ve never read Hardinge – although a quick Wikipedia search shows she was born in the same year and county as me! But there is something gorgeous in her use of figurative language: the crumpled crackly laugh above vanish “like breath from glass” as two warm hands close around hers “as if they were a nest for it” and recalling her name, Triss, “seemed a bit more natural” than her full name, Theresa, “like a book falling open on a much-viewed page”.

I do like each of these similes and metaphors… But I wonder if they all needed to be included in page 1 before Triss has even opened her eyes. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it as purple prose… but maybe a hint of lilac is creeping in…

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World Book Day 2015 Shelfies

So at my school, we are doing this to support World Book Day (5th March): take a Shelfie of your bookshelf. 

Here are mine:Edit

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My Year In Books: Best Reads of 2014

It’s that time of year again: the last day before New Year. As with last year, it’s time to look back and consider the books I’ve read.

This post will deal with my favourite reads this year. Worst reads (of which there weren’t that many!) will come later – follow this link to see them! So this is, I suppose, like the Booker Prize… Except that there’s no money on offer… And that these are books read in rather than published in the last year.

So not very much like the Man Booker at all really! Although there will be some overlapping books.

Right let’s aim for a top five.

#5 The Golem and The Djinni by Helene Wecker was actually my first read of the year! Beautiful depictions of immigrant cultures to New York and compelling on many levels: sociological, fantastical, personal and a rollicking good plot!

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#4 Room by Emma Donoghue. A powerful and poignant story of a mother and child brought up in the most appalling situation as captives. Donoghue said she wanted to create that story at a distance from the horror and terror of the kidnapping when rituals had been established and tedium set in. And the most beautifully realised child’s voice I’ve read.

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#3 Harvest by Jim Crace which was a Man Booker nominee in 2013 – as Room was in 2010. An absolutely astounding evocation of a moment in time and a wonderfully breathy summery feel to it which makes it wonderful to recall in this grey weather.

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#2 The History Of The Rain by Niall Williams.

I really did love this book, a Man Booker longlist nominee. I loved the poetry of the language, the literariness of it, the humour and humanity.

Just absolutely wonderful.

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#1 The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton.

I only came upon this book and Catton because of her Booker-winning The Luminaries which was also wonderful. But for me The Rehearsal was sublime. It was coruscating and complex and writhed like a snake under the reader’s eyes. Exquisitely discomforting.

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Ahhh… But now I’m already worrying about this list. Am I happy with the order? Should The Luminaries have been included? What of all the other books that were great but I’ve not included.

So a handful of honourable mentions, perhaps?

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

More Than This by Patrick Ness

Good Omens by Messrs Pratchett and Gaiman

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Fairytale Remix

Being Dad to a twelve month old daughter, my days are replete with a steady diet of Disney at the moment! Not to mention my own reading preferences which tends towards the Fairytale and mythological. Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber is a book I return to over and again. As is the rather disturbing In The Company Of Wolves based on her versions of Red Riding Hood in The Bloody Chamber which can be seen here.

One example of a Grimm fairytale which exemplifies the moral and narrative ambiguity of the genre is conveniently brief and a single paragraph long:

Once upon a time there was a stubborn child who never did what his mother told him to do. The dear Lord, therefore, did not look kindly upon him, and let him become sick. No doctor could cure him and in a short time he lay on his deathbed. After he was lowered into his grave and covered over with earth, one of his little arms suddenly emerged and reached up into the air. They pushed it back down and covered the earth with fresh earth, but that did not help. The little arm kept popping out. So the child’s mother had to go to the grave herself and smack the little arm with a switch. After she had done that, the arm withdrew, and then, for the first time, the child had peace beneath the earth.

This is deliciously sparse: the image of the child’s arm stubbornly popping up out of the grave is undoubtedly comic: it’s almost Monty Pythonesque in its visual comedy. I have visions of the villagers surrounding the grave, whacking the arm like a game of human Whack-A-Mole! But… was the child buried alive? The paragraph doesn’t actually say he died: are we laughing at the desperate attempts of a sick child to claw its way out of its grave? And allowing a child to become ill and die because it didn’t obey its mother? It doesn’t recall sound like a Christian way for “the dear Lord” to respond. Is the recalcitrant hand a sign of divine remorse, a forgiving resurrection thwarted by human ignorance? And why does it say the mother ‘had” to go? What compelled her? Was she torn from her grieving by the villagers? However stubborn her child was, and all children are incredibly stubborn, a mother would mourn its death keenly. And keen mournfully. Is the mother a victim of or a symbol of the oppressive dictatorial (and male?) village? Is it significant that the mother reverts to violence when the others could be seen as tenderly covering the arm over? How convincing is the peace discovered in the final sentence?

So this sounds like a fabulous conference at Comic-Con that I wish could have attended.

