There’s a snake in my school

David Walliams, whom I had the pleasure of seeing in action in front of a very receptive audience of Christchurch schoolchildren last year, has been at it again, penning another offbeat children’s tale, this time a picture book.

It’s bring your pet to school day and Miranda, a girl who marches to the beat of her own drum, brings along her pet python, Penelope. Of course.

Cover of There's a snake in my schoolEven with a python on the loose There’s a snake in my school is not quite “Snakes on a plane”. For one thing there is no Samuel L. Jackson – though I’m happy to report that the school in the book does have a diverse ethnic mix of pupils, which makes a nice change from most of the picture books I read as a child.

Also, the snake in question is well behaved and non-menacing… mostly. Because there’s always a bit of darkness woven into Walliams’ stories.

Fans of legendary illustrator Tony Ross will enjoy the bright, energetic artwork full of animal-related mayhem and fans of “doing silly voices when reading picture books” will enjoy the pompous headmistress Miss Bloat, who, as interpreted by me, is a mix of Margaret Thatcher and Hyacinth Bucket.

I read this to my nearly 3 year old, and even though There’s a snake in my school is longer and more wordy than most picture books we read together, it kept his attention until the end. Still, I think this would be better suited to school age children, if for no other reason than the school setting will make more sense to them.

There’s a snake in my school
by David Walliams, illustrated by Tony Ross
Published by HarperCollins New Zealand
ISBN: 9780008172701

 

The Vorrh – A surreal and timeless fantasy

the-vorrhThe Vorrh. The name rolls mysteriously off the tongue. It’s a book, and a forest. Ancient, sacred; populated by monsters, angels, and those who have lost all memory and time. This is the first offering from B. (Brian) Catling, and it comes recommended by Alan Moore (Watchmen, V is for Vendetta) who said of it –

Easily the current century’s first landmark work of fantasy

This is a great book. It’s highly readable, imaginative and vivid, with a thread that winds four story plots around an altered sense of time. Catling, who sees his work as Surrealist, draws a very human character in Ishmael, the Cyclops, while some of the humans have monstrous tendencies.

The web of the characters’ various journeys are brought together in the ancient forest, somewhere in darkest Africa. Be warned there are one or two grisly scenes, but quite essential to the sense of ceremony in the plot. Likewise, there is a little sex.

The story revolves around the Vorrh, a Cyclops, an English Photographer, a Frenchman (based on Raymond Roussel), and a Scot; “One of the Williamses”, who abandons the Army to fight for the native Erstwhile, and his wife Este.

B. Catling has penned two sequels to The Vorrh, picking up on the Trail of Tsungali, an Erstwhile hunter, as he takes the Bow back to the forest.

A little Gormenghast, a little Cloud Atlas, perhaps? Surreal and timeless.

Read more about The Vorrh

Tell me a story : audiobook bliss

Cover of The adventures of Augie MarchScrolling through shelves of audiobooks on Overdrive recently I came across The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow, I’ve always skirted round this heavy weight literary man (multiple award winner including the Nobel prize for Literature in 1976). This time on impulse I decided to “give him a go” and I’m chuffed that I did! I was immediately hooked by the opening paragraph and the narrator’s gravelly, fast paced “Bronxy” voice.

I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn’t any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles

For me an audiobook is completely at the mercy of the narrator; if the voice, inflection, pace etc doesn’t grab me, that’s it, no matter how enjoyable the writing. In this case both work so well together. From the word go I became absorbed in the life story of Augie, a poor Jewish boy born to a simple minded mother and a long ago absented father in the Chicago of the early decades of the 20th century (Al Capone, Prohibition era.)

I was impacted by Bellow’s sentences let alone the epic tale full of vivid, larger than life characters trying to get ahead and live the American dream. It did require very focused listening so as not to miss out on the richness of the language or get mixed up with the many characters. Also it’s a long book and there’s a limit to the amount of sitting around listening an able bodied person can do. So I’ve been doing a kind of relay – listen, read the book, listen and knit, read the book.

So many knockout sentences but I’ll leave those discoveries to you if you so choose! Except for another little taste, a description of Grandma Lausch, Russian pogrom refugee, not really Augie’s grandmother, but ruler of his childhood household nevertheless.

She was as wrinkled as an old paper bag, an autocrat, hard-shelled and jesuitical, a pouncy old hawk of a Bolshevik, her small ribboned feet immobile on the shoekit and stool Simon had made in the manual-training class, dingy old wool Winnie(her dog), whose bad smell filled the flat, on the cushion beside her.

Augie takes us on a series of often bizarre adventures, as he tries  on different lives inspired by people he comes across, on into post WW2 America; ultimately most are a wrong fit. He never does settle but in the end he celebrates the ride. Martin Amis, among many others, called this “The Great American Novel”. Worth checking out.

Cover of The LacunaBarbara Kingsolver is another great American writer and, apart from her wondrous ways with words, she has the gift of being able to narrate her own work with a warm, clear and expressively easy to listen to voice. She takes on different characters and different accents with aplomb. Hearing her read The Lacuna, probably the finest of her novels, is a real treat. I love this book and find her narration adds to its magic.

I listened to it as a pre-loaded digital audio book from CCL’s Playaway Collection that let me listen while moving about and “getting on with things”.

