Thursday, 30 October 2008

Tamsin by Peter S. Beagle

Isn't it lovely when you find a book that you like so much that you know you'll return to it over and over? I've loved Peter S. Beagle's writing since I read The Last Unicorn in the far-distant past when it was new and I was still a schoolgirl – I devoured it alongside George MacDonald's Phantastes and William Morris's The Wood Beyond the World, and it was Beagle who became my enduring favourite. A few years later I happened across A Fine and Private Place in the library, and was enchanted, but then there was a long silence. There was a showing on television of the animated version of The Last Unicorn, which I found quite charming because I knew the original, but which failed to "take" with the sons in the way that Watership Down or Charlotte's Web had done.

More recently, however, something made me search for information about Beagle – it may have been because I found my copy of The Last Unicorn on a bottom shelf and enjoyed its Thurber-esque handling of fairy tales all over again. And, joy of joys, it looked as though there might be – in a very limited output in the intervening years, what has the man been doing? – two more novels to track down via Abebooks, now that having books sent from the other side of the world has become wickedly cheap and easy. I started with The Innkeeper's Song, which looked to be the more solid read, and mentioned it briefly it here – not as good as the Unicorn, but certainly worth the trouble I'd gone to in getting it (I'm beginning to look forward to re-acquainting myself with it already). I wasn't in a hurry to read Tamsin – I thought it looked, from the descriptions, amiable but possibly slight.

In the last year, though, I've read several reviews of Tamsin by other bloggers, people such as Chris and Nymeth whose posts I read because I respect their opinions (to the detriment of my book-buying budget), and for a while now I've had it on my TBR pile. The R.I.P. III Challenge seemed to offer the perfect opportunity, particularly when I saw that Susan also planned to read it. So, last weekend, I began reading.

Oh dreadful, blissful dilemma, a book I couldn't put down while at the same time I couldn't bear to finish it. Now, Tamsin is a ghost story - it isn't a weighty book, nor even an especially scary one but I was quickly immersed, even during the opening, set in New York, when our heroine Jenny Gluckstein is a being a whiny, self-absorbed teenager. Jenny is bright, sassy and pretty streetwise, and she is happy and at home in her urban jungle, and is frankly appalled when her mother Sally decides to remarry and drag her off to England, to a new family, Evan and his two sons, Tony and Julian. To make matters worse, they are destined not for London, as originally promised, but to a ancient and crumbling farm in Dorset, and her beloved Mister Cat will have to endure six months' quarantine.

The family – if they can be described as such, with Jenny prickling at every little irritation – struggle at first to settle in the near-derelict manor, hampered by the house's apparent rejection of them and their improvements. It's infested by small snickering creatures, the top floor remains shut off and unexplored, and the farmland is sour and unproductive. When Mister Cat finally arrives he has midnight battles with things with too many legs, but it is his forays into the upper floor which lead to Jenny's discovery of their ghostly neighbours, Tamsin Willoughby and Miss Sophia Brown.

Beagle has a genuine feel for British folklore, I think. There are other North American writers who incorporate themes, motifs and characters into their work (Charles de Lint comes to mind) but it always seems to me that the expansiveness of the New World isn't quite right for the essentially domestic nature of our fairies and monsters. (Neil Gaiman handles this well in American Gods, I think, not only drawing on a tradition from the European continent – expansive in itself - rather than Britain, but in depicting his old gods as suffering from displacement and loss of belief; but then, Gaiman has the advantage of a foot in both worlds, Old and New.) Even that most terrifying of British phenomena, the Wild Hunt, in Beagle's hands becomes – for a moment – a football crowd bent on rather dangerous fun, while by far the most frightening moments come from "real" British history.

Tamsin isn't a book entirely without fault – I did feel that it could have moved at a slightly more leisurely pace (or was that just my greed, and not wanting it to end?) and one or two of the characters could have borne just a shade more development. Jenny herself can be a bit too whiny but then, she is writing with hindsight, and acknowledges that her younger self was a brat. Oh, and the "University of Dorchester" made me splutter with amusement, even allowing for some very strange institutions to have sprung up in the last few years. These are the merest quibbles, however, and my pleasure was enhanced by having spent some time in that part of Dorset – in fact, I read with a particular manor house in mind, and thought readers might enjoy this link to some pictures of
Great Houses in Dorset. There isn't a picture of the one I was imagining, but if you scroll down the page to Sandford Orcas Manor you'll see the sort of house I had in mind - although this Tudor building is too early for Beagle's Stourhead Manor, I feel it is a better match for his description than the grander Jacobean houses.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Postcards from the edge

Some time ago, Cornflower asked on her blog what people did with all those cards that are much too lovely to throw away. A number of people, as I recall, replied that they used them as bookmarks, and I have a feeling that I may have bemoaned the loss of an enormous cork board that I had in my old office, which I added to regularly to make a wonderful collage of postcards, book covers, scans and even conference flyers, if they were attractive enough to merit inclusion. Now that I share an office, this is no longer possible, and at home the walls in the room where I work all support shelves, with almost no space for pictures. There's no room to display photos, either, which is why it was something of a revelation when my son gave me a digital picture frame last Christmas. This is a rectangular frame which you plug in (bit of an issue that, there aren't many plugs spare once printer, laptop, phone charger, answering machine, wireless and so on are all running, but the phone charger, at least, doesn't need to be on all the time.

