F is for Funke

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Three things you should know about Cornelia Funke and Inkheart:

  1. This was translated from German
  2. She is the second bestselling children’s author in Germany, behind she-who-shall-not-be-named
  3. Inkheart is the first in a trilogy

So there you go. Number one is important because sometimes, I felt that some of the prose was a bit strange. I put number two in because I was surprised she was number two (because I didn’t think it was amazing) and I was surprised she was behind what’s her name (because Funke deserves better than that). Number three because, I found it interesting and it tells you a lot about a book before you even begin.

There is a huge tradition of fantasy novels which come in long, drawn out series. HP fans may well believe that it started with their mistress, but it started long before then. You could argue that Doyle’s The Lost World is the first in a series of fantasy books with Professor Challenger in (it has dinosaurs, it counts as fantasy) and that was written nearly one hundred years ago. Besides that, there are the more obvious choices of Lord of the Rings, Lemony Snicket, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea, Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Garth Nix’s Sabriel/Old Kingdom. I wish sometimes that fantasy writers could write a story in one book, from beginning to end. Diana Wynne Jones does that pretty well, but most of them (let’s face it, most writers, no matter what genre it is) can’t resist a little overhang, a snippet of plot to hang onto and pull the reader into the next story. For those who like fantasy trilogies – any of the aforementioned come highly recommended, along with Marianne Curley’s Guardians of Time. As far as the little wizard and the precocious dragon riders go, I don’t recommend them.

Anyway, back to the plot. Meggie Folchart’s twelve year long life is turned upside down when a mysterious stranger turns up at her home, which she shares with her father, Mo. An adventure ensues where people and books get kidnapped and rescued, villains are met, stories unravel and so on.

Number one on the list features quite heavily in the next couple of points I have to make. I got very confused about the geography of Inkheart as quite early on in the book Meggie and Mo set out for Italy, which they claim will take about a day. Obviously my British arrogance was quickly uncovered because they don’t live in the UK, being German. Silly me.

The addition of relevant quotes from (mainly children’s) classics at the beginning of each chapter was a lovely idea, and I really enjoyed reading them and trying to guess where they were from before I read the bottom line. I also added a couple of books to my ever-increasing ‘I want to read that’ pile – TH White’s The Once and Future King being one of them. Ooh, I might read that for W.

I know it sounds daft, but I got the character names muddled in my head so I called Meggie ‘Maggie’ for 90% of the book, and Farid ‘Fraid’. I even managed to arrange Resa’s name to spell… well, you get the idea.

I realise I haven’t spoken about the story at all. Basically, Mo can read characters and objects into existence from the pages of books. The rules appear to be simple – it has to be aloud, it has to be meaningful and if a real live person appears, someone from our world disappears. A sort of less witchy The Craft type energy balance deal. Mo once read a real villain into existence, along with the mysterious stranger who first appears at the window at the beginning, and a couple of others.

One thing that bothered me was that when Mo read from Inkheart and made the fantasy characters into flesh, only one person vanished – his wife, Meggie’s mother. Perhaps I missed it, but I didn’t see a solution apart from ‘the two cats’ which don’t count later on in the book and don’t even match the total of three men and a marten.

I loved that books in Inkheart weren’t just things to do, but places to go. I know when I read a book I’m really enjoying, I actually go with the characters. I can see the Nine Lives of Island Mackenzie and Susie Salmon’s ‘heaven’ and the whole assortment of characters in Pippi Longstocking. This was literally true in Inkheart, where small boys spring to life and tin soldiers drop from the sky.

The idea is a good one, but I remembered that it’s not wholly original. Influences and influencers have always been around, which is fine, but it seemed like that was the one magickal part about the story. Characters come to life in Garth Nix’s Keys to the Kingdom trilogy and in the film of Young Sherlock Holmes (“Young Sherlock Holmes”, I believe) the stained glass window comes to life and tries to run the children through with his big sword. Remember that bit? Brilliant.

Still, I would have been more eager to read the other two books (Inkspell and Inkheart) if there was more to the story. I also felt that some of the phrases were a bit stumbly, which may be down to the translation from German. In some bits, especially the quotes at the beginning of chapters, words were even missed out which made it… interesting to read.

At the end of the book there’s an interview with Cornelia Funke, which is pretty cool as there’s quite a big section in Inkheart about how most peo
ple think that authors are dead and buried, rather than living. I reckon that was aimed at kids, in a not so subtle attempt to get them to read more and make celebrities out of the authors. I can’t remember the exact question or her answer, but Funke says that it was her daughter’s idea to put in the romance between Meggie and Farid. I had to double check on the romance, which had a couple of mentions where they look at each other. I reckon it’ll develop into something more over the next couple of books but really, could she not have fitted it in to one book?

It’s quite hefty, at nearly six hundred pages long, but I believe that Cornelia could’ve stripped about two hundred pages out of that at least. There’s a lot of repetition, and while I appreciate that you don’t want to read the same name hundreds of times, when she’s still called ‘Silvertongue’s daughter’ at page five hundred, it just looks a bit strange.

In conclusion, I probably won’t read the rest. Some parts of the book were lovely, especially the tin soldier section and the evident love of books. If I was twelve, I’d probably have loved all of them AND the film.

E is for Ellis

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I feel like I miss the point with Bret Easton Ellis. I’ve read half of American Psycho, all of Rules of Attraction and now all of Less than Zero, and it feels like a joke I don’t get. I couldn’t read American Psycho as all of the identikit businessmen were getting me down. We get it, everyone’s the same, we’re not individual etc etc. I enjoyed Rules of Attraction because it had more actual plot and better characters. Less Than Zero unfortunately falls into the first bracket of Ellis books.

