Thursday, 31 January 2008

The Last Guardian of Everness by John C. Wright

The Last Guardian of Everness is the first of a series and, as such, has that annoying way of stopping dead in the middle if the action. I must say I prefer series which also act as standalones, resolving at least the temporary crisis by the end, even if that greatest of trilogies, Lord of the Rings, twice leaves its readers with a cliffhanger; I have Tolkien to thank for this most irritating precedent. The book is a little of a mixed bag – I'm not convinced that the story unfolds in the most coherent fashion. Or was it me? And does it matter whether I got bored or confused first? Either way, the story rather lost me about two-thirds of the way through, although I persevered to the end. It's set in the modern world, in which the Waylock family have for a thousand years guarded a gate against evil powers waiting to invade, and combines myths and legends from many sources: Grail legends, Greek gods, shape-changing beasts (unusually, the Selkies are some of the bad guys). When the youngest Waylock, Galen, becomes convinced that he has see and heard the signs which herald imminent invasion, he becomes the mechanism by which it can take place, allowing his ancestor Azrael, who should have been imprisoned for eternity, to come back to lead the invading army. The main characters are reasonably sympathetic, if a trifle two-dimensional, and I will probably read the next volume, although I can't help feeling that I would benefit from a prologue which begins: "Previously, in Everness..."

Monday, 28 January 2008

Short Story Monday - Melisande by E. Nesbit

When Princess Melisande was born, her mother, the Queen, wished to have a christening party, but the King put his foot down, and said he would not have it.

"I've seen too much trouble come of christening parties," said he. "However carefully you keep your visiting book, some fairy or other is sure to get left out, and you know what that leads to. Why, even in my own family the most shocking things have occurred. The Fairy Malevola was not asked to my great-grandmother's christening – and you know all about the spindle and the hundred years' sleep."

This is a lovely subversive fairytale, written by Edith Nesbit, author of Five Children and It, and several other magical children's stories set in Victorian London. She is probably most famous for The Railway Children, but all her stories are full of wonderfully pragmatic characters and in this one, subtitled "Long and Short Division", the royal parents are no exception.

When the King and Queen return from their daughter's christening they are greeted by some seven hundred irate fairies, insisting that a party has been held without them – that there has been a christening is self-evident and, since this must therefore constitute a chistening party, they will give their presents now. At the forefront, of course, is Malevola, who announces that, as her present, the princess will be bald. Just as the next fairy is about to make her gift, the King intervenes: have they forgotten that fairies who break traditions are snuffed out? Do they realise the risk they are running? "Only one bad fairy is ever forgotten at a christening party and the good ones are always invited; so either this is not a christening party or else you were all invited except one, and, by her own showing, that was Malevola. It nearly always is."

Having bested the fairies, this splendid king goes on to show more common sense over his now-bald infant. He has an unused wish from his fairy godmother, and asks her permission to hand it on to Melisande, but not until she grows up – after all, she might grow hair anyway, or she might prefer something else. All may yet be well.

Unfortunately the princess, happy to please her mother, manages to wish for hair that never stops growing. Nesbit goes on to weave in subversive references to other fairy stories including, of course, Rapunzel - though in this story poor Melisande is forced out of her window by her ever-growing hair. The usual recourse of finding a "competent" hero is futile until the arrival of Prince Florizel but, rather than effecting a miraculous cure in the manner of fairytale princes, he manages to make matters worse.

I love the unexpected twists and turns and complications in this story - I wondered if poor Melisande would ever be able to marry her prince and live happily ever after, though you could tell from their conversations that they were ideally suited. It's a perfect introduction to fairy tales, in that the conventions are all observed: the appropriate players - King and Queen, princess, fairies, princes - line up on stage, the narrator explains and interprets for the reader, adversity is faced with the proper incomprehension by the host of suitors before the hero arrives to overcome it with courage and ingenuity, the princess is amenable to falling in love with the right prince. Yet the path of this tale never runs entirely smoothly from one element to the next, keeping the reader entranced until the end.

