By BRUCE DENNILL
Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman
Landy At The Factory / Fender And The Cliff Rescue / Landy And The Apple Harvest
Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
Where My Heart Used To Beat by Sebastian Faulks
Secret Paris by Jacques Garance & Maud Ratton
Tug Of War by Naomi Howarth
Mongrel by William Dicey
Neil Gaiman has a reputation so formidable – depending on perspectives, he’s punted as the next Terry Pratchett, the next Roald Dahl, the next Stephen King, and sometimes all of those rolled into one – that meeting expectations can be all but impossible. Trigger Warning, a collection of short stories is, on a first reading, uneven – intriguing angles on otherwise conventional topics, leading up to occasional tales of wonderful, sometimes surreal imagination and detail and then looping around to start that cycle again. First time around, there are obvious highlights. The Thing About Cassandra finds a teenager in a romantic dream of his own making; The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains is a concise epic recalling no less than Tolkein; Click-Clack The Rattlebag is a nightmare put on paper; and Black Dog is a an old folk tale cum murder mystery steeped in myth. The rest is variously not as accessible, curiously structured or simply not as hard-hitting as you feel it should be. Except that the stories don’t leave you once you’ve finished the book. There’s something about not knowing what is left just outside the frame in A Lunar Labyrinth that makes you uneasy weeks later. The twist in Down To A Sunless Sea is devastating. And the glorious silliness of And Weep, Like Alexander is an antidote to not only the superficiality of modern life as satirised in the piece but to the more oppressive pieces elsewhere. Trigger Warning will stand – or perhaps deserves – repeated readings.
It seems its’s never too early to begin marketing a product to a new audience, and if the likes of Disney have been getting away with targeting children with merchandise for years, why can’t a company like Land Rover? That said, expectations are that this series of books based on Land Rover-based characters should be far cheesier than it is, with all credit to writer and illustrator Veronica Lamond for taking a corporate brief and making it into a stories that fit the same edutainment niche as the better British children’s television programming. Of the three books, Landy At The Factory is the most strident punt, though a youngster may not worry too much about that. The other two are simply enjoyable, old-fashioned stories of people in small English villages helping each other out – as they’ve always done (except when Dickens was watching…). Infinitely preferable to yet another sales pamphlet.
Given its 700-page heft, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink may have many people who have listened to his left-of-mainstream music thinking, “Am I a big enough fan of Elvis Costello to commit to all of this?” That would be a valid concern where the book merely a conventional blow-by-blow account of his life, just padding out the headlines, as many autobiographies do. But it is evident from very early on here that Costello is, among his other skills, an exceptional writer – sensitive, funny, insightful and blunt when the narrative requires it. His experience as a songwriter has honed his powers of observation and eye for detail (or perhaps that relationship developed the other way around), and a life spent touring and spending time in the company of interesting people has furnished him with a thousand fascinating anecdotes and an awareness of how he has been shaped by each of those tales. The book is shot through, unsurprisingly, with multiple references to his songs – snatches of lyrics that confirm the intelligent quirkiness of his perspectives as well as the incredible level of productivity he has sustained for decades now. That mixture of informal documentary reportage and creative interpretation of themes that others see in simpler, perhaps less meaningful ways keeps the tone light but significant, and the many milestones – mostly musical – that readers will recognise makes it easy to intersect Costello’s story with your own. This is a literary achievement, celebrating the professional and artistic accomplishments of an intriguing individual.
Where My Heart Used To Be is a lyrical study of identity, the external forces that might shape it and the murky business of recovering it once it’s (apparently) become less defined than it once was. Robert Hendricks is a psychologist who fought in and survived the Second World War and whose father, he discovers, was involved in the First World War. Sebastian Faulks, of course, enjoys some renown as a war writer (his much-awarded book Birdsong dealt with fighting on the Somme in World War One), and the scenes in which Hendricks recalls engaging in battle or the details of life on the front feel acutely – often disturbingly – real. The other major thread in the novel is the relationship between Hendricks and an elderly benefactor named Alexander Pereira, who lives on a remote island and purports to be a fan of Hendricks’ writing and also a peer of his guest’s father. Their relationship holds interest because Faulks adds detail slowly and scrupulously; a recipe that can’t be rushed. But before either of these storylines is fully developed, both Faulks and his character seem distracted, with the reader following Hendricks down a number of dead ends that add colour but no real clarity to the book’s protagonist. Where My Heart Used To Be is excellent in parts, but doesn’t linger too long in the memory once the story ends.
Secret Paris is part of a series from Jonglez Publishing that continues to highlight what is arguably the best way to travel – with your eyes open for the details that make a location unique. That sort of distinctiveness doesn’t lie in specific art museums or any other similar institutions – it’s in the features that often go unnoticed but which, once on the radar, are so intriguing and quirkily charming that you’ll find it difficult to stop looking for them when visiting a new city. Paris is riddled with mainstream tourist attractions – it has more than most – but it also has centuries of history, and with that, layers and layers of design, architecture, art, archaeology and culture. So it’s not surprising that this small book is as dense as it is. Split into sections according to the city’s arrondissements, the attractions authors Jacques Garance and Maud Ratton have researched vary in size and significance depending on their proximity to the centre of town, from an entire cathedral regular visitors or even residents may not know about, to somewhere out in the suburbs (an ancient artesian well, or a leafy artist’s colony). Not all of the entries here will be equally interesting to to all readers, but you’d need to spend about a year full-time in Paris to see everything in the book, so cherry-picking your favourites will still keep you busy.
Tug Of War is a simple fable underscores the notion – the truth – that size and strength are not the only measures that matter. It involves a tortoise who is simply seeking companionship. Yet when he approaches the first two creatures he encounters, and elephant and a hippopotamus, they treat him with disdain on account of their stature. So he comes up with a scheme to teach them a lesson. It’s a straightforward, effective tale that’s beautifully illustrated, with the busier spreads recalling Henri Rousseau’s jungle scenes. A lovely gift for a younger reader.
Essays are no longer a common choice for writers wanting to convey an idea or a series of thoughts, but when well-written, they are immensely satisfying to read, as they often delve into the soul of a subject, rather than just evoking – however well – a sense of time and place. William Dicey is a tremendously talented writer and his intellect, sensitivity and eye for detail are all on a similar level. Mongrel collects six essays, which apparently took six years to write. Now it’s impossible to tell if the pieces were worked on constantly over that time, assiduously tweaked and perfected until Dicey felt they were exactly right, but it may as well have been the case, as each peace is immaculate – a joy to read and the sort of outcome other writers covet for themselves. The topics of the various essays are early markers of their appeal, ranging from an examination of one of those festivals that only happen in small, backwoods towns (the focus is on meat in this case) to travelling to the outer reaches of India based on enjoyment of a book (a deliciously indulgent reaction to a good read), via the challenges – ethical and practical – of running a farm and unpacking, in a way that makes you feel quite ill, the shortfalls of the South African justice system. More of this – and soon, please.