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Guest Post! Demon Road, more like: Demon Whoa!

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Time for another guest post, this time from Youngest Child who’s been reading the new Derek Landy book, kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley. Take it away, Youngest!

Derek Landy, best-selling author of the children’s series Skulduggery Pleasant, releases his new Book Demon Road, today. Youngest Child is here to review the new work of her favourite author, kindly procured by my dear mother. A lot of fangirling may ensue!

DemonRoadFINAL

Skulduggery Pleasant spanned 9 books, and fitted comfortably into genres of adventure and fantasy, bordering on horror at times. With the series ending in 2014, fans were eagerly awaiting Landy’s new series. Demon Road not only lives up to its predecessors, it achieves a mature sense of writing as well as providing thrilling action, tense stealth sequences and, of course, Landy’s classic sense of humour.

The new work begins following the protagonist, Amber Lamont. We find her in the Principal’s office being reprimanded for ‘altercations’. In the first chapter we are introduced to Amber’s parents, Betty and Bill. Immediately we sense they enjoy power, and take pleasure in securing Amber’s education through threatening the Principal’s position. This sets the tone for the book. Amber will soon discover she is a demon, and that she must escape the murderous intent of her parents, who are also demons. Accompanied by bodyguard Milo Sebastian, she embarks on a desperate road trip across America to evade her parents and find a way to survive.

As a long-standing fan of Landy, it was a welcome surprise to see him cater to a more mature audience. Skulduggery Pleasant was a series filled with humour, wit and sharp sarcasm, and as the series and its loyal readers grew, it took on a more sophisticated style to match the gravity of the plot. Demon Road, however, establishes itself as a story that addresses dark themes and more serious concepts. The violent and dangerous tone of the encounters is set in place within the preliminary chapters, and the weight of death is given close attention. Amber takes it upon herself to remember the names and faces of those she has come into conflict with. The very idea that parents are trying to murder their daughter for their own longevity was hard-hitting, and I was instantly rooting for Amber to find a way to survive.

One of the concepts readers can relate to strongly in the book is Amber’s view of her image and femininity. When she is human, she is shameful and miserable about her appearance, which resonates with many people’s experience at some point in their life. However, she is empowered in her demon form: she’s strong, elegant and can protect herself. The action sequences are fluid, and instead of stuttering through them such as other thriller books, reading the scenes flows naturally, and the combat is believable.

I think the aspect of the book I most enjoyed is subtle and not so subtle commentaries on women’s position in society, and the dangers they face. One scene that sticks in my mind is when Amber aids a distressed woman, who gets cat-called late at night. The harasser insists he is a, wait for it, ‘nice guy’ [Cue audience groan]. Amber calls him out, and educates him on how predatory cat-calling is, and that the woman did not owe him attention or thanks for an unsolicited compliment. It is gratifying to see Landy address this, as such a large portion of his readers are in their teens, and hopefully this message hits home about a societal issue that irks me to a gargantuan degree.

Author Landy plus our skeletal friend...

Author Landy plus our skeletal friend…

Amber also has to deal with people comparing her dull, human form to her mesmerising demon form. Companion Glen constantly wishes her to transform, and is visibly disappointed when she remains in her human form. Landy communicates Amber’s feeling without overtly stating the way these instances make her feel, and the reader is provoked to feel indignant on Amber’s behalf.

I’ve been a fan of Derek’s for the last 9 or so years, and I was apprehensive approaching his new series. Fortunately, I was absorbed in the plot and characters, and enjoyed the book as a departure from Skulduggery Pleasant. It was very much its own piece, and whilst the classic sense of humour was frequently utilised, the characters and sense of danger, threat and overcoming obstacles was dealt with differently to Skulduggery Pleasant. Furthermore, Amber felt far more down to earth, human and fallible. She was easy to relate to, being a believable character that grew on her journey, and was someone I wanted to root for.

