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Book review: “Stories In The Stars” by Susanna Hislop

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I’m sure I’m not the only person who does this, but every year I buy myself a Christmas present. I think it’s only fair. After all, I tell myself as the Big Day approaches, I spend the year being careful and sensible, working very hard at a difficult and demanding and badly-paid job, and I often go without… stuff… because I have to. But at Christmas I let myself have a treat. Sometimes it’s something small, or very small, other times I go large. This year I was wandering around my local Waterstones and I saw a book up there on a shelf and I knew I’d found my present. It was as if a light was shining on it. I started reading the preface and was hooked from the first few sentences. Oh, yes, I thought, standing there in the shop, with the rain lashing down outside, this is a good writer… this is a great writer… I saw straight away the book was something very special, but without any money or my wallet on me I had to put it back and hope no-one else would buy it before I came back for it. Thankfully, no-one did, and a couple of days later I was excitedly carrying it home. That book was the one you see in the picture above, being closely guarded by Peggy – Susanna Hislop’s “Stories In The Stars”.

So, what’s it like?

Ok, practical stuff first. It’s a very old fashioned looking book – and I mean that as a compliment. It’s not flashy, not vulgar like some modern astronomy books; it’s a hefty, well made volume. It just feels nice in your hand as you hold it. Nice paper too – yes, publishers, that still matters to some of us out here. Bookmark ribbon too, nice touch. Classy.

The book says on the front it is “An Atlas of Constellations” and it is.. kind of…. You know the format – the classical stories behind each of the sky’s 88 constellations are told, and each tale is accompanied by a full page illustration showing a stylised star chart of that constellation. And this book follows that tried and tested format. I know what you’re thinking: “So what? There are countless star atlases and astronomy books out there which do that!” and you’d be right. But this one is different. This one isn’t boring. Unlike most of those other atlases on the book shelves, this one isn’t as dull and dry as a spilled can of ten year old magnolia paint.

Despite that claim on the front, “Stories In The Stars” isn’t actually an atlas. I have star atlases, and this not an atlas. I wouldn’t want to take it out stargazing with me for fear of dropping it in the mud and ruining it. ( And besides, its star charts aren’t really all that practical anyway, but more of those later…). This isn’t a book to use in a field, it’s a book to read whilst curled up in a comfy chair, beneath your favourite lamp or next to a crackling fire, sipping a glass of wine.

Like all astronomy atlases, this is a book of stories, fabulous, fantastic stories, the stories of the constellations, but in this volume they are told in a new and different way to any of the other atlases I own or have seen. In her book, writer Susanna Hislop has – and I know this is a cliche, but for once it’s actually fitting – brought the stories behind the constellations to life. Some of their stories are told traditionally, others in original, quirky and innovative ways. The struggles and adventures of all the sky’s characters and creatures from myth and history are brought vividly to life here by a skilled and passionate writer who loves words and uses language like a musician plays a piano or violin; the words just roll into each other, like silk sliding across silk. While many tales from classical Greek history, and other cultures, are told in a traditional way, some constellations’ stories are brought bang up to date, made made more contemporary, in new and original ways. Some accounts are written in the first person. Others take the forms of crosswords, conversations or even, ingeniously, telegrams. Others still are set in modern times and locations, short stories in their own right. A couple are so witty and clever and dry they are the kind of thing Caitlin Moran would write if she suddenly became fascinated in astronomy, and could stop herself swearing.

See? I told you, this is an atlas unlike any I’ve – or you will ever have – seen before.

I spent an afternoon reading this book, dipping in and out as time and pre-Christmas duties and chores allowed, and found myself carried away by it. Hislop is such a gifted and skilled storyteller, the book is a joy to read, it really is. And, it WORKS. The stories inside burn into your memory as if branded by a hot iron. When I managed to get out under the real sky a couple of nights after I found myself looking up at the constellations with new, fresh eyes. I saw Orion, Ursa Major and Cassiopeia as if for the first time. I already knew their stories, of course – Orion was a Hunter, Ursa Major a big bear, Cassiopeia a vain queen – but now they seemed to glow in the sky when I looked at them, as if I was highlighting them in Stellarium or with one of my phone apps, their stories suddenly more vivid and real. And for that I wish I could say a personal thank you to the author, looking her in the eye. It’s easy to become jaded with the constellations. Their stories become lost as you grow older. You forget them when you’re worrying about collimating your telescope, or making sure your camera is focussed, or checking the latest weather forecast on your phone as the time of an eclipse or occultation draws near. Reading this book brought those wonderful stories back to life for me. It turned the sky into the inside of a great cavern, its walls painted with dragons and eagles, heroes and heroines, and more.

