Sunday, 27 November 2011

Perfect Lives by Polly Samson

Polly Samson, Perfect Lives

Polly Samson’s linked short stories combine beautifully nuanced writing with sharp observation as she dissects present-day life in England. Perfect Lives opens with "The Egg", a portrait of an apparently successful marriage: the Idlewilds are a comfortable, privileged family in a desirable English seaside town but, under the malign presence of a perfectly ordinary egg, we see Celia’s careful edifice shatter, and we become aware that the perfection of her surroundings, too, is marred.

As I read this first story I wondered if there were going to be too many jolts, if the pitch of the writing would be too erratic. I needn’t have worried, because it was followed by "Barcarolle", possibly my favourite in the collection. The power of this story lies in its physicality, as in the contrast between the lines of Anna’s back as she changes a light-bulb and the longer lines of the piano, or the sea outside juxtaposed with the waves of music. The writing is at once delicate and muscular, building image on carefully-chosen image to a sensory climax as the Chopin Barcarolle that Richard has dreamt of all day can finally be played on the third piano. The opulence of the Idlewild establishment, with its valuable, but lightly-owned instrument, is set against Anna’s colourful creativity and the battered instrument she cherishes. Morganna’s home, too, has a richness of detail that contrasts with a paucity of affection, the garish parrot an object of loathing rather than of love, as is the piano that Lola has damaged in her refusal to do her 10 minutes of practice. Only the Idlewilds have the resources to train a pianist, but Laura is competent, not talented, while Anna has the necessary passion but neither the ability not the instrument.

The stories continue, touching on past memories – Greenham Common in the 80s, Bobo’s stories of the war: “Secondhand memories were blowing about the Hamburg streets like litter. Kristallnacht.” –  while in the present day, Claudine finds a father, Tilda discovers that it is possible to love her son. Earth-shattering events only happen offstage: these are the small, daily agonies of ordinary lives, meaningful and worthy of note because we recognise them in ourselves. And therein lies the pleasure, in the main – the careful, elegant enunciation of the trivial, like an embroidery of meticulous stitches, shot through with flashes of brilliance. 

Perfect Lives was reviewed for the Virago Book Club

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Classics Challenge

It occurred to me this morning that this challenge,which I've come across in various places as people post their lists, might fit in very nicely with another project I have lined up for next year. It is hosted by Katherine at November's Autumn, and the challenge is to read seven classics in 2012. Each month there will be a prompt to encourage participants to write about their current book. Although only three re-reads are allowed, seven suitable books are easy to find, with several coming off the shelves. My chosen books are from the twentieth century, but I might allow myself a brief flirtation with the nineteenth if I feel inclined! In which case, Trollope, Mrs Gaskell or Wilkie Collins would be the most likely candidates. Some classic crime would also be a possibility, or even some classic science fiction!

The books I plan to read are:

Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph (1924): this is a re-read. I read it when I was in my teens, and loved it - having, I think, first seen it referred to in another book, though I can't remember what. But I seem to remember another character measuring herself against Tessa's behaviour, and being very influenced by her, after seeing the stage adaptation. I wonder who it was?

W. Somerset Maugham, The Gentleman in the Parlour (1935): I've read many of Maugham's novels, but had never seen this travel account before. The style looks very readable.

Dorothy Whipple, Someone at a Distance (1953): I'm been saving this up for a while, it's one of the fist Persephones I bought. I think people would agree that, since its reprint, it has achieved modern classic status?

Sylvia Townsend Warner, either Mr Fortune's Maggot (1927) or After the Death of Don Juan (1928) - both are on my shelves.

Barbara Comyns, The Vet's Daughter: I don't think I've read this! I've loved her work ever since I came across a copy of The Skin Chairs and bought it for its title.

Elizabeth von Arnim: I like her writing, and there are several I haven't read. All the Dogs of My Life (1936) appeals to me greatly and, although I'd have to buy it, it would be easy to pass on.

Monica Dickens, Mariana (1940). Another book by an author I like, and another Persephone Classic. Dickens is a wonderfully immediate writer, and I rather expect to fall in love with this one. Also not on my bookshelf.

As an alternate, I'd like to include Rose MacAulay, possibly even a re-read of The Towers of Trebizond, which I adore, but perhaps Told By an Idiot, for the fun of something new.

I'm desperate to get on to my twentieth-century reading! Everything I want to read right now was published before 2000. Everything I ought to be reading, admittedly, because the TBR pile is mostly review books, is recently published and rats! if I haven't missed the publication date. Ho hum. Actually, I'm sure it's better for authors if there's still someone writing about their books after all the hype is over...

