Once Upon a Time in the North concludes my #10booksofsummerchallenge

Yes, you have just read my title correctly, I’ve finished the summer reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 Books! Philip Pullman’s novella is the one I kept for last and I finished it in one sitting.

There are still five days to the challenge deadline. No last minute race against the clock for me, I’m calm: I’m sorted. This is unheard of. So, why is it that I don’t feel efficient?

Maybe because I was a little, just a little, disappointed in the book I’d looked forwards to.

As an object, it is delightfully bookish. A lot of thought went into the design and manufacture. For a start, it’s hand-sized. If it had followed standard dimensions, it would have been a narrow volume.

Because it’s short in height, there are more pages, and the spine is wide enough to display the author, title and publisher, comfortably. It looks attractive on the shelf. If I were into interior design, I could imagine wanting a row of them, in matching and contrasting colours.

I wanted to read it. I’ve been savouring the moment of beginning since several months before this challenge started.

The inside reminded me of expensive notebooks, the paper is just that quality that demands such neat perfection I would worry about making the first mark. This is not just a book to own, or to treasure, it’s an artefact that might have come from the parallel universe it describes.

The lovely woodcut illustrations, by John Lawrence are part of the other-wordly charm. The larger ones are footnotes to the action, the thumbnails are story divisions. There are no numbered, or named, chapters. It’s a book that demonstrates how the combination of paper, ink and content can enhance a reading experience.

After the story ends, there is an appendix. Newspaper clippings, letters, year-book extracts, rules for a game and an academic certificate are included. While this book is a prequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy for the readers in this universe, in the universe it describes, What we’ve read is an historical document.

It wasn’t only the quality of the paper that kept me turning the pages. The story was nicely paced, right from the opening line.

The battered cargo balloon came in out of a rainstorm over the White Sea, losing height rapidly and swaying in the strong north-west wind as the pilot trimmed the vanes and tried to adjust the gas-valve.

It’s a pretty spectacular entrance for Lee Scoresby and his daemon, Hester. They’re drifters, in the best American western tradition. Having won his balloon in a poker game, Lee is ‘blown by the winds of chance‘ into Novy Odense, in the Arctic, a place that ‘looked like a place where there was work to be done.’

The first thing he establishes on landing is that the work he’s looking for is not about striking it rich in the expected manner. He’s not there because of the ‘oil rush‘, even if he does look to the locals like ‘a roughneck‘. The question at the opening of the book, then, is what does Lee Scoresby want?

The journey to finding that out includes a few false starts, and blind alleys. Tension builds, shifts and rebuilds. There is a neatly plotted rise in tension.

There is a ‘but’, for me, though.

His Dark Materials were also books of ideas. Soon after they were published discussion began on what was happening below the surface of the action. The story included, if the reader chose to look, additional layers to interpret. It was perfectly acceptable to race through the adventure without recognising anything else happening, of course. But for some of us, the icing on this cake was recognising references, and identifying how they worked.

Although the Dark Materials trilogy was sold in the children’s section, most reviews claim it was written without a specific audience in mind. If I’d checked some other reviews before starting this novella, I would have realised that despite the film references, Once Upon a Time in The North is a book for children. It wasn’t a disappointment, this is beautifully written and paced.

But I probably won’t be tempted by any more of the spin-offs, despite the tactile design.

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Prisoners, escapades and histories: my #10booksofsummer.

This week I’ve finished three more books from the ten I chose for the reading challenge set by Cathy, at 746 books, Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart, Coraline by Neil Gaiman and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.

I’ve little to say about Coraline. It’s a competent novel, but I don’t think it would have appealed to me as a child. There were nice moments, and it wasn’t a struggle. Other reviewers have been positive and Henry Selick made it into a film, in 2009. I just didn’t feel any magic.

Huckleberry Finn, on the other hand, grabbed me by the heart and pulled me into his story. I wished I’d read it when I was young. Though I probably would have missed some of the humour.

That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mostly.

I loved every moment until Tom Sawyer came back in and took over. Why, of why did Twain do that? Oh, I know it made commercial sense, and that he thought of Huck as a spin off from the highly successful Tom Sawyer, but I so much preferred honest Huck. As, I’m sure, the long suffering Jim must have, too.

I’ve passed Huckleberry to my fourteen year-old nephew, to while-away the hours of a long journey. I’m looking forward to finding out if it works for him, too.

It’s a good job Tom Sawyer is not part of this challenge. I’m not sure I can face him, yet.

I first heard about Chinua Achebe’s, Things Fall Apart on the BBC Radio 4 book show, A Good Read, in 2013. I bought a copy, but it stayed on my TBR shelf.

Then last year, it won the Cheltenham Booker 1958 debate. As Claire and I drove home, I said, ‘I’ve got to read that novel, now.’ But somehow, the time has never been right.

When I gathered books for this challenge, Things Fall Apart was the first I decided on. So I was sorry when I couldn’t engage with Okonkwo, the main character. It’s what I expect to do when the opening paragraph seems to offer a hero.

Okonkwo was well known throughout the nine villages and even beyond. His fame rested on solid personal achievements. As a young man of eighteen he had brought honour to his village by throwing Amalinze the Cat. Amalinze was the great wrestler who for seven years was unbeaten…

There’s a lovely description of the wrestling match. But, as soon as Okonkwo has won the story jumps forwards, ‘That was many years ago, twenty or more...’ Now, Okonkwo has a ‘severe look‘, and he walks ‘as if he was going to pounce on somebody. And he did pounce on people quite often.‘ In case, like me, you thought that sounded a little playful, the next aspect of this character portrait reverses that:

He had a slight stammer and whenever he was angry and could not get his words out quickly enough, he would use his fists. He had no patience with unsuccessful men.

There are no parallel descriptions of how he behaves when happy. Instead, it is clear that Okonkwo is a repressed and repressive character, who doesn’t allow even his family to get close. If they couldn’t, then why should I be allowed to do so?

The narrator did his best, providing me with influences and events that could explain Okonkwo. ‘Fortunately, among these people a man was judged according to his worth and not according to the worth of his father.‘ Respect, then is his goal, and we’ve already been shown that to earn that, he must be, ‘a man of action, a man of war. Unlike his father...’

I could understand, but I struggled to empathise. ‘Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand. His wives, especially the youngest, lived in perpetual fear of his fiery temper, and so did his little children.‘ My sympathies were with them, fleeting though the glimpses of individuals were.

Yet, I read on. I began to think about why that was.

Every detail counts. It feeds the story. Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, reclines ‘on a mud bed in his hut playing on his flute.’ He’s a lazy man, ‘a failure‘ with huge debts. Okonkwo, on the other hand, ‘stretched himself on his bamboo bed‘. It’s night-time when he goes to rest.

Domestic detail is threaded through the dialogue and action without explanation. Gourds were filled with palm-wine when Unoka ‘made merry‘; a kola nut disc was broken and shared by two men beginning a discussion; prayers were said and the talk was of yam growing, or the threat of heavy rain. Wives kept to their own huts in the compound, cooking meals and raising their children. I was not a stranger being shown something unusual, I was taking part in something ordinary.

I became involved in the domestic, social and spiritual realities of Okonkwo’s community. I had a place in the village. I shared the struggles and dangers, the everyday routines and expectations.

That’s clever. Achebe has taken the advice to ‘show, not tell’ to another level.This is a fine and powerful story. It cut through what I thought I knew about history and civilisation.

I’m not in a physical prison, but the tribute from Nelson Mandela, quoted on the cover, made me think about how complacent-thinking can fence us in. He said, ‘The writer in whose company the prison walls fell down.

A lot of ‘things‘ have been shaken, for me. I don’t say anything will ‘fall apart‘, but it’s good to be able to turn a story round and think again about the values of what has been lost.

Reading Akunin and Pratchett for the #10BooksofSummer challenge.

Putting Boris Akunin with Terry Pratchett feels like the clue to a cryptic crossword, or perhaps a literary riddle. They’re novels five and six from my Ten-Books-of-Summer challenge and, on first sight, an unlikely pairing. Not that I read them together, but the second did follow close-on-the-heels of the first. Given the way the month is slipping by, I felt I needed to make more effort with my reading schedule.

Let me start by being shallow. What drew me to Pelagia and The White Bulldog was the cover. I liked the colours, and the firm lines, as well as the details. It suggested setting and period. I’ve been caught out before by inaccurate book covers, but in this case, my instinct was true. Every detail is relevant, though I didn’t understand quite how cleverly D. Rink had interpreted the story until I’d finished the novel.

As an aside, here’s a hint for any publishers who might stumble across this post: there’s more than one advantage in employing an artist rather than trawling through out-of-copyright images for something that’s vaguely appropriate.

The story opens in medias res (that’s the technical term for ‘in the midst of things’) with a long sentence. I know there’s a lot of valuable advice out there about brevity and simplicity. I agree with it. I’ll go further – I try to abide by it, especially on my blog.

But occasionally, I stumble across a piece of writing that demonstrates how to break that rule. I didn’t itch to un-cap my red-correction pen when I read this opening sentence:

…But I should tell you that, come the apple festival of Transfiguration Day, when the sky begins to change from summer to autumn, it is the usual thing for our town to be overrun by a genuine plague of cicadas, so that by night, much as you might wish to sleep, you can never do it, what with all that interminable trilling on all sides, and the stars hanging way down low over your head, and especially with the moon dangling there only just above the tops of the bell-towers, for all the world like one of our renowned ‘smetna’ variety apples, the ones that the local merchants supply to the royal court and even take to the shows in Europe.

I hadn’t even realised just how long it was, until I started copying it out.

To have interrupted this flow with stronger punctuation would have broken the lyrical dream I was entering. The world presented is a different continent and historical period to mine, but the delivery draws me in.

The narrator is close beside us, ‘I should tell you...’ It’s confidential. He trusts us to understand and share his view. ‘You‘, he says, again and again. I do feel that this is a male voice, though I’m not sure why. A male author doesn’t have to signify a male narrator.

There are references to Sherlock Holmes and, apparently, Akunin was influenced by Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose. This novel, however, feels like magical realism, though the set-up is quirky rather than fantastical. Sister Pelagia, a nun, is sent by His Grace Mitrofanii, Bishop of Zavolzhie, to discover who is trying to ‘murder’ his aunt’s valuable white bulldogs. As she investigates this crime, Pelagia stumbles across a whole host of additional situations.

This is a book that deserves careful reading. What can seem like inconsequential rambles into back-story will be key to the resolution. At its heart, this is a traditionally styled crime novel, with neatly deployed smoke and mirrors.

The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents also uses a range of clever miss-directions. Maurice, a talking cat with questionable moral values, leads a clan of talking rats and a ‘stupid looking kid‘ who plays the flute. They’re travelling from town to town pulling a tremendous Pied Piper scam.

But, the rats, who used to live on the rubbish heap at the back of the University for Wizards, have begun to struggle with their recently acquired senses of individual identity. In doing so, they force Maurice, and us, to share their examination of actions and attitudes, and enter into philosophical and ethical avenues of debate.

The older clan member, Hamnpork, would rather ‘the Change‘ hadn’t happened. He thinks that ‘setting fire to a candle is a waste of perfectly good food.’

Dangerous Beans, though, was born after ‘the Change‘ happened. He is clear about why candles should be burned rather than eaten.

‘We have to be able to control the fire, sir,’ said Dangerous Beans calmly. ‘With the flame we make a statement to the darkness. We say: we are separate. We say: we are not just rats. We say: we are The Clan.’

It’s a pacey, character driven story. For those who care to look, it’s threaded through with satirical observations. Cultural myths about plague and rats are central. In the Author’s Note, at the end of the novel, Pratchett says:

I have read, in the past few months, more about rats than is good for me. Most of the true stuff… is so unbelievable that I didn’t include it in case readers thought I’d made it up.

There’s more than biological detail, though. He visits the Pied Piper, Dick Wittington, Puss-in-boots, Alice in Wonderland, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, plus Beatrix Potter and the legion of anthropomorphic story-writers who followed her.

As for James Herbert – remember his horror story about a pack of mutant rats that threaten human life? Pratchett turns that upsides-down. His rat-Clan have eaten the discarded ‘dribbly candle ends‘ and ‘green bubbly stuff‘ that are thrown so carelessly on the tip the rats knew as both ‘home‘ and ‘lunch‘. The result is the evolution of an heroic Clan, as keen as Sister Pelagia to think carefully about doing the right thing.

Improbable or not, the pairing of these two novels began to seem like a happy accident, with a lot of valuable writing practice in common.

Six degrees of Separation – The Wild Card – leads me to book four of my 10 books of summer.

Ah, card games. Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, might have had me in mind when she titled this months six degrees as a Wild Card. I love cards so much I’ve uninstalled the virtual games from my phone and laptop.

As a teenager, my favourite game was cheat. I don’t remember much about the rules. It was fun, and required devious strategies.

The six degrees wild-card starts a chain from the title we finished with last month. Since I chose to follow short stories then, I’m continuing that format, beginning with Slog’s Dad, by David Almond.

Davie, the worldly-wise friend of Slog, describes what happens one spring day, six months after Slog’s dad died.

We were crossing the square to Myers pork shop. Slog stopped dead in his tracks.

“What’s up?” I said.

He nodded across the square.

“Look,” he said.

“Look at what?”

“It’s me dad,” he whispered.

“Your dad?”

“Aye.”

I just looked at him.

“That bloke there,” he said.

“What bloke where?”

“Him on the bench. Him with the cap on. Him with the stick.”

Davie’s not falling for that. The ‘bloke‘ is scruffy, ‘like he was poor, or like he’s been on a very long journey.’

“He looks a bit different,” said Slog. “But that’s just cos he’s been…”

“Transfigured,” said the bloke.

“Aye,” said Slog. “Transfigured.

It’s a 2,550 word story. It doesn’t take long to read, but my goodness it lingers.

Ghosts, is a short story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that also deals with attitudes and ideas about death, love and beliefs. Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, is the fourth of my 10 books of summer challenge.

Ghosts, is set in Nigeria, where a retired mathematics professor meets a man he believed had been killed in the Biafran war of 1967.

Perhaps I should have bent down, grabbed a handful of sand, and thrown it at him, in the way my people do to make sure a person is not a ghost.

From the first page, I was reminded of, No One Writes to The Colonel, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Not just because both stories feature professional men who have spent years waiting for their pensions, these are both so much more than that. They’re immersive experiences. There are unpredictable revelations, shifts in emotions, life-details, cultural references and examinations of loss and love.

For my fourth link, I’m thinking about letters. I return to Adichie’s collection, The Thing Around Your Neck. The title story is a second-person narration, in which ‘you‘ are unable to write home about your experiences in America, because it falls so far below the expectations of ‘your’ family.

You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don’t buy a gun like those Americans.

I may not be American, but I imagine a similar story written from the perspective of someone coming to live in Britain and feel goosebumps. It’s challenging, even frightening, to see how a stranger views our every-day lives.

An American pushes friendship on ‘you‘, the Nigerian waitress at a small cafe.

He came in the third day and began talking before he ordered, about how he had visited Bombay and now wanted to visit Lagos, to see how real people lived, like in the shantytowns, because he never did any of the silly tourist stuff when he was abroad.

Issues of connection and belonging and exploitation are explored in most of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s stories. In, Jumping Monkey Hill, Ujunwa is at an African Writers Workshop, outside Cape Town.

…the resort had the complacence of the well-fed about it, the kind of place where she imagined affluent foreign tourists would dart around taking pictures of lizards and then return home still mostly unaware that there were more black people than red-capped lizards in South Africa.

The account of her week includes fragments of the story Ujunwa writes, and summaries of some of the stories the other writers produce. The actions and comments of the workshop leader, and his wife, draw attention to ideas not only about what truth is, but who has the right to demand it, or decide what it is.

The next day at breakfast, Isabel…said that surely, with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had come from Nigerian royal stock. The first thing that came to Ujunwa’s mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of friends back in London. She did not ask that but instead said – because she could not resist – that she was indeed a princess…

I loved the way the role of story and story-teller was examined.

My last link is another story about telling stories from the same collection. The Headstrong Historian, highlights the way political and economic decisions impact on the individual.

… Ayaju told a story of two people who took a land case to the white men’s court; the first man was lying but could speak the white men’s language, while the second man, the rightful owner of the land, could not, and so he lost his case, was beaten and locked up and ordered to give up his land.

It’s another story that kept me guessing. Is the Headstrong Historian of the title Nwamgba, who chooses her own husband, then schemes to ensure that her only son will survive and thrive? Maybe it is her granddaughter, Afamefuna.

Nwamgba… was thrilled by the child’s solemn interest in her poetry and her stories…

Alternately, does the title refer to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. After all, she’s led me to question not just what I know of the history of Nigeria and Nigerians, but also of the shape and history of western democracy. That’s something it’s all too easy to view complacently, from the comfortable inside.

The aim of the card game, Cheat, was to shed as many cards as possible, without anyone noticing you were giving more than you claimed. My chain of short stories only uses three authors, but includes the fourth of my 10 books of summer reviews. Maybe that breaks the six-degrees rules. I hope not. I’m thinking of this as multi-tasking…

Card Sharp, by 1636-1638 by Georges de La Tour,