Cross-posted at the Short-Story Challenge.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

A glorious noise

There were two cultural events last week, almost unheard of for me! The first, Swan Lake, I have already posted about. The second was a visit to Glasgow for the Celtic Connections festival, where my sons and I saw Bellowhead in concert. Describing themselves as folk-big-band, this 11-piece band combines a splendid range of instruments: fiddle, cello, oboe, trumpet, sousaphone, percussion and more – over twenty instruments in all, according to their website including, apparently, a frying pan, though I failed to spot that from where I was perched (on a table in a section of the auditorium labelled "for our disabled and infirm customers"; the sons stood).

The repertoire is mainly English folk, with some American (for instance, Jordan, and one of the sea-shanties, I think) thrown in, but familiar material, such as The Prickle Eye Bush are transformed. The sound - while almost on the limit for my delicate ears - is tremendously exciting, and it was so invigorating to hear the music I'd been listening to live! The acoustics at the ABC in Glasgow really worked for it – the minute the band started to play it was a revelation; after a rather polite supporting act (Lisa Knapp), you could feel the beat through the floor and feet were instantly tapping. Impossible to stand, or sit, still. With every instrument distinguishable, the complexities of orchestration were immensely satisfying. Their album is called Burlesque, which is hugely appropriate – this is folk meets theatre meets '30s Berlin, in a brassy outburst punctuated by Jon Boden's excellent voice. I was reminded of the thrill I always feel at a theatre orchestra's first notes at the opening of a good musical.

The band's pedigree is pretty solid – Jon Boden and John Spiers also play with Eliza Carthy, as well as constituting Spiers and Boden, while other members have various side projects going on (cellist Rachael McShane is also a step dancer, apparently). And I guess the influences are fairly clear: Steeleye Span, Waterson Carthy, Brass Monkey and, more recently, perhaps 1651's splendid Cast a Bell, veritably Playford for the 21st century, with some world music for good measure. Bellowhead are, in fact, what I always wanted Brass Monkey to be, if I'd only known it! With musicians like these around, I would venture to suggest that the future of folk music looks pretty healthy.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Enter Swan, with goblins... can't end well, you think. I can't tell you how many versions of Swan Lake I've seen, some with endings that had me in tears and once, an unfortunate one that made me laugh. In case you haven't seen Derek Deane's version for English National Ballet, I won't tell you how it ends, but I do want to say a little more about this production.

This version begins with a prologue showing how Rothbart first captured Odette, which perhaps truncates the event rather too severely – one critic suggested that it implied she has only been a swan since lunchtime. On the whole I thought this worked – not every small child (or even older person) in the audience can be assumed to be entirely familiar with the story, though there is a good deal of snobbery around ballet which expects that they should be. Act I opens on the palace courtyard, where preparations are in hand for the Prince's birthday, and event somewhat marred by his mother's insistence that it's time he settled down. As Siegfried, Arionel Vargas looked quite appalled and despairing at this notion, in contrast to his boyish enthusiasm at her birthday gift of a crossbow. Charitably, I think we will assume that he is a very young Prince. The lack, in this production, of his friend Benno, perhaps points up this apparent youthfulness too far; he is an unfailingly serious young man, his only companion his elderly tutor. The highlight of this Act is the Pas de quatre, choreographed by Frederick Ashton, with some lively dancing; this is followed by a Polonaise, which I always enjoy, since I have a particular interest in the character dances within classical ballet.

Act II, at the Lakeside, was very pretty. From my seat in the Balcony (I like to watch from a height) the patterns were a delight, and the dancing from the corps de ballet was precise and graceful. Odette (Sarah McIlroy), when she appeared, had lovely line but was a little diffident for my liking, though her dancing was expressive. Her re-appearance as Odile in Act III lacked fire and strength and, therefore, contrast with Odette, but these were Principal dancers, rather than Senior Principals, and one expects a little less. I'm also aware of expecting an unrealistically high standard having, in the past, seen some notable dancers in the role. The character dances in Act III were pleasing, the costumes (by Peter Farmer) attractive if a trifle predictable. I longed for the lavish opulence of Philip Prowse's costumes for Birmingham Royal Ballet some years ago, which provided all the spectacle that this most famous of ballets deserves. The exceptions were Rothbart's costumes, which conveyed a wonderfully unwholesome oily quality to the feather, and Odile's black and bronze tutu, which matched her father's shot bronze cloak. Very nice.

The dry ice in Act IV, back at the lake, was on the heavy side, and the final pas de deux between the Prince and Odette, pretty though it was, failed to provoke the necessary lump to the throat. The final tableau, however, of serried ranks of swans in the "dying swan" position made famous by Pavlova, was enchanting, and did much to redeem any earlier failings.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Short Story Monday - The Face in the Target by G.K. Chesterton

I have been reading Chesterton for the Outmoded Authors challenge and enjoying his work. Having read most of the Father Brown stories years ago, I decided instead on The Man Who Knew Too Much, a series of short stories about Horne Fisher, who can always see the bigger picture. In the first story in the collection we meet Fisher, through the eyes of Harold March, who subsequently becomes his friend. March is on his way to Torwood Park to meet a politician, when he and Fisher both witness a car come crashing off an overhanging rock – accident? Suicide? There seems to be no apparent reason for it. Fisher quickly deduces that the car crash was no accident, but that the driver – a retired High Court judge - had been shot, and sets a trap which forces the murderer to reveal himself. However, having established that person's identity, Fisher fails to act; the police have already announced that the crash was accidental and Fisher knows that the murder has been based on such a clever and elaborate deception that not only will a true account never be believed, but that the outcome will have disastrous repercussions for too many people.

While Chesterton's stories are dense with information, it is always conveyed with clarity and economy. Fisher's easy flow of erudite conversation quickly establishes his own character, at the same time as he creates deft summaries of the incidental people in the story. Unlike the unassuming Father Brown, Fisher is a man about town and raconteur, with a degree of sharpness and even cynicism about him, which lends the stories a lightness of touch, while a series in which the malefactor routinely escapes justice makes an interesting contrast with the usual run of crime fiction. I'm not sure I was convinced that Fisher's reasons for remaining quiet about the murderer's identity entirely convince me, but I don't think the stories have enough depth to make me seriously consider whether my response to the dilemma should be different. Not a serious challenge to one's moral code, then, but a fun read, nonetheless.

Cross-posted at The Short Story Challenge

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Lunatic Villas by Marian Engel

In a recent review of The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel, I wrote that Lunatic Villas is a joyous book. And, after a re-read, and despite its detailing of vicissitudes of the death-and-taxes variety, I still find it so. Harriet, harassed mother and collector of innumerable children, is Engel's most indomitable heroine. After the death of her first love, Tom, a Vietnam draft dodger, she adopts three children: Simeon, the son of his ex-girlfriend and his own two daughter, Melanie and Ainslie, to grow up beside Harriet and Tom's own son, Mickle. An unfortunate marriage brings twins Peter and Patsy, children of inveterate sponger and wastrel, Michael Littlemore, while Harriet's disturbed niece Sidonia joins the family when her mother is unable to cope with her. Harriet supports her disparate brood by writing a magazine column under the byline "Depressed Housewife". Into this menagerie comes Mrs Adeline Saxe, an unexpected English visitor who is the distant cousin of someone Harriet once stayed with in England.

Lunatic Villas is a cul de sac in Toronto, inhabited by a community of neighbours who all know each other, and thus until now almost an island in the city, but soon to be integrated with the demolition of the factory at the end of the street. The inhabitants are in and out of each other's houses and know each other's business, although this doesn't preclude tensions and disputes, and occasional surprises, such as when Harriet's friend Roger's ex-partner presents Roger with their baby to bring up. Much of Harriet's past (and her present anxieties) emerges as it is explained to Mrs Saxe, while children are ushered out after breakfast: Sidonia to her psychiatrist, Mick to his speech therapist, the Littlemores to be taken by their father to the dentist (in fact, to McDonalds); only Simeon, seriously studying for university, Melanie, who is sensible, and Ainslie (who is absent visiting rich maternal grandparents) are not a constant source of worry. Constant demands are also made on Harriet by her two older sisters, Madge, eccentric and tyrannical (and very keen on proper leather shoes) and Babs, an alcoholic with money difficulties because Madge controls the family money.