Monday, 7 November 2011

Ragnarok: The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt

This is a book of lists and names. In Norse mythology, everything has got a name, from the World Ash (Yggdrasil) to the magical rope, Gleipnir (fashioned by the dark elves from six impossibilities such as the sound of cats' footfalls and bird's spittle) that bound the Fenris wolf. At the start the author points out that there is no standard spelling for names, so she won't apologise for using variants, and I won't either. Lists and names are vital, of course, in mythologies, establishing the order of the world and demonstrating dominion over it,  and as the beginning of the Norse world was marked by the naming of things, so is the thin child's in this book, as she moves from Sheffield to the country at the onset of World War II, discovering and cataloguing her new environment. Reading her bird and flower guides alongside her copy of Asgard and the Gods, she ponders Frigg's journey through the world asking every creature to promise not to harm her son Baldur:
She had bird books and flower books, the thin child, and noted them all, tree sparrow, bullfinch, song thrush, lapwing, linnet, wren. They ate and were eaten, it was true, they faded and vanished as the earth turned, but they came back at the solstice, and always would, whereas Baldur was doomed to die, for all the promises. If her father did not come back, he would never come back. [...]
The goddess called everything, everything, to promise not to harm her son. Yet the shape of the story means that he must be harmed.
For the thin child, the Wild Hunt still traverses the sky, in the form of Nazi bombers, and her father has gone to fight. The story of Ragnarök becomes her protection against the horrors of war, as Byatt put it, a counter-myth, that includes the possibility of renewal and regeneration. But, as Byatt acknowledges, this element of regeneration may be a Christian interpolation - Ragnarök was the end of the world, not the beginning of a new cycle, and a book written at the beginning of the twenty-first century is overshadowed by the knowledge of our destruction of our world. As with the Nazi erasure of other races (which started with replacing names by numbers), we are, with increasing rapidity, erasing other species, and no amount of clever science will bring back a species once lost. At the heart of Byatt's book is Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent, whose poison kills Thor in the final battle - her once joyous exploration of the oceans, delighting in her fellow creatures, playing with whales, has become as much a prison sentence as her sister's or her father's - hounded and angered by Thor, she has become so vast that she reaches girdles the earth. The shape of this story means that the flat ocean which is all that will be left after the final battle will be an empty, poisoned waste.

Ragnarök is at once a gripping re-telling of the Norse myths and a warning that, as Asgard was doomed to destruction from its very beginning, so is our world. The feckless gods couldn't prevent their end, for all the promises. Neither, is seems, will we.

A final note: I was gratified to see, among the books cited at the end, under the heading, Warnings, is The Unnatural History of the Sea: The Past and Future of Humanity and Fishing by Callum Roberts- this is a book which, while laying out the damage we have done, offers a thread of hope for the future if we act decisively. I make no apology for mentioning it - indeed, I am proud to say that the author is my brother. I think it's an important book. Ragnarök, too, is both compelling and beautiful addition to the literature of mythology and a call to action. We can learn from Götterdämmerung - not least, that Ragnarök means Judgement of the Gods, and not, as the German has it, twilight of the gods. What will be the judgement on us?

Thursday, 3 November 2011

September, October and RIP VI round-up

  • The Lives of Christopher Chant by Diana Wynne-Jones re-read
  • Charmed Life by Diana Wynne-Jones - re-read
  • Silvertongue by Charlie Fletcher
  • The Duke's Daughter by Angela Thirkell*
  • Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt - review pending
  • Jane Austen by Carol Shields - review to come
  • The American Boy by Andrew Taylor
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • Arrival City by Doug Saunders (K)
  • Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym - re-read
  • The Pattern in the Carpet by Margaret Drabble - review to come
  • The Girls by John Bowen - review pending
    * Books in blue were non-RIP reads

    During both September and October I was busy reading for the RIP VI Challenge, but there were some good things I didn't have time to talk about, being too caught up in a very satisfying group read of Neil Gaiman's Fragile Things - in the course of which I discovered that the best way to read short stories is to savour them slowly. I got so involved in the group reads of this and Jim Butcher's Storm Front that I did less much reviewing than I intended!, but I had so much fun!