Clay is a thin, blond, tan college student who’s come home for the holidays. All of his friends are thin, blond and tan. Most of them are college students, some of them are drug dealers but the majority of them combine the two lifestyles, while remaining thin, blond and tan. You get the idea – Clay’s rich parents don’t pay him enough attention, but neither do the parents of his thin, blond, tan friends, so it’s all okay.

There really isn’t a lot more to tell about story. I like the verbal motifs that crop up throughout the novel – Clay picks up on a phrase his friend says about driving (people are afraid to merge) which he builds on until it becomes a chorus of mis-matched, out of context and meaningful words on how shit life is.

Ellis reminds me of Douglas Coupland, but he lacks any of the wry humour and downright humanity present in JPod, for example.

Some things I learned from Wikipedia and imdb: Less Than Zero was Ellis’ first book. There’s a film of it too, released in 1987 and starring John Hughes muse Andrew McCarthy as the aforementioned Clay. Robert Downey Jr and James Spader also appear in the cast list, as fairly prominent characters. Interestingly, none of them are blond, thin and tan.

Seriously, if anyone can explain to me why I should like Ellis’ writing, please do. I don’t dislike it, and I can appreciate that his style may be loved by many, but for me he just doesn’t press the right buttons. There are only so many business cards, lines of coke or blond, tan people I can stomach without reading something else.

D is for Doyle

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For my D I read “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle. According to my trusty tool, Wikipedia, it was first released in 1912, which is pretty cool when you think about it, as it’s quite a long time ago and people can still read it! Unlike this new-fangled internet thing, where people skim read/look at pictures once and then forget about it. However, I shouldn’t bite the hand that’s feeding me, so to speak, so I’ll move on.

The Lost World tells the tale of Edward Malone, a journalist roped into meeting the awesome Professor Challenger by his gruff Scottish boss. Challenger challenges (arf) accepted scientific theories about evolution by maintaining that dinosaurs are alive and well in a remote part of the Amazon jungle. He’s also a bit of a livewire, which is a bit like saying that Mother Theresa was quite nice. Challenger is described almost exactly like Brian Blessed, except that he’s quite short. On Malone’s first meeting, Challenger rassles around his study and eventually out of the front door, where he is admonished by a passing policeman.

In a relatively short space of time, Malone finds himself agreeing to be a neutral party on the expedition to (dis)prove Challenger’s theories once and for all. Unsurprisingly, he volunteers for this mission to win the heart of a lady. When you think about it, there are lots of books and films where the driving force is love. James Bond’s raison d’etre is arguably to avenge the death of his wife. It also explains his rather offhand way with women in subsequent stories. Gladys tells Malone that she wants a man who’s adventured, experienced and can basically sweep her off her feet with a pinky.

I couldn’t help equating Challenger to Doyle himself while reading the book, mashed in with Brian Blessed. This was even harder to do when you add in what’s on Doyle’s epitaph:

STEEL TRUE
BLADE STRAIGHT
ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE
KNIGHT
PATRIOT, PHYSICIAN & MAN OF LETTERS

…which is basically what I want, along with Oscar Wilde’s “Wit”. Maybe a ‘Woman of letters’ instead. It is interesting that he has patriot on his tombstone but is buried in England. Perhaps he’s a British patriot. Either way, I reckon Doyle was a bit of a ‘character’.

Once the intrepid explorers actually arrive at the location, they pick up some guides to help them on their way. Aside from the phoenetic Scots accent, this is the bit that made me a bit uncomfortable, as my PC conscience started shrieking at me. The ‘natives’ are jolly nice red fellows, while the nonedescript cowboy types are villains, caught up in a blood battle which endanngers all of the nice white men. I suppose the book was written nearly one hundred years ago, and perception has changed a lot since then. It does beg the question though: Should I turn a blind eye to that part because Doyle created Sherlock Holmes and was a pretty decent writer, or should I shun all of his work because he didn’t think as equally as the majority of people do in this century? Rather like Fleming’s work (Mr Charming should be happy, lots of Bond references) , I don’t believe that you should ignore a body of work because you don’t agree. It represents a snapshot in time and society which can be kept forever, if we’re careful.

Aside from that, reading The Lost World’s a bit like reading a Famous Five novel where they are all tipsy from lashings of ginger beer. Proper beer, not that wimpy fizzy stuff. There’re lots of “jolly odd” and “fine chap, that one” as well as an Awfully Big Adventure in the form of a long journey, betrayal and obviously – dinosaurs.

Two things impressed me about this book. The first thing is that there was what appeared to me to be a plausible explanation for a previously undiscovered land where dinosaurs roam. In a nutshell, it’s that earthquakes moved the tectonic plates at some point, so that a section shot skywards. The animals stranded on the high clifftop went happily about their business for hundreds of years, rubbing shoulders with two sorts of humans and lots of creepy crawlies. That may not seem likely now, but there are still sections of the Amazon we do not know about, along with Australia, Russia and indeed, the sea. I like that idea more than the amber theory, anyway.

The other thing that impressed me was the sheer eloquence of the written words. Doyle manages to pack a lot into a relatively short novel – around three hundred pages. The characters begin in London, travel all the way to The Lost World, spend months there and travel all of the way back to London. Added to that, they also relate their t
ale to sceptical Londoners and there’s even room at the end to set up a sequel! Not a word was wasted, and I never felt like I was reading the same things over and over.

It’s not really my cup of tea, but I did enjoy it and would recommend it to people looking like a good old-fashioned adventure story, akin to Verne.