A few selections from the last week(s), featuring an excellent mix of weirdness, magic, and banned books.
This week I’ve been reading:
Rotherweird by Andrew Caldecott (Jo Fletcher Books, 2018)
The rural town of Rotherweird is quaint, mysterious, and intensely private. Outsiders cannot remain inside the town borders overnight. The town rules itself without concern for or from wider British law. Their suspicion of the unknown extends into the past – no records exist and no history can be taught about the town and wider world prior to 1800.
A few weeks ago, my GPS incorrectly identified my location as on the River Hipper. Curious about the name, I explored the online map, only to find the River Hipper is itself a tributary of the River Rother. After being distracted by testing the names out loud a few times, pleased with their feel and sound, I carried on with my day.
When I picked up Rotherweird, judging it initially by its crowded cover by Leo Nickolls, and saw that it was set on this pleasing River Rother, I knew I had to buy it. For an impulse purchase, I could not have been more satisfied. It’s rare to find a book that blends fantastical imagination, memorable characters, engaging plot, and beautiful, literary writing so successfully. Rotherweird is quirky, funny, and intriguing. I loved the blend of Elizabethan and modern storylines. While so many of the fantasy books I read rely on the world-building and epic, adventurous story-lines for their success, I almost felt Rotherweird could be work without any magic at all, which is not to say that the magical elements aren’t essential to the setting and story-line. Perhaps it’s that the magic is so embedded in the world it doesn’t feel like a fantasy novel, just a novel about a world that happens to have magic in it.
Rotherweird also features my favourite ever (thus far) literary sex scene (names have been removed for the prevention of plot spoilers):
“Only a monk would have described the ensuing hour as a passionate encounter, more a mix of tussle, fumble (mainly [him]), warm embrace (mainly [her]), and occasional laughter. Yet both emerged the better, having discovered a mutual point of suffering in their reservoirs of unspent affection.” p.332.
This week I’ve been listening to:
John Finnemore, My Teenage Diary (BBC Radio 4, broadcast Tuesday 19th June)
My fondness for, no, let’s be honest, obsession with John Finnemore now extends to his 19-year-old self, as expressed in his teenage diary. His diary begins halfway through his gap year before university, when he suddenly panics that he isn’t doing anything with his life. He decides, based on little to no research, that he should teach English as a foreign language in Poland. A few weeks later, with no job, nowhere to stay, and no knowledge of the language, he arrives in Poland. Let the adventures begin. One of the things I love about My Teenage Diary is seeing the burgeoning teenage talent that will become the famous writer, artist or comedian. Finnemore’s diary is no exception: his writing hints at a voice with which we are all familiar. It is very very funny, and endearingly self-deprecating.
Joanne Harris, Q&A, Waterstones Milton Keynes
What a privilege to see the brilliant Joanne Harris live: an opportunity to learn about her inspirations, processes, and love of Norse myths. I love hearing her stories about reading growing up – her mother forbade her from reading fantasy, science fiction, and horror. She was, however, allowed to read myths – these were deemed educational. Surrounded by the dry French books of her academic parents, she took refuge in her local library, only to find that the local librarian was nearly as strict as her mother. Having read every book on the lonely shelf of children’s library books (including reading the book of Norse myths repeatedly – the librarian used to reach for it whenever she saw Joanne Harris coming), she was allowed to progress early, at the age of 10, to adult books. But she was only allowed to borrow one adult library book a month, and she had to choose wisely. If the librarian thought it wasn’t appropriate for her, she would have to return the book to the shelves, and wait for next month. Thus she spent as much time in the library as she could skimming though the pages of forbidden books, before choosing one she knew would be acceptable when the time came to leave. Joanne Harris gleefully explained that as a result, her first book, a horror, she wrote primarily to annoy her mother.
This week I’ve been watching…
Matilda the Musical, Dennis Kelly and Tim Minchin (RSC on tour: Milton Keynes theatre)
While I go to the theatre as much as I can, it’s rare that I’ll see the same show twice. It was therefore such a treat to see Matilda for the second time, having already seen it once a few years ago at the Cambridge Theatre. It says a lot about the quality of the production already that I would want to see it multiple times. The joy and magic of the production and its music are infectious. The music and lyrics are exceptional, full of Tim Minchin’s unique humour and understanding of the world:
Like silence, but not really silent.
Just that still sort of quiet.
Like the sound of a page being turned in a book.
But the design, oh the design! It’s everything I think a design should be. Practically, we have a backdrop with set pieces brought in, but each set piece matches the overall aesthetic. While each location is in some way clearly marked, it is still theatrical rather than naturalistic. The designs are reliant on the audience’s imaginations to fill in the gaps, but because of the uniting aesthetic, we never once leave the world of the play. And the aesthetic itself is perfectly tuned to appeal to me and people like me (and other people who wish they were Matilda), based on words and blocks of letters, spelling out each location. The library clock has the letters ‘t’, ‘i’, ‘m’ and ‘e’ instead of numbers, Miss Honey’s floor is decorated with ‘home sweet home’. And the set just looks so much fun – swings, slides, pommel horses, and scooters. (We’ll forget about the chokey for now.) Matilda is one of the few shows I’ve seen that I’ve forgotten I was watching a show, and was just completely absorbed in the experience of it. The stagecraft (such as Matilda’s powers) is so well done that even having seen it twice I’m convinced that some of it could only have been achieved with magic.
Special mention goes to Pete Brassett’s murder mystery series, the latest installment of which has just been released. Perdition balances dark twists and turns with illuminating rays of wit and humour. A thoroughly enjoyable read all round.