Overall I was more than satisfied with Demon Road. Luckily, we fans only have to wait until March 2016 for book two. With that on the horizon, the semi cliff hanger ending was not too painful to end the book on. I look forward to see Amber and Milo’s companionship grow, and to see how they deal with the next threat. I think his book resonated so much with me, because I was human Amber for so long. Demon me only came out at University! [Sorry mum…]

Derek is launching his book tour with an event in Hampstead. Sadly, I am not able to attend. The event is in the evening, and the lengthy train and tube journeys are not viable. I am not Amber. If something were to happen, even on the .1% chance I was in danger, I do not have a demon form to transform into. I am a 20-year-old woman, and travelling on an empty tube carriage late at night scares me more than demons and murderous parents. I do not want to encounter Amber’s cat-caller, and I can’t rely on someone to help me if I did. So hopefully Derek will tour again in March, and I can attend his events and moan at him for killing off my favourite characters!

Thanks to Youngest Child for her review of Derek Landy’s book, out today, and also to publishers HarperCollins for making the book available via NetGalley. The hideous pun in the title belongs to Youngest Child….

AV/AA – An Exemplary Short Story Collection from Persephone

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The Woman Novelist and Other Stories by Diana Gardner

The wonderful Persephone Books have issued a number of short story collections, but this was one that I had a particular interest in getting hold of. You see, many, many years ago (well, ok – in the 1980s) I was involved in running the Mervyn Peake Society, and early on in my tenure I was lucky enough to meet his widow Maeve Gilmore, shortly before her death. Myself and a group of friends were later invited to Maeve’s memorial service in London (an emotional affair that involved the four of us with one tissue between us…) and there we met Diana Gardner, who’d been a pupil of Mervyn’s and was a friend of the family.

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop - here's the haul! :)

I bought my copy from the Persephone shop – here’s the haul! :)

After the service, we trotted off to the nearby Royal Academy for some picture therapy, and bumped into Diana again. She recognised us from the memorial and we had a lovely chat. She was an inspiring woman, just off to spend the day painting, and so when I discovered there was a collection of her stories available I had to have it.

Gardner had a fascinating life, mixing painting and writing, as well as working in publishing. And according to the Persephone blurb, she also knew Leonard and Virginia Woolf. “The Woman Novelist” collects a number of her stories, all of which were in an earlier volume apart from the title story.

Short stories are often a difficult art to master, but Gardner certainly has, as this is a quite wonderful collection where each tale stands out distinctly in its own right. “The Land Girl” is possibly the best known, and it was her first story to be accepted for publication. It’s a clever, slightly acid tale, from the point of view of the girl of the title ( a city type sent to work on the farm) revealing the disruption she causes there. She’s a brilliantly unreliable narrator, and Gardner cleverly gives us the insight into a very selfish mind and a strong clash of cultures.

Then there’s “Miss Carmichael’s Bed”, which has a mystery to it with an unexpected solution; “The Summer Holiday “, a tale that shows how some people just bury their heads in the sand (not literally….); “In the Boathouse”, an evocative tale of love and war; “Crossing the Atlantic”, a story of mismatched sailors; and many more, all fabulous.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

Portrait of Gardner by Peake, courtesy the Persephone Books site.

The title story is absolutely brilliant; narrated by the Woman Novelist, it takes us through the tasks of her day as she tries to juggle the needs of an extended family who not only depend on her financially, but also physically and emotionally. The main bond she has is with a loyal maid who understands her problems and supports her as much as she can so she can write. The tale articulates brilliantly the problem women artists of all types have had in balancing the needs of their art with the often selfish demands of those around them – a situation a male artist would never be expected to tolerate.

Gardner’s prose is excellent and I loved the way she played with the reader’s preconceptions. She’s brilliant at building up tension in a story only to twist the ending in a way you least expected. I’ve read many short story collections where the stories blur into one, but that doesn’t happen here – each tale is a distinct gem in its own right and there’s not a dud amongst them.

I loved “The Woman Novelist” much more than I expected to: Gardner’s writing is impressive, her stories fresh and original and memorable, and the twists marvellous. This is one of the most enjoyable short story collections I’ve read (which is saying something!) and I only wish there was more of Gardner’s work available. Another winner from Persephone! :)

A Teetering Pile of Colette books….