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Read The Golem and The Djinni If You Liked

This is my first blog post and my first book of 2014 and, do far, it’s a gorgeous and haunting book! It’s the story of two beings out of time: Chava, a Golem woken up in the middle of the Atlantic en route to America in the 1800s; and Ahmad, a Djinni trapped for perhaps a thousand years in a lamp and released in New York at the same time. There is a wealth of transformation so far with the novel as the useless becomes useful, the old becomes renovated, history becomes myth and I suspect that will be the metaphor at the heart of the book. Chava herself of made of clay and therefore malleable; Ahmad, as a djinn is a creature of winds and fire and therefore equally protean. Both Chava and Ahmad have, however, become fixed in human form which I suspect is more significant than a mere plot device! Even their names are imposed on them by others in an attempt to transform them.

Interwoven with these two eponymous stories are others: those of the craftsman who made the Golem, a doctor whose encounters with a djinn have affected him, the rabbi who took the Golem in. Admittedly I’m only 100 pages in but it really is a gorgeous novel!

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If you enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, you might like the mythologies mixing in the melting pot of Nineteenth Century New York and the exploration of immigrant and outsider communities adjusting to a new life.

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The mix of acutely felt and sensed historical fiction and the fairy tale or mythological elements might appeal if you enjoyed either Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

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Ghul and Ghoul

I had started reading The Golem and the Djinni as an end of year treat to myself and so far absolutely loving it! Only two chapters in but loving both the Golem and the Djinni! A few rather Frankensteinesque moments I. The creation of the female golem. Brilliant!

But the Djinni reminds us that he is only one of many djinn creatures including the ifrit (familiar to any player of Final Fantasy and star of a rather tender body-exchange gay sexual encounter in Gaiman’s American Gods)

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I was intrigued. I had never heard if a ghul save for Batman’s Ra’s al-Ghul. The book describes the ghul as

loathsome and flesh-eating

which did wonder whether there was a connection between the ghul and ghouls beyond mere phonological similarity.

And there is: ghouls which have somehow always struck me as a particularly British and somewhat archaic synonym for ghost is actually a bastardised image of an Arabian shape-shifting desert demon.

Who knew?

Well, the writers at DCC Comics presumably!

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Inspiration

Let me admit here my bias from the outset.

I love books.

Not altogether surprising in an English teacher. Or in light of previous blog content. Or in light of the name of my blogs!

But I do.

The Hobbit by Tolkien was the first book that gripped me. And writing in general has never let me free of its grips. Books kept me sane through the long interminable holidays I was forced to go on with my parents – canal boating – cramped up in a 65 foot space with brother, parents, occasional other family members with no space to escape except into the books I had brought with me. Books gave me an escape from worries about money. Books have taught me and nourished me and protected me.

As a teacher, the biggest horror I face is that population (sadly ever growing) of kids who can read but who choose not to. For whom reading is just “too much effort,” “too long,” too hard, “too boring”. There are no graphics! It takes perhaps weeks for them reach a moment of high tension in a book whereas their Calls of Duty and Modern Warfares can give them the same thrill every seven minutes in handy fun-sized pieces.

So it was that I surveyed my Year 9 group. A bottom set. I surveyed them all with a sinking feeling: I knew these kids; I had taught some of them in one capacity or another for both their previous years in the school. I quickly surveyed them at the start of the year anyway:

How many had books at home? 3

How many had ever read a book for pleasure? 2

How many had never read a book at all out of class or parents making them read? 18

How many had never read a book from beginning to end at all, even in school? 1 – who I hasten to add had not been in our school for a year having entered half way through Year 8.

And so it was that we embarked on reading A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. I won’t regurgitate my previous praise for this book which can be found here but I found it fabulous! I have sung its praises at school and among friends and family for months! I even bought in a class set of them for reading at school. And it was these which were distributed amongst a very definite class of mostly male non-readers.

Many of the fears and threats that books pose to non-readers were absent from the book. Written from the point of view of a teenage boy, its language is mostly simple, almost monosyllabic and robustly Anglo-Saxon; it is puntuated by the most wonderful and muscular illustrations by Jim Kay such as these

And it alternates between three worlds: the familiar world of school where Conor negotiates bullies and teachers with varying degrees of success; the emotionally traumatic and horrifying world of home where Conor’s mother is struggling in her fight against cancer; and a mythic world in which a monster, some ancient personification of all that is wild and untamed appears.

We finished the book this week. As all teachers do, we alternated between reading and working on it but this week we got to the climax: Conor was finally forced to tell the truth of his own nightmare and the mother’s battle with cancer comes to a head.

I read these final pages to the class.

They were silent.

Absolutely transfixed by it.

At least two students were openly (although very discretely) crying.

The emotion that a lot of them felt was not covered up with showing off or playing up as might have been expected.

They sat. They listened. They felt.

And they started yesterday to ask about books. One of them had brought in a book from home to show me. His first one ever. Another asked me to recommend him a book similar to A Monster Calls – plumbing the Carnegie Medal 2012 I went with Annabel Pitcher‘s My Sister Lives On the Mantlepiece.

For the first time in most of their lives, they felt that they could read; that they were able to get books; that books were good.

It really is moments like this that remind us what it is like to be a teacher.

So, to Patrick Ness, I salute and thank you for this wonderful inspirational gift of a book.

And now I turn to the pile of National Curriculum levelling, reporting, planning I have to do and sigh…..