Summer is upon us and that means it's time for the August edition of A Blogging Good Read. Joining me this month are Sarah, who you might know as @LovelyStrumpet on Twitter and who does lovely poetical things here, and Gwen, aka @FoodieHistorian, who blogs about food and books and all good things here.
What did we read? Well, nothing particularly summery...
Sarah went for Coralineby Neil Gaiman:
This was my pick as I absolutely love Neil Gaiman and I work with children’s fiction, so it’s very much a big part of my work and home life! Saying this, Coraline works just as well as an adult story, fulfilling the part of us which never really abandons fairy tales. However, calling Coraline a mere fairytale is only true in the Grimm-est sense of the word (see what I did there? See?) as it is a tale filled with nightmarish visuals and monstrous psychological ideas, preying on the imagination and confronting your most dormant childhood fears. Coraline, like every other child at some point in their lives, gets fed up of her average, normal family unit and longs for adventure and excitement. A locked door in her drawing room which sometimes opens onto a brick wall and sometimes opens onto a dark, winding passage is DEFINITELY what she considers to be an adventure, but what we as a reader realise is the beginning of the typical Gaiman-esque twists and turns.
Entering the passageway, Coraline finds a flat and a family matching her own, except for one very chilling, unexplained difference - everyone has buttons sewn into their faces in place of eyes. The Other Mum and Other Dad shower Coraline with uncomfortable, bordering on abusive levels of affection and attempt to dispose of her real parents, and it becomes clear to Coraline that they intend to keep her trapped in their mirrored world forever. Coraline has to play a cold, calculating and creepy game of escape, with the prize being the lives of everyone she loves. Gaiman writes masterfully intense sentences, short and to the point, which manage to convey the most unravelling and unsettling ideas through the most normal of words. The pleasant and the horrible are crossed, mixed up and mirrored so often, leaving the reader in overwhelming state of suspense and fear - never quite being able to put your finger on what exactly is wrong, but knowing something horrendously dark and unimaginable has made it so.
I can’t talk much more about the MOST creepy parts or I’ll be giving too much of the ending away, but I can say that, as opposed to actual thriller and horror books, this is one of the most disturbing and the most unsettling, because it plays on the idea of normal, average lives going slightly off-kilter and yet remaining so close to what you know and expect that you can’t recall where it all started changing until it’s too late. It is a story that has stayed with me for a long time, hiding in that recess of memory which also stores that teddy bear that always looked at me funny, and the shape I always thought was hiding in the darkness as soon as my Mum turned off my bedroom light….
What did Gwen think?
I've been meaning to read a Neil Gaiman for ages so I was pleased when Coraline came up. It wouldn't have been my first choice - I tend to steer away from creepy books and this definitely fits into this category.
Nonetheless, I did enjoy it and found it an easy and entertaining read. It won't keep me awake at night but it was particularly clever (and I will be more intrigued by the noises my next door neighbour makes!). I was particularly a fan of the cat being a "goodie" - they are so often the baddies, which does disappoint me!
I'm a big Neil Gaiman fan so I was very happy to have another excuse to pick up Coraline. This time I went for something a little different and listened to the audiobook, read by the author. Well, didn't that just lend a whole level of extra creepiness to proceedings? I had to give up on it at one point as I was too flipping scared to be in the house alone in the dark with this eerie tale unfolding. I didn't want The Other Mother to appear from a doorway!
I don't think that anyone would argue the basic concept of this book is particularly original but parallel worlds are always interesting, aren't they? It's what Gaiman does with the idea of a mirror version of Coraline's small world that is so very fascinating. There's a huge amount of depth and intrigue to this book. Read it: you won't regret it.
I chose Modern Serpents Talk Things Throughby Jamie Brindle:
This book was on my Amazon wishlist for ages and I have no idea who first tipped me off to it - I was convinced it was Sarah but apparently not! Anyway, I gave it a whirl one day and for a very short book (43 pages on Kindle - it's basically a short story), it packs a lot in. Tina, our title character, is a dragon. A very modern one obviously: your traditional fairytale dragon wouldn't go to a therapist or worry about weight, would it?
The normal setup of human breaks into dragon's cave to steal hoard appears here but that's turned on its head too. Tina really doesn't know what to do with the human - she imprisons her at first but then keeps her more as a pet before they go on to develop a secretive but incredibly touching relationship. I wasn't expecting a story this short to make me cry but it has an emotional punch way beyond what you'd expect from such a restrictive page limit.
I'd encourage everyone to give this story a try as I don't think it's the sort of thing that you're likely to stumble across unless it's by recommendation and it's well worth your time. Although it's short and quirky and might not suit everyone's tastes, I really loved it.
Did Sarah enjoy it?
I was really intrigued to get this book on our picks list, as it’s something I stumbled across on Goodreads a while ago and have never found the time to pick up since! I’m a big fan of fantasy novels and love a dragon as much as the next person, so to meet Tina was a bit of a surprise – part metaphor, part anthropomorphised reptile and part work of fiction, Tina is a modern dragon, with diets, gym classes and a therapist with whom she discusses the most pertinent of subjects (how she feels ostracised from the community, how she is vilified for no reason, and why she keeps a human locked up in her cupboard, for example...)
