Tag Archives: Friday Five

Friday Five: time-shift novels

P1030049I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of different time lines, or time that moves in different ways in different places. So it’s hardly a surprise that some of my favourite books share this subject:

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe: C S Lewis

I loved this book as a kid – the adventure, the talking animals, but most of all the concept that people could grow into adults in another world, then come back home and have only aged by seconds. The later book The Magician’s Nephew examines the whole subject in more detail but this was the one I read first and it remains a favourite.

Tom’s Midnight Garden: Philippa Pearce

Another classic, this time using the device of a beautiful garden as a kind of ‘time portal’ for a young lad to go back into the grand Victorian past of the house he’s staying in. I loved it as a kid and I still love it now – the descriptions of the past are vivid and magical and the explanation comes as a complete – but satisfying – surprise.

The House on the Strand: Daphne du Maurier

Not one of du Maurier’s better known works but it should be in my opinion! This time it’s an experimental drug which appears to send the book’s narrator into the past, based around the (real) village of Tywardreath in Cornwall. The medieval landscape and characters are brought to life so strongly it’s as though we’re walking the same paths and streets as Dick. Quite possibly my favourite book of all time, with a terrific knock-out punch of a twist.

The Time Traveller’s Wife: Audrey Niffenegger

A much more recent book that plays wonderfully with the concept of time, by having it passing in different directions for two characters who meet and fall in love, at totally different stages of their lives. For me, the violent ending spoiled the poignancy of the rest of the book, but I still loved the sheer originality and the deeply unusual romance.

Roses in December: Fiona Glass

*cough* One of mine included on the list. But given how much I loved most of the above, it’s hardly surprising I’d try my hand at a similar theme myself. Like Tom’s Midnight Garden, in Roses it’s a garden which acts as a portal for characters to slip between past and present, with shocking but ultimately heart-warming results. It’s currently out of print but I’m hopeful of getting it re-published at some point.

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Friday Five: favourite first lines

A fistful of Fs for today’s title, and a fistful of first lines that have caught my attention, one way or another, over the years. In sort of reverse order, they are:

The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Not the most descriptive or earth-shattering opening to a book ever, but I love it for the sheer simplicity, and the way it draws you in, wanting to know what a hobbit is and why it would live in a hole. The next line, involving the “ends of worms and an oozy smell”, adds a touch of the dry humour that permeates the book, and marks it out as much more of a children’s read than the sequel Lord of the Rings.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” I like this one because it seems to sum up pretty much the whole of a very thick novel in that one first line, but without giving away the sheer detail of the main character Cal’s life story. It also sounds impossible, which is a great hook!

Gleams of a Remoter World by, er, me

“‘It was a dark and stormy night’? Pull the other one, Chris, we are not starting a report like that…” I’m totally cheating with this one since it’s my own, but I’ve always liked the idea of playing around with clichés and putting them to better, if slightly evil, use. When I read out the opening paragraph at a writers’ convention a few years ago it got a resounding cheer, and recently a friend told me it was still one of her favourites, so it must have made a good impression on someone!

The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier

I’m not going to quote the whole first line here because it’s colossal, but it’s also really clever because it sets up a world that seems familiar yet oddly out-of-kilter at the same time, and draws you along with the book’s hero Dick deep into that world without you quite realising how different it is. I won’t reveal more in case it spoils the story, but it’s one of my favourite books ever and well worth trying if you’re not familiar with it.

The Crow Road by Iain M Banks

“It was the day my grandmother exploded.” Definitely the most original, engaging first line of any book I’ve ever read. It’s got drama, it’s got black humour, it’s got a massive punch of a hook… It’s just a shame that for me, the rest of the book failed to live up to this wonderful opening – although I realise I’m in a minority on that one. One of these days I’ll have to give it another go. The exploding grandma deserves a second chance!

So go on, what are some of your favourites? Are there any obvious ones I’ve missed? Feel free to add them in the comments – I’d love to hear.

 

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Friday Five – unusual historicals

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There’s a tendency sometimes for historical novels to be set in very similar time periods – Henry VIII, the English Civil War, Victorian Britain.  So it’s a breath of fresh air to discover books set in some much more unusual times and places that you might not otherwise have come across.  Here’s a handful I’ve read over the years.

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

Beautiful, lyrical and incredibly authentic story set in medieval Japan, with all the elements of Japanese literature including romance, destruction and tragedy. I believe it’s actually a YA title, but really doesn’t read like it and tackles some amazingly adult themes.

As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann

This is actually set against the backdrop of the English Civil War, but stands out for two reasons.  One is the sheer sensory overload of sights, smells and sounds of the time, which gives it a strong sense of authenticity. The other is that the main character is a gay man.  The romance is affecting, the characters strongly drawn, and I found it hard to put down.

Death of a Monk by Alon Hilu

A simply extraordinary book written by an Israeli author and translated into English in a volume I found in a second hand book store in London. The story involves another gay man struggling to cope with marriage, relationships and life in 1840s Damascus, when the city was subdivided into a number of racially divided but surprisingly well integrated quarters. A unique and mesmerising book.

People’s Act of Love by James Meek

A searing romance-cum-historical-cum mystery set against the wilderness backdrop of early twentieth century Siberia during the early years of the Revolution. At times brutal, but also imbued with a mischievous sense of humour – and the final revelation is almost literally to die for!

The Sleeper in the Sands by Tom Holland

A sort of ‘thousand and one nights’ for ancient Egypt, with a storyline that moves from Howard Carter’s discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb to a series of ancient myths and legends that form a story within a story within a story. Slightly confusing at times and I’d have like more about Carter, but it was gripping and unusual.

 

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Friday Five – garden mysteries

P1020888I’m a sucker for any kind of mystery and I love gardens and gardening, so it stands to reason I would seek out books with a bit of both.  I’ve read a few over the years; here’s a selection of some of them:

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

Still one of my favourite books and a big influence on my writing even now. I love the descriptions of the garden of the past, and the happiness Tom finds there, and the reveal still has the power to send shivers up my spine. I also love the way she manages to write a children’s novel without ever talking down – the language and themes are remarkably grown up.

The Savage Garden by Mark Mills

A fascinating exploration of a Renaissance garden in Tuscany, and the macabre hidden message it sends out via statues, grottoes and classical inscriptions.  I found it hard to put down.  It’s billed as a murder mystery, but really has more in common with Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, except that it’s less hysterical and much, much better written.

The Serpent in the Garden by Janet Gleeson

Overall this was a little too cosy for my tastes, but I enjoyed the descriptions of the 18th century garden, the hot house and the mystic art of growing pineapples!  There’s also a nod to the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.  A shame that the plot, involving a stolen emerald necklace, didn’t entirely hold up to scrutiny.

Thornyhold by Mary Stewart

Another favourite, with a wonderful sense of otherworldliness and a plot that involves telepathy, white witchcraft and herbalism.  In places it’s desperately sad, but the ‘fairy godmother’ saves the day.  A beautiful and absorbing read.

The Sea Garden by Sam Llewellyn

A recent find, set in a fascinating 18th century garden by the sea (on an island off the Cornish coast, no less), where the new owner finds a human skull in a flower bed and sets off to discover who it once belonged to.  Again, this is less murder mystery and more a sprawling family saga involving all sorts of skeletons in all sorts of closets, and I really enjoyed it.

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