    I did, for the first time, manage to do some suitable viewing: The Corpse Bride was a little disappointing, and I'm not too sure about the first episode of The Dresden Files - mildly enjoyable, I suppose. I also watched a thriller called Page Eight which I might have reviewed had I had more time - it was moody and atmospheric and for once, I wasn't on edge the whole way through waiting for gory deaths. I'll definitely do this part of the challenge again next year.

    Finally, I read sixteen books which could have counted towards the challenge, and managed to review five, so I did complete Peril the First (and three of them were on the original list)! I also read all of Charlie Fletcher's Stoneheart trilogy, which was fun, though there were rather too many pitched battles for my taste (and endurance) - I think they would please a young readership, especially boys. The UK editions of this series start with a London map showing the locations of the most important statues, with a thumbnail drawing. I can't think why they aren't included in the US editions - you can Google all the statues, but that relies on memory while you're reading. The author makes brilliant use of London statues as characters and I don't think it's doing him any favours to leave out the maps - my copy of Ironhand was a Bookmooched US one, and I missed them all the way through.

    Diana Wynne-Jones' Chrestomanci books are wonderful, too, with protagonists who face real moral decisions. They may not be the very best of her books (I'd be hard pushed to choose which were!) but they are full of warmth and humour, splendid cats and some very scary moments. I've gone straight on to volume 2.

    I read Donna Tartt's The Secret History as a book club choice, having avoided her up to now because I don't get on with bestsellers. I was wrong, it was okay.

    I've enjoyed the last two months reading so much that my intention is to carry on with it until the end of the year, perhaps not quite as exclusively as I've done for the last two months, but it's getting dark early now that the clocks have changed, and I'm in the mood for more crime, fantasy and magic. Thanks again to Carl for being such a wonderful host and for putting in so much work to make it such a success!

    Monday, 31 October 2011

    Advice from Pigeons / A Lovesome Thing

    This is my last post for the RIP VI challenge, and it's one I've been feeling terribly guilty about, because I've had two wonderful books on my Kindle for ages and haven't posted about them. A major part of that was because I wanted to do them justice, so I kept putting off writing a post about them.

    Because what I most enjoyed about Patricia S. Bowne's Advice from Pigeons and its sequel, A Lovesome Thing, was how very different they are. They are set in the wonderfully realised Royal Academy of Osyth, the institution of choice for the study of modern academic magic:
    The Royal Academy is especially known for its Demonology Department, in the school of Natural Magic. As traditional demon-binding is illegal in Osyth, the Academy's magicians have developed the world's only collaborative program. Using our state-of-the-art pentarium, they are able to safely summon and study the most dangerous of demons.
    A new arrival to the Demonology Department is Hiram Rho, whose area of study is natural philosophy, a specialism rather looked down on by other faculty as it involves the ability to understand the speech of animals and suffers from an "oversweet" image. There's nothing appealing about Rho himself, however - he's disaffected, arrogant and unwashed, and his alienation from his peers endangers him when he accidentally binds a demon in the pentarium, an event which will have far-reaching repercussions, not least because it shouldn't have been possible.

    It has to be said that modern magic is a pretty complicated area, and that you need to be an attentive reader - no coasting here. The rewards are great - this is a world you can get utterly caught up in, even though you'll be pushed to do any second-guessing about how they are going to get out of trouble. While I probably liked the pigeons best, Rho grows on you as a character - he's really barely civilised at the start, but surrounded by good people like Teddy Whin and Neil Torecki, he begins to integrate a little. The logic of the magic arts is challenging and thought-provoking, particularly as it relates to the study of demons, and this is expanded on in the second book, A Lovesome Thing, when Neil and Teddy enter a lost garden in search of Neil's partner, Bill. At times gently funny, this is a book where the use of language is of utmost importance, as a materialised demon is defined by the stronger will of those who surround it, through a charm of discourse, and exorcised by erasing its identity - a relationship which becomes infinitely more complex when the exorcist has to deal, not with a demon, but a person. Professional niggles are magnified into debilitating antipathies, more than a mere disadvantage when breaking the code can mean a death sentence, as Bill has cause to know. The lost garden turns out to be a prison where very, very bad things happen, not just once, but over and over again, and who you are is thrown into constant question.

    Underpinning the world of academic magic is a very real institution, full of all the petty concerns with red-tape and accountability that anyone working in academe will instantly recognise. You'll find the exponents of sexy disciplines (like vampirology, of course), the under-funded poor relations, the quest for outside sponsorship with its never-ending grant applications, the competition for conference's a glorious, wildly sardonic in-joke, with really riveting story-lines. As another reviewer said, imagine Harry Potter told by the teachers...but, I would add, with grown-up characters with grown-up preoccupations.