Having found a spare socket, you turn the frame on and upload your photographs, so that it can play a soothing slideshow while you are working. Lovely, the dogs and chickens flick past at a leisurely rate, and offer a distraction from work and a chance to rest the eyes for a few minutes. I don't use it a great deal, but it complements my discovery that the digital camera was made for a person with shaky paws and, now that I can take the odd photo without it being a total blur, I can enjoy the fruits of my labour whenever I feel like it. Cornflower's question, though, made me think, could this be the answer to the missing cork board? I scan book jackets for my Library Thing catalogue - why not scan my favourite cards and enjoy them in the same way? So I have done a few, like this, and not only can I watch them on the digital frame, but I've put some of them in a screensaver album, and when I brood for too long over a choice of words, or can't remember how something works, I suddenly find myself enjoying a variety of old photographs and postcards.

Made with Slideshow Embed Tool

Sunday, 19 October 2008

No Cure for Death by Hazel Holt

There was a low murmur of conversation, but then I heard Alec McDonald's voice rising and saying, "It's quite impossible! I've spoken to him about it and told him it's the very last thing the practice needs just now." His voice dropped again and, as I was straining to hear more, Sandra came and called me in to see Mr Wheeler.
Yesterday I was in need of a bit of comfort reading, and when I encountered the above paragraph on page 6 I knew I'd come to the right place. Hazel Holt has been described as the Queen of Cosy Crime, a title which sums up her novels perfectly. Sheila Malory is a retired academic living in the seaside town of Taviscombe (based on Minehead, in Somerset). In none of her books is there a great deal of "sleuthing", but there are lots of cups of tea and a great deal of gossip, some of which offers up the odd red herring, but which ultimately leads to the solution to the crime. Taviscombe is one of those towns where everybody knows everyone else's business, but they all get fed up with the influx of tourists at the beginning of the season.

For a woman of my age, at least, Sheila is easy to identify with – her immediate concerns are about her animals (dog and demanding cat), her son and his family, her friends. She is a practical woman, if easily put-upon by the dreadful Anthea, who always needs a cohort of (unwilling) helpers for coffee mornings, and has that curiousity about complete strangers which seems to come more easily with age – there's definitely more in common with the old-fashioned Miss Marple than with Sheila's closer contemporary, Isabel Dalhousie. Frankly, I think Sheila would find Isabel pleasant but perhaps a bit too earnest, too nicely scrupulous. Not that Sheila isn't scrupulous herself, but her more practical nature allows her to deal with it with less anguish. Reading this book you are always aware that this is a sensible woman.

Returning to the quote with which I began, it was the line "straining to hear more" which particularly pleased me – you know you're in Marple-territory with a line like that. Later there is a digression while Sheila describes a visit to the Theatre Royal at Bath, one of my own favourite – if rare – excursions. My only complaint about this, or any other of the series, is that they are only two cups of tea's worth - I finished this the same afternoon and was left hunting for a substitute. But, if you want a nice quite 2-hour read, I do recommend them – oh, and you'll want a nice biscuit, too, a Bath Oliver perhaps.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The Autumn Castle by Kim Wilkins

I hadn't planned to read this book for the R.I.P. III Challenge – the author is new to me - but I picked it up at the library before leaving for London recently, and had read a couple of pages in my hotel room the other night when it occurred to me that it was a good candidate. The setting is Berlin, and the stories of the Brothers Grimm provide a background. Christine Starlight, daughter of pop singers who died in a car crash, has returned to live in the city with her artist boyfriend, while he benefits from a grant endowed by the distinctly creepy Immanuel Zweigler, known as Mandy Z. At the outset we learn that Mandy Z has a secret – he likes to murder fairies. In Hotel Mandy Z, where he houses the beneficiaries of his grants, he has, like Bluebeard, a secret chamber where he keeps his Bonewife, a sculpture fashioned from the bones of his victims.

Christine, injured in the crash which killed her parents, suffers from chronic back pain. When what should have been a relatively minor injury triggers a severe bout of pain, she finds herself in a world which temporarily connects with her own, a land of faery caught for ever in a medieval society. Here she finds a childhood friend, stolen by the faeries some twenty years before. Of course all is not entirely well in this faery idyll, and the Queen, Mayfridh, determines that she will follow her friend back into the land of humans, and it isn't long before Mandy Z realises that he has a faery living in his house. Mayfridh and her kingdom are now in grave danger.

I enjoyed this story, which uses its Grimm motifs effectively, while creating a band of likeable characters. However, although I liked them, and romped through the book at a rapid pace, I felt its grisly themes weren't fully realised. Mandy Z was creepy, yes, but not terrifying, the witch Hexebart nasty but not the stuff of nightmares. The original works from which the stories are drawn are much more frightening, even though they lack the real world setting which ought to make this book much more scary. Nonetheless, although it fails to live up to its promise, I'd recommend it as an amusing piece of froth, good for those autumn evenings when you want something atmospheric but don't want to be scared out of your wits.