fairy tales

How Saints Die by Carmen Marcus

Quite simply one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, so full of love and sadness I felt like I might burst, so painful in places I had to look away.

Ten-year-old Ellie Fleck lives by the sea with her fisherman dad, who takes her to school every morning on the front of his bike. It’s not a Raleigh or a BMX, just a bike, and therein lies one of the truths at the heart of the book: Ellie Fleck’s family is not like everyone else’s, and all the kids in her class can tell. Most of them, as is the way with kids, punish her for it.

Set in the 1980s at the edge of the North Sea the story teeters between worlds: land and water, innocence and experience, all mod cons and an older way of life, boring everyday facts and the deeper truth of stories. Ellie has been filled with and shaped by stories, whether sea stories from her dad, ancestral stories from her Irish mum before her breakdown, or saints’ stories from church, so it seems natural that in this motherless world (“She’ll be better by Christmas”) Ellie surrounds herself with stories to get her through. But just because a wolf’s in a story, doesn’t mean it can’t bite.

Carmen Marcus had already acquired a reputation as a poet prior to writing this, her debut novel. This background is apparent in her use of language; I loved the repetition of words like thudtickticktick that (in context) conveyed so much and helped to describe Ellie’s world so vividly. Some of the imagery will stay with me for a long time, too – there’s a wonderful blend of fairytale and the natural world, sprinkled with small, child’s-eye details like the behaviour of a dunked biscuit, and just enough (hedgehog haircuts and ski jackets) to set it in its time and place.

Ellie’s a complicated character in a complicated situation and there’s no black and white of who should have behaved how, but the way the circumstances are explored (and the way several points of view are used within the book), the reader is fully caught up in the story of Ellie and the story she’s creating. It’s not an easy read in terms of subject matter, Ellie’s mum in particular is not in a good place, but it’s a powerful one and it delivers moments of magic to soothe the gut-punches.

Because of the central elements of fairytale and sea, I can see How Saints Die particularly appealing to fans of Kirsty Logan, but I’d recommend it to anyone who can take a bit of magic in their fiction and thinks they could find some fellow-feeling for a confused child.

Here’s a link to Carmen’s own introduction to the novel from her Read Regional appearances earlier this year: http://newwritingnorth.com/projects/read-regional/carmen-marcus-how-saints-die/

The Crows Remember, an illustrated fairytale

At the start of this year the illustrator Bonnie Helen Hawkins (accompanied by a story from novelist Joanne Harris) kicked off her 52 Crows project, in which she vowed to draw a crow every Monday all year, to illustrate a story or poem. This week I was lucky enough to have her choose my story The Crows Remember as the focus of her drawing and man is it good! She’s gone colourful for this one, picking up on the wildflowers I mention and using them to beautiful effect. You can see her gorgeous drawing (and read my story) on her blog. I urge you to go look at all the other wonderful pictures and read everyone else’s stories and poems as well.

The Crows Remember is a sad story, as pretty much everyone who’s read it so far has pointed out, but I was going for fairytale/folktale and there’s often an undercurrent of sadness or something dark at the core of those so I think I found the tone I was looking for. It’s set (though I didn’t specify in the story) in Swaledale, which to me is a mysterious place populated by the shades of my ancestors, and some sheep – all of 30 miles and a couple of dales away from where I live, but when you don’t drive it’s not an easy place to visit. Unless maybe you’re fitter than I am and own a bicycle. I digress…

I hope you enjoy the story. I don’t see how you could fail to be impressed by the drawing. And if you’re anywhere near Bath, I think there are plans for a 52 Crows exhibition next year, keep an eye on Bonnie’s Twitter for details.

Reviews of a couple of books

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I’ve had a couple of new reviews up in the last week or so. My review of The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan (as promised a few weeks ago) is now at Luna Station Quarterly. It’s a sort of fairy tale, certainly a beautifully imagined SF novel, and surprisingly for my Random Walk Through Speculative Fiction slot, pretty recent (out in paperback in the UK either this month or last).

The other review is The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper by Phaedra Patrick, another free book from The Bookbag. Nothing SF about this one, it’s about an old widower from York having a series of entertaining/poignant adventures.

Go read the reviews, then read the books. I’m enjoying the lifting of my self-imposed Trollope ban by reading The Prime Minister at the moment. I shan’t review it, but you can imagine the joy it’s bringing me.

Fantasy novels I recently left unfinished

When I put a book review up here, it’s always of a book I finished reading. That’s a fairly obvious statement, but it means that due to my more recent policy of abandoning books if I’m not enjoying them (life is short, but the bookshelf is long), if I’m reviewing it it’s a fairly safe bet that I enjoyed it. There are the odd exceptions, where I’ve had high hopes so I’ve given the book as much of a chance as I could, and read the final page with a sense of disappointment, but in general if it’s not grabbing me, I stop reading (I do still give each book more of a chance than OneMonkey does – he has been known to fling it aside after page 1, but it depends what mood he’s in).

I took my own advice for a change and got 10 books out of the local library in the past couple of weeks, largely at random from the sci-fi/fantasy and graphic novel shelves. With barely a scan of the back-cover blurb I chose a selection that either OneMonkey or I (or both) might enjoy, some by authors I’d heard of, some not. There were some triumphs (Finch, for instance) and some I didn’t choose so well. So I thought I’d tell you about a couple of those – not to pull them to pieces, but because someone else may well enjoy them.

Jasmyn (by Alex Bell) had an interesting premise and enticing artwork on the cover but ultimately left me unsatisfied after a few chapters and I’ve still got most of those Doctor Who novels to read. Jasmyn’s a young woman whose husband has died suddenly, very sad, one of those things, life goes on. Except Jasmyn’s finding it very hard to let life go on and is instead moping around in her pyjamas (quite understandably in my view) and has arranged to take a term off work (she is a music teacher, as I recall); her husband’s family, who never seemed to approve of the marriage, are being less than supportive, and she starts to feel isolated. Then she discovers strange things are happening (or appear to be happening, but she does consider that she might literally be mad with grief) and her husband may have had a whole other side to his life that she never knew about.

Jasmyn’s husband wrote books on mythology and folklore, and the whole set-up and cover-art had a dark fairytale feel to it, despite the contemporary suburban setting. However, the style also seemed quite fairytale in the sense that the language, construction, and elements of repetition gave it a simplistic feel which wasn’t really for me. Or perhaps I wasn’t gripped enough by the story to overlook it.

Death Most Definite by Trent Jamieson: I wish I’d been able to read this to the end, OneMonkey enjoyed it, but there was just too much death (I know, what do you expect from a title like that). To give a quick overview, reaping souls (‘pomping’ them into the afterlife) is sort of a franchise but it tends to run in families, so Steve is a young man who has drifted into the family business but gives the impression that he’d have been fired by now if he wasn’t related. This book is the first in a series, and is set in contemporary Brisbane (what a refreshing change from American SF – not that I don’t like American settings but it’s good to get a different perspective sometimes); it’s first-person, in a light conversational style with plenty of references to rock music, films and SF, even in the few chapters I read. The premise is that someone’s making a play to be the next regional manager for all of Australia, and to do it they need to eliminate the competition. Which is pretty much anyone capable of doing the job, including Steve, his family, and most people he knows. From what OneMonkey tells me it does sound like it got quite tense and exciting, and even had a bit of romance in there, but the scale of death (and some of the detail) was harrowing and I couldn’t plough through it. My loss, I think.