Wednesday, 29 April 2009


This book, which I read for the One Upon a Time III Challenge, immediately reminded me of Tolkien: the small town of Lud-in-the-Mist feels so very much like The Shire. It was published in 1926, and Mirrlees was quite a well-known figure in literary circles, so it's quite possible that it had some influence on Tolkien's creation, while the book itself owes something to William Morris's medieval romances. It is at the same time recognisably English and "domestic", yet with an alien feel concomitant with the town's location on the edge of the Elfin Marches. There are echoes too of Sylvia Townsend Warner's work. Modern readers will find a town reminiscent of Wall, in Neil Gaiman's Stardust, not surprising as Gaiman lists Mirrlees an one of his influences, and has written the introduction to this Fantasy Masterworks edition.

Lud's citizens have the same air of comfortable smugness that the Hobbits have before trouble comes to The Shire and, like the Hobbits, they want no truck with anything unsettling - indeed there are marked similarities between the Hobbits' distaste for anything that smacks of the exotic or adventure and that of the good burghers of Lud who, afraid of the taint of fairy fruit, refuse even to name it. When the Mayor, Nathaniel Chanticleer, is told that his young son may have eaten the fruit he is appalled, and it is a matter for utmost secrecy. He decides to send Ranulph away, not realising that he is sending him into even greater danger. It is up to Chanticleer, an unlikely hero who is lost in a marriage the heart has gone out of, to find his son and set the town to rights.

While the writing style is very much of its period, there is a timelessness about this book. In many ways it is less dated than Lord of the Rings or, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, for its themes are universal. Its inclusion in the Fantasy Masterworks canon is well-deserved - a must-read for anyone interested in the genre, and certainly for everyone reading for the Once Upon a Time Challenge.

Monday, 27 April 2009

A book meme again

This book meme came from Callmemadam. Her answers made me laugh, and I realised I was already mentally filling in my own, so here they are:

1) What author do you own the most books by?
I’m not going to count, it’s either Dickens or Pratchett.

2) What book do you own the most copies of?
The Hunting of the Snark, I think – the annotated one, and then copies by different illustrators.

3) Did it bother you that both those questions ended with prepositions?

4) What fictional character are you secretly in love with?
When I first read them, I fear it would have been Francis Crawford in the Dorothy Dunnett “Lymond” series, but now I’m rather more grown up I must admit to being rather fond of Sam Vimes in the Discworld books.

5) What book have you read the most times in your life (excluding picture books read to children)?
As an inveterate re-reader, it’s hard to say; I should think I Capture the Castle and The Little White Horse are neck and neck.

6) What was your favourite book when you were ten years old?
Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh. Still love it.

7) What is the worst book you’ve read in the past year?
There will be howls of protest at this, but for me, it’s The Book Thief by Marcus Zsusak. I know, everyone else loved it….

8 ) What is the best book you’ve read in the past year?
Even allowing for not thinking too hard about this, I find that question almost impossible to answer – best in what sense? But if I must choose, maybe Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel, it was beautifully written, funny, dark and heat-rending and I am still thinking about it.

9) If you could force everyone you tagged to read one book, what would it be?
It’s not an idea that appeals to me, because enjoying a book is such a personal thing, but perhaps Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies.

10) Who deserves to win the next Nobel Prize for Literature?
I don’t seem to have an opinion on it.

11) What book would you most like to see made into a movie?
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman – Terry Gilliam was supposed to be doing it but, like some of his other projects, it stalled. Pity.

12) What book would you least like to see made into a movie?
I think short stories make better movies, as a rule.

13) Describe your weirdest dream involving a writer, book, or literary character.
By the time I’m awake I’ve forgotten what I was dreaming about.

14) What is the most lowbrow book you’ve read as an adult?
I had a very distressing year when I was broke and relying on the library – I read a lot of chick lit, which is mostly what it had to offer, and I got very depressed. Ghastly.

15) What is the most difficult book you’ve ever read?
I find Kant rather heavy going.

16) What is the most obscure Shakespeare play you’ve seen?
Goodness, I don’t know…Cymbeline, perhaps?