Yet, throughout this book there is a sense of hope, and much to amuse. The eldest son, Simeon, is a warm and likeable character, Mrs Saxe is endearingly eccentric in her evident amusement at family events, and her obsession with bicycles – shared by Mick, which gives him common ground with someone at last – and, while there is betrayal amongst the family, there is also love, affection and a degree of reconciliation. Engel's delicious sense of humour shines through the story, the writing has an easy flow and engages at once. If the events might seem at times bizarre to the childless, every parent knows that the weird and ridiculous are part and parcel of the process of bringing up children and, the more you have, the truer that will be. I warmly commend this entertaining book to readers of Outmoded Authors and, because if you haven't you should certainly read it, to all those partaking in the Canadian Reading Challenge.

Cross-posted from Outmoded Authors

Thursday, 3 January 2008

Graphic Novel Challenge

Challenges seem to becoming a way of life, as I decided to take part in another. I was one of those kids who would read anything they could lay hands on and, inevitably, that included comics from time to time. I had something of a soft spot for Spiderman. Since then, I have read the occasional graphic novel, so when Dewey started the Graphic Novel Challenge I was very tempted, but decided that I should resist. I mentioned it to my sons, however, who immediately started offering reading matter. The question of whether I would participate was ignored, and Elder Son arrived home for New Year with a collection, while The Dormouse riffled through the contents of a large box and extracted several – I now have more than I need, so I have a list of alternatives as well. Actually, I think the sons firmly expect that I will read all of them!

1. Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal – Blood of a Thousand

2. Neil Gaiman, 1602

3. Brian Michael Bendis, Jinx

4. Alan Moore, Watchmen

5. Joss Whedon, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – The Long Way Home

6. Alan Moore, From Hell


Brian Michael Bendis, Torso

Brian Michael Bendis, Powers

Brian Michael Bendis, Goldfish

Joss Whedon, The Amazing X-Men (I've read most of this already, I think)

They should all help with the withdrawal symptoms anyway: I've just finished watching Season One of Heroes and will be waiting for Season Two on BBC2 (no ads!).

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Books read August - December 2008

Although I haven't been posting here long - since August - here's my list of books read since then, with links to my reviews here or at Cat Musings. I wondered if picking a favourite (rather than a "best book" which wouldn't necessarily be the same) would be possible and, after much deliberation, came up with the following: in non-fiction it's Traveller's Prelude, Freya Stark's book about her early years, compelling for its candour and atmospheric writing, though hard on her heels would be Philip Marsden's The Bronski House, a lyrical retelling of the lives of Polish poet, Zofia Ilinska and her mother, which I have yet to review. Favourite crime novel was certainly just-completed The Black Seraphim by Michael Gilbert (I'll be posting about it very soon), while favourite fantasy and Young Adult books are the same: The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway. I'm reading the second in the Hemingway trilogy at the moment, and finding more of Michael Gilbert's elegantly written crime fiction is top of my list. And I must mention Frank Baker's Miss Hargreaves, also still to review, which is a treasure - a huge thank you to the various people whose reviews drew it to my attention. All of these would be strong contenders for "best book" too.

Most of the books listed here have been enjoyable, and I count it a good period of reading, with only one or two disppointments (though there have been some discards along the way, which aren't recorded here). I don't have records for January-July, but I do recall a handful of authors/books I read with immense pleasure: Connie Willis (particularly To Say Nothing of the Dog), Diana Wynne Jones and, best of all, Frances Hardinge's glorious Fly by Night. There were some notable re-reads during that time, too - Elizabeth Goudge's The White Witch, all of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series, and - remembered from childhood - The Country Child by Alison Uttley. Fingers crossed that 2008 turns up as many good books.

