‘Spellbound’ by Christopher Pike or what we really need to do is go back, way back!

InstagramCapture_70a4f4cf-d0ee-4991-8263-7cc0ec4cbd3aNostalgia seems to be everywhere. Goosebumps has made a resurgence. Lego Dimensions has made franchises such as Back to the Future super-cool once more. Even Ghostbusters has a big re-boot out this summer. If all of this favour towards the best elements of our ‘retro’ pasts wasn’t enough- imagine my delight when I stumbled across a resurgence of ‘Point Horror’ on Twitter!!!  Man, too much excitement. As if by magic, I discovered that other tweeters/bloggers such as @georgia_bowers and @Cyn_Murphy  shared my love for Point Horror and even Christopher Pike (the next logical step if, like me, it is all about The Lost Boys, Critters and Stephen King). Cyn had even written the brilliant Point Horror in 10 Steps (click through to acquaint yourself with this lost art form). To top this off, if this surge of nostalgia towards such teen- horror fodder weren’t enough, my clearly intuitive fellow book-blogger @chelletoy from Twitter and  Tales Of Yesterday ran a monthly ‘Point Horror’ book club!

Nostalgia had officially hit my awkward teenage self square-on. The angst. The rebellion. The awkwardness. I’m such a relic that we didn’t have iPhones or laptops or DVDs to occupy our time, or blind us with alternatives to the daily hells I am sure we were all living through. No Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. We had Smash Hits and a couple of cheesy TV shows on terrestrial TV (BBC, ITV and Channel 4). If you were lucky (or your parents didn’t keep that close an eye) you could sneak a watch of Twin Peaks- or pretend you were 18 and sneak into the cinema to watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Such pleasures were few and far between- and really there was one main way we could escape the real horrors of our daily lives: CHRISTOPHER PIKE.

To my teenaged-self, Christopher Pike was godlike. His stories offered central protagonists that were cool, but slightly set back from the off putting in-crowd. They were rocking their own beat and not occupied with whether they had the right amount of orange foundation on or whether they had applied enough Sun-In. Hallelulia! Beam me up Scotty. Was I the only one who didn’t want to cough myself into oblivion by smoking at the top of the school fields, just out of the view of the pouncing teachers? Not that I wished to conform- black tights were my stance, I mean who wants to wear navy blue ones? I had my own mind and wanted to do my own thing. Pike’s horrors all seemed to affirm this burgeoning view and bolster my confidence. Standing to the side was now validated. Standing to the side was now also reignited, thanks to current trends. But, where were these former badges of teendom lingering?

Appetite whetted, rabid search completed, prime Pike collection dusted. ‘Spellbound’ selected from amongst the familiar old covers (which still held the same mesmerising appeal-like anchors for the imagination). I vaguely recalled its position of favour along with ‘Scavenger Hunt’ and ‘Witch’. A new fear crept over me, than the ones I remember them holding (other than the ones that used to keep me reading deep into the forbidden night). Would they have changed over time, like films are wont to do- because we have changed?  Would it be disappointing? Would it render their power obsolete like that of shredded bank statements? Honestly, these books are of an era. I am not an angsty teen girl anymore so some of its power is lost to adult me. That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate its particular appeal, or that their appeal would be lost to generations anew being exposed to them as a direct result of this latest cultural resurgence. Far from it. Characters like the sceptical and questioning Cindy Jones have much to say to any teens- giving them the required space to realise it is ok to be different, to not blindly follow your peers: to have your own opinions and to make your own decisions. You can and should question if something seems suspect- just like Cindy does about Karen Holly’s impossible sounding death and the mysterious, alluring Joni with the flat eyes. You should also make your own mind up based on your own analysis of the information available to you- not judging or scorning others just because it is the ‘popular’ decision or will give you kudos amongst potentially shallow peers.

My rereading had truly reminded me of the real power of Pike, of his understanding of teens and their needs and feelings. He always had just the right amount of lusty leaning, so as not to become smutty- just enough to retain our interest and make the stories seem true to our experiences- or let’s be honest the experiences we dreamed of having! Who didn’t want to be a couple of years older with a hunky boyfriend to eat the face off. Even here Pike gives us examples that encourage us all to respect ourselves. Cindy’s message is to ditch any male that tries to force you into doing something you are not comfortable with or ready for. Pike you are a public service provider! Reaching teenagers in a way parents and sex education lessons don’t. All under the guise of some seriously unsettling stories, with just the right amount of supernatural menace to mirror the real life menace hinted at and denounced within these pages. As the cover promises, with its eagle-like, expansive power watching omnipotently over an unsuspecting couple, dangers are all around you. If you want to survive you need to explore suspicions and act on them, if necessary.