And this atlas achieved something else too – it made me want to read the stories behind the constellations in the southern sky. I’ve never really bothered before, to be honest. After all, I can’t see Phoenix, or Pavo, or Crux, so why should I spend valuable time reading about them? I am doing now; Hislop’s writing style made me want to read about those exotic creatures which lurk beneath my feet, hidden from my view by my Homeworld, not just because I knew I’d find them interesting in her hands, but because I simply wanted to read as much of Hislop’s writing as possible, I was enjoying it so much.

Of course, in an atlas like this the text is only half the book. Each constellation is shown, too, with a star chart accompanying and illustrating each description.

And…. I have mixed feelings about the illustrations, I have to be honest. One part of me really likes them. They’re very crisp and clear, very minimalist. They show the shape of the whatever-it’s-meant-to-be clearly, represent the magnitudes of the stars accurately and faithfully. They’re elegant in a Wedgewood pottery kind of way…

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But another part of me can’t help thinking maybe they’re too basic, too minimalist. After all, Hislop’s text is so rich, so colourful, her descriptions and tale-telling so vivid, that the charts’ simplicity and lack of detail jarred with me as I read the book. It’s like when you are watching a film in 3D, and everything is leaping out at you, flying past your ear, so real you think you could reach into the screen and wrap your fingers around something, but then, unable to help yourself, you lower your glasses to see what the screen looks like without them on, and everything is just flat and normal. That’s how I felt reading the book. I read the fantastic descriptions, in mental 3D, then lowered my glasses by looking across the page and was… deflated. A bit.

That sounds like I hate them. I don’t. They are beautiful pictures in their own right, and they do exactly what they are supposed to do – show the reader the constellation on question, and, hopefully, help them identify it in the sky at some later date. But I can’t help wishing that the charts in the book were more colourful, more vivid, as full of life and wonder as the text –

…but then again, that might make the book too fussy! The charts and text would be competing with each other for the reader’s attention, and the charts might be an unwelcome distraction…! Oh  don’t know, I can’t decide. I did like the artist’s depiction of Orion though, that was cool…

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So, there you have it. Or rather, I have it, here beside me now, on the sofa, where it’s been the past few days, ready for me to pick it up again and read the tale of another constellation instead of doing one of the million things I really should be doing. If I turn the TV down, and if Peggy stops purring like a motor boat, I can, I think, hear the book calling to me, like a siren from a rock… “Open me… open me…” No. Later. I have to finish this review.

If you want a practical star altas, this is not the book for you. It won’t  be any help at all for anyone wanting to track down any of the galaxies, nebulae and star clusters painted on the dome of the sky. But there are many books available which will hep you do that, as well as maps, charts and now phone apps too, so that’s not a problem, is it? But if you want to Know the sky, if you want to be taken on a personal tour of its wonderful stories and fables, myths and mysteries, by a master storyteller who will sit you down, fill your head and heart with such beautiful images and poetry that she will change the way you look at the sky, possibly just for a couple of nights but possibly forever, then this is the book for you. Get someone to buy it for you, for your birthday, or use that book token you were given by a relative at Christmas.

Or just buy it for yourself, like I did. Trust me, you deserve it.

(And Susanna, if you get to read this, please, PLEASE… a sequel… the stories behind the names of the planets, moons and asteroids in the solar system are crying out to be told by you, too…)

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You can read excerpts from the book on the Waterstones blog, here:

http://www.waterstones.com/blog/2014/11/look-to-the-stars/

DETAILS:

“Stories In The Stars”

Susanna Hislop

Hutchinson Books

ISBN 978-0-09-195445-1

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4 Responses

  1. Stu, Stories In the Stars was last week’s Book of the Week on R4. Like you, not quite what I expected but good, new approach: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qftk/episodes/guide#b04w5g7s

  2. She’s my cousin!

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