Perhaps it’s something to do with my grey hair, but I don’t often read Young Adult books. I started Bone Jack out of curiosity, intrigued by a tale about ancient, rural traditions that have their roots in a pagan past. Within a page I was reading for pleasure. The opening is masterful; a boy willingly teetering on a cliff edge, held from falling only by the uncertain push of the wind. From that point on you know you’re in the hands of a great storyteller.
Central to the book is an annual ‘stag run’ in wild, mountainous country, a slice of local folklore which pits a young man, the ‘stag’, to outrun the pursuing ‘hounds’. The protagonist, 15-year old Ash, is to be the stag, and Crowe builds the tension steadily so you know he’s going to be running for his life. The setting of a drought- and disease-ravaged countryside is well crafted, and even the supporting characters are finely drawn. Ash has to contend with plausible human relationship issues such as a war-damaged father and a best friend who goes off the rails in the aftermath of tragedy. He also has to face Bone Jack, a shadowy figure who may be a hermit, or perhaps something much more sinister. Such supernatural elements are introduced progressively and subtly, and in a way that tightens the pace towards a climax that is as fulfils the promise of the first pages.
Above all, Bone Jack is extremely well written. Some passages I found myself re-reading purely for the pleasure of the prose. A stunning debut and highly recommended.
I started Deer Island thinking I’d just read for thirty minutes before bed. I put it down in the early hours, when it was nearly finished and all hopes of a full night’s sleep were gone, and I’m still trying to define its appeal. The quality of the writing certainly has something to do with it; the prose is clean and bare, yet wonderfully descriptive, but there is something more than style.
I’m also trying to define the book. It doesn’t fit easily with convenient labels. ‘Memoir’ is probably the closest fit, since it structured as personal recollections. Ansell has lived and worked with the destitute, has himself been a squatter, and has wandered the wild places of the earth. This slim book could also be seen as a series of vignettes; of poverty, of lifestyles, of places, all of which are articulated with sharp clarity.
I think I was hooked by the way he writes with such respect, even love, for the kind of people most of us hurry past in the street; the alcoholics and homeless beggars, Ansell’s friends and companions during his years serving with the Simon Community. There are also descriptive passages of intense beauty; it’s worth buying the book just for the paragraphs where he emerges from a freezing rainstorm in the Kalahari desert to see a scimitar-horned gemsbok standing under an extraordinary, purple sunset. His descriptions of Jura, the ‘Deer Island’ of the title, could inspire me to shoulder a backpack and start walking North.
I’m left with the impression of a man whose life is richer for carrying so little with him, ‘Memories,’ he says, ‘are the only things we truly own, and even they slip from our grasp if we don’t handle them with care’.
Let me share a little happiness; my author copies of Saxon’s Bane have arrived from the wonderful people at Solaris. It is almost exactly six years since I stepped off a corporate ladder and went freelance, specifically to release time to write. Six years from ‘I’m going to do this’ to publication, and I tell you this moment feels better than any business deal I ever landed. My thanks to those who’ve helped along the way, many of whom will find their names inside the cover. It seemed appropriate to record the moment in the arbour, where much of Saxon’s Bane was written.
Saxon’s Bane will be released in the USA on 27th August and in the UK on 12th September.
My wonderful publishers, Solaris, sent an Advance Review Copy of Saxon’s Bane to Christopher Fowler, the author of thirty published novels including the Bryant and May mysteries. Christopher commented:
‘Once there was a great classical tradition of rural British horror from MR James to The Wicker Man. Now Geoffrey Gudgion has revived the style and modernised it to great effect, proving there’s still nothing as creepy as the countryside.’
Thank you, Christopher! Definitely a quote for the cover.
This rewarding book is the story of a Scottish family with their complex inter-relationships, seen primarily through the eyes of a young man. Note ‘primarily’; at first I found the multiple points of view and multiple time-periods confusing. If hadn’t been so well written, he’d have lost me about 1/4 of the way through, but Banks has a way of pulling the reader in. The Crow Road is witty, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, poignant, confusing, but builds a sense of real lives. Characters are very sharply, sometimes brutally drawn; picture the middle aged aunt at a wedding, ‘dressed in something which looked like a cross between a Persian rug and a multi-occupancy poncho, [who] moved with the determined grace of an elephant, and a curious stiffness that made the experience a little like dancing with a garden shed’, and who had ‘the same effect on the dance floor as a loose cannon manned by hippos’.
It is worth persevering through the initial confusion. Plot lines and dominant characters do emerge, and I finished the book well satisfied, and wishing I could capture characters as well.
I’m delighted to hear that Saxon’s Bane has been selected by The Qwillery for their 2013 Debut Author Challenge. Watch this space for guest blogs and interview. Further details at http://qwillery.blogspot.co.uk/p/2013-dac.html
Alan Garner’s Thursbitch was such a delight that I opened Strandloper with rare excitement. I was not disappointed. Garner writes with brilliant, bare precision, even if he can demand much of his readers.
As the cover tells us, the essence of the plot is the true story of William Buckley, a Cheshire bricklayer who was unjustly deported to Australia in 1801, escaped, and lived for 31 years with the Aborigines. Garner weaves together Cheshire folklore and Aboriginal spiritualism in separate melodies that blend to create a single harmony. This beautiful and moving tale is not always an easy read; old Cheshire dialect is as obscure as Aboriginal words and the reader sometimes has to look for meaning in the context rather than the words themselves. In a way, it is like looking at a landscape through a stained glass window; there are layers of beauty that reward the eye that is willing to concentrate.
Garner says, in The Voice That Thunders, that a writer has to have a sense of the numinous. That single word probably sums up Strandloper.