Archive for February, 2015



Sedgwick has been on my radar for a few years now, creeping into the shortlists for the Carnegie Medal regularly. I’d previously read his White Crow, and Midwinterblood. The first of those I had thoroughly enjoyed, bouncing between time zones; the second was breathtaking, tracing echoes of a story back through generations and encompassing wartime escapes, ghost stories and vampires, all with a mythic resonance. 

My Swordhand Is Singing is in many ways simpler than either of those: the structure is a straight forward chronological one; the narrative is strongly plot-driven; the language is sparse and economical.

The novel revolves around a father and son, Tomas and Peter, itinerant woodcutters who have settled in a small village called Chust in a Central European setting. In the vicinity of Romania. Or Transylvania.

Sedgwick, for me, captured two things effectively in this novel: the brooding presence of Mother Forest in which humanity is trying to carve out its niche; and the ritualised superstitions the villagers used to protect themselves from the oncoming winter. The tar daubed on houses. Hawthorn briars thrown into graves. The wedding of the dead. The haunting song of the dead, The Miorita. This is a community to which fear clung closely: the practical fear of a hard winter; the suspicious fear of strangers; the superstitious fear of the dead rising. 

Because this is, at heart, a vampire tale – and that may well have been one reason why I had allowed it to slip down my to-be-read pile. Young Adult. Vampire. The fear of reliving the torture that was reading Twilight may have allowed other books to overshadow this one. 



But, I could not have been more wrong! Sedgwick’s undead “hostages” are as far removed from Edward Cullen – or indeed Stoker’s Dracula – as you could want. He does not dwell too long on the descriptions of the undead but they are bloated corpses, twisted by jealousy and malevolence towards the living, more reminiscent of zombies than either the urbane Dracula or the glittery Cullens. 

There are some confusions, I felt, in the depiction of the vampires. Characters told us that they returned to their homes after death, leaving their wives pale and weak – nodding the Lucy Westenra; or cunning enough to pretend to be another person. Yet there was a bestiality to them when we saw them and a bloodlust which seemed just a little jarring. 

This may be the result of Sedgwick’s deliberate attempt to create a vampire tale consistent with its earliest roots. He has clearly done his research and helpfully includes an Author’s Note listing all the names they are known by: krvoijac, vukodlak, wilkolak, varcolac, vurvolak, liderc nadaly, liougat, kulkutha, moroii, strigoii, murony, streghoi, vrykolakoi, upir, dschuma, velku dlaka, nachzehrer, zaloznye, nosferatu. I knew some of these already – and can see potential derivations of The Brucolac, the vampire lord from China Miéville’s The Scar – and nearly broke autocorrect copying them out! I do wonder whether the effort to reconcile such divergent original stories explains for some of the slight contradictions. 

There is a presence in the novel of the Shadow Queen who, even within the universe of the novel, occupies a space  between myth and superstition. This novel’s sequel, The Kiss Of Death, picks up on Peter’s quest to find her. There’s certainly enough here to make me keep an eye out for that one, although, set in Venice, away from the primitive world of Mother Forest, it would have a very different tone. 

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Anthony Horowitz, for me as an English teacher is almost synonymous with his teenage spy Alex Rider. Although probably with fewer helicopters, assassins and explosions. And more writing. The series is a very boy friendly, speedily paced series of novels which are one out go-to series for reluctant boy-readers. So it was with some surprise and not a little interest that I discovered, on reading the afterword essay following The House Of Silk, that his career includes Midsomer Murders, Agatha Christie and Foyle’s War.

Apparently, this is the first officially sanctioned new Holmes novel – sanctioned by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Estate. And what is clear from reading it is that Horowitz knows his Holmes! Knows him well! So well he even includes a quiz at the end of his afterword. I got 6 / 10. Could do better. He also includes frequent references to other novels and short stories: The Red Headed League. The Hound of the Baskervilles. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans. These are all explicit and fleeting, nothing which would put off a newcomer to Holmes but a pleasing nod to the canon for those readers familiar with it.

Horowitz’ tone and structure is also pretty authentic. I mean, I don’t profess to be a Holmes expert, but the familiarity of the opening scene – Holmes at 221b Baker Street astounding Watson with his deductions as we await a fateful knock at the door – takes you straight back to The Hound of The Baskervilles. Similarly, the length of time spent without Holmes, his disappearance from the narrative, the intertwining of two apparently unrelated plots, the time devoted to other characters giving their own stories in their own voices all felt delightfully familiar. In fact, if anything, characters seemed to be falling over themselves to tell their stories.

I usually don’t worry too much about spoilers but a Holmes novel does require a certain delicacy, I suppose. So let’s instead look at some of the ingredients Horowitz has added to his mix: an art dealer haunted by a vengeful figure from America; a corpse discovered in a hotel room; the Baker Street Irregulars and a charitable school; and, of course, the eponymous House of Silk. We also have the familiar cast: Lestrade, Mycroft and Mrs Hudson. And a mysterious nighttime assignation with an unnamed yet urbane criminal figure. As Horowitz’ sequel is named Moriarty, I think we can make certain assumptions!

These last few years have been golden ones for Holmes fans: BBC’s Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman is a delight; Robert Downey Jr’s films are fun. Horowitz’ Holmes, though, does seem far closer to Jeremy Brett than his more modern counterparts. I have to say that, in my head, some of Holmes’ dialogue was read in Brett’s lugubrious tones. Stiller, calmer than the somewhat frenetic Messrs Cumberbatch and Downey. Maybe hearing Brett’s voice intone Holmes’ words is a tribute to Horowitz’ writing; maybe it just reveals how impressionable my mind was when, as a child, I saw Brett in The Hound of The Baskervilles.

So, returning to Horowitz, I thoroughly enjoyed this. It was, possibly, a little too self-conscious of its place as part of the canon and maybe a little too reverential. But perhaps that is the nature of all pastiches: without that reverence for the source material it would become a novel featuring Sherlock Holmes rather than a Sherlock Holmes novel.

Speaking of Sherlock Holmes novels, it transpires that a lost Holmes short story has been discovered in Selkirk, Scotland, written to raise money for a bridge. See here for the full report.

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I find with this blog that some books can be reviewed almost from the moment you finish them. Others, I need time to … ruminate. To cogitate. To digest. To reflect on.

This book, Ali Smith’s Man Booker Shortlisted How To Be Both, definitely falls into that latter category. It is beautiful. It is thoughtful. It is clever, smart and profound. Funny, touching and sad.

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The novel is in two parts and one quirk of the publishing is that some copies commence with one story; others start with the second. I actually had this as both an e-book which began with the story of Francesco del Cossa, a renaissance painter. Simultaneously, my audiobook version started with the story of Georgia, a contemporary teenage girl. I literally had both!

The two characters are connected in a dazzling array of parallels between their stories, their lives, their experiences. Their stories don’t simply parallel each other’s: they intertwine and weave and writhe around and through each other.

Let’s consider the title: what boths are we being shown how to be?

Certainly, this novel clearly explores our capacity to be both male and female. It took me a little while to realise that Francesco was a girl and pretty much as soon as I did she bound her chest and dressed as a man to be accepted as an artist. George has been given a deliberately ambiguous name and her friendship with the equally ambiguously named ‘H’ starts to explore her sexuality. Neither George, nor her wonderfully created mother, realise that Francesco is female. This exploration of gender and sexuality was no surprise: having read her Girl Meets Boy, itself based on Ovid’s account of Iphys in his Metamorphoses, some years ago now.

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We are also asked to be both in the past and present, both alive and dead: Francesco’s life in Renaissance Italy is gorgeously captured for us and made alive; she is brought to the present by George’s interest in her art; Smith grounds George in our present with her text messages, iPad and technology; and George keeps her mother alive by reliving her memories and creating rituals. Ironically, the dead characters (Francesco and George’s mother) almost felt the most alive. This issue of past and present is also addressed at a grammatical level as George constantly reminds herself of the appropriate tense to use to discuss her mother.

We also explore the dichotomies between the real and the painted – and by extension the unreal; the painter and the painting; the art and the viewer; the observer and the observed. As I was reading, and I don’t know whether this is true of any other reader, I assumed that Francesco del Cossa was an invention and only when idly googling did I discover that she was real, that the Palazzo Schifanoia frescos exist in Ferrara, which is itself a city I am familiar with through literature and the staple GCSE poem My Last Duchess by Browning. A poem which is itself based on an historical scandal – and which accuses the Duke, quite wrongly of having his first wife killed. Misrepresentation, history, fiction, reality, creativity all twining around each other. What actually is the real? And does it really matter?

Smith’s language throughout was gorgeous: sparse and even spare at times, realistic and painful at others, and warm elsewhere. There are philosophical and political stances explored in the novel but at no time does it detract from the humanity created within its pages.

Within the novel, George’s mother refers to Francesco’s art as

so warm it’s almost friendly. A friendly work of art. I’ve never thought such a thing in my life. And look at it. It’s never sentimental. It’s generous, but it’s sardonic too. And whenever it’s sardonic, a moment later it’s generous again.
She turns to George.
It’s a bit like you, she says.

That formulation seems a perfect description of this novel itself: friendly, warm, generous, sardonic.

As a footnote, the novel I’ve moved onto now is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch which also revolves around art, another dead mother and a grieving child. That novel seems to luxuriate in its own language and descriptions – all of which is fine! – but a marked contrast to Smith!