    Coming late to a review doesn't necessarily reflect badly on the book. I loved these and really can't wait to read more about the Royal Academy - in fact, I keep dipping back into them, which is another reason why it took me so long to write this post. I do hope that Teddy's new friend will make an appearance in the future (author, please note - I don't want to identify the friend in question as it would be a plot spoiler!). There's also a rather wonderful website where you can read extracts from both books and other stories.

    Sunday, 30 October 2011

    Fragile Things group read - week 8

    Cape Wrath, Scotland
    Over the past eight weeks I've found the group read and the attention we've paid to the stories in Fragile Things immensely rewarding, even though my comments about individual stories wouldn't necessarily always suggest it. After posting, I've gone back over and over, as we've discussed them, and seen, or had pointed out, new elements that I hadn't considered.  Even when I haven't liked the story - or someone else hasn't liked it - there have been new insights; in fact, some of the most rewarding discussion has coalesced around stories that have caused offence.

    I've also become convinced that Gaiman is an even better writer than I gave him credit for, and that although some stories look comparatively slight, there may be much more to them than I've seen at first glance. There are one or two exceptions: "Strange Little Girls" struck me as not entirely successful, for instance, although it was an example of the series of vignettes that builds to a greater whole. We seem to have been almost universally agreed that "Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot" was a much more successful version of this kind of story.

    My comments on the stories are going to be brief - I was going to just say what I thought in the comments on Carl's post, because I'm having RSI trouble today, but then I decided there was too much I wanted to say!

    "The Day the Saucers Came"
    A nice little poem, thoughtful and effective - "the day / Animals spoke to us in Assyrian..." - full of lovely images. And containing an essential truth about the relativeness of everything, how one's own feelings can achieve such magnitude that everything just pales into insignificance. It doesn't have to be selfishness, there are times when self-centredness is natural and even appropriate.

    This is a lovely, traditionally conceived story, and another that could have been an incidental story to American Gods (how I love that Gaiman keeps creating in that world, like ours but just slightly off-kilter). You can sort of see where it's going from the start, but that just adds to the pleasure. And it proves - if it were needed, that Gaiman can write the purely joyous in short story form, as well as novel-length. Knowing the story's history from the introduction, you can't help but see it as a wonderful a expression of love for his daughter, it simply sings out of it. Gaiman says it's an R.A. Lafferty story. I don't know Lafferty at all, though this persuades me that I should. For me, it was another that reminded me of my other American god (if we count Gaiman as one, despite his Englishness), James Thurber.

    "Inventing Aladdin"
     The Introduction says everything I could want to about this last poem - stories have to start somewhere. And many of the stories that are familiar to us, and that we re-work in various ways, originated with people who had a different world-view. It's hard now to imagine that Scheherazade might literally be saving her life with every hanging ending, every tantalising beginning. Even so, stories are still of immense importance, a fundamental part of our culture - the very fact that we continue to re-tell old stories is the proof.

    "Monarch of the Glen"
    I don't think anyone can have failed to spot that I regard American Gods as pretty much the pinnacle of story-telling. It is, quite literally, the book I wish I could have written. So a further installment in Shadow's journey (and I started missing him pretty much the instant the book ended), and one set in the Old World, is like birthday and Christmas rolled into one. It took me straight back to exploring the northernmost limits of the Scottish mainland, what different country that is, wild and treeless, and full of Norse names. The days when the haar (mist) never lifts, and you can imagine Naflgar, the ship made of dead men's fingernails, drawing up on the windswept strand - oh, the desolation of those men doomed to roam the seas for ever, you can feel the chill of the seaspray. (I've been reading of Ragnarök elsewhere this week, and it's on my mind...). Grendel's mother did much to exorcise the image I had of her from another retelling, which makes me like this version all the more. And Jennie is a delight.

    I found "Monarch of the Glen" the perfect ending to the collection and to our group read. Huge thanks to Carl for being such a generous and attentive host. I'm already looking forward to the next one! But for now, I'm off to read what everyone else has to say on the last four stories.

    Thursday, 27 October 2011

    The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

    Not long ago I proofed an installment of Dickens' publication Household Words for the Dickens Journal Online project, which invited volunteers to help that get a digitised run of that journal online (along the lines of Project Gutenberg's distributed proofreading). The first article in the one I did was about the quality of housing in an area of London which was greatly in need of improved sanitation. It could have been preliminary reading for The American Boy, which is set in London and Gloucestershire not long after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Household Words may have been published much later in the century, but conditions for the poor hadn't changed much in the intervening period, and the rookeries of St Giles, described in the book, had their equivalents in the city in Dickens' day. And that's one of the best things about TAB: although the research has clearly been meticulous, it doesn't intrude at all but is a natural and integral part of the story. I'm sure that the odd anachronism may have crept in, but I wasn't conscious, the way I often am, of reading and simultaneously thinking "Would he...?", "Was that really...?"

    The American boy in question is Edgar Allan Poe, whose beginnings and ending were, as author Andrew Taylor points out in an afterword, somewhat shrouded in mystery. Taylor was intrigued by Poe's story "William Wilson" and took the idea of a boy haunted by his double to create two schoolboys who look alike, Edgar and his friend, Charlie Frant, pupils, for a short time, of narrator Tom Shield. Although he is only an impoverished schoolmaster, Shield's life becomes inextricably entangled with this pair when he is sent to London to collect Charlie and take him to school for the first time.

    One of the things that I enjoyed was the setting in "my" bit of London - Russell Square and Southampton Row, where Poe lived when he was in England as a child. Some of the original Georgian houses in the area survive and, as with the descriptions in Household Words, it makes it easier to imagine the setting, with hackney carriages coming and going. The St Giles rookery was the area between Great Russell Street, where the British Museum stands and Seven Dials, now loomed over by the massive and ugly Centrepoint building - ironically, an area which is still a mess, thanks to reconstruction by Transport for London which seems to go on for ever. It was a terrifying place in the early nineteenth century, and it says much for Tom Shield that he was prepared to venture there as he tries to understand what has become of Charlie Frant's father.

    The action moves from London, to Stoke Newington on the capital's outskirts, to Gloucestershire, where Tom accompanies the boys as their tutor. Over the course of a cold Christmas at Monkshill House, a dreadful discovery is made and Tom, a natural bystander who seems fated to be manipulated by those around him, finds himself caught up in accusations and lies. The atmosphere at Monkshill is chilly and oppressive, the unhealthy ice-house in the grounds casting a miasma that reflects the unpleasantness indoors, where Tom observes the machinations of the monstrous, self-made Stephen Carswell and his attempts to direct the future of his daughter Flora and his cousin, the widowed Sophia Frant.

    This is a gothic novel on a grand scale, lending itself to comparisons with Dickens and Wilkie Collins, though it most reminded me of Charles Palliser's The Quincunx (but admittedly, not quite so tortuous). I'm not quite sure that all the ramifications of the complex plot worked for me, but Taylor handles class distinction well, persuading the reader by example that different standards applied then. It's full of larger-than-life characters, some of them attractive, some decidedly not, but it's also about a world of ambivalence where it's not certain who should be trusted as each person pursues his or her own ends. Don't be put off by mentions of Dickens (or Palliser): it's a gripping and readable story, and I rattled through it in three days. I read it for the RIP VI Challenge.

    Monday, 24 October 2011

    The Dresden Files

     This post is particularly addressed to my fellow readers on the Storm Front group read, which was part of the RIP VI Challenge, but I've avoided spoilers, so it's safe for everyone!

    Well, it's a little late but I finally got round to watching Episode 1 of The Dresden Files. I wanted to be able to compare it to Storm Front while that was still fresh in my mind, so that I could make an informed judgment about whether it's a worthy adaptation of a fun book.

    Hmm...well, it wasn't quite what I was expecting. Episode 1 is a story about a small boy who thinks he is being haunted by demons, and he asks for Harry's help because he's seen his ad in the phone book (we remember the ad, don't we?) - Harry's reluctant because he thinks the kid probably has too much imagination and he won't take money from a child. Meanwhile, Detective Murphy (who has long dark hair - what's with that?) has a flayed corpse on her hands and needs Harry's thoughts on who might be responsible, though she seems reluctant to act on his opinion when she gets it.

     Left to right, Harry Dresden, Det. Murphy, Bob and someone we haven't met yet...

    To set the scene in this opening episode, we get a bit of the back story about Harry and his dad the magician, and a hint that Harry's powers come via his mother. Bob the skull puts in an appearance - rather more of one than you'd expect, given that he's corporeal. He's also very concerned about the wellbeing of the small boy and makes it clear that he thinks Harry's made a mistake there - all very commendable, but where's the wisecracking lecher we all liked so much? (Looking at the picture above, I'm beginning to wonder if Bob is going to turn out to be a fallen angel...)

    A similarity to the books was that the story was launched into without too much preamble, and there weren't many explanations about the rules of magic, or the White Council. In fact, there was only one mention of the Council that I can remember, and I missed the explanations, because they were fun to read. Although Harry narrates, the Chandleresque noir atmosphere was almost entirely absent, and Harry seems to have gained a nice, girl-next-door sort of girlfriend. No chemistry discernible between him and Murphy.

    When we were discussing the book Castle was several times mentioned as being like The Dresden Files. A bit of the sharpness and sassiness that went into Castle would have been very welcome here (so would Nathan Fillion, and not only because...well, we won't go into that). But I think we were all agreed that TDF ought to be Castle with magic, and unfortunately, Castle's magic was missing. So was Mister the Cat.

    This first part seemed very short - an American TV hour doesn't offer a lot of time to pack in an elaborate plot, but there's plenty of evidence that it can be done (especially by Joss Whedon and his team). Maybe this will get better - I'd love it if it did, but I'm not holding out much hope. The best I can say is that it's amiable. I'll keep watching it, and OH quite enjoyed it, but he hadn't read Storm Front, of course.

    Sunday, 23 October 2011

    Fragile Things group read - week 7

    Only one more week to go, we're on week 7 of the Fragile Things group read for RIP VI - what am I going to do when we finish talking about these stories? Although I had less time to discuss last week's reading, sadly, although I managed to check out everyone's posts in the end, I think. There seemed to be quite a consensus that last week's stories were much more successful, with all of them being tightly written except maybe the last (and even with that one, which some of us were more doubtful about, Carl said that it was better for listening to).

    "In the End"
    Is this what would be necessary for a return to innocence? I wondered at the taking away of the animals' names, which at first  seemed harsh, but of course, it was what gave man dominion over them - it's not taking anything away, it's relieving them of the burden that we imposed on them. As someone who's been known to say that the world would be a better place if there weren't any humans in it, I guess I have to agree with Gaiman's version of the End. Frankly, I'd like to see humans redeem themselves without recourse to any god, but that would have been harder to make story-shaped.

    A nice, straightforward, old-fashioned, well-told story. If you've seen The Matrix (and I guess most people have) it resonates, of course, but it's nice to have an associated story with a British setting - it kind of adds to the reality, somehow. There's Keanu Reeves doing his ninja stuff, and a 7-foot-tall British nerd running a computer shop on Tottenham Court Road...I wonder which one it is, and whether I've shopped there? I really, really hate it when the tube stops outside the station like that. it kind of reminded me of an old William Gibson story called "The Gernsback Continuum", though it's so long ago I read it that I've no idea whether it's really justified or not, except that it deals with alternative realities - but, as I say, it felt like 60s scifi, somehow (which the Gibson story did too, although it heralded something new and wonderful).

    "Pages From a Journal Found in a Shoebox Left in a Greyhound Bus Somewhere Between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky"
    This title may, or may not, refer to one of the oldest science fiction novels of all, James De Mille's A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, which was published in 1888. But, as I said last week, Gaiman reminds me of a lot of things - we seem to carry around a lot of the same cultural baggage and, listening to him talk, it's clear that his knowledge of the subject is extensive.

    I tried to be too clever with this story - I started looking for a reference to red in every section, which I thought might be the kind of conceit Gaiman would go for. But I lucked out around the fifth section and had to start over, to gradually discover that Scarlet was possibly a ghost, but at any rate something unattainable, which is why she could always stay ahead even though she was walking...and, of course, it wasn't until the end that I saw it was another Mobius story.

    "How to Talk to Girls at Parties"
    I don't really have a lot to say about this one. It feels as if it starts out being drawn from real memory, and then it turns into something else. It's a good story, it's nicely done, it's very good on that sort of tremulous anticipation about getting close to someone of the opposite sex in dark surroundings that characterises one's early teenage years; I liked the idea behind it and the contrast with the nicely prosaic title - maybe I was just too tired when I was reading it. Maybe it's just a perfectly good story that I don't have anything more to say about.

    Wednesday, 19 October 2011

    Scene of the Blog

    Something different today - GeraniumCat's Bookshelf is featured on Scene of the Blog at Kittling: Books. When Cathy asked me to appear I was immensely flattered, because I'm always rather surprised that anyone actually reads my blog. I really started it to keep track of what I'm reading, and I wondered at first whether to make it public at all. Then I discovered book challenges and the question became irrelevant! And the other reason I started blogging was because, for years, I really had no one to share books with - both sons do read, and we share recommendations and pass books around, and I have discovered some great authors that way, but they don't read as much, or as widely as I do. But now there's someone, somewhere, to talk about almost any book with. Isn't that wonderful?

    Sunday, 16 October 2011

    Fragile Things group read - week 6

    Week six of the Fragile Things group read - we're kind of on the downhill straight now. It's unlikely that I'll ever attempt to read  it in French, but I like this version of the cover, and I seem to be running out of versions in English - I suppose if I were to try, with a English translation to hand, it might be very good for my French, in fact, and rather more fun that most of the things I have to read in that language, but I'm not sure that the lexicon of un-ease that's Gaiman's métier is the most useful to me in my everyday life. But it might justify a longer lunch-break, perhaps: "Oh, I'm just polishing up my French, won't be long..."?

    More germanely, this was a much better week for me, no agonising this time over whether the end justifies the means. I wonder if we'll all be able to exchange comments in a mood of harmony, or if we'll still find things to divide us?

    "My Life"
    The choice of prose poem here was quite surprising, and Gaiman does remark that elsewhere it was published as prose, but that he prefers it with the line breaks, which poses an interesting question about the effect they have on the reader. I think I am probably disposed to read poetry more carefully, paying greater attention to individual words, although this may be more of a reflection on me, and what I believe to be involved in both the study and writing of poetry. It's certainly true that, in the far-off days when I did such a thing, I would craft a line of a poem more artfully than a line of prose, even though I like to think I paid close attention to the latter, too. And I've often been aware, during our six weeks of reading, of the close attention Gaiman pays to whatever he is writing, which is why he's so good at the kind that appears in the next story.

    Before I get to that, though, a couple more thoughts on "My Life": I do like the contrast of detail here, the over-exactitude of the causes of his father's death, compared with Mary-Lou's deliquescence (very satisfying word, that). Gaiman sometimes feels very familiar to me - he's a bit younger, but we grew up reading the same things and apparently squirreling away the same kinds of apparently useless bits of information. The disease encephalitis lethargica, for instance, which Oliver Sachs treated with L-Dopa, so that some people woke up 50 years after having contracted it in an epidemic in the 1920s. I remember the news reports, and I'm sure Gaiman does too. That's what I thought of when I read about Mary-Lou's awakening, even though it's attributed here to ball lightning - and then I find that sleepy sickness, as it was called, features in The Sandman.

    "Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot"
    In this case, what I remembered was seeing a woman on a chat show - or was it a feature in a "lifestyle" magazine? The latter, I think, but she said she was a vampire...she dressed the part, but I thought she looked a little - well, opulent, for the real thing... The tarot has been endlessly invoked in fantasy writing, but here Gaiman seems to touch an essential truth, and the major arcana of the tarot and the vampire lend their imaginative power to each other, so that the sum becomes much greater than its parts, offering us a poignant history of vampires. They are like us, of course, but sadder, wiser, colder - and amoral.

    "Feeders and Eaters"
    This reminded me of that thing that people say about relationships, that there's always one who loves, and one who is loved. Not invariably true, but you can certainly observe examples of it in couple you know. It also reminded me of Edward Hopper's wonderful painting The Nighthawks, though I think that's actually a bit glamorous for the kind of greasy spoon caff evoked here. My favourite line is: Nobody gets through life without losing a few things on the way. The narrator has clearly lost several, he's so detached from normal human empathy, although he still retains an abstracted sort of curiosity about people, and he does do rather better with the woman on the train. Oh, don't you just ache to know that story?

    "Diseasemaker's Croup"
    One can only pity the poor writer and describer of such a disease, of which he is obviously a sufferer. It sounds as if there is little hope for the patient once the tertiary stage is reached. It's most unfortunate that the cure is so difficult to obtain and prepare when this disease is so highly contagious that the very act of classifying it is apparently sufficient to contract it, and all descriptions are necessarily tainted...another variant on the Mobius story, really, and cleverly done.

    Four superb stories, I don't think I had a single quibble. Now to see what everyone else has to say...

    Sunday, 9 October 2011

    Fragile Things group read - week 5

    I wasn't able to join in much with the conversation Carl's group read of Fragile Things last week, which was a disappointment to me, but two weeks away from home made it difficult. And my reading time this week has been a little curtailed. How dare work interfere with the important things in life, like talking with friends about books?

    On to the stories:

    These days my sympathy's with Father Bear: oh yes, I do get that, and I love the way the double meaning of locks comes into play there. Goldilocks has never been a favourite story, but I like it better for this poem, that articulates our wishes as parents to protect our children early on, by the telling of stories and later, by wishing that they could learn from our mistakes, though there's also the over-protectiveness of "lock up your daughters", too - I've commented before on how good Gaiman can be at getting a lot into a small space.

    "The Problem of Susan"
    We know that C.S. Lewis wasn't at all comfortable with women and, indeed, probably disliked them for the most part. But his dismissal of Susan in The Last Battle seems out of all proportion, a petulant expression of hatred for all adult women, a statement that there wouldn't be any of them in his heaven, thank you very much! Since he portrays women pretty misogynistically in his adult fiction, I don't think I'm going out on a limb here (they are just about admissible if deferring absolutely to their husbands, but otherwise they are she-devils). So I'm glad that Gaiman set out to write something that would address the awfulness of what was done to Susan, left alone without her family and very unlikely to feel that a new lipstick was consolation for her loss. And there's something about the nastiness of the Narnia sections that fits with the nastiness of Lewis ridding himself of the nubile, no-longer-innocent (in his terms) Susan, but it's for people with stronger stomachs than me. I don't like it. But maybe I don't like it because Narnia is part of my innocent childhood and I don't want to be made to see the worm in the apple.

    "How Do You Think It Feels?"
    In the introduction to Smoke and Mirrors Gaiman says he was feeling rather blank when he wrote this story. Right. For the first time, I didn't read the whole thing but skimmed to the end. Okay, I'm a prude, but I don't want to read about sex. This reminds me (she says, changing the subject hurriedly) of when I got to know an author (whom I'd invited to speak at a conference) and his then girlfriend. The author, enjoying a spring break in England when his corner of the Atlantic seaboard was still huddled behind icebergs, very kindly gave me a copy of his latest crime novel. All I could think when I read it was, if he can imagine this sort of thing, I wouldn't want to be his girlfriend!

    Oh, what a relief, I love this. All the fairytale pieces rolled up into one perfect whole. It should have been in the possession of every one of the characters in Grimm's Household Tales, required reading. It brings back so many treasured images, and there is something about the patient tone that meshes perfectly with all the wise old men and women in the stories, who would tell you, if only you had the inclination to hear. Wish I had the audio-book!

    As ever, I'm eager to know what other people thought, especially about "The Problem of Susan".

    Thursday, 6 October 2011

    The Wine of Angels by Phil Rickman

    A very long time ago I worked in a bookshop run by a publisher of religious books. In those pre-credit card days all the local clergy had an account with us and it was inevitable that the bookshop staff got to know them reasonably well, from curates all the way up to bishops (so when my stepfather rang up one day and said "Good afternoon, this is the Bishop of Birmingham and I'd like to order a book" I wasn't at all least, not until he'd said actually, it wasn't, at which point I got very flustered!) Anyway, that's all by way of preamble - the point is that definitely the most romantic and intriguing title I came across in those days was that of Diocesan Exorcist, and very occasionally we used to sell a copy of a report written on the subject by that very diocese, which made it feel either terribly cutting-edge or frightfully medieval, I could never quite decide which.

    At least according to the Merrily Watkins series, the Church itself still hasn't made up its mind on this question either and when, as the new Priest-in-Charge of the Herefordshire village of Ledwardine, Merrily finds herself in possession (sorry!) of an apparently haunted vicarage, the message she gets when she asks for advice is dismissive. Essentially, official policy is to ignore the paranormal. Of course, it's all more complicated than that. Merrily's failing marriage was abruptly ended when her husband died in a car crash, something neither she nor daughter Jane have entirely come to terms with. And Jane, at 15, is just beginning to test out her independence and to chafe under parental constraint, and anyway she's not entirely happy with Merrily for exchanging marriage for God. As far as she's concerned, the whole religion and prayer thing just makes her thoroughly uncomfortable.

    Ledwardine itself adds to the complications. One of the county's most attractive "black and white" villages, its church was at one time entirely situated within a cider orchard, and it's still partially surrounded. Incomers to the village, with an eye for the picturesque and to increasing the tourist trade, want to exploit local customs and traditions, but without regard to their specificity - surely, they consider, wassailing is just that, whether it's the Devon tradition or the Ledwardine one? A local woman, Lucy Devenish, warns that deep offence will be caused to the apple trees, but she is disregarded. Strange things happen in the orchard: there's a death, and a girl disappears, and intense local feