Tag Archives: reading

Alan Garner’s Boneland

How on earth am I supposed to respond to Boneland, Alan Garner’s completion of a trilogy begun with the Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath nearly 50 years ago?

Boneland  tells a the story of Colin, one of the siblings at the centre of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath. Colin is an astro-physicist and clearly a genius whose life centres around the radio telescope of Jodrell Bank and a dimly perceived mission as a kind of guardian of Cheshire’s Alderley Edge, the scene of certain events in his childhood that have vanished from his memory. He also has Asperger’s syndrome and we meet him on the edge of a titanic personal struggle against mental breakdown. Colin’s story is juxtaposed against an early, prehistoric inhabitant of the Edge with an explicitly mythical or metaphysical mission in maintenance of the landscape. This unnamed figure is fighting a far more literal kind of breakdown, one that threatens to swallow not only his life and future but the whole of his world.

The earlier books were written for children (would the modern marketing classification be ‘young adult?) but Boneland is definitely written for grown-ups, not so much because of any inherent sex and violence, but because of its density and unashamed difficulty. This is quite a gnarly text. Its centre-piece, for example, is thirty or pages or so of intense dinner table conversation between a man who is about as psychologically damaged as it is possible for a human being functioning at a high level to be and his therapist. They touch on myth, archaeology, geology, physics and much else. They also drink a great deal of wine. There is hysteria and a sort of geographical menstrual flood.

And yet, this is expecting no more of us, the readers of those earlier texts, now twenty, thirty, forty years older, than the Weirdstone and The Moon did of us as children. If the earlier books, written at the inception of Garner’s career, were full of folklore, information, terror, gnawing dark and, yes, violence, the violence and terror at the heart of Boneland is yet darker. It is the fear of utter dissolution.

That isn’t what shook me most about Boneland as a narrative, however. The real, heart-rending core of the book is an express of unbelievable grief and loss so powerful that, half way through, I wondered if I’d be able to finish it. What’s trickier to engage with are the mythological underpinnings to Colin’s story. There are nods to the Triple Goddess, prehistoric humanity’s relationship with the stars and a compact, granite like erudition over such a hugely ranging area of subject matter that I could really have done with a text two or three times as long to help me make sense of it all. Like Alderley in winter, this isn’t a book that suffers fools gladly.

Still, perhaps I should remember the admonishment of Stevie Smith and simply ‘read it again then’. Ultimately, this is a book carved out of three landscapes – that of the modern Alderley of Colin’s experience and his struggle to maintain it in a wider context, the beautifully rendered Alderley of the deep, mythological past and behind these, the relentless challenge of Garner’s intellect. It isn’t a novel that has much time for character development – the business it is about is too urgent for this. At worst, the characters are placeholders for larger meanings. At best, as with Colin, they are beautifully, precisely-expressed cyphers to themselves. If nothing else, it left me convinced that there was the serious business of someone’s soul at stake here.

Would I recommend it? Unreservedly. But don’t expect any elves or goblins. They’re still there but they’re buried deeply and digging them out will demand a lot of you.

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Book update – Skulduggery Pleasant: Kingdom of the Wicked/Artemis Fowl/Black Arrow

I’m reading YA/MG again after a long detour into myth and tarot related materials (all grist for the mill, mind).

I haven’t actually finished the new Skulduggery Pleasant: Kingdom of the Wicked  by Derek Landy yet (well, it was only published this morning) but I’m far enough in to be enjoying it very much indeed. It’s not Tolstoy (thankfully, perhaps) but it’s still funny, fast-moving and with enough new ideas to keep the franchise vibrant. With boyfriend troubles behind her for the moment, the far more interesting relationship between the skeleton detective and Valkyrie takes centre stage again. There’s also more Ghastly (but, sadly, very little China Sorrows so far). It feels a little unedited in places and the dialog isn’t always as funny as Landy might think it is but it’s new Skulduggery and I’m devouring it at top speed.

I’m way behind the rest of the planet on Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl but bought the third one in a charity shop for dudelet  (aged 8) when he ran out of books to read on holiday. He tore through it at light speed and loved it to bits. He’s been through the first and is agitating for the second. I tried to blackmail him into reading The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe before he was allowed any more but he wasn’t having any.

“I don’t like Narnia! It’s rubbish I like Artemis Fowl! It’s much better! It’s exciting and better written.”

I died a little, of course, but dutifully gave into his exhortations and read Artemis Fowl for myself. And I like it. Yes, there are fairies and deadly collisions between races but this no ordinary middle-grade urban fantasy. Colfer’s fairies are high-tech special forces types or sys-op king-pin centaurs with smart mouths. To all intents and purposes, it’s a well-crafted science fiction thriller. With the Little People. The key ingredient, though, is the very concept of Artemis himself, the twelve-year-old criminal mastermind. I say ‘concept’ because Artemis himself is curiously unengaging in this first outing. I preferred his devoted No. 1, Butler, who has an utterly scene-stealing moment of mayhem with…Well, that would spoil it. But, trust me, Butler is the man you’d want beside you in a dark alley full of deadly assailants. Though definitely not behind you.

