Saturday, 9 October 2010

Jules Hardy - Altered Land

This book has sat on my ‘to read’ shelf for about three years, so I thought I would remedy this by taking it on holiday and eliminating my other reading options. I bought the book in my first year of university as it was recommended by a tutor... and Jules Hardy was a Bath Spa Graduate.

Also I found the title compelling, and we all know how important titles can be after the Pacific Vortex!­ incident. Altered Land is quite ambiguous in its meaning; it could have been about a place that had changed after an event, or some twisted dream version of the real world. Jules Hardy’s Altered Land is the former, or rather how the lives of people are altered after an event.

I have to say, the first section of the book is one of the unsurpassed bits of prose I’ve read in a long time. The characters are well structured and even though the prose isn’t in chronological order, it’s still easy to follow. There is a missing ‘a’ on page 77 but that’s no big deal, and I was genuinely surprised by the revelation.

However, there are three things that annoyed me. There are POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD just so you are aware.

The first irritation is a big one. One of the main characters becomes deaf and is hospitalised for a year. After the character leaves hospital, his doctor writes him a letter where he says, ‘you can write or call any time.’ The character is deaf! What good is calling you if he’s deaf, he won’t hear you, you treated him for a year, how can you be so thoughtless!? It doesn’t end there though. Neither of the two characters who read the letter seem to notice this neglectful statement at which point it stops being the doctor’s fault and becomes the writer’s.

Moving on to point number too, and it’s a minor thing, there seem to be a few Americanisms. Firstly, another of our characters gets tenure at the University of Exeter and while this may have been possible, it’s not likely as the tenure system is not widely used in the UK, and Exeter University wasn’t very old at the time. Later on, there is a description of a house with a basketball hoop above the garage door; the American equivalent of having a mini football goal in the back garden.

I probably wouldn’t make much of the above point if Hardy’s main character wasn’t a carpenter. I make a point to read books cover to cover and I’m glad because on the author introductory page, it says that Jules Hardy is a trained carpenter. So, for a book, we have a carpenter working in the area where the author lives. Exactly how much research did Jules Hardy do? It’s like she researched the hospital bit at the beginning, got bored, and then didn’t research again. I’m guessing she got all the tenure stuff from an episode of Friends, and the basketball hoop from watching too many movies.

And the talk of research brings me round to my last subject; football. Hardy has used a memory from the 1966 World Cup Final to frame the novel. It’s not that her facts are wrong, but more that her main character has an avid interest in football. As stated in the novel, it’s one of the only things he can watch on TV without the luxury of sound. But, when she writes from this character’s perspective, she doesn’t highlight his interest. Just a little fact about what’s going on in the matches he watches would be enough, but we don’t even find out what team he supports.

But, other than those three tiny issues, Altered Land is probably the best 324 pages of literature I’ve read in a while. I would recommend it to friends, relatives and fans of light literary fiction with a balance between storytelling, imagery and character insight.

Altered Land by Jules Hardy was published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd in 2002. RRP £6.99 (Paperback)

A side note on location: One of characters drives from Noss Mayo to Exeter University on a regular basis. Getting there and back means covering 90 miles a day.

Erin Hunter - Warriors, Into the Wild

Getting this book hinged on a simple decision; left or right. I went right and it resulted in a mile walk across a city to a second hand book where I found Warriors, Into the Wild for a small fee of two pounds. If I had gone left I would have found an Oxfam bookstore practically next door to my start location. And I would have found a cheaper book.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Warriors. The blurb is ‘cats live in wood, kill each other’ so I thought this could be an entertaining fast-paced read... or another psycho-mole thing. Luckily, it was the former. The book is written in a way that doesn’t give you time to get bored. It’s concise and to the point, as you would expect from a book of 272 pages, and there is no padding and enough description to give you a feel for the surroundings.

At first I would have said the book was written for a young audience, maybe ten plus, but some of the word choices make me think this wasn’t intended to be the case. I would like to think I know a lot of words so when I saw ‘caterwauling’ for the first time, I began to reassess the target and by the end of the book... I still had no idea.