This story, coincidentally, covers the same time span as Saul Bellow’s novel. Very briefly, for readers who haven’t caught up with The Lacuna, the story’s protagonist is Harrison W Shepherd born, like Augie March, in the 1920s in the USA to a less than ideal family situation.

It takes us for a time to Mexico and into the lives of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera and of Lev and Natalia Trotsky who are hiding from Stalin and his Secret Police. Harrison in his early 20s becomes part of these two remarkable households as cook, secretarial assistant and friend. He is “uncurious about politics”. He cares about people and writing. He becomes inextricably involved. Consequently he is devastated by the eventual murder of Trotsky at the hand of a guest he himself invites into the guarded house, and by the confiscation of his own writings along with Trotsky’s.

Oh… I just had to delete a big paragraph outlining more of the plot! Hard to keep quiet when you fall in love with a character(s) and feel honoured by knowing them, their aspirations, trials, hopes and sorrows, the burden of events beyond their control. There’s a lot of good stuff in here about friendship, art, history, the Cold War –  its propaganda and witch hunts, the damage of Press inaccuracies and lies and the fragility of a man’s heart and of his reputation. It looks to be a tragedy and in many ways it certainly is but the ending is a not. It’s a very rich listen!   According to Muriel Rukeyser a US poet of the same era as our two stories said,

The universe is made up of stories not of atoms.

I reckon we’re never too old, too busy or too anything, to bend our ears to a gifted story teller.

Left Neglected: Recommended by Jodi Picoult … and me

Cover image of "Left Neglected"There is nothing particularly remarkable about the way Lisa Genova writes, but for some reason I couldn’t put her novel Left Neglected down. My life is nothing like the main character’s: I’m not married; I don’t have any children; I’m not especially career driven, nor do I dream about having a big house in the suburbs; and my brain doesn’t ignore information on the left side of the world. Yet I was completely and utterly engrossed in Sarah Nickerson’s journey to recovery from a traumatic brain injury.

I had never heard of the fascinating neurological syndrome Left Neglect until I picked up this book, but apparently it’s quite common. Lisa Genova has a PhD in neuroscience and obviously did extensive research on the syndrome in order to write about it.

I found myself covering my left eye at times to try to understand what it would be like to think that the left side of the page I am reading or the food on the left side of my plate doesn’t exist because my brain can’t register it. I tried to imagine not being able to feel my left arm or leg, as if these limbs were separate from the rest of me, as if they belonged to someone else entirely.

It was Jodi Picoult’s rave review printed on the cover of Left Neglected that made me want to read this book. I’m glad I did. While there are many differences between Sarah and I, there is one key experience I could relate to, and this is what I loved most about her story: I understand what it’s like to have your life changed forever in an instant; everything you have to adjust to and adjust within yourself as a result; and how, no matter what difficulties you must now face, you can always find the hidden blessing if you allow yourself to really look.

What books have you picked up just because another author you like has recommended it? Did you agree with their praise?

Be your own librarian: a help-yourself guide

CoverLibrarians have a term for helping people find something good to read – “reader’s advisory”. We also have a bunch of fantastic resources we use to find things. Now we’re going to share these not-so-secret tools of the trade with you. So if you’re the kind of person who likes to be left to your own devices when you use the library, then check out this treasure trove of great places to go for book suggestions:

The Almighty Review

I like Tim Burton‘s style. Big Fish is one of my all time favourite films. And even though I’m not a big fan of musicals, I could appreciate the grim artistry of Sweeney Todd. That’s the thing about Tim Burton – some of his movies may not be that great overall (I cringed at his remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), but you have to respect the guy for his  bold vision. So when I heard Tim Burton was taking Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland and making it his own, I was looking forward to seeing the result.

But then I read a bad review. Correction: it wasn’t bad, it was scathing.

[Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is] the kind of film that you don’t just dislike or even hate, but one that your body physically rejects like a dodgy organ transplant. (from review)

 Ouch.

Cover image of The Cinema BookSuddenly I wasn’t in such a hurry to get to the cinema. And it got me thinking about the power of reviews. What someone says about a film/book/album (or anything else one may have an opinion on for that matter) can greatly influence your own interest in that thing.  I’m not just talking about the reviews you read in the paper or online or hear on the radio or TV either. The trusted opinion of a friend is likely to be even more persuasive than that of an unknown critic.

What books or films or music have you got into because of a good review? What have you avoided because of a bad review?

No matter if the review is good or bad, though, it is still publicity. And as the saying goes: “Any publicity is good publicity”. Indeed, Tim Burton may make money out of me yet. Call it morbid curiosity, but part of me still wants to see Alice in Wonderland just to know what everyone is complaining about. There is also another part of me that wants the opportunity to make up my own mind. While others may not have liked the film, I might love it.  By choosing not to watch the movie, I could be missing out on something potentially wonderful (excuse the pun).

Which leads me to a very important question: What have you read/watched/listened to and enjoyed even though you were advised against it? Or absolutely despised, while everyone else raved?

Have you seen Alice in Wonderland yet? If so, what did you think? Is it worth paying a small fortune to see in 3D at the cinema, or should I wait until it comes out on DVD, or steer clear of it altogether?