The Brave by Nicholas Evans

Back in 1995 Nicholas Evans’ novel, The Horse Whisperer, was a mega-bestseller. In 1998 Robert Redford made a film based on the book and the world went horse-whispering crazy. All of a sudden—in Australia at least—morning television chat shows and weekend current affairs flagships were running stories about moustachioed silent-types in checked shirts who could make a pony dance to their bidding (which anyone who grew up in Sydney and longed for weekend visits to El Caballo Blanco can attest, is a mighty fine thing). More important than this equine-talking fad, Nicholas Evans became a successful author and went on to write some very good novels, in particular The Loop, but also The Smoke Jumper, The Divide and most recently, The Brave.

Mr Evans is a fine writer and his narratives are well-honed. I would describe them as ‘quietly told’ but I always find myself helplessly wrapped up in them and eager to continue paddling along. He is very good at communicating the private sides of his characters, and can write of slightly ‘damaged’ individuals and their soul-searching without resorting to clichés.

His stories tend to be set in natural environs, perhaps because he knows he has strong skills in describing landscapes, or perhaps because he just prefers writing about them. In any case his tales are mostly set in mountains, on farms, in small towns, on the plains. (And in America, although he is an Englishman who lives in England.) Because of these settings, sometimes his narratives include an animal-theme, for example in The Loop we learnt a lot about wolves.  But sometimes, they don’t. This doesn’t bother me, but it seemed to bother some of his publishers. Well, they at least sometimes appeared to ignore this fact, and continued to attempt to shove an animal onto any of his covers that they justifiably could. After all, this is the man who wrote The Horse Whisperer, the reading public might not be smart enough to work that out if they didn’t see a furry creature staring back at them.

All I can say is thank god Mr Evans went back to the horsies so that novel, publisher, cover and reader were aligned again. Not that The Brave is really about horses, but there are storylines involving hollywood westerns, cowboys and indians, horse handlers and mountain riding. I certainly won’t quibble with the equine-flavoured cover, which is, in my opinion, quiet stunning. What the novel mostly discusses, though, is courage and what it means; when it is false, when it is true and when it falters.

Tom Bedford is our protagonist and we hear his tale from two ends: 1959 when he is a quiet English boy obsessed with westerns, who is thrust into Tinseltown when his sister marries a TV-star cowboy; and 2007 where he is an academic and writer living with a secret from his childhood that is brought to the fore when his soldier son is charged with murder.

When I was reading The Brave, I struggled somewhat to succinctly explain to others what the plot was because, like Mr Evans’ previous novels, there was a complexity to it that warranted more than a one or two lines from the likes of me. When I call the novel ‘complex’ I don’t mean that it is difficult or convoluted; I mean that it is layered, involved and considered. The experience of reading The Brave is a quiet one; but it is an intense quiet, full of emotion and raw introspection, cleverly constructed by a talented author who deftly leads you through his tale. Layered, involved, complex, and there are key plot points you don’t want to reveal to others for fear they will ‘ruin’ the story, plus a general sense that this is not a book to summarise for others; more one to suggest that they should read and experience for themselves, and hopefully enjoy.

I may not have been able to quickly outline the plot of The Brave for you while I was reading it, but I could have told you that I was absolutely taken with it. I could have told you that I felt as if I carried some of the emotions of the characters around with me during this time, and that I used any spare moment to pick up the book and read a few pages more. I could have told you that the parts of the story set in 2007 were very good, but the parts set in 1959 were excellent. I could have told you that I had always been a fan of Nicholas Evans’ books and that I was just so pleased that he’d had another book published and that it was, plain and simple, a very good book.

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

It seems to me that ‘these days’ we can’t leave a good thing alone. Suddenly a Snickers has almonds it, pizza’s gone tandoori, TV shows need a film release, films need a sequel—and now a prequel, and successful young adult books must be trilogised.

The fact is that  Suzanne Collins’ first book in the Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games, could stand by itself. There was nothing about it that required sequels to be written, except that it was successful. In saying this, I really liked books two and three, but I think this is a good opportunity to highlight the integrity of book one, and that if it had been a ‘one-off’ story the novel would still have been a great success and still been a book you would recommend to others. Actually, not just recommended to others, but waved about and tried to foist on them.

But here we are with book three, Mockingjay, after a perfectly enjoyable book two and, to be honest, I was darn excited to be reading it. Who needs to work or organise moving overseas when they can be reading an adventure tale? Or, as it was more realistically in my case, who needs to be sleeping at all?

I know some people, loyal readers of this blog included, were left a little disappointed with books two and three in this series. As one so wonderfully stated her case: ‘My view is that it’s like The Matrix—you’d prefer that movies two and three had never blighted the face of the earth. I’m not quite as harsh about this, but book one was such perfection that anything was going to be a letdown…’. I suppose I haven’t felt as let down by the sequels as some have, although in retrospect book two is definitely the weakest of the three. But hell, it was still good, and there was clearly a lot I liked about it or I wouldn’t have been so positive. Sure the ‘let’s have an ultimate Hunger Games’ plot could have indicated a little panic on the author’s part, but if that’s what it was initially she certainly turned things around by using book two to set up book three and conclude the series in splendid fashion. Because sure, book three is not book one (if a more obvious and redundant statement has ever been made please let me know), but you know what? I thought it was pretty darn good. (Oh, this may be where, for the sake of a review-gauge, I point out that I also liked the second and third Matrix movies. Okay, the third not so much.)

Mockingjay leaves the Hunger Games’ arenas behind as we follow our heroine Katniss in her new not-so-rosy life in District 13 and her involvement in the rebellion’s plot to overthrow the Capitol once and for all. But who is seeking to destroy who? And for what? And in exactly what way is Katniss their secret weapon? And during all this empire building, where is Peeta?

The final novel in the Hunger Games series takes us into the streets of the Capitol as the rebellion assault begins, and we travel with Katniss and her team as they navigate the twists and turns of the booby-trapped city. Collins doesn’t hold back as the realities and randomness of war affect the characters in ways we’d rather not deal with. And then there is Peeta, dear Peeta, who is fighting a war within himself, against his enemies, against his friends, against Katniss.

There were easier ways to complete a Hunger Games trilogy. We could have seen an arena battle three times over and merely had some of the faces change, we could have focused on the love story between Katniss and Peeta and watched everyone live happily ever after, some kind of vampire could have been involved. I don’t think Suzanne Collins took the easy way out. When faced with turning her first wonderful novel into a trilogy she looked at the world she had created and expanded the tale she would tell. In the end, the whole of Panem was an arena—filled with dangers and people with personal vendettas, with people who would kill you as soon as look at you, with power struggles and turncoats and a foreboding sense that at any moment you were probably going to die. But it also contained people you could trust, people who would sacrifice themselves for others, who would help you reach your goals; it was an arena where there was hope and redemption and not just for the ultimate winner.

The Hunger Games is most certainly Suzanne Collins piece de resistance, but the whole series is more than worth your reading time, and Mockingjay is a very fine way to end it all. If you like young adult adventure tales set in a ruthless dystopic future-world, you will like the Hunger Games trilogy. In fact, you will love it. And the books will also appeal to you if you just want to read a set of addictive, well-written stories that keep you on the edge of your seat and manage to remain reasonably devoid of cliche in both character and prose. Whether you will like them based on your opinion of The Matrix film series, I just cannot say.

V is for Virtual Reality

Sometimes I finally get around to doing one of those things I’ve been meaning to do and end up disappointed. Perhaps the anticipation outweighs the pleasure of completing the task. Perhaps it was never a good idea to begin with. Being a dedicated, loyal type of person doesn’t help.  Something I agreed to months earlier, or decided was a new interest, has—as a notion—passed its natural expiry date but I am loath to let it go due to my previous commitment and/or original enthusiasm. When it turns out well I congratulate myself on going through with the activity; when it doesn’t I wish I’d kept it as merely a happy thought in my head.

Earlier in the year my book group read Neuromancer by William Gibson. Touted as the seminal cyberpunk novel, the best science fiction novel, the book that invented the internet etc. we thought we’d give it a whirl. After all, there were Dr Who fans among us, we could read science fiction and love it. Plus a few of us had been meaning to read it for, oh, a decade or so. As I traipsed off to my independent genre bookshop, I was feeling all uber-geeky and techno-cool at the thought of crossing this ‘intended task’ off my list. But in the end I felt a little deflated. The techo-cool became techno-tepid.

Don’t get me wrong, the concept—the ideas—are fantastic. Even 27 years after the book was published. They’re probably not as ‘unique’ as they were back in the early eighties, but then, as you read it you see that Neuromancer was most likely where a whole lot of writers and filmmakers got their inspiration. So I appreciated it from that point of view. I liked its dystopic, grungy, metallic feel. And, in a small way, I liked that I was getting around to reading it. But liking a concept and being able to tick it off your list are different things to making a connection with a book.

This could be one of those times when my reading and comprehension abilities let me down, but honestly, if I hadn’t seen The Matrix trilogy I would have had a hard time visualising (and somewhat following) what was going on in cyberspace. Maybe if you spent your adolescent years pulling  apart motherboards it would all make sense, but I struggled at times to have a clear idea of ‘what was going on’ when protagonist Case was in the system, and to move on in the novel I just had to continue blindly and assume my brain would pick things up again when it could. Not necessarily a bad thing if you’re after some literary leaps of faith, but potentially frustrating for a reader who is spending more time trying to comprehend, instead of engage.

And I don’t know about you, but when I’m failing to connect with a book I start finding other things wrong with it, and the current edition that I read left a little to be desired production-wise. As an editor I know more than anyone that there are always small mistakes in books but Neuromancer has been kicking around for almost three decades and yet it seems no one could be bothered on one of the trillion reprintings it must have had to fix any basic typos, dodgy line spacing, or update the internal design to something that looked less Gutenberg. The cover was pretty naff as well, in my opinion.

None of these whinges should have too much effect on a reader if they are loving what they’re reading, but this wasn’t my experience. Maybe seminal cyberpunk just isn’t my thing, and I’m happy to accept that. I’m also happy to accept that I may be a narrow-brained dunce and missed the whole point, but William Gibson’s breakthrough novel just didn’t leave me feeling particularly enlightened or entertained, just kind of fuzzy-minded and slightly disappointed. Even the satisfaction of doing something I’d been meaning to do for years wasn’t quite enough. In the end the biggest influence it had on me was that it made me want to watch The Matrix again.

C is for Chandler

I like to think cartoons teach us everything worth learning. How else would we know that cats hate dogs, coyotes are stupid and a secret agent mouse lives in a pillarbox in London? And there’s a cartoon character that is partly responsible for my love of the detective novel and, surprisingly, it’s Tweety Bird. Yep. Sorry about that. But the annoying yellow fluffball had one inspired incarnation and that was as a Philip Marlowe-esque P.I.  It was possibly only one episode I saw repeatedly on weekday afternoon re-runs of Loony Tunes but it has always stuck in my head. So much so that it informed me of Raymond Chandler, Marlowe and Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of hard-boiled detectives long before I knew anything about noir crime fiction. 

And so here have the letter C. For Raymond Chandler and his classic noir detective novel, The Big Sleep.

The thing with a writer like Chandler and his intertextual popularity, is that he is one of those authors I’d always felt I had read when, in fact, I hadn’t. I once had someone say to me, ‘I don’t think I’ve read any Austen,’ and I wanted to reply, ‘Hell, if you can’t remember, you illiterate moron…’ But I was a bit like that with Chandler. I could wing my way through long conversations about him, sounding totally informed and being totally fraudulent. And Tweety Bird is to blame for some of that.

But now I have finally read some! And it’s the stuff goddamn dreams are made of, sweetheart. So what is it about his writing which is so deliciously detectively delightful?   

Chandler’s use of language is imaginative, specific and stupendous. I adore slang and informal language. I love that it’s always changing, it’s egalitarian nature and that it can be so particular to certain people, places or eras. It is colourful, expressive and can be intricately precise in its definition and use. When I started reading The Big Sleep I began to dog-ear pages with the most exquisite one-liners and descriptions on them until I feared I would find myself with a book resembling a Crufts catalogue and so desisted. But trust me, nearly every page contains some gem of literary usage of the English language, and what is great about Chandler is he was one of the first (and one of the best) to use it in this way. And just because his prose reads a bit free and easy and isn’t stiffly formal, he is an extremely considered wordsmith and every single word is working very, very hard, and to me, that’s the sign of a classy writer.