  1. The Black Seraphim by Michael Gilbert
  2. Borrower of the Night by Elizabeth Peters
  3. Temeraire by Naomi Novik (From the Stacks)
  4. Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (From the Stacks - review pending)
  5. A Girl's Guide to Kissing Frogs by Victoria Clayton
  6. Tales from Moominvalley by Tove Jansson (re-read)
  7. The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clarke
  8. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle
  9. The Coast of Incense by Freya Stark (Outmoded Authors – review pending)
  10. Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham (Outmoded Authors – review pending)
  11. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West (Cornflower book club)
  12. Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford (re-read)
  13. The Fisher King by Anthony Powell (From the Stacks – review pending)
  14. The Pink Front Door by Stella Gibbons
  15. The Right Attitude to Rain by Alexander McCall Smith
  16. Kitchen Essays by Agnes Jekyll
  17. In Chancery by John Galsworthy (Outmoded Authors – review pending)
  18. The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson (Canadian Book Challenge – review pending)
  19. Snail Eggs and Samphire by Derek Cooper
  20. Lunatic Villas by Marian Engel (Outmoded Authors - review pending))
  21. The Honeyman Festival by Marian Engel (Canadian Book Challenge)
  22. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
  23. Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker
  24. The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding
  25. The Young Unicorns by Madeleine l'Engle (re-read)
  26. In the Country by Kenneth Allsop
  27. The Wind in the Door by Madeleine l'Engle
  28. Dark Fire by CJ Samson
  29. Nine Layers of Sky by Liz Williams
  30. The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
  31. The Pure in Heart by Susan Hill
  32. Diary of a Victorian Gardener: William Cresswell and Audley End
  33. A Deathful Ridge by J.A. Wainwright
  34. Untold Stories by Alan Bennett
  35. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (re-read)
  36. Espresso Tales by Alexander McCall Smith
  37. Hester's Story by Adele Geras
  38. Mrs Fytton's Country Life by Mavis Cheek
  39. Diamond Dust by Peter Lovesey
  40. Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
  41. Latitudes of Melt by Joan Clark (Canadian Book Challenge)
  42. Dissolution by CJ Samson
  43. Darklands by Liz Williams
  44. Second Honeymoon by Joanna Trollope
  45. The Country House by John Galsworthy (OA)
  46. Traveller's Prelude by Freya Stark
  47. Fort of the Bear by Stella Gibbons
  48. Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong
  49. Dear Pup by Diana Pullein-Thompson
  50. The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
  51. The Bronski House by Philip Marsden
  52. The Innkeeper's Song by Peter S. Beagle
  53. Brotherly Love by Elizabeth Pewsey (re-read)
  54. Bloodhounds by Peter Lovesey
  55. Witch's Honour by Jan Siegel
  56. Meetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham
  57. Resisting Novels by Lennard J Davis
  58. Dragon Master by Chris Bunch
  59. The Man of Property by John Galsworthy (Outmoded Authors Challenge)
  60. The Mark of a Murderer by Susanna Gregory
  61. Recursion by Tony Ballantyne
  62. A Place of Safety by Caroline Graham
  63. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  64. The Dragon Charmer by Jan Siegel
  65. Made in Heaven by Adele Geras
  66. Storm Front by Jim Butcher
  67. Guide to the Food Heroes of Britain by Rick Stein
  68. Break No Bones by Kathy Reichs
  69. Never the Bride by Paul Magrs
  70. The House Sitter by Peter Lovesey
  71. A Country Wife by Lucy Pinney
  72. Sleeping with the Fishes by Mary Janice Davidson
  73. Myrren's Gift by Fiona McIntosh
  74. The Folk of The Air by Peter S. Beagle
  75. Prospero's Children by Jan Siegel (re-read)
  76. The Gay Phoenix by Michael Innes
  77. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  78. The Country House in Perspective by Gervase Jackson-Stops
  79. Temporary Kings (A Dance to the Music of Time: Winter) by Anthony Powell
  80. The Greenstone Grail by Amanda Hemingway
  81. I Bought a Mountain by Thomas Firbank
  82. Roast figs, sugar snow by Diana Henry
  83. Back to the Land by Richard Mabey and Francesca Greenoak
  84. Mrs Fytton's Country Diary by Mavis Cheek
  85. The Lore of the Land by Westwood and Simpson
  86. Small Talk at Wreyland by Cecil Torr
  87. The Unnatural History of the Sea: The past and future of humanity and fishing by Callum Roberts