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Lest anyone should think I was making a big fuss about not being able to find Colette’s works, and that there are tons of her books out there and I just need to look harder – well, I thought I would post some pictures of books I *do* have so you could see that I have indeed searched out many but this is not everything she wrote!

colette pile

And here they are in all their glory – two piles, actually, and you’re meant to ignore the fact that I have three sets of the Claudine books….

colette pile 1

Here is pile 1 with some of the aforesaid multiple Claudines, plus biographies and books about Colette.

colette pile 2And here is pile 2 – more lovely books about Colette, plus the gorgeous Penguin matching editions of many of her works. But this is *not* everything she wrote – she was very prolific – and she most definitely deserves a complete works in English!

You might have noted this in the first pile:

colette letters

camilledefleurville commented about Colette’s letters on my last post, and I was sure I had some – which indeed I do, published by Virago. Alas it’s only selected letters but that’s better than nothing. Oddly enough, BuriedInPrint mentioned Robert Phelps in a comment, and oddly enough Robert Phelps has translated more than just this Colette, so there’s another spooky link!

So as you can see, I *do* own a lot of Colette – but you can never have too many of her books! :)

#WomenInTranslation Month – The Cruelty of Youth

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A Certain Smile by Francoise Sagan

Francois Sagan caused quite a sensation on the publication of her first novel, “Bonjour Tristesse“, in 1954 when she was just 18. Her second book, “A Certain Smile” followed in 1956 and was equally controversial. My copies of the stories are in one lovely World Books volume and WIT month seemed like a good time to pick it up.

tristesse

“A Certain Smile” is narrated by Dominique, a young woman studying law in Paris at the Sorbonne. It is the 1950s and she spends much of her time with her lover Bertrand in what is recognisably a cafe society. The couple jog along, but there is a sense that Dominique is somewhat detached from life and love, and her relationship with Bertrand doesn’t strike the reader as having great passion. However, when she meets Bertrand’s uncle Luc and Luc’s wife Francoise, things change dramatically.

paris

Dominique and the older Luc are obviously instantly mutually attracted, but Dominique is unsure of herself and unwilling to take things any further because of her liking of Francoise. However, after much angst and soul-searching, the pair become lovers, eventually spending two week in Cannes, and declaring that they will not fall in love. Alas, things are not that simple – Dominique is younger and less experienced at affairs, and not as in control of her emotions as she thought…

Sometimes in exasperation I wanted to say to him: “Why can’t you love me? It would be so much more restful for me.” But I knew this was impossible. Ours was more an affinity than a passion, and neither of us could ever bear to be dominated by the other. Luc had neither the opportunity, the strength, nor the desire for a closer relationship.”

On the surface, then, this is a seemingly straightforward novel about a younger woman having an affair with an older man. However, there are undercurrents. Dominique is a complicated character, seemingly indifferent to much around her and driven by a kind of existentialist ennui. In fact, boredom seems to be the strongest motivating force – neither Dominique nor Luc can bear to be bored, and this is what attracts them to each other and eventually unites them.

sagan15_2133880i

And Bertrand is, frankly, boring. Even though he’s young and good-looking, the older, uglier Luc is more attractive – perhaps because of his air of worldly weariness, perhaps just because Dominique recognises a kindred soul. Her behaviour could seem callous; after all, she’s betraying Francoise, who’s become very attached to her, as well as Bertrand. But Luc has had affairs before, and probably will continue to do so; whereas Dominique is ready to fall in love, and is tormented because she knows Luc cannot and will not love her, and there’s no question of him leaving his wife. Inevitably, Bertrand and Dominique split. The affair with Luc comes out, and then ends, and Dominique is left to pick up the threads of her life again.

Happiness is like a flat plain without landmarks. That is why I have no precise memory of my stay in Cannes except those few unhappy moments, Luc’s laughter, and the pathetic scent of fading mimosa in our room at night. Perhaps, for people like myself, happiness signifies a bolder attitude towards the tedium of everyday existence.