While I relished the supernatural element (key driver of any Pike work): here shamanism and animal totems, it was the setting that truly ensnared my imagination with its promise of freedom. The Rockies, with its cerulean blue skies and fresh mountain air. It’s aptly named Crystal Falls and Snake Tail River looming up above with its deceptive air of purity. Who wouldn’t want to be up there on a moonlight wander. Midnight feasts for adolescents!  Couple this with an unexpected twist, that even a monster can have redeeming features and the exploration of gray spaces is complete. Yet another important lesson is assimilated: life is not black and white. In short, I hope this resurgence affords Christopher Pike a just share of this new attention- he moves beyond stereotypes with some very natty lessons embedded in his own interpretation of this genre, one that travels beyond the effective employment of the tropes we have come to expect. So get on eBay, browse second hand book shops- get some Christopher Pike. I am keeping mine forevermore!

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‘The Seed Collectors’ by Scarlett Thomas or be careful where you plant things

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Are we all just propagation?  Or is there some higher meaning that eludes us on our journeys through life?

Scarlett Thomas, I salute you! I salute your mastery of our lexicon. I salute your dedication to the research process. I salute the big questions your books always ask. I salute your evolving and exploratory approach to your writing. I salute your storytelling skills! If writing stories was my talent, I would be learning from the best at the University of Kent.

Thankfully, you are writing the sort of stories I long to read. Ever since being mesmerised by ‘The End of Mr Y’, I have been savouring your works and recommending them to everyone and anyone: including my Mother. How often, as an adult, do you read a book in which your imagination is so ignited that you actually feel it with all of your senses? The pages literally fizzed and the edges faded into a brown, circular vortex- transporting me (via some sort of literary black- hole akin to the tunnel Alice enters wonderland via) to the troposphere. It is a rare and accomplished masterpiece. ‘Pop Co’ asked big questions about the way our consumerist, capitalist monstrosity of a society operates without losing an inch of the narrative pace it’s gripping plot presented. The non-story approach of ‘Our Tragic Universe’ delighted me in its delivery and in the way it framed questions about the meaning our lives hold: is everything meaningless in the end? While all of these books are unique, they share a sense of mystery and intrigue, an ability to expose us to new concepts and philosophies that challenge us as readers and leave us ruminating for a long time afterwards: they all delight. You always have something valid to say and you say it well.

While ‘The Seed Collectors’ is of course different to your preceding works (as of course it would be) it does not disappoint. It’s narrative flow reminded me a little of Woolf and her ‘stream of consciousness’ approach, something that really frees the writing up and allows you to deliver your meaning more effortlessly. Your study of ethnobotany infuses your writing on many levels. I am in awe of the many unusual and unexpected characteristics that plants manifest, in their battle to survive and how their deployment mirrors the human need to survive or perfect themselves as writ large in the vanishing nature of your generational protagonists. You do not shy away from exploring primal or base desires in your characters, despite the fact this may repel the audience- yet when you consider this more deeply, it mirrors the need we have to reproduce and propagate, which plants do unashamedly. Is the walking palm really so different to Charlie Gardner? Both are adapting to the challenges that are thrown their way.

Yet where plants are purely primal, the boundary that is created in contrast to human motivation is where the greatest opportunity for rumination occurs. In stages, the novel explores the secrets that all the characters hold: the private drives and insecurities that they manifest in their own destructive ways, instead allow us to transcend our human existence and consider even bigger questions relating to spirituality and enlightenment. This is tightly mirrored in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the parents of the main protagonists and their quest for a pod of magical propensities.

This exploration of enlightenment blew my mind all the more, in light of the synchronicity it threw upon my own current experiences. A friend recently felt compelled to purchase us both a book, despite it creeping her out for reasons unfathomable: ‘The Autobiography of a Yogi’. She felt it was something to do with my deceased Gramphs- made all the more uncanny by the fact it was a book I had been thinking about, of his that I had perused many years before, one that felt like it spoke with some omnipresent voice in its exploration of enlightenment and had forgotten even what it was called.To my furtive imagination, this book feels like a gift from the other side: a focus from the most enlightened person I have ever encountered. I can imagine my yoga loving, Transendental Meditational Gramphs whispering ‘read this girl, it will put you on the right path’. Imagine the resonance then, of being stuck at the point of Yoganada’s work that states that life is an illusion (a maya), a prison of your own making that you must see beyond in order to reach enlightenment and immortality (not being distracted by the material world) when reading ‘The Seed Collectors’. Perhaps these books are my own mysterious pod, indeed missing manuscript and the key to my own enlightenment!

