K is for a Kingdom of Keys

I’ve been known to be a creature of habit; a little routined, a tad rehearsed, a titch regulated. Whether it’s going through a familiar sequence at my desk each morning, re-packing my handbag each night, or falling for the same type of unattainable bloke again and again, I can sometimes tick along like a well-wound clock. And not always on purpose.

Exactly one year, to the day, before I started writing this particular blog post on Lord Sunday, the seventh and final book in Garth Nix’s ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ series, I posted on book six, Superior Saturday. This was completely unintentional—I had no Keys to the Kingdom September plan—but it has made me think about some of my reading and book-procuring habits (and my occasional yearning to perform tasks in counts of 10 – yep, true).

Could there be certain things about certain times of year, or certain situations, which lend themselves to particular reading choices? I don’t mean that you read a particular author every August because that’s when the publisher always releases their books; I mean something to do with a mood or feeling that inclines you towards a particular genre in particular moments or at particular times. Take the seasons, for example. Like food and beer, I believe I may read heavier in winter and lighter in summer. There’s something about warm days, bright light and constant social distractions which turn me off an 800-page allegory, or a squintily peered at classic. In summer I am not naturally inclined towards a long-haul read, social-realism or something which required an index; but in winter you can load me up with a literary doorstop, a bleak account of modern life or even the odd footnote, and I’m much more inclined to immerse myself. Pop me over to a tropical island for a week and I’ll take some kind of borderline chick lit. Take me to the northern hemisphere for 8 weeks of winter and I’ll seriously consider that Beckett biography I still haven’t got around to reading. I can’t read anything too thought-necessary on planes, but I can on trains. When I’m reading a book which is a sharer between family and friends, I always want to be the last to read it. Some new books I just have to read next; while others I almost enjoy prolonging their life in the pile, awaiting the pleasure that is to come.

Lord Sunday has waited some time. When you’ve enjoyed a series, the last book is bittersweet. You experience the satisfaction of conclusion with the sadness of discontinuation. It feels like you’ve been waiting so long for this moment, but now that it’s here you don’t want it to end, you don’t want to know, you can’t let go.

Arthur Penhaligon has almost finished his journey in the House. He has one more key-holder to beat, one more part of the Will to secure, and then he can stop the awful spread of nothing, restore the house to its former glory, save his friends and family back on Earth, and go back to being a normal boy (well, as much as his exposure to other worldly power will let him). Up in Lord Sunday’s Incomparable Garden all hell is breaking loose, and all Arthur wants to do is finish up and head home. It’s not much for a nice boy to ask for but like many souls before him, Arthur must first complete his destiny.

Garth Nix should be congratulated for a very thorough tying up of storylines, character arcs and loose ends. It is more than clear in his seventh and final novel that this series was well-planned and not just a good idea which got ‘stretched out’. I have no questions. I feel no wanting.  Whether this is completely ideal I am yet to decide. I do feel a little like it’s all been tidied up, boxed and slipped under the bed, but then if something was left hanging, surely I would have been annoyed at this. Surely?

I don’t want to give away plots but will say the story’s conclusion was unexpected; I hadn’t thought that was where we were all heading. I’d had inklings of certain spanners and twists but not the ultimate one which revealed itself. I think it was a brave ending, particularly for a children’s book. Mr Nix could have gone down the road of least resistance and given us an all-conquering, life-goes-back-to-being-normal-and-awesome finish, but he didn’t. Not that it was ‘bad’. Just not easy. In fact, I found the last few chapters to be both thoroughly sad and wonderful at the same time, and found myself wishing in a way that the whole series had bent to this tone and perspective more. This last comment suggests that I found something lacking in the writing elsewhere but that’s not really so. I did seem to lose some enthusiasm for the series in the last couple of books as the story wasn’t quite taking me to the adventurous place the first books did. It doesn’t mean I didn’t like them, just that they didn’t ‘give’ me as much as I hoped. I think this may also have something to do with these books being pitched – correctly – at the storyline level of the kids who are supposed to be reading them. I am not, after all, eleven. But if these last few chapters are a sign of the usual maturity and wonder of Nix’s writing then I’m keen for more. Perhaps I’ll even make reading his stories a habit.

I is for Instructions

We all know life doesn’t come with a manual. It’s a case of trying things out and muddling through; making mistakes, learning from example, following paths and occasionally chucking it all in a dumpster and starting again.

In those take-a-deep-breath times it often feels like it would be easier if existence did come with a set of guidelines, a leaflet which magically appeared in a baby’s crib and could be referred to throughout their life. But would a handbook truly make life easier? Or more pleasant and satisfying? Have you ever followed flat-pack furniture manuals to the letter and still ended up with that one small piece which doesn’t seem to belong anywhere? But it’s a common human cry in those times when you require stability; ‘if only I knew the best thing to do, if only – insert particular life issue – came with instructions’.