I found the story on the whole to be surprisingly philosophical, from a ‘tables have turned’ point of view – Tina feels that the dwarves and the humans attack her and invade her space, when all she wants to do is be peaceful and enjoy collecting things for her hoard. She doesn’t like killing people, but it seems to be an unavoidable part of her genetic make-up, and she feels incredibly guilty and confused about doing so. With uncomfortably true insights into the human psyche – Tina finds humans to be sad, scared little creatures – Tina easily becomes a familiar and likeable protagonist, and the whole upside down world in which she lives (humans as barbaric lower life forms, dragons as highly developed caring and feeling creatures) makes you think about how real life society forms and grows and changes in our own world.
This is a very quick, enjoyable read (I had finished it on my daily commute) and a very sweet commentary on ideas larger and more complex than their portrayal shows. My only criticism was that there didn’t seem to be anything groundbreaking or new hidden within the pages, and I found the ending slightly abrupt!
Did Gwen like it?
Again - one I wouldn't normally choose but another I enjoyed (this is why I love Blogging Good Read!). It's more of a novelette, a short story, but is clever in the way that it subverts the readers expectations. I suspect that everyone would identify with the themes - the need to be loved, accepted, and the fear of judgement. If I was being cynical then I could say that at times it verges on the contrived, but considering it's an early effort by an author I suspect we'll hear more of in future, I enjoyed it. I should also add - it made me laugh, which is a rarity!
Gwen's selection was Dr Jekyll and Mr Hydeby Robert Louis Stevenson:
I picked this one because I realised that I've lived in Edinburgh for seven years, and I've never read Jekyll and Hyde. I realised while reading it that it isn't *actually* set in Edinburgh...!
I really enjoyed the dark and frankly unnerving tale of Jekyll and Hyde. While it could be seen to be a Victorian attempt to understand complicated mental health issues, I didn't read it that way - just as a mysterious tale. There's something deliciously gothic about it and I'm not sure it really worked during summer evenings, but it's another one that would be wonderful read aloud in the depths of winter.
Shame on me, yet another classic that I'd never read. I have now! It's strange in a way to come to something like this when you're so familiar with it from pop culture - I doubt that many people have actually read the book but everyone knows what Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde means as a term of reference. It was quite a delight to finally discover the ins and outs of the story.
I'm sure I've read somewhere that Stevenson wrote this book really quickly and I think it shows (in a good way!) - the story fairly rattles along and you're gripped from start to finish. Given the oppressive atmosphere of the setting, I don't think I'd have wanted this to be a huge tome! It's the perfect length - detailed enough to be really captivating and atmospheric but not so engrossed in the minutiae that you feel like you're going to die of old age before you finish it *cough*Dickens*cough*
What did Sarah think?
EVERYONE’S heard of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and had it thrown at them when they were experiencing a particular bad hormone swing, right? I always used to think that Dr Jekyll was the ‘evil’ one and Mr Hyde the normal guy, maybe because of the whole ‘Dr’ (Dr Frankenstein?) thing. After reading it, there is no longer any confusion – the twisted, loathsome My Hyde is not an character that will be easy to forget, or easy to confuse.
Contrary to the many film adaptations of DJ&MH, the original by Stevenson is more of a mystery novel than a sci-fi thriller, and in my opinion it reads better for it. What I especially love about nineteenth and twentieth century novels is the complete lack of modern theme, gadgets and tropes that are included in all modern crime fiction; the somewhat dusty sense of ‘the old fashioned world’ lends a creepiness and air or mystery that you just don’t get nowadays, and somehow makes the whole premise of the plot – a potion which unleashes an evil inner persona – so much more hazardous and terrible and fearful. If you already know the general gist of the story, Stevenson's original novel is an excellent read as you discover it’s so much darker and so much more philosophical than later more ‘fantastical’ adaptations let on. If you’re not aware of the plot, then it’s a definite must read – an exploration of what it means to be good and evil, about how each single person can rotate on the spectrum, about just how deep and dark human nature can be, and about the endless struggle of humanity against its own genius evolution and education.
Whilst I wouldn’t call this a ‘scary’ book it definitely taps into some derivative of fear, as a reader I was more disgusted and appalled rather than scared in the worst parts. The twist, at the time of Stevenson writing the novel, was BRILLIANT, and must have been brilliant to read, and my only disappointment was that I already knew the true nature of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde from the outset so the shock of the ending was somewhat lost on me. Still – a brilliant, clever, snaking novel, timeless in appeal and a must-read if you’ve ever explored any of the adaptations.
Thank you so much, Sarah and Gwen. I really enjoyed this month's exploration into the eerie side of things - not summery at all, but excellent nonetheless!
The books for next month's edition are Burial Ritesby Hannah Kent, This is Not a Love Storyby Keren David and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikryby Gabrielle Zevin.