Archive for August, 2016

Still trying to catch up on my reviews which have been delayed thanks to writing a whole bunch of schemes of learning for work and a delightfully full-on three year old daughter, I realised I’d missed this one.

The third installment of the Lady Trent memoirs – set in a fictional but faintly vwiled and recognisable worl, albeit one with dragons, actually did much of what makes review of the (in my opinion less satisfactory) Tropic of Serpents. The poor, abandoned son was brought back into the narrative and given a trip around the world; politics and soldiering, whilst present, were significantly less prominent; and there were dragons. Well sea-dragons, or sea serpents. And I’ve always been a sucker for stories at sea. It’s no Moby Dick, to be sure, but it’s a sea yarn and that’s cool. 

Brennan throws us quickly onto the voyage around the world on the eponymous ship, The Basilisk with only a brief prologue.

On board the ship, the local politics and cultural descriptions, which often bog down the narrative, are no longer needed and we get more dragons as well as the usual complication expected in a maritime novel: storms and excursions and shipwrecks and exotic strangers. Here, the stranger, Suhail, is well established and fleshed out. And in many ways he reflects Lady Trent: academic, eccentrlic, an outsider. His interest is, rather than dragons, the ruins of the lost and ancient Draconian civilisation.

With the shipwreck and forced stay on the island of Keonga whilst the ship is repaired, Marie Brennan gets a chance to explore another culture again. Think perhaps Hawaii? With dragons. One intriguing quirk in Brennan’s description of Keonga is that Lady Trent is classed as ke’anaka’i  – neither male nor female but dragonborn, which means that she acquired a wife to be accepted on the island.

Kidnapped princesses, well one of them anyway, a foreign army, caeligers and sky ships and hidden lost treasures intervene and brings the book to a conclusion.

There’s no real sense of danger, even though Brennan showed her willingness to kill off significant characters in the first book, but it’s a cracking and fun novel with a great pace and likeable characters.

I’m glad I was wrong in my assumption that this was a trilogy. The next book is The Labyrinth of Drakes which is already on my to-be-read list.

These are not worth separate blog posts: same basic book written in the same basic style about the same basic themes. 

Which sounds terribly dismissive but shouldn’t: as a self-confessed language geek who’s alert to the absurdity and beauty of our mongrel mother tongue, these books were a delightful treat.and a little like talking to myself or being a student in my own class. If that is the case, they’re lucky students!

The Etymologicon – as you might expect – cherry picks words with interesting etymologies, generally as a result of English’s tendency to beg, borrow, steal words from other languages, and then invent, twist and warp original meanings through metaphor, misunderstandings and imaginative leaps.

Short bite-sized chapters link one word to the next as we explore farts, peters and petards; rolling stones and guns; salt and soldiering; Nazis and Big Bangs and little feisty dogs.

It is a coffee table book, to dip into and out of, to turn to a (possibly bemused, patient or disgruntled) friend and say “Oh, did you know…?”

The written equivalent of watching an episode of QI. In fact, I have a feeling some of the tidbits in the book were familiar, possibly because they had been covered in QI!

The Elements of Eloquence is really the same thing, applied to rhetoric and a range of rhetorical devices. In fact, very many of them are the techniques I use and teach regularly. Generally without the Greek names attached!
As a writer, I was pleased by  opening anecdote which recounted how Forsyth turned round his writer wife to ask her what would have helped her in the style guides she’d read, only to hear the reply that she’d never read any. Writers read books, not guides. Which isn’t to say that the techniques covered aren’t valid, useful or real. But, steeped in writing, you feel them rather than learn them. 

Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy learning them and seeing the examples that Forsyth has dredged from literature. I’m not sure I have the capacity to turn the perfect phrase yet, though!

Did I learn anything from these books? Yes, although not of a huge practical applicability.

Did I enjoy the witty and erudite and sometimes scatological style? Yes.

Fun, smart and witty. What’s not to love.

Wow!

This book is extraordinary.

It is strange and bizarre and wild. And has the vividness and opacity of a nightmarish dreamscape. It is literary and visceral, erudite and scatological, mythic and domestic at the same time.

Death and grief are such massive topics that you expect a weighty tome to contain them. Yet this is light and airy and brief. Barely a hundred pages. Half a day’s reading. And that itself is divided between Dad, Boys and the eponymous Crow who arrives as… what exactly? A symbol? A metaphor? A nightmare? A delusion? A nanny?