Perhaps I do have a story in me after all… An imperfect girl finding her way in an imperfect world, just like the Gardners. Namaste

‘A Mad and Wonderful Thing’ by Mark Mulholland or is all fair in love and war?

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I came to this novel full of curiosity and a sense of longing, having read the blurb and seeing that it featured a young and bookish Irish man, full of passion yet hiding a dark other side in which he masquerades as an IRA sniper. While such contrasts of course are of great interest to me as a reader (I am fascinated by what motivates people and how they end up where they do) it was actually the tentative glimpse towards  my long dead grandfather, that certain aspects of this novel seemed to cover that really intrigued me. While I am not suggesting he was an IRA sniper, I do know that he was a very quiet, bookish man who passed away when my mother was a young girl- thus remaining mysterious and enigmatic as we try to piece together our understanding of a man that died over 50 years ago. Clearly he was An Irish emigre, and clearly he came from an era in which the troubles Ireland have faced must have influenced his decision to move to the UK? What did he experience? What were his opinions? While I know that a book cannot possibly speak for a person, I do know that they can offer snap shots and pointers: something I was interested to explore in this novel. This, then was the particular baggage that I brought to the reading of this text.

And what a text! It is complex and rich. It explores uncomfortable questions and leaves you to examine all of the viewpoints it puts forth; to reach your own conclusions about the decisions that Johnny Connolly makes and the representation they put forth regarding Irish troubles (and really the troubles that occupation and war bring in any nation). This novel is full of scars, that are ripped wide open so that you may explore their painful and horrifying realities: no matter how uncomfortable. Although the subject matter differs wildly, to Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, it shares it’s clever approach to its dark subject matter in that it places judgement firmly within the readers hands. That and that it is a love story (Johnny and Cora, and towards Ireland). This is a brave and clever choice, something that allows us to move beyond black and white into the complexities of grey. If we are to understand and learn from Johnny’s experiences (or indeed from any young, angry person that wishes to avenge oppression, brutality or occupation) then we must pay close attention. Though the reasoning may differ, the motivations must have a universality to them.

Interestingly, Mulholland does have the foresight to locate Johnny’s personal struggles against historic ones- namely Nazi Germany. How could such horrors happen?  Ask the teachers, doctors, solicitors etc. Indeed, it is his old teacher that I remain most horrified with- responsible for recruiting and corrupting a vulnerable and impressionable 12 year old boy. Makes you really think about similar corruptions going on in other struggles and how the weak manipulate those who have not yet matured and lack true insight into carrying out their bidding, without true understanding of consequences.

There are many bleak moments in this novel, they come early and come fast- unlike ‘One Day’ by Nicholls our trauma at tragedy is just the beginning. Instead we get to truly see what happens next and how much further Johnny can spiral. It is an emotional, gut wrenching read. The love he feels for Cora and for his Ireland are palpable. You can feel them too, in all their glory. I feel that this novel helped me understand the beauty of this country, so linked to me yet not fully understood. I also got to understand the complexities of Johnny’s choices- alarmingly, I found that I really liked him and could perhaps negate some of the horrific violence he propagates. Johnny is kind to his family, so he can’t be a bad person. Yet he does bad things. Perhaps this was the writers point. This is how easily people turn a blind eye. It certainly made me sit up and think more deeply and realise that people are as complex as their reasoning is illogical, at times.

To me, though, the biggest gift of this novel was in both the beauty of its crafting and it’s ability to weave metaphors throughout the heart of this story (and heart is what it all boils down to). It is worth reading just for the mountain metaphor alone, in the great wisdom it imparts. We all begin at the bottom, and we must climb its arduous path overcoming obstacle, despite not knowing what we may reach. We must find ropes (or guiding lights) in the form of inspiring/ encouraging people or ideas. We must always do everything with heart. In this way we can see Johnny’s struggles as representing Ireland’s struggles and you hope that it has reached the top of the mountain (and that others struggling may do so too).

So while I sought some understanding of my grandfather, instead I gained some understanding of how and why people struggle with dark decisions. How they can justify violence, in the name of some warring cause. While it may not be my path, it is a path that keeps being trodden. It is a complex one that involves interplay between different sides. It is not black (like the portentous fox that foreshadows the first trouble) or white, but complex grey. So thank you, Mark Mulholland, for tackling such an important subject and giving me pause. I hope that others are given pause, too and instead consider how such a situation/ action is born before reducing it into unhelpful judgements. If they only realised, novels can hold the key to unlocking deeper understanding of such matters.