“A Certain Smile” is an absorbing novel, lifted above realms of just romantic fiction by Sagan’s writing, her evocation of place and time, and the dimension she allows her characters. All are well-developed and believable, all struggling with the business of living, and the story is entirely convincing. Her understanding of the problem that boredom with life can be is striking; something of a first-world problem, maybe, but a very real one. If I have any reservations it would be that there’s a distance here somewhere, a slight coldness in the book that kept me from feeling a real warmth and sympathy towards Dominique, but I haven’t quite worked out where that comes from. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed my sojourn in 1950s France and I’m sure I’ll be returning to the other Sagans I have!

Big Books Update – plus some incoming….

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Surprisingly enough, I’m finding it quite enjoyable to read several big chunkies simultaneously – although perhaps I’m cheating slightly as two of them are short story collections, and I’m also reading a slim poetry volume too. Yes, that’s right – *two* short story collections, as there has been a new arrival and here is the state of the currently reading:

big books plus

The new arrival is the Aldiss collection – his short stories from the 1950s. I stumbled across this recently and managed to snag it for a *very* reasonable price online. Staggeringly, his 1960s stories will run to four volumes – what a prolific man!

This is progress so far (ignore the bottom book, the second volume of Ballard, as I obviously haven’t yet started that):

big book progress

As can be seen, I am gradually making my way into them, and I’m finding this method of reading working well. I’m reading at least a chapter of each of the big books, a short story from each of the collections and a couple of poems a day, and this has had several beneficial effects: it’s slowing down my reading, so I’m having time for each chapter to sink in; I’m not feeling I must rush to get through a book so I can pick up another one; I’m able to read a variety of things all at once!

The Dickens is proving to be excellent, and each chapter so far is introducing a new set of characters which I’m having time to get to know. I’d forgotten just how good a writer Dickens was… I’m enjoying DQ very much, though I have to admit that at the moment it reminds me very much of Pokemon: DQ and SP travel along, encounter someone or something, have a fight, get beaten to a pulp, recover, travel along, encounter…..!

As for the short stories: Ballard, of course, is masterly and each story so far is a pure gem. I’ve only read a few of the Aldiss ones so far, but I love them – so clever and so pithy and so imaginative. The poetry is coming along nicely and I’m about to start the third poet in this collection, Peter Porter.

So – thus far things are going ok with the big books – watch this space!

As for incomings, obviously the Aldiss arrived in the week, plus another couple of Modern Poets have made their way in. I hadn’t intended to do much book browsing this weekend, but things never go as planned…


finds 2

I hadn’t been into the RSPCA shop for a while, so I popped in on the off-chance to be met with a BL Crime Classic for 95p! It appears to be brand new and unread, so quite why it’s there I don’t know – but I’m not complaining! I’m trying very hard not to start a collection of these, because lovely as they are I suspect most of them are one-read books for me. But I haven’t seen this one around yet, so I figured it was worth less than a pound to try it out!

finds 22 8

The other three titles were from the Oxfam – Howard’s End is on the Landing because I’ve heard good things about it; The Man who knew Everything because it’s a Capuchin Classic; and the Vintage short story collection because it has a lovely selection of authors. All four for less than the cost of a new book, which can’t be bad…. :)

#WomenInTranslation Month – Adrift in Europe and the Wider World

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Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun

I first stumbled across the writing of Irmgard Keun in 2013, when I picked up her book “After Midnight” in (old) Foyles as it sounded excellent. It was, and I reviewed it here, and was keen to read more of her work. “Child of All Nations” came my way via ReadItSwapIt shortly after, but it’s taken the impetus of WIT month to get me to pick it up…

child

The book is translated by Michael Hofmann, who’s also responsible for many translations of Joseph Roth and he provides a useful afterword too. The story is told from the point of view of Kully, a nine-year old girl who’s leading anything but a conventional life. Her father is a writer, and he and her mother and Kully herself are on the move in 1930s Europe (the book was published in 1938). They cannot return to Germany because Kully’s father is obviously persona non grata because of his writing and his views.

When I was in Germany, before, I did go to school, and that’s where I learned to read and write. Then my father didn’t want to be in Germany any more, because the government had locked up friends of his, and because he couldn’t write or say the things he wanted to write and say. I wonder what the point is of children in Germany still having to read and write?

However, the family is a very dysfunctional one: Kully’s father is permanently penniless, and he drags the girl and her mother from place to place trying to borrow from friends and acquaintances, get advances on books or payments for articles. Often the two females are left behind in a hotel as a kind of surety while he goes off to get cash – how he ever manages to write is a mystery! And sometimes the absences are longer ones, and you find yourself reading between the lines and suspecting there are other women involved.

The family is constantly shifting location, taking in Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Marseilles and Italy amongst other places, and all the time there is the threat of starvation and their political enemies. Finally, Kully’s father decides to try his hand across the Atlantic and here things take a stomach-churning turn. The end is suitably ambiguous and it is unclear whether this fractured family will ever be whole.

In the morning when we woke up, the whole world was different. The sky was three times as big and three times as high as anywhere else, and it was such a brilliant blue that it hurt your eyes. We passed bare-looking mountains with strange black and silver trees growing on them.

Using a child as a narrator is always going to carry risks, but I felt that Keun got the tone just right. Kully is an engaging companion in this story, innocent and yet knowing, and Keun cleverly has her reveal more than she knows without realising it. As adult readers we recognise the meanings of events that Kully does not, and Keun handles this element brilliantly. The girl is remarkably self-reliant, yet vulnerable at the same time, over-reaching herself and getting into scrapes. And because she’s a child, people talk freely in front of her thinking that she doesn’t understand or isn’t listening, when of course she’s a remarkably sharp observer.

Irmgard_Keun

“Child of All Nations” was an excellent portrait of the dispossessed of Europe during the 1930s. All through the book the shadow of what was to come is lurking in the background and of course we know what Keun could not, i.e. what would hit Europe in 1939. If I had a criticism to make it would be that the American section somehow seems a little unnecessary and doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the book. Despite this, however, I got very attached to Kully and her story and I definitely want to read more of Keun’s work.

#WomenInTranslation Month – In Search of Colette

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It’s obviously no secret that I have a great love of Colette’s writing, and my recent reads and re-reads set me off checking what I have of hers and what I don’t. The pedant in me likes to make a nice list in publication order and check it off as I buy/read the relevant books – yes, I’m a book-collecting obsessive!

colette

However, with Colette, things are not quite so clear-cut. Any list has to be a list of titles translated, rather than her complete oeuvre, and even the one of those I found had her ‘notable works’ – I want the minor works too, as anything she writes is going to be good in my view, and I need to possess  it!

Glancing through the list, I found that I have most of her available works already (which is what I thought), neatly shelved in as chronological order as possible. However, I found two notable omissions – “Mitsou” from 1919 , and “Dialogues de Bêtes”/”La Paix Chez les Bêtes” (the latter being her works about her dogs and cats). Irked, I went off searching online to see if any of these were available…

This was my first find:

barks

It came preposterously cheap from the Big River, and has some lovely illustrations and appears to be a translation of “Dialogues”. All well and good, and I was happy with this. However, I thought I would see if there was an English version of “Paix” and in doing so, I came across this:

creatures

“Creatures Great and Small” is part of the Secker and Warburg Uniform Edition of Colette (I will *not* try to collect this, I will *not* try to collect this!), and not only does it have “Dialogues” and “Paix”, it also contains “Sept Dialogues des Betes” and “Douze Dialogues des Betes” – so I guess that’s all Colette’s animal stuff in one volume – result!!

And yes, there is a second book in the picture – that’s “Mitsou”, also in the Uniform Edition. So I have new-to-me Colette to read, and I just *wish* there was a nice complete list somewhere, or a complete lovely matching set of translations. Meantime, I’ll just have to keep digging….. :)

 

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