The novel – is it even a novel? – revolves around the family dragged apart by a woman, mother and wife. Her husband, a somewhat nerdy literary critic, is writing a book on the crow in Ted Hughes’ poetry entitled Ted Hughes’ Crow on the Couch: A Wild Analysis and that is an obvious source for the crow-character who appears thus:

The bell rang again.
I climbed down the carpeted stairs into the chilly hallway and opened the front door.
There were no streetlights, bins or paving stones. No shape or light, no form at all, just a stench.
There was a crack and a whoosh and I was smacked back, winded, onto the doorstep. The hallway was pitch black and freezing cold and I thought, ‘What kind of world is it that I would be robbed in my home tonight?’ And then I thought, ‘Frankly, what does it matter?’ I thought, ‘Please don’t wake the boys, they need their sleep. I will give you every penny I own just as long as you don’t wake the boys.’
I opened my eyes and it was still dark and everything was crackling, rustling.
Feathers.
There was a rich smell of decay, a sweet furry stink of just-beyond-edible food, and moss, and leather, and yeast.
Feathers between my fingers, in my eyes, in my mouth, beneath me a feathery hammock lifting me up a foot above the tiled floor.
One shiny jet-black eye as big as my face, blinking slowly, in a leathery wrinkled socket, bulging out from a football-sized testicle.
SHHHHHHHHHHHHH.
shhhhhhhh.
And this is what he said:
I won’t leave until you don’t need me any more.
Put me down, I said.
Not until you say hello.
Put. Me. Down, I croaked, and my piss warmed the cradle of his wing.
You’re frightened. Just say hello.
Hello.
Say it properly.

The prose swings back and forward in time, and out of time, from narrative to drama to poetry to narrative again. It is as wild and untamed as the crow itself.

It was very powerful, reading this close to Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk – which is itself a beautiful and lyrical book. But it is a weightier work than this; and simultaneously more lyrical and less poetical. Porter – like a poet – consciously crafts not just the words but the architecture and structure of his page; like a poet, he eschews all those little things that I’ve spent the holidays planning to teach students: conjunctions, connectives, clarity. And like a poet, having stripped away all of that superfluous and pedantic padding, his book can perhaps reach inside the reader – the a crow’s beak delving into carrion? – more acutely than other styles.

I am in no way trying to step back from the 5 stars I gave Macdonald’s – although I am just wondering what the value is in such a crude system of comparing such strikingly different books – all the more striking because of their similarities.

H Hawk

I mostly read fiction: an escapist flight from the same rigours of the real world – work, a beautiful but demanding three-year old – that have kept me from keeping up-to-date with my reviews!

So this book has languished on my kindle to-be-read pile for a while. A pretty long while. Which just goes to show what I know!

Because this is a beautiful and haunting read.

It is a book of many things, many parts: an account of Macdonald’s attempts to train and hunt with a goshawk; a pastoral love letter; a biography of T. H. White – he of The Once and Future King fame – and his clumsy attempts to train and hunt his own goshawk a hundred years earlier; an achingly painful personal account of Macdonald’s response to her father’s death, which prompted her to seek out the goshawk originally. There were times when the book was so openly honest that it almost felt awkward and intrusive to be reading it. Reading it is, genuinely, like watching Macdonald suffer a nervous breakdown in front of your eyes: fascinating, moving and hauntingly powerful.

Macdonald is an academic at the University of Cambridge and this shows in her writing: as you’d expect, it is erudite and considered and researched. And replete with technical terms such as jesses and mantling and austringer and bating, an entire new lexical field to play in!

What I hadn’t expected was the beauty and power and lyricism of her prose. It is a much quoted passage but as an example, consider this:

In real life, goshawks resemble sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble housecats. Bigger, yes. But bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier and much much harder to see. Birds of deep woodland, not gardens, they’re the birdwatchers’ dark grail.

Or, when she first sees her own hawk

Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. The last few seconds before a battle. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury. The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. My heart jumps sideways. She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water. A broken marionette of wings, legs and light-splashed feathers.

As a writer, Macdonald is exquisite and this book is as a prose poem as much as it belongs to any of the other genres mentioned above.

I’m not sure why it should have fallen like this, but in my reading, I followed this book – in which grief, loss of a father and birds intermingle – with Max Porter’s Grief is The Thing With Feathers  in which grief, the loss of a wife and mother and a crow intermingle.

It was, to say the least, an interesting juxtaposition.