17) Do you prefer the French or the Russians?
I’m plumping for the Russians, but I used to like a bit of Balzac. Oh, and Molière.

18) Roth or Updike?
Updike, but I got tired of both.

19) David Sedaris or Dave Eggers?

20) Shakespeare, Milton, or Chaucer?
Well, not Milton, anyway – leaves me cold.

21) Austen or Eliot?
That would be T.S., would it? Oh well, Austen then…

22) What is the biggest or most embarrassing gap in your reading?
That’d be the other Eliot. Yes, I have tried, and I liked Middlemarch on television, but I just can’t get on with her.

23) What is your favourite novel?
It’s very hard to decide which Austen, but I think I’m going to go for Persuasion – Anne’s an awful doormat, but I’m very fond of her.

24) Play?
Christopher Fry, The Lady’s Not for Burning.

25) Poem?
Almost anything by the aforesaid Eliot, or The Wreck of the Deutschland by Gerard Manley Hopkins (though it’s hard to pick a single poem by Hopkins).

26) Essay?
There’s a collection by Umberto Eco called Travels in Hyperreality that I like, but he’s always readable.

27) Short story?
Many Moons by James Thurber.

28) Work of nonfiction?
A World Away by Maeve Gilmore, who was Mervyn Peake’s wife. A celebration of a marriage.

29) Who is your favourite writer?
Elizabeth Goudge.

30) Who is the most overrated writer alive today?
Probably Dan Brown, but I’ve never actually read him.

31) What is your desert island book?
The Ray Mears Outdoor Survival Handbook, I should think.

32) And … what are you reading right now?
Matter by Iain M. Banks. I’m about half way through and, though I don’t think it looks as though it’s going to be his best, I think he shows a return to form after The Algebraist, which I found rather a disappointment.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Cat Who…

If Hazel Holt’s books offer the ultimate in cosy crime, Lilian Jackson Braun epitomises it across the Atlantic, with her “The Cat Who…” series, which chronicle the lives of James Macintosh Qwilleran, his friends, and their various cats. Set in Pickax (generally supposed to be in Michigan), these relatively brief stories – usually around 200 pages – are masterly in their lack of excitement: death, which is proper murder mystery fashion, stalks the denizens of Moose County, almost always happens off-stage and to relatively unknown characters. The reader, however, along with Qwill, comes to hear of it secondhand but as it happens, signalled by the bloodcurdling yowl that it Koko the Siamese cat’s death howl. Koko exhibits startling prescience, but Qwill’s interpretation of the signs can be slow, since these are not whodunits in the usual sense. Indeed, murder often seems incidental to the gentle unfolding of everyday life – drinks parties, dining out, visits to the local bookshop, or just entertaining a succession of visitors to Qwill’s splendidly-restored apple barn and the gazebo where he and the cats go to commune with nature.

My local library seems happy to provide a steady stream of these books – there are currently 29 in the series (the publication of the 30th is evidently in some doubt as the author is in her nineties and it didn’t appear as scheduled last year) – and in the last couple of months I have read The Cat Who Brought Down the House, The Cat Who Talked Turkey and The Cat Who Dropped a Bombshell as contributions to the Support Your Local Library Challenge. When I first discovered them some years ago I wasn’t entirely sure that I liked them: the later books have become exceedingly formulaic and, as I’ve said, very little actually happens, but over time I’ve decided that therein lies their charm, and now I am pleased to find an unread one on the library shelf. I’ve also managed to find some of the first in the series on Bookmooch and will renew my acquaintance with the earliest adventures of Qwill and the cats, written in the 1960s (someone once joked that the next should be called The Cat Who Lived Forever) which take place before the move to Moose County, in an unspecified city which is probably Detroit.

The writing combines a sense of humour and of the absurd with utter seriousness about the subject matter and a strong feeling for community. Local events are lovingly detailed and the history of Pickax and the surrounding country becomes very familiar to the reader as it is revisited in successive novels (though there is enough explanation as a rule to allow them to be read as standalone works). Crime and detection never get seriously in the way of a good pageant, though the weather may frequently interfere, and the cats always have a starring role between snacking on delicacies and rampaging around the apple barn dislodging books with significant titles, although Yum Yum has few intellectual pretensions and prefers to play with her silver thimble. I should add that this is a portrait of a well-heeled society, mostly at its leisure – the only suggestion of a harsher world seems to come with the large number of kittens in the animal shelter, an indication that somewhere on the margins there must be cats who stray beyond the confines of a warm home with never-ending supplies of chopped turkey, cat litter and the regular attention of a good vet! Similarly in the human world disruption and death tend to arrive only in the wake of incomers to the community.

In the Mrs Malory books Hazel Holt very much follows Miss Marple’s assertion along the lines that nowhere is murderous intent so strong as in an English village, but in The Cat Who… Lilian Jackson Braun is more concerned to show the goodness inherent in people and communities, which is only briefly disturbed by the aberrant behaviour of a few before lapsing into comfortableness, albeit nicely spiced with gossip. These are kindly, feel-good books, just the thing to take your mind off the garden on a wet afternoon, or to amuse during a tedious train journey, or even for a brain-weary conference organiser.

A theme in The Cat Who Talked Turkey is the appearance in Qwill’s garden of a wild turkey and his harem, the first sighting in the area for many years. I’d been trying to imagine, while reading, what it would be like to have such visitors, and not entirely certain what a turkey looks like au naturel (as it were), so you can imagine how delighted I was when Nan posted a photograph taken at her bird feeder, showing exactly such a scene.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Short Story Weekends - Bright Silver Nothing

A difficult decision today – whether to put up this post or not. I wanted to share a great story with you, but at the same time I’m aware that very few of you – if any – will be able to read it for yourselves. I’ve decided to go ahead, because there is a move on the part of a number of small publishers to find the best out-of-print work and bring it to a new readership. I hope that I’m making a small contribution by writing about an author I’d like to see in print.

A Wind from Nowhere is a book of quirky and magical short stories by Nicholas Stuart Gray. I can’t tell you much about him (his short Wikipedia entry has little information, except to list several significant authors, including Gaiman, who cite him as an influence); he didn’t write very many books, and mostly what remains available is his plays rather than his novels. The Stone Cage, which I’d love to read if only I could find an affordable copy, is a re-telling of Rapunzel from the cat’s point of view, and I can tell you, Gray does good cats.

My current favourite story from the collection (which I am reading in a leisurely fashion), "Bright Silver Nothing", takes the form of a lecture to a group of students by a senior demon. His subject is sorcerors – their general untrustworthiness, their annoying human foibles, their occasional slipperiness when it comes to striking deals:
Get this into your silly heads: sorcerors are not always easy game. You must handle them with care, and not fool about. It takes practice to deal with the creatures_and you’re an ignorant bunch. Even clever demons can come unstuck, if they rush in without thinking seriously.
The demon, whose preferred name is Trilloby (though he has answered to Astaroth, Belial, and so on) relates the story of how he was summoned by the sorceror Sillifant to help a prince to marry the lady of his dreams. Not surprisingly, since dark magic is involved, things don’t go entirely to plan and some of Trilloby’s actions are a surprise ti him.

The demon Trilloby reminds me a lot of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus – this collection was published in 1978, so it’s possible that the young Stroud might have come across it and been inspired. Certainly the ways in which Gray, in all his stories, uses humour and different viewpoints to subvert the traditional format of the fairy story, are very much of a recent generation of writers; there are definite echoes in Garth Nix’s Mogget and the Disreputable Dog, as well as those I think I see in Stroud.

If you are fortunate enough to happen across Gray in the sort of library that hasn’t thrown out any book printed before 2007, or have the luck to find a copy in a secondhand bookshop, snap it up, it’s a small treasure. Rather nice cover, too.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

March's books

Here is the book list for March:

* Dead Cold by Louise Penny
* A House and Its Head by Ivy Compton-Burnett
* A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine L'Engle
* Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett - re-read
* Summer Knight by Jim Butcher (L)
* The Cat Who Brought Down the House by Lilian Jackson Braun (L)
* Doomsday Book by Connie Willis - re-read
* Still Life by Louise Penny - re-read
* Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris (L)
* Agatha Raisin and the Love from Hell by M.C. Beaton (L)
* The Cat Who Talked Turkey by Lilian Jackson Braun (L)
* A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
* The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett - re-read

It's pretty obvious that March was a month of comfort reading: 3 Pratchetts could never be described as intellectually challenging, although they were great fun, and served to keep my mind of work in the rare moments when I wasn't in front of a computer preparing conference rooming lists and programmes. I've already written about the Austen sequel and the Agatha Raisin here, so no more about them here, except to add that they were the lowest points of the month's reading.

Those who know her work may find it strange that I class Ivy Compton-Burnett's A House and Its Head as a comfort read, and indeed, the pater familias in question, Duncan Edgworth, sets the teeth on edge every bit as effectively as, say, Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park - he is opinionated, arrogant, inconsiderate and chauvinistic, dominating the lives of his extended family and shedding crocodilian tears at the untimely death of his first wife. I writhed with delighted rage. In truth, I find it very difficult to comment critically on Compton-Burnett, her writing is so mannered, her dialogue and situations so unreal - do they have anything to tell us about life? Oddly, I think they do: she anatomises the kind of bad faith that can exist for years within a family where one member seeks to control the lives of others, and yet no-one dares to challenge them. Duncan's two daughters are tyrannised, not by direct threats or physical cruelty, but by the withdrawal of approval and the sense of continually shifting parameters. The defence of Nance, the elder, is to provide a constant and deprecatory commentary on events while Sibyl, until her final act of defiance, is a cowed puppy, avoiding reproach by her readiness to cast herself at her master's feet with declarations of affection. "We are not touching any real truth," says Sibyl at the end - but she knows that the truth is that which is absent from their talk. These novels, and the plays of T.S. Eliot, are the last instance of high melodrama in British writing, and there is much satisfaction in a beautifully turned sentence used to good effect. There is material for comparison here between the self-absorbed Edgworths and the family at Wishwood, brought together in Eliot's play The Family Reunion to regale each other with their internal (and interminable?) commentaries which never advance the action. Happily, in A House and Its Head, although Nance's commentary is never exactly a spur to action, it is ironic enough to amuse the reader. An otherwise unattributed quote on Compton-Burnett from The Times reads: "The heights and depths of character are laid bare in the drawing room: Aeschylus has been transposed into the key of Jane Austen." Quite.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Myths and fairytales

Carl’s Once Upon a Time II Challenge was undoubtedly my favourite event of last year, bar none. I loved the RIP Challenge, too, of course, an excuse to venture into the darker side of life (and death) is not something I can resist, but folklore and fairytales are my first love. I’m delighted, then, to return to the blogging world after a couple of week’s absence to find that this year’s challenge is up, because I’ve been anticipating it for a while.

This year I’d like to include some serious reading, so I shall undertake Quest the Fourth, which requires that I read two non-fiction books, but I can’t miss out fiction, so I’ll try for Quest the First as well, five books which fit anywhere within the categories Fantasy, Fairytale, Folklore and Mythology.

The best challenges for me are those which allow decisions about what to read as I go, so I’m only posting my Pool of Possibilities (it has a rather William Morris feel, don’t you think, definitely on the way to the World’s End, if not actually there). At the moment they are all from the TBR pile, but no doubt others will present themselves, particularly once people are posting reviews.

Quest the First

A Winter Rose by Patricia McKillip: this has been on the TBR pile for quite a while, and I look forward to it.

The Poisoned Crown by Amanda Hemingway. I keep saving this because it’s the last in a series and I can’t bear to finish it.

The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt. I read the first of this series last year and raved about it here. It’s safe to read the second because a week or two ago I saw the third in a bookshop!

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. Because it didn’t come out here until 31 October last year, I couldn’t include this in the RIP Challenge. I doubt if I can keep it for this year’s challenge, so perhaps I’ll include it here.

Quest the Fourth
A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong. I started this last year, but then some work arrived and I gave up on it because I needed to concentrate. I shall add it to the pile on the bedside table. I haven’t decided on the second book yet – that will take a bit of research, I think.

It would be nice to take part in some weekend short story reading too – I might look for stories online. Right now I am going to finish my current book, so that I can start the challenge!