Like a lot of human desires, if we can’t get them in real life we do what we do best and make them real in our stories. We set up rules for our genre fiction – the hard-working detective will solve the case, the love of her life will have been under her nose the whole time, going down the stairs to the unlit basement will result in decapitation; but we also do it in more literal ways – fantastical tales of all kinds employ the device of an all-knowing book, atlas, map, scroll, talking fluffy creature to get the protagonist through unfamiliar lands. These characters get that tangible guide to life, and it is often their only hope for success and something everyone else wants to get their hands on.

I is for Instructions – the ones we crave, the ones we read, the ones our characters follow. In their recent picture book called Instructions Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess explore this idea of story guidelines. The premise of the book is simple: we follow a character as they follow Gaiman’s instructions for getting through a fairy tale and Vess illustrates as we go.  

We come across many familiar actions and advice, which we may not have seen all amassed before, but we know deep in our reading hearts are the rules for our imaginative stories. Observe these sage suggestions: ‘Take nothing. Eat nothing.’ ‘A ferryman will take you across the river.’ ‘An old woman … may ask for something; give it to her. She will point the way to the castle.’ Within these three edicts I experience swirls of books, movies, even songs, through my brain. When life is topsy we beg for balance. When the goblin king steals our baby brother we require unfair mystical wrongs to be righted. Along with the story rules, Gaiman and Vess’s book includes instructions which work equally well in everyday life: ‘Remember your name.’ ‘Trust yourself and trust your story.’ ‘Do not forget your manners.’ Is there such a huge difference between fairy tales and reality?

I really liked the idea of Instructions and like other fantastical picture books, I desired the object. Gaiman’s mind tends to boggle mine but in this case I could have done with some more boggling, or at least some more head-nodding. I was left with a residual feeling that this book is not as great as it could have been. It’s ok but seems not-completely-realised. Perhaps it should have been longer. Perhaps it unsuccessfully straddles a divide between a book for children and a book for everyone. It was not as satisfying as I hoped.  And I do not particularly like Vess’s illustration style. In saying all this the book is not bad, it only fails – in my mind – to live up to expectations. Of mine as a reader, as a Gaiman appreciator, and as a person who sometimes craves some stability in a life which rarely follows the instructions I wish it would.

People tend to like rules, if only so they can break them. Gaiman and Vess’s book may not have become an immediate favourite of mine, but I liked what it was exploring. I liked what it was trying to do, I just don’t think it quite got there. Instructions made me think about the way we structure some of our stories, of how we create rules for those stories and how we expect certain things to happen – in the books we write and read, and in our little existences. And in both these things, though a manual to ‘get through’ seems like a grand notion, we all know that sometimes following the instructions does not always lead to the best adventures.

Book 19: Superior Saturday by Garth Nix

superiorLike a bower bird to blue milk-bottle tops, put some sparkle on a book cover and you’ll hear me exclaim ‘Ooh, shiny!’ from across the room. Mind you, with the ‘Keys to the Kingdom’ series, ‘Ooh, Garth Nix’ would also have been heard, but the metallic-y covers sealed the deal.

Superior Saturday is the sixth book in the series, which started with Mister Monday and is due to end with the next book after this one, being, obviously, Sunday…. um, something. Lord! Lord Sunday. The books follow Arthur Penhaligon on his quests through a fantastical realm called The House, to reunite ‘the Will’ of its creator-being (known as the Architect), which is a group of enchanted words scattered amongst the Architect’s greedy, selfish, evil heirs – yep, seven of them called Monday, Tuesday etc. Each of these scary buggers also have a key which gives them most of their power. Arthur has been named the rightful true heir and must collect the keys, the Will, try to save his family and friends at home from the dangers befalling the Earth once the two worlds start to mingle and try not be turned into a denizen – a non-human resident of The House world – as he uses more and more of the keys’ powers to get him through. Big call for a young lad, non?

There’s a pretty big ‘to be continued’ at the end of this instalment, so let’s hope the Sunday comes along quickly!

I’m a loyal person but sticking with a series can be hard. It’s so much commitment on a reader’s part, and you never know how reciprocal the relationship is going to be. The author might take a really long time between books; they might not indicate how many books are involved in a series so that you have no end to aim for; the quality might drop as their super idea for the first two books peters out; for god’s sake they might DIE on you before they can tell you what happened to their hero after you last left him hanging from a vine on the edge of the cliff with the cantankerous centipedes of the evil cookie lord squirming below him. Then the publishers get the dead author’s son or ‘long-time collaborator’ to finish the series and you’re stuffed, ain’t ya?

Series have perks as well. You get to revisit with favourite characters, plots can be more twisty and lengthy as they meander through several novels, there’s a lot more room for change and surprise, etc. etc. It’s the waiting that hurts most.

If you’re writing a series and the readers aren’t crying out for the next book, then you’re doing something wrong.  And if your readers are crying out for the next instalment then you can’t delay them too long. I’m not sure what a suitable time is… Twelve months would be ideal but as a writer you’d have to be a fair way ahead of the publication schedule to keep up with that. Two years max? Otherwise your readers are going to either lose interest or hunt you down and tie you to your desk until you finish the damn thing, and that just makes things unpleasant for everyone. I’m currently waiting for the third and final book in a series and the author’s blog doesn’t even mention when to expect it… very frustrating! By the time the third ones comes around I will probably have forgotten all the important points – possibly my failing (see a future post for Year of the Flood … I forgot that Oryx from Oryx and Crake existed… well, who Oryx was exactly. I know, slap me.) but I’m sure I’m not the only one who suffers in this way.

But I find there is a happy middle ground and that’s the recurring character. You don’t necessarily have had to have read the books in a certain order or have read the other books as the stories tend to stand alone. But if you have read the other books then the reading experience is so much more rewarding as lots of strings from previous books will slink in and make connections, creating depth and colour, as well as an attachment to the world the stories are set in. Crime novels (in all their forms) are full of recurring characters we attach ourselves to. I also remember reading a lot of books as a child/teen that featured the same characters but weren’t necessarily a series. I find with the recurring characters books that I don’t finish them and then think ‘When’s the next one coming?’ like I do with  a series. There isn’t a countdown or a hunt to get some small schmackeral of a hint of when the new book will be out. I want to read another one, and I assume there will be another one in a suitable amount of time (whatever we work out that is). And when the next Lincoln Rhyme, Tony Hill, Salvo Montalbano book comes out, I’m delighted and thrilled. Unlike when the next book in a long-awaited series comes out and I’m slightly harried, nervous and bordering on disenchanted.

It’s all about expectations, isn’t it.

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’.

Book 13: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

coralineGood ol’  Terry Pratchett reckons Coraline is a masterpiece. Or at least he was happy enough to have that praise attributed to him on the book’s cover. But you know what? He was right.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman is an almost perfect little story. And I say almost perfect just because I don’t think anything in this world can be totally flawless. But let’s just say that if this book was being judged in the new HSC it’d be getting a 99.5 (i.e. the highest score it could get). After all, we don’t want Mr Gaiman to down tools and  never write again.

So why oh Pile-o-books is this such a wonderful tale? Well, it just is. Let’s face it, if I could could explain in an articulate and entertaining manner why a book is just about perfect in 500 words I’d be pushing Motoko out the door and writing for the New York Times. But I can tell you why I liked it.

I read quite a bit of ‘children’s’ literature and when I manage to padlock myself to my laptop, and not do online crosswords or buy crap on ebay, and actually write fiction, more often than not I write for younger people. One theme of children’s literature (or in fact children protagonists in any genre of fiction) that I’m very interested in is the idea of the absent parent. Whether this be through tragedy (death or illlness), emotional circumstances (mum and dad being too wrapped up themselves), geography (kids are at boarding school), world events (adults are at war) or fantastical (kidnapped by evil fairies), you nearly always have to get rid of the guardians so that the young characters can come into their own, discover their strengths, prove their worth as humans and save the day. Parents are pesky when it comes to fun and adventures, but usually necessary for survival and love, so most of the time we want them to come back at the end.

Coraline’s parents aren’t bad people. They’re just busy and leave their daughter to entertain herself in her school holidays among their nutty neighbours. But Coraline is unhappy with the lack of attention she is getting and finds herself in a position most children have cried out for in times of angst and upset – she finds, after crawling down a secret passage to a mirror world of her own, that she has an ‘Other Mother’ and ‘Other Father’.  When our heroine realises that her other parents are not what she hoped (in fact, they are button-eyed monster types who eat bugs and steal children’s souls) and tries to get back to her real life, her parents are missing and Coraline must outwit the Other Mother to save them and herself.

How could you not love a well-written book with secret passages, talking cats, circus performing mice, nutty neighbours, the ghosts of lost children, a life-threatening quest, monsters, magic stones and a mysterious wells? Seriously, how could you not? I defy you to try. Coraline has the right combination of reality and fantasy, of eccentric characters with characters who are realistically drawn. Little devices like how most of the adults mispronounce Coraline’s name (they call her Caroline) and how they seem not to hear her frustrated corrections, lend the story authenticity and humour. Gaiman writes so that you feel Coraline’s fear, that you want her to beat the evil soul-sucking monster and be reunited with her parents, even if as an adult you’re fairly certain everything will be OK. And the talking cat rocks.

I reckon Coraline is a masterpiece. And you don’t have to believe me. You can believe Terry Pratchett and the thousands of others who love this book.

PS: I also watched the animated, 3D film during the Sydney Film Festival and it was fab.