Dames, joes, broads, grifters, cops on the take, criminals on the make – there are no innocent bystanders in this novel, our protagonist Marlowe included. Marlowe is a fascinating character – the down and out gumshoe with the bottle of whisky in his filing cabinet, the man men either want to trust or kill, that women want to throw themselves at or slap silly. The P.I. who wants to do right by his clients, even if that means doing wrong. A man who plays his cards close to his chest, who doesn’t mind resorting to the rough stuff to get the information he needs. I could go on and he would still sound like a lone-wolf, hard-drinking, no-friends, down-and-out, heart-in-the-right-place, wise-cracking, trenchcoat-wearing stereotype, except that we must remember that the stereotype largely comes from Marlowe and for that we can revel in its magnificence.

The Big Sleep is a reflection of the time it was written and the time it is set, but it is also a novel with a strong sense of place. As a reader I felt I was among the action. Just little old me, standing in a corner of a room or slumped in the back seat of a car, perhaps trying to hide behind that cop with the big arse at a crime scene. When you read this novel you are on the streets of LA, you drive along the California coast, you sit in a diner with your coffee and eggs, you stand amongst the fog and squall of an incoming storm. And you do it all in the 1930s which is why the language is so engaging, why the little details of dress, furniture or driving a car are so interesting, why you let the chauvinistic behaviour wash over you (or perhaps raise a wry eyebrow and then continue reading). Often when we get that strong sense of place in novels it is when the setting is in a small community or perhaps in a country we see as exotic. I love that this sense is so strong in a story set in an American city, in the type of story where you think you should just be focusing on the plot and who did what to whom.

Lastly, I love that I have finally actually read Raymond Chandler and met his Philip Marlowe before he was Humphrey Bogart. And I can’t wait to read more.

Book 31, 32, 33 and 34: The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy by Tim Burton and Edward Gorey triptych

Shut up, it’s not cheating. We may be days away from the end of 2009 and my aimed-for 52 books, but including these 4 little titles in one post is due to their interconnectedness, not because I’m scrambling to make up numbers. If I really wanted to cheat I would have sat down this morning with my full english and made my way through the Mr Men backlist. Done. 52 books sorted. Re-reading Mr Bump would have been immensely enjoyable. But I am not cheating. Just because they’re short and have pictures, don’t mean they aint books worth talking about.

So there I am plonking away some time in a colleague’s office when I come across our first specimen: The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. It’s an ABC book. That is each page progresses you through the alphabet by focusing its story on a letter and accompanying it with a divine illustration. The alternative title for this story is After the Outing and we hear of 26 ill-fated children (I like to think of them as orphans) and their awful demises. So we start with ‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs’ and end with ‘Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin’. Roundabouts the middle we have my favourite: ‘N is for Neville who died of ennui’. Ennui! After lounging on my colleague’s desk to gobble up this dark, hilarious tale, and reading out loud from its pages to anyone who dared walk by, it became my mission to read and own everything of Mr Gorey’s that I could get my hands on. And so I started my mission with another alphabetical title called The Glorious Nosebleed and an odd little Christmas fable, The Haunted Tea-cosy. In Nosebleed we sail through illustrations focused on adverbs. Yep, adverbs. That most overused grammatical device (and most incorrectly used?). Thus ‘She knitted mufflers Endlessly’ and ‘He exposed himself Lewdly’ (how else does one expose oneself?). A less connected collection but still a delight in its morbid, clever, adult concoction. And though not my flavour of yuletide, Tea-cosy is, as the subtitle suggests, ‘a dispirited and distasteful diversion for Christmas’ and makes me want to be able to shrink like Alice and climb into Mr Gorey’s imagination. I’m abuzz with the discovery of a new author. I’m doing google searches and purchasing backlists on blind faith that I will adore them. Don’t you just love that feeling?

Who was Edward Gorey? These folk can tell you.

And amongst the insanity of Christmas preparation I found the perfect little book for a friend and decided it was also a perfect little book for me. After all, Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice are two of my favourite movies, why wouldn’t I like a book of illustrated ‘stories’ by Tim Burton? Although in this case it was the illustrations and ‘concepts’ I enjoyed rather than the tales – odd rhymes not totally realised and perhaps felt needed to ‘fill out’ the pics – but maybe that’s why Mr Burton is a filmmaker and not an author.

Still, The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and other stories is a fun, thought-provoking diversion and it sits well and happily with the Gorey creations. Macabre and fascinating, imaginative, childlike yet completely adult, funny in their awesome moroseness and creepiness. There is something concurrently delightful and ‘off’ about the images on all these pages. It’s like you have been let in on a secret, like you have been acknowledged as one who will understand this odd world we live in and the even odder world in many of our heads. The Burton stories may be slightly squeamier than Gorey’s though they lack a certain subtlety infused in his predecessor’s work. Mind you, if Mr Gorey had tried to make movies, perhaps they wouldn’t have been as perfect as his books?