Lastly, I finished Robert Louis Stephenson’s The Black Arrow, which might be most kindly described as a ‘medieval romp’. Set in the Wars of the Roses, it follows eighteen-year Dick as he progresses from hard-done-by ward to minor noble, finding romance and a small amount of self-knowledge on the way.

In keeping with the tradition of mayhem in Treasure Island, guts are spilled, heads roll and gizzards (whatever that means) are spitted. The dialog was risible even at the time (‘”Ye are something smallish, indeed,’ began Dick.”) and the Winters Tale style shenanigans at the beginning of the book, where everyone except Dick can see that his travelling companion (and future romantic interest) is a girl, get old fast. Really fast. What was RLS thinking? Take this, for instance

“I tell you,” he went on with a chuckle. ” I swear by the mass  I believe Hugh Ferryman took you for a maid.”

“Nay, never,” cried the other, colouring high.

“A’ did, though, for a wager,” Dick exclaimed. “Small blame to him. Ye look liker maid than man; and – I tell you more – y’are a strange looking rogue for a boy; but for a hussy, Jack, ye would be right fair – ye would. Ye would be well favoured for a wench.”

And so on and on…If you like Stephenson, it’s diverting and entertaining but no Kidnapped.

Next week, I’ll have to try reading some Serious Literature between bashing away at the next draft for my own masterpiece. I doubt Serious Literature will be as much fun, mind.


Tarot and the shaky rationalist

I’ve been reading/messing about with/collecting Tarot cards for some 30 odd years now, on and off. They live mostly wrapped in colourful silk scarves, in a stylishly minimal black wooden box at the side of my bed.

The fascination began when I was reading up on Yeats and the Golden Dawn in Sixth Form. Yeats, aside from being a poet, playwright, Senator of the Irish Free State and manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, was a very serious occultist. No less than Alistair Crowley referred to him as “that dishevelled demonologist” (in return, Yeats loathed Crowley and later expelled him from the occult order they both belonged to, the Golden Dawn).

I picked up two or three decks over the next few years, learning to read in a relatively haphazard way. Every now and then I’d use them to make ends meet. When I met supermum, in fact, I was reading Tarot cards in an odd little indoor market somewhere in the East of England. Then I abandoned them altogether for ten years or so until the urgent need came up to make a living during a gap in employment. Supermum was pregnant, we had our first mortgage, job offers weren’t exactly knocking at the door and a badly managed period of freelancing had left me deeply in debt to the taxman. A friend hooked me up with a London members’ club and I did an evening’s work there. It was interesting and I felt the pull and the draw all over again. The following day, I was offered a ‘respectable’ job and put them down.

And that was that for eight years until two years ago, I began to read Dante in depth, followed by quantities of material on Northern Myth and paganism. It was probably influenced by the novel I’d begun to write, Shaper. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be drawn back to what is, for me, the motherlode of myth, mysticism and imagery in the West, the Tarot but this time with – I hope – a humbler attitude. It started again with an impulse purchase from Treadwell’s of the Tarot art deck, the Spill Tarot, and continued when I encountered Suzanne Treister’s extraordinary HEXEN 2.0 deck created for an installation at the Science Museum. HEXEN 2.0 is a genuine transposition of the Renaissance tradition of the tarot as a treasure house of obscurely interconnected symbols and archetypes into the 21st century. But for her, the archetypes are ARPANET, Timothy Leary, the CIA, wide area networks, the Situationalists, transhumanism and much else existing on the shadowy borders between technology and new age superstition. I found it to be a deck that directly related to my own work in managing, networking, websites, marketing and other dark arts. This led to trying a few readings as a substitute for conventional mind-mapping or brainstorming exercises when I was working on new product ideas or strategies. I also I have a very understanding boss who let me use them in my appraisal!

All this drew me back to the Frieda Harris and Crowley’s Thoth deck (Crowley was an appalling human being but he knew a thing or two about Tarot and Harris’ artwork is amazing). Using it, I’ve been working through Rachel Pollack’s excellent Tarot Wisdom and rethinking the way I approach them.

Which brings me, at last, to my position as a ‘shaky rationalist’. I’m an atheist, someone who believes in empirical evidence, scientific process and the strong possibility that we’re all descended from apes and amoebas (for some of us, more of one than the other). What on earth am I doing playing around with a pack of dodgy occult cards?

I suppose the answer is “I don’t really know.” I mix them up, think about the images and the interactions between them and how that relates to the meanings assigned to them over the centuries and I see what happens. In the process, I learn something about myself and about the people I occasionally read for. It’s a kind of weather forecasting in some ways.

The thing Tarot is doing for me is provide a lens for thinking about a kind of spirituality and way of relating to the “images of eternity” we’ve inherited from our ancestors that makes intuitive sense to me. I’m suspicious of the kind of instant shamanism peddled in so many contexts but one concept well-founded in anthropological research is the shaman’s capacity to accept both concrete material fact and the experience of the altered ‘shamanic’ state of mind as real – real in the post-modern sense if you like. Tarot is a formidable tool for experiencing this.

And besides, the cards are very beautiful. Isn’t that enough in its own right?

A few books:

Rachel Pollack, Tarot Wisdom and Seventy Eight Degrees Of Wisdom

A.E. Waite – The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (an old classic and the essential guide to the Rider-Waite Deck so many people start with)

Alistair Crowley – The Book of Thoth (not for beginners!)

Sallie Nichols – Jung And Tarot – An Archetypal Journey (I’m no Jungian but, as with so much else, his idea of the Archetype is a useful tool for thinking about oneself and ones relationship to a larger whole)


Treasure Island

It’s been a while. Blame it on moving house, school holidays, work, lethargy…

Anyway, it’s Friday and there’s time for a few quick notes about a book I just read.

Anyone who hasn’t read Treasure Island yet, seriously needs to do so. Robert Louis Stevenson is a lean, fierce writer (by 19th century standards, anyway) and Treasure Island is probably the most violent children’s book of its time. Even by today’s standards, it’s pretty brutal and morally ambiguous. It’s also pacy, vivid and utterly trimmed of narrative fat.

The major barrier, of course, is that the reader has by this time read or seen all of this pirate malarkey a million times over. But until you’ve experienced Stevenson’s Long John Silver, you haven’t tapped into the piratical mother-lode. The one-legged Silver is clever, brave, physically dangerous and charming – an anti-hero of the highest order. And yet, he has his own peculiar integrity. He’s wonderfully loyal to his black inn-keeping wife and consistently and whole-heartedly supports whoever the strongest party is at any given time, whether it be himself or the treasure hunters.

I mentioned violence. Silver brings down a man with a throw of his crutch and knifes him to death. Jim Hawkins, the hero (probably about twelve or thirteen), blows away a pirate with single shot pistols and and tips another dead body into the sea after him. Brains are blown out. Chests opened. Twenty-five men (unfortunately, the equal opportunities agenda Stevenson follows so faithfully with Long John Silver doesn’t extend to women) are gradually whittled down to eight (three of whom are marooned to starve to death and/or go mad) via blade, musket ball or marlin spike.

Eventually (spoiler alert!), the establishment, in the form of the squire, the doctor, the innkeeper’s boy and honest ship’s captain, get the upper hand and sail away with seven hundred thousand in doubloons and other currencies. Silver slips off one night, never to face justice in this world – an image of the winners’ unacknowledged bad consciences, perhaps.

Ultimately, Treasure Island is a Reservoir Dogs for its time with no moral to the story beyond the edge that clean living and an education gives you when stealing treasure from pirates. Finders, keepers; losers, weepers, you might say.


Five reasons to read Dante’s Divine Comedy in 2012

  1. It’s the closest you will ever get to being able to quite literally read a cathedral. Medieval cathedrals are gigantic assemblages of Christian theology, philosophy and apologetics in stone. Each surface, angle and cornice is drenched in sign and symbol, from the number of sides to the baptismal font to the number of windows in the nave. Everything works in threes and fours and aligns with the grand intersection of the Cross.
  2. It’s only way short of a Vulcan mind-meld you’ll be able to experience the point of view of one of the greatest of the high medieval intellectuals. Dante’s thought ranges from the apparently profound to the (from a modern perspective) shockingly bigoted and back again via arrogance, piety, humility, horror and every shading in between. And all of it in the most complicated rhyming scheme known to epic poetry. Or most other kinds, come to think of it.
  3. It’s one of the greatest works of speculative fiction known to man. Forget Cyrano de Bergerac or Jules Verne or any of the other pretenders to be the founding father of SF – Dante spun his web of invention on a rock solid (for 14th century Italy) foundation of natural philosophy, optics, astronomy and classical thought. Then took it literally beyond the boundaries of the Heavens.
  4. It’s a work that challenges our ideas of Christianity and makes us look beyond our regular feeble stereotypes of bigoted American baptists and milksop British Anglicans. What we find is full-blooded, ferocious and undeniably at the centre of whatever it is that we call a culture. And I speak as thoroughly heathen individual.
  5. It’s one of the most lovely books ever written. Dante claimed that words failed him as he tried to describe the impact of the most profound experiences death had to offer. Then he went ahead and wrote them down anyway.

You can read – or listen to – the whole thing here in a a quite wonderful translation by the Hollanders. Go on – take a walk on the really wild side for a change. Better than Twilight or your money back.