Thursday, 24 January 2008

The Remains of an Altar and not finishing a challenge....

Reading the eighth book in the Merrily Watkins series - The Remains of An Altar by Phil Rickman - was like picking up a book in the continuing life of a character. I know that's what series are supposed to convey; with this series, it feels like it. The characters - Merrily, the vicar, her daughter Jane, her boyfriend Lol, Gomer Parry the neighbor, Sophie the Archdiocese's secretary......these are all continuing characters around which each book is built. Merrily is a vicar, a Deliverance consultant - she is the church's recourse and answer, when the unexplained happens to people, and ordinary answers aren't enough. She's an exorcist. And she is always explaining that she has never had to do a full exorcism, nor seen anyone's head spin like in the movie!
The series is built on the unexplained - hauntings, or feelings of something wrong - that don't go away, almost always around someone's death. Each book is atmospheric, set in a location around Hereford in the border country with Wales, with Merrily being called out to different villages in each book to help people resolve their problems. When I mean atmospheric, I mean there are moments of genuine spookiness, goosebumps, terror. Sometimes things are explained, sometimes not - and this is satisfying for me because ghosts/ghost stories/legends, the esoteric, can't always be explained.
This series is also about faith, about Merrily finding hers in spite of all the barriers she faces: being a female vicar, being a deliverance 'consultant', being a widow, being a mother of a strong-willed teenage daughter.
In this eighth book, we don't get to see Merrily struggling with her faith as much as we do in the earlier books, as the first book in the series opens with her beginning her work as deliverance consultant. What we do see is the spiritual geography of Britain, ley lines, music, and sacred sites playing the central role, as Merrily is called to the site of multiple accidents under the pretense that people have seen a 'ball of light' just before crashing. I can't say any more without revealing crucial elements of the plot, which I don't want to do - I want you to go read this book, Gentle Reader, if you want to, not spoil it for you!

I can say that I love this series, and have given the first book, The Wine of Angels, to everyone I can. The series is about things I love - mysteries, faith, ghosts, spiritual questions, myths and local lore (especially in Britain, where every spot seems to have some story associated with it!) - and very real characters trying to find the truth. The series I would have liked to write, one day!!! So if you are looking for something different and interesting to read, I reccomend all the books in this series. The Remains of an Altar does have gore a-plenty, but also the music of the spheres. Give it a try, and let me know what you think.

From the Stacks Challenge: I have realized that with 7 days left, I am not going to finish this challenge! I grabbed Robinson Crusoe last night, and then I paused. Was I reading it because I wanted to, or because I felt I had to, to finish the challenge? When there is no way I could read Cryptonomicon in 5 days or less. I looked at my challenge books, all of them, and I asked, what do I want to read? Because this is what this is all about - reading books I want to. And I looked over what I read this month so far, and realized I hadn't read any fantasy yet, and i wanted to read one. Normally I read 3 or4 in January, so the reading challenges are changing my reading habits, but I don't want to lessen the fantasy I read! and I thought, I want to read Charles de Lint's new one, Widdershins, that I've wanted to read since I saw it was finally going to get Jilly and Geordie together!

I love how Charles puts the fairies and European myths on one side and the native legends and figures - some like fairies - on the other. As i have some background history with Aboriginal knowledge - my brother is Ojibway (he is adopted), I have moved in Ottawa's native community in past years and met many elders, been to ceremonies and many powwows, I can say with some knowledge that how Charles uses the native characters is correct, and even better, he has some understanding of how the myths work. I don't mean to sound as if I am an expert! I do know that Aboriginal sense of time and land is different from the European sense of it, so it is difficult to write about if one isn't grown up in the culture, and Charles goes further by putting them side by side in the same books/series, the Newford series. I expect at some day in the future his genius will be recognized for how he has mythologized the Canadian landscape, especially here in the Ottawa area - he lives here, and one of his early novels Moonheart is set in downtown Ottawa. It's a mix of urban fantasy, celtic fairies, and music, and now, growing more present in his work, are the native elements. This makes it unique, as far as I know. There are many aboriginal writers out there! but not many that mix Celtic/European fairies with Celtic and aboriginal shamanism and aboriginal legends like Coyote. That is why I hope one day Charles is recognized for contributing a unique body of literature to Canadian writing. In the meantime, his stories are always fun to read, exploring interesting ideas, with wonderful characters and settings. He almost always has an artist of some kind also, and music - Celtic fiddling - plays a big part also. For those who don't know, Charles fiddles himself, and he is often found in local Ottawa pubs fiddling with his group.
Anyway, I only started reading the book on the bus this morning, and already I am trying to figure out if the house really needs cleaning this weekend, so I can grab more hours to spend with the book instead! My book self says I cleaned so thoroughly last week, do I really have to do anything this week? My non-book self (and this is a very tiny part of me) says I feel better when all the puzzles are off the floor and everything is tidy...uh oh, just writing that is boring!!
Stay tuned for further reviews, but I am delighted that I am learning to be flexible with the challenges - they are there to challenge me, but they are not courses I have to pass! And they are all books I want to read!! Which was the purpose of them, make myself read more books this year. I have to say the Writer's Strike has helped immensely, although instead of watching tv I find myself blogging instead! At least I am spending more time thinking about books, reading about them on other blogs, and not just watching tv. I feel sorry for the writers, being a writer myself, and I still watch some tv - but not having to watch the new episode of something each night of the week has made the past few months feel like summer - I'm free from having my time used there, so that I can use it here (or somewhere else). And my reading is going up.


Bybee said...

I like your blog. Your writing style is nicely conversational, very engaging. I see we're read a lot of the same books, too. Best of all, you have a great first name LOL!

Patricia said...

Hey sis, you should put a counter on your blog. Then you get an idea of how many people are visiting your site even if they are just lurking. Otherwise you kind of think maybe you're writing an online journal for yourself!

I'm a bit under the weather today, so am heading back to bed. Persuasion is NOT a book you can just quickly read...all that formal English stuff. I have to REALLY read it. Atonement is out today! I want to see that movie.

Cath said...

Coo, this is an old post, Susan! LOL. I just googled The Wine of Angels on the book blog thingy and this came up. So, of course, I couldn't resist leaving a message to say I've just finished the first Merrily Watkins book and absolutely adored it. :-)

Susan said...

Cath: LOL! I am delighted, absolutely, that you loved the first book! Geraniumcat is reading the series now too. I'm waiting for the latest one....I think I might treat myself and get in hardcover for Christmas. I have to say this is one of the spookiest series going, eerie in the real definition that all those ghosts stories and legends - fairy tales - should leave us with. And I also want to go see this area of England too! lol

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