Book 17: Nurse Matilda Goes to Town by Christianna Brand

nurse matildaCute cover, huh? And that’s what made me pick up this book and its predecessor, Nurse Matilda. In fact it was the whole package, hardback and jacket, ribbon, a kind of extreme use of foil on the case, nice little fit-in-your-pocket size. Oh yes, don’t make the mistake of thinking I only pick up books based on merit (if you ever did).  Though I’m disappointed the person cleaning out their shelves didn’t feel inclined to leave the third (Nurse Matilda Goes to Hospital) at the same time (It’s all about complete sets, people).

For those unaware, Nurse Matilda is also Nanny McPhee. Which is a film. I’m not sure why there was a change, you’ll have to ask Emma Thompson. Perhaps it was thought that the term ‘nurse’ was no longer familiar enough to the modern audience as ‘one who looks after children’. That’s fair enough. I’m sure when I was a child reading classic English tales, I struggled with the idea of all these children being cared for by some version of Florence Nightingale. And don’t get me started on the dog in Peter Pan being both a Nana and a nurse! 

The Nurse Matilda books stick to a few simple plot points:

1. A very stupid, wealthy couple have a crazy amount of terribly ill-disciplined kids (like forty or something, the narrator doesn’t know all their names)

2. The very naughty children terrorise everyone.

3. The agency sends a very ugly woman called Nurse Matilda who uses magic and a kind of early twentieth century ‘tough love’ to tame the wild young people. No spoonfuls of sugar here.

4. As the children become better behaved Nurse Matilda becomes better looking.

5. Once the children don’t need her, but want her, she must leave. Ohhh.

6. Oh and there’s some crazy, deaf old aunt who the stupid couple are hoping to inherit from.

The Nurse Matilda stories are cute. I have an affection for old-style narration. Are they brilliant? Timeless? Classics? … As an adult I can appreciate them for what they are, but I’m not swinging from any lampposts to shout about them. If I was child? Well, what a question for a start, I don’t think I was a child when I was one, if you know what I mean… but if i was, I don’t know if they’d be my guarana-packed energy drink. A little too twee, a little too old-fashioned without the substance to keep you keen?

It’s hard to know. I’m quite terrified to read books I adored as a child for fear that my memories will be destroyed by adult reason and criticism. A friend who recently re-read The Faraway Treeclaims it was boring tosh – imagine! And there is so much you can read into a story as an adult that you can’t, and don’t need to, as a child, and possibly isn’t even there to be explored. (Although, have you read Peter Pan as an adult? We should talk about the relationships in thatone day. See. Doing it.) I wonder about it too whenever a friend’s child has a special birthday (or are, you know, born) and I watch the boxed sets of Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne get trotted out for a 12-month old, who can barely hold a spoon let alone those tiny Jemima Puddleducks, often by people I’d never considered to be all that literarily-minded in the first place (yes, that was your snob radar pinging in the background).

I’m not knocking those books or the people who give them, I’m just as guilty, but I think it’s interesting how we all go THE CLASSICS when we think of a special book for children. We think we can’t go wrong with a book that’s been around for yonks and comes in a little hardback with illustrations and a fancy ribbon down the middle. Whether or not it’s something the child would like. Whether it’s appropriate. Or whether we’re simply giving the kid something because some well-intentioned adult once gave the same book to us. I used to love the Pen Pals books, but I ain’t going to be recommending those to any 12-year-olds (Tho’ check out this blog re-capping tween book series etc – mostly Sweet Valley High.)

If you asked me what books I loved as a child, I’d rattle off many, many ‘classic’ titles from Enid Blyton and Beatrix Potter, to Mrs Pepperpot and Wind in the Willows. And when I see these in the shops, especially when in their super dooper collectible editions I want to have them and I think about buying them for some tiddlywink in my life. I guess I’m just starting to wonder about how we decide what children’s books are classics and maintain that worthy tag. And if everyone always gets the boxed set of blah blah blah when they come into this world, are we always going to give the boxed set of blah blah blah? Perhaps sometimes we say ‘classic’ but merely mean ‘old and familiar’.