There was also one thing that didn’t make sense and that was the way the main character Rusty/Firepaw/Fireheart (such is the pace of the novel, he undergoes two name changes) perceives the world around him. Firstly, as a cat who lives near a road, I would expect him to be familiar with the concept, but when he encounters a road with the wild cats, he’s like, ‘eh, what’s that black thing?’ The second thing, and probably the more important, is that adapts ridiculously fast to his new life away from his comfy bed and free food. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with this if he was revealed as the son of some lion cat or some kind of chosen one, but he’s just a regular house cat, and yet he is better than the ones born and raised in the wild at hunting. It doesn’t make sense. There are five more books in the series and I want to find them just to find out if Rusty/Firepaw/Fireface is later to be revealed as son-of-lion or chosen one.

Oh, and while I’m talking about stuff that doesn’t make sense, there is a bit where one of the older cats explains about their ancestors – namely being lions and tigers and bea... ahem, I mean leopards. But these animals never lived in the same habitats, unless they were in a zoo, so it doesn’t make any sense. This kind of assumption leads me to believe that the book is meant for a younger audience, one who Erin Hunter has assumed, won’t know any better.

While I’m on a role the indents are wrong. When there is a break in time in the same chapter, you do not indent the first line, yet Erin Hunter indents throughout, but at least she is consistent. It would have been worse if she had changed half way through.

Despite all the negativity, Warriors is something that many other books are not; enjoyable. I would recommend it to friends and cat lovers alike. Saying that, if you don’t cats, it’s probably not you.

Warriors, Into the Wild by Erin Hunter was published by Working Partners Ltd in 2003. RRP £5.99 (Paperback)

A.S. Byatt - The Children's Book

I bought this one as a hardback because I chose to do a critical analysis of how the book was received, you know, critically. I found myself, having not read the book, defending it against harsh criticism from James Wood at London Review of Books. However, nearly a year later, having found the time (and I don’t use that word lightly) to read the book, I also found myself agreeing with James Wood.

Reviews of The Children’s Book state that the novel consists of a combination of the life of the characters and Olive Wellwood’s children’s fiction. This is a gross over exaggeration. There were no more than 10 pages of Olive’s writing out of the 615 comprising the novel. And these pages aren’t the smallest either.

Many people think this book is about how the writing and social lives of Olive and Humphry affect their children, and why shouldn’t they? It states as much in the blurb. But at one point I was reading, and for a considerable amount of time, about mining and then about banking. Oh, and there’s loads of stuff about pottery and how to make pots, and how it was hard in the late eighteen hundreds.

What I’m trying to get at here is that, at some point, the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction become quite thin, and that’s putting it mildly and being polite. If the novel was about the blurb it would be half the length and better for it.

Byatt has done her research and credit to her for going to such lengths but there is a point where the research becomes the novel. The story is drowned by the facts and the characters are strangled by each other (not literally).

There is one scene reasonably early where Byatt decides to introduce the entire cast of the novel in one scene. One scene in which I had no idea what was going on, but that might be down to the fact that I don’t know about the works of H.G. Wells. Or how to manipulate silver.

There were also a few little things throughout that irked me, granted, not as badly as they irked James Wood who managed an outstanding 3,000 words on the subject. Byatt makes the mistake of writing ‘though’ instead of ‘thought’ on more than two occasions. There is one sentence that reads, ‘He observed her observing his observations’ which pretty much sums up Byatt’s over-zealous need to inform the readers of exactly what’s going on.

Later, Byatt uses, and not for the first time, ‘at the time’ from a narrative stand-point, which removes the reader from the story. Most of these events don’t add anything to the story. About half way through, Byatt spends thirty pages talking about twentieth century art when none of the characters are artists (in the painting sense, anyway.) It’s basically the author going, ‘Look! Look at all this stuff I know about! Aren’t I clever! MEEE!!!’

Another unnecessary and repeated scene shows us one of the characters, Philip, masturbating. I mean, I understand that these characters are young and learning things but if you go to someone’s house after they rescue you from a museum basement, you probably shouldn’t wank into their clean handkerchiefs. And if you do, I certainly don’t want to know about it, especially when I’m supposed to be learning about pots and German history pre-World War I.

Oh, and for the record, why should I care if The Kaiser killed 84 out of 134 foxes on a fox hunt?

I would recommend this book to members of the literary community and those who enjoy dreamy, vivid, imaginative... no, that’s not it. Those who enjoy heavily researched, over-written prose. Maybe I'm being unfair or maybe I’m not smart enough to enjoy the book for what it is. But in the words of Ben Crowshaw, I’d rather be stupid and having fun than be bored out of my huge genius mind.

The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt was published by Chatto & Windus in 2009. RRP £18.99 (Hardback) £7.99 (Paperback)]

To read James Wood’s critique of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, visit: