Sunday, March 1, 2015

Favourite Fantasy Authors and Books A - Z (C)

C, yes we're at C already, where does the time go? I did the B's last week, so the C's follow them, because that's kind of how I roll and it makes everything much neater.

Contemporary fantasy author Jonathan Carroll gets us off to a start this week. The author has made his home in Austria since the 1970's, although most of his work seems to predominantly set in his homeland of USA. He made his debut in 1980 with The Land of Laughs, which seems to be his best known work and quite possibly the most commercially successful, although he is quite highly regarded, especially in Europe, and is regularly nominated for various literary awards. His work is rather hard to classify, although it seems to fit best into the contemporary fantasy (not to be confused with urban fantasy) category and this occasionally sees it shelved in the 'literature' section of the bookstores. He's written 17 novels as well as a number of short stories and has had those also published in collections. He was quite active and prolific during the 1980's and 90's, but has slowed down since that. His last published work was Bathing the Lion in 2014.

I'd picked up and put down The Land of Laughs a number of times before 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels prompted me to give it a go. The covers did tend to attract me (although not the ones with the pit bull on them. I find that one of the most unattractive dog breeds there is), however what I read about it seemed to suggest that it had literary pretensions. 'Literature' and I get along about as well as science fiction and I do. I think I may be a philistine. The Land of Laughs surprised me. Initially it reads rather like Dead Poets Society crossed with some of John Irving's work, and then the dog speaks and everything else you read just goes out the window. The story largely follows the protagonist Thomas Abbey and his self proclaimed girlfriend Saxony Gardner as they research the famous children's author Marshall France for a biography they plan to write. The further they look into the reclusive author's life and origins, the more they realise that his books weren't just flights of fancy. Carroll wrote about France and his work so well, that I was almost prompted to find out if he was a real person and I was rather disappointed to realise that neither the author or his books had never existed in the real world. Reading about the author's life for this post actually made me wonder how much of the book was autobiographical in tone. There do seem to be some similarities between Thomas' upbringing and background and that of Jonathan Carroll himself.

Further and related reading: Jonathan Carroll has written a number of novels and short stories and from what I know about them they do explore a lot of the same themes and have similar tones to The Land of Laughs. As I said in the bit about the book itself the early part of it does remind me of John Irving, especially if John Irving wrote fantasy. A key part of The Land of Laughs is fictional concepts becoming real. That particular idea is quite evident in other works. I actually found that The Land of Laughs had a lot in common with Lev Grossman's The Magicians. The magical college of Brakebills reminded me a lot of the upper class preparatory school that Thomas taught at, although others have referred to Brakebills as Hogwarts university, and in The Magicians the main characters also visit the and of Fillory which was part of a children's series that they read, although Fillory is a fairly thinly disguised version of C.S Lewis' Narnia. William Goldman's The Princess Bride (the book as well as the film) also looks at a fictional work being presented as one that actually did exist, the conceit of the book being that it's an abridged version of an actual fairy tale written by the non existent author S. Morgenstern.

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson - 27 January, 1832 - 14 January, 1898, or as the world better knows him Lewis Carroll. Lewis Carroll was one of those rare multi talented people. While best remembered for his writing he was also an extremely accomplished mathematician (in fact he spent most of his life teaching mathematics at Christ Church College in Oxford), he was also a logician (that's quite evident in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland), a keen photographer and an Anglican deacon.

He wrote a number of short works and poetry (it is in fact poetry that was first published under his now famous pen name) before Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865, although he had been writing it for a number of years in various forms. The book started as stories that he used to tell the youngest daughter of a family friend; Alice Pleasance Liddell, and she is in fact the Alice at the heart of it (although Dodgson always denied that she was the only model for Alice). In 1871 he published a sequel Through The Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, it was somewhat darker, which reflected Carroll's view of life at the time, his father died in 1868, which plunged him into a depression that plagued him for years. In 1876 he published an epic nonsense poem called The Hunting of the Snark. He didn't publish for years after, but did attempt a comeback of sorts in 1895 with the two volume Sylvie and Bruno, the story of fairy siblings. It remained in print for many years, but is considered a lesser work.

Charles Dodgson or Lewis Carroll died in 1898 of pneumonia, which followed a bout of influenza. He is buried in Guildford at the Mount Cemetery.

When discussing Lewis Carroll in a list like this there can really only be one work and that is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is probably one of the finest, if not THE finest, examples of nonsense literature ever produced, and it's lived on throughout the years. In both it and it's sequel it contains many logic and mathematical puzzles as well as social commentary, but aside from that it can be enjoyed by both children and adults alike as an enchanting story about the silliest, but strangely charming, world one could ever imagine. I read it first as a child and then again as an adult and every time I find something new and different to look at and it works on a different level for me. It's completely timeless and I don't think it will ever go out of fashion or lose it's popularity as it relates so well to nearly everyone that reads it, no matter their age.

Further and related reading: if you read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland than you must also read Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, if for no other reason than it contains the poems Jabberwocky and The Walrus and the Carpenter. There is of course also The Hunting of the Snark and Sylvie and Bruno. If you do intend to read the Alice stories then you absolutely have to get ones that are illustrated by John Tenniel, other illustrators have done it, but no one else quite captures the spirit of the stories and the characters in the way Tenniel did. It's been filmed on a number of occasions, the Disney animated version is best known, and while the artwork is quite stunning and a feast for the eyes, and they knew better than to mess around with the dialog it's really a bit of a mish mash of the two Alice books and doesn't make a lot of sense as one narrative. A lot of people did like Tim Burton's 2010 live action film version starring Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, I wasn't one of them. The less said about it, the better. Wonderland seems to be public domain, and any number of authors and advertisers have appropriated the idea and the characters. Alice and her many Wonderlandian friends can be found wandering about the various Disney theme parks on any given day. There's a chain of pancake restaurants here in Australia called The Pancake Parlour that use Alice and Wonderland to advertise. Some of the Wonderlandians, or rather their offspring, have found their way into the Mattel doll line of Ever After High, and novelist Shannon Hale made liberal use of the setting for her final book in the Ever After High trilogy (Wonderlandiful World). The real life model for Alice, was a key character in Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series, and Melanie Benjamin's fictional biography of the real Alice Pleasance Liddell, Alice, I Have Been. There's a never written 3rd Alice adventure featured on a bookshelf in one of the background scenes of Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novel, that may have been the artist's inspiration, but it is a very Gaiman type of thing to do. Tad Williams also had a Wonderland reality in his Otherland series. American writer and film producer Frank Beddor wrote a series called The Looking Glass Wars which is clearly inspired by Lewis Carroll's Alice books, even lifting it's title from the second of them. I could go on listing books and authors that have been influenced by it all day, that's how important and influential a work it is.

Angela Carter - 7 May 1940 - 16 February 1992. Carter is best recognised as a magical realist. She was ranked 10th in The Times 2008 list of 50 greatest British writers since 1945.  Her first novel, Shadow Dance came out in 1966. I know her for a collection of reworked fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber, which appeared in 1979. Two of her fictional works were adapted for the screen, The Company of Wolves (1984) by Neil Jordan, which was based on two of the reworked stories in The Bloody Chamber and The Magic Toyshop (1987) based on her novel of the same name. The author was extensively involved in the film making process in both cases. Angela Carter died in 1992 at the age of 51 after developing lung cancer. At the time of her death she was working on a sequel to Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

The Bloody Chamber is a collection of short fiction. All the stories in it are reworkings of well known fairy tales. If anyone ever thought that fairy tales were only for children The Bloody Chamber should dispel that illusion. In most cases the clue to what story she's doing is in the title or clearly evident by the contents, but not all, as she quite often adds elements that many readers are unaware is even contained in the original story. For the record the stories are: The Bloody Chamber (Bluebeard),  The Courtship of Mr Lyon (Beauty and the Beast) the clue to that one is in the title. The idea of the Beast being rather leonine is far from new or unique, even Disney's version looked like a lion, The Tiger's Bride (another look at Beauty and the Beast),  Puss-in-Boots (Puss in Boots), Carter's intention here was to just have fun and write a genuinely comedic story, it's rather needed as the rest of the collection is rather bleak without a lot of what you could term happily ever after endings, The Erl King (the Erl King legends), the Erl King is a rather demonic sort of elf, he's not heard about much these days, but I was aware of him from a poem my mother knew, he was also in an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer,  The Snow Child (there were a few influences, but it's most likely a rather obscure variant on the Snow White legend), nothing like Disney at all here, and you definitely don't want to tell this one to children, The Lady of the House of Love (I'd never actually heard of this, but it was apparently based on a radio play that Carter herself wrote called Vampirella), given it's origins it is unsurprisingly a vampire story,  The Werewolf (Little Red Riding Hood), a different look at the legend, which casts Little Red Riding Hood as the villain, The Company of Wolves (Little Red Riding Hood) Carter clearly had her favourites and Little Red Riding Hood is one of them, this is a closer adaptation of the original and it was later made as the film of the same name, the final story was Wolf-Alice (another variation of Little Red Riding Hood with references to Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There), it looks at a view of the world through the eyes of a feral child.

It's not easy reading for the most part, but it is well worth doing and it helps one to remember that most fairy tales have far deeper meaning and were not really intended as bedtime stories for children. In some ways The Bloody Chamber kick started the current fascination with variants on fairytales and is responsible for an ever growing sub genre.

Further and related reading: most of Carter's fiction (10 novels, 6 collections of short fiction of which The Bloody Chamber is one, and 5 children's books as well as screen plays, dramatic work and radio plays, Vampirella was one of those, as well as the articles she wrote in her capacity as a journalist) tends to concern itself with her feminist views and continually challenge the reader to see beneath the surface of the words on the page. Angela Carter isn't responsible for fairy tale retellings, but she did give it a healthy kick along. It's a virtual sub genre of it's own these days. Urban fantasy author Seanan McGuire had a good look at it in Indexing. Jim Hines gave the old fairy tales a new fun spin with his comedy series featuring 3 butt kicking fairytale princesses in his Princess quartet. The prolific Mercedes Lackey dabbles in it with her Elemental Masters and Fairy Tale series. The idea behind the graphic novel Fables by Bill Willingham is that fairy tales live among us, the TV shows Once Upon a Time, and Grimm to a lesser extent, work off the same basic premise. The Ever After High books based on the line of dolls concern themselves with the offspring of various fairytale characters. One of the most Carterish entries is Sarah Pinborough's Fairy Tale series comprising Poison (Snow White) Charm (Cinderella) and Beauty (Sleeping Beauty), and all that really only scratches the surface on a sub genre that seems to continually growing. Of course you could also track down and read a collection of Grimm's and Perrault's originals.

Susanna Clarke was an overnight sensation that took about 10 years to happen. She first started work on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in 1993, but it was not published until 2004. The book became a huge sensation. It crossed boundaries and it seemed everyone bought it. It really kicked off when Clarke's now husband, but then writing teacher, Colin Greenland sent one of her short stories called The Ladies of Grace Adieu to his friend Neil Gaiman. Gaiman loved it and from there it found it's way to editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Clarke herself was unaware of this until Hayden called her and offered to publish the story in his anthology Starlight 1. The anthology won the World Fantasy Award for best anthology in 1997. Clarke continued to publish short fiction in various anthologies (Starlight 2 and 3) over the next few years and one of them Mr Simonelli, or the Fairy Widower was shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award in 2001. The massive Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell came out in 2004 and was an almost instant bestseller. In 2006 Clarke published a collection of stories set in a similar alternate world as her huge hit, called The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories. It was well received overall, but people did want something more substantial like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. That was the last novel length work from Clarke. She says that she is working on a sort of sequel to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but with 9 years since The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories, and over 10 since Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell I wouldn't hold my breath.

Given that Susanna Clarke has only published two books and one of them was a collection of short stories I didn't really have a lot to choose from. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell absolutely took the fantasy world by storm when it was published in 2004. It scooped the pool of fantasy awards in 2005 and it even won The Times Best Novel of the Year award. What made all this more stunning was that it was a  debut. This wasn't really repeated until last year when Anne Leckie's gender bending science fiction novel Ancillary Justice did much the same thing when it came to the genre awards.

I didn't really like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell when I first read it and couldn't see what the fuss was all about. It took a second read for me to appreciate exactly what Susanna Clarke had done. The book still polarises readers between those who love it and those who simply don't get it.

It isn't that easy a book to love really. Mr Norrell is extremely unsympathetic as a central character and I didn't much like Jonathan Strange either to be totally honest, although he's easier to like than Norrell. What I loved about the book was this separate story that she had going on in the footnotes. Terry Pratchett is known and loved for his footnotes, but his are amusing little asides, Susanna Clarke's set out a history that never existed. The world that Strange and Norrell inhabit isn't just a Georgian England in which magic works, it actually makes sense that it does and there's an entire history which explains how it works and why it works and that it's history is very different from the one that we know and learn about. That's the real achievement of the book for me. It was something quite extraordinary that Susanna Clarke did there.

Further and related reading: it may be possible to find copies of the anthologies that Susanna Clarke contributed to when she was working on Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I don't think it would be easy. If you liked the debut then The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories may be up your alley. Alternate histories are a sub genre of their own, but there aren't many like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I can think of a couple of examples though. Naomi Novik's Temeraire series is close. It has way more action than Susanna Clarke's alternate history about magic, although it does share an era. Novik's twist on it is that dragons exist and they were instrumental in helping the British defeat Napoleon. It's been described as Patrick O'Brian with dragons. The characters do act and speak using the same faux Georgian that Clarke's characters do, so it's a bit Regency romance with dragons, too. Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede wrote a trilogy called Cecelia and Kate, which is about two cousins who navigate their way through a British regency era where magic exists and they know all about it. The first of the books (Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot) was originally written in 1988 and republished in 2003, when it was followed by The Grand Tour or The Purloined Coronation Regalia in 2004 and The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After in 2006. They took it a step further than Susanna Clarke and wrote the first book in an epistolary style. Where I found Susanna Clarke's faux Austenish style complete with misspellings a rather irritating gimmick, it seemed totally natural in the Stevermer Wrede collaboration. There's also Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamour series which is set in a Regency where magic works, they tend to be more a Regency romance in style than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

Carlo Collodi - November 24, 1826 - October 26, 1890. Collodi's name isn't instantly recognisable, but his best known creation, a wooden puppet called Pinocchio is. Before turning his talents to children's literature, Carlo Collodi (his actual name was Carlo Lorenzini) had already gained some notoriety in Italy as one of the founders of the satirical newspaper Il Lampione. He published a number of books and sketches which were satirical and political in content, before his first children's work which was a translation of Perrault's French fairytales. The work that gave him enduring fame originally appeared as a serialisation in an Italian magazine for children and the author died in 1890 unaware of the fame that awaited his creation.

Pinocchio is the only one of Collodi's works that has any enduring fame. It's worth noting that the original book is very different to what a lot of people think of when the name is mentioned and that tends to be Walt Disney's 1940 animated version. The Pinocchio in the book is less likeable than Disney's version. The author was a Florentine and even now in Florence they're very proud of the long nosed marionette and various representations of him appear everywhere. Despite the differences from the Disney film I prefer the original. It has a magic and an edge that the cartoon simply didn't. There are no cute cats or goldfish and Jiminy isn't actually named, he's an actual cricket who can talk, but Pinocchio kills him fairly early on and his warnings about disobedience and hedonism help the wooden boy develop a conscience. The idea that there are unscrupulous characters like the Fox and the Cat lurking around every street corner to lead young boys astray is actually rather scary really. In Collodi's original Pinocchio was hanged at the end of the 15th chapter, but his publishers managed to convince him to introduce the blue or turquoise haired fairy to help him out. It's a reminder that even in the 19th century with all that had gone before people could still add to the pantheon of fairy tales.

Further and related reading: Pinocchio is a modern fairytale along with things like The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows and deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those classics. Nothing much else of Collodi's has survived, and it was very different in tone to this fairytale. The character has been used in all sorts of film and other media adaptations from Disney's 1940 film to the rather obnoxious versions in Shrek and Bill Willingham's Fables. I can't readily find anything else that is quite like Pinocchio, but in some ways it does share something with Mary Shelley's science fiction classic Frankenstein in that it's about something inanimate that is given life. Seanan McGuire explores the concept to a certain extent in her Velveteen books in which the titular character is a super hero whose power is animating toys like teddy bears, but they don't have free will in the way that Pinocchio did. The concept also appears in Pixar's Toy Story films as well as a great many stories by children's writers like Enid Blyton where the toys have a life of their own once the owners are asleep or out of the house.

So that's the C's. Next week we explore the D authors.

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