2016: My year in books

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2016 was a bad year for celebrity deaths (I’m still getting over Prince and Carrie Fisher) and for politics (the less said, the better). But it was another great year for books, one in which I enjoyed some old reliable writers (Kent Haruf, Jim Butcher, Marissa Meyer) and discovered some new ones (Holly Seddon, Erik Larson, Libbie Hawker). I travelled to Africa and Outer Space, took a camel across an ancient Syrian desert, sailed with some Vikings, and discovered the secret sorrow of the Queen of Hearts. The usual sort of adventures.

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2015: My year in books

2015 was the year that Marty McFly went back to the future. It was also the year when I travelled back in time as far as the Bronze Age (The Gift of Stones by Jim Crace), forward as far as 7000 AD (Seveneves by Neal Stephenson), and to locations as diverse as France, China, and Outer Space. Yes, it’s time for my annual review of my year in books.

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Eight deadly words

 I don’t care what happens to these people.

The “eight deadly words” were probably not first uttered by writer Dorothy J. Heydt on Usenet in 1991, but she was the first to name them as such. They are the words that no writer or producer or actor wants to hear about their work. They are the words that readers utter when they put down a book, or viewers proclaim when they switch off a film or stop watching a television series.

Deadly like a toadstool

Deadly like a toadstool

Those words are “I don’t care what happens to these people”. If you don’t care, why should you read (or watch) on?

Now, “caring” about the characters is not necessarily the same as liking them. Humbert Humbert from Lolita is a vile excuse for a human being. If you find yourself liking him, please get help now. Eva Khatchadourian, J.R. Ewing, Joffrey Baratheon: these are not nice people. However, you care about what happens to them. You might hope that really bad things happen to them, but you want to know what those bad things are.

“These people” might not even be people. In Watership Down, you come to care about rabbits; in Wall-E, you are emotionally invested in the fate of a robot.

Think of the fiction that has remained with you. The characters are real, and you want to know what happens to them. That’s the reason why readers clamored for more stories about Sherlock Holmes and Anne Shirley; that’s why viewers keep coming back for Tyrion Lannister and Walter White.

I get frustrated by clunky writing or unrealistic plotting or stunted dialogue. But the one thing that will make me stick with a story is that I want to find out what happens. The one thing that will make me put it away is when I just don’t care.

Margaret Elphinstone: journeys by water

About a decade ago, I came across a book by an author I’d never heard of: The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone. It started with an old woman telling her story to a young monk; that old woman turned out to be the daughter-in-law of Lief Ericcson, and the first European woman in North America.

My story begins far from Rome, far from this white sun that rises above the rooftops in the middle of the day. It begins in a place that is all water and shadow, where colours melt and change, a place of space and cleanliness, a long way north of here and lost forever in the past.

From The Sea Road

The story started slowly but drew me in, until I was gulping the salt air on a leather boat bound for Newfoundland. And I knew that I wanted to read more by this author.

Elphinstone is a Scottish writer, and if I had to sum up her novels, it would be “stories about water”.  In Voyageurs, a young Quaker travels across the ocean from England to North America, and then upriver into the wilds of Canada. He is searching for his missing sister, but faces challenges to his own idealism in an unfamiliar land.

Islands feature in her other works. Light is a mastery of miniature world-building about a small 19th-century family who run a lighthouse.  Hy Brasil is a modern tale with a contemporary heroine, but it is set on an imaginary land somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, a place of volcanoes and smugglers and forbidden love.

Her latest book, The Gathering Night is a prehistoric story told around a campfire. She takes a known geological event (a mega-tsunami from about 6000 BC) and recreates a world of hunting and gathering, of brutal rituals and tender jokes, making these people seem very different from us and yet not so different after all.

“Kemen! The sea! Look!”

I saw it then, far off under the Sunless Sky. A grey cliff, white-tipped. A cliff made of water. A noise like a mountain falling. My heart turned cold.
From The Gathering Night

Elphinstone’s books are painstakingly researched (for The Gathering Night, she built and sailed her own coracle), but the research is lightly stitched into her narrative and her characters seem like real people of their time and place. It’s a shame she’s not better known.

2014: My year in books

“Another year over, a new one just begun,” to quote  John Lennon. This year I travelled as far as Cuba and Nigeria, went back in time to 1920s Alaska and 18th century Scotland, soared on the wings of a dragon, and saw forward to a nanotech future. And all through the pages of books.

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Morgan Llwellyn: a trip through Irish history

One of my favourite writers is Morgan Llwellyn, an American author of Irish and Welsh ancestry. Although she has written stories set in Britain (The Wind from Hastings) and the European continent (The Horse Goddess and Druids), her most evocative novels are those that that bring the Irish past to life. If you fancy a guide through Irish mythology and history, you could do worse than to explore it through Llwellyn’s prose.

She enjoys rain for its wetness, winter for its cold, summer for its heat. She loves rainbows as much for fading as for their brilliance.
– From Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish

The furthest back in time is Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish, based on early Irish mythology and describing the arrival of the Celts. Red Branch (also published as On Raven’s Wing) is based on the ancient epic Táin Bó Cúailnge and focusing on the story of Cúchulan. Even if you’ve heard these stories before, Llwellyn gives them new life; I knew that Deirdre’s tale didn’t turn out well, but that didn’t stop me from shedding tears.

In a tentative voice he addressed the darkening grey sky. “I am the king,” he said, tasting the words.
– From Lion of Ireland

Fans of the TV series “Vikings” will enjoy the tale of Brian Boru in Lion of Ireland, who took on these fierce warriors and won. 2014 is the thousandth anniversary of his famous victory at Clontarf, so there’s another excuse to read this exciting tale. The story of Brian’s family is continued in Pride of Lions.

I am what they call me, a pirate, she mused. And several other things too, for have I not lived many lives in one?
From Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas

The English Tudor dynasty was a difficult time for Ireland, but that era produced some full-blooded heroes. Among them are the pirate queen, Granuaile (Grace O’Malley), portrayed in Grania: She-King of the Irish Seas. Another is Donal O’Sullivan Beare, depicted in The Last Prince of Ireland (also published as O’Sullivan’s March).

We’re born alone and we die alone, I accept that. But why, God, do we have to be alone in the middle?
From 1921: The Great Novel of the Irish Civil War

For more modern history, Llwellyn produced the “Irish century” novels, beginning with 1916, A Novel Of the Irish Rebellion and finishing with 1999, A Novel of the Celtic Tiger and the Search for Peace. Some of this may seem familiar to people who went to school in Ireland, but for others it is a great introduction to the country and its recent past.

Llwellyn has also written books for younger readers: Strongbow, Brian Boru (a YA version of Lion of Ireland), The Pirate Queen (a YA version of Grania), and The Young Rebels. I haven’t read any of these, but I’m confident that Llwellyn can enrapture young readers as well as older ones.

Daphne du Maurier: a gothic genius

In conjunction with my article about Daphne du Maurier for Amazing Women in History, here is my completely subjective and personal list of her works (the ones that I’ve read), ranked from best to worst.

  1. Rebecca. An obvious one, but it’s a classic for a reason. I first read this book when I was 14 and I was captivated from first line to last. If you haven’t read Rebecca yet, then why haven’t you read Rebecca yet?
  2. The House on the Strand. The decision for second-place was a difficult one, but this pips My Cousin Rachel, if only for the audacity of its ideas. An unusual time-travel book with a not-altogether-likeable hero, it is utterly absorbing.
  3. My Cousin Rachel. Is she or isn’t she a murderer? Should we feel sorry for Phillip or slap him into sense? The story keeps you guessing until the end and the quality of the writing is never more than top-notch.
  4. Frenchman’s Creek. The only du Maurier book that can accurately be termed a romance, but a romance where the heroine is a married woman with children, the hero is a pirate, and the standard happy ending is far from guaranteed. Highly atmospheric.
  5. The King’s General. A gem of historical fiction set during the English Civil War. Du Maurier likes her heroes flawed. There’s witty repartee, battles, card games, hidden passages, and changes-of-fortune aplenty.
  6. The Scapegoat. A man meets his doppelganger, and after a drunken night he finds that they have swapped places. The premise asks for a big suspension of disbelief, but the tale provides a vivid sense of place (rural post-war France), dysfunctional family dynamics, and enough twists to keep the reader guessing.
  7. Jamaica Inn. Gothic with a capital G. This book always reminds me of the poem, “The Highwayman”. Plucky heroines are a cliche, but Mary Yellan is the genuine article. There’s a nasty villain and a bad-boy hero. A bit overwrought, but a lot of fun.
  8. The Birds and Other Stories. Du Maurier proves that she can master the macabre. The title story is quite different from the film. The Apple Tree is a particularly creepy tale.
  9. Don’t Look Now and Other Stories. A mixed bag. The title tale (from which the Nicolas Roeg film was made) and “Not After Midnight” are excellent tales full of suspense and atmosphere. “A Border-line Case” has a number of interesting twists. “The Way of the Cross” and “The Breakthrough” are rambling and a little disappointing.
  10. The Loving Spirit. Du Maurier’s first book, a family saga that introduces her sense of place and slightly unhinged imagination. The first half is better than the second.
  11. I’ll Never Be Young Again. Her second book is an interesting look at her emerging talent. Somewhat episodic and the whiny narrator is rather grating in the end.
  12. Mary Anne. This should have been so good. A gutsy heroine based on the author’s great-great-grandmother, a Regency backdrop, court intrigue. But for some reason the story fell flat.
  13. Rule Britannia. An odd one. Du Maurier tries to do dystopia with Britain occupied by the U.S.A. and a stubborn old lady leading the Cornish resistance. I think this was supposed to be funny, but it never quite manages it.

I’d count the first three books in this list as “must-reads” and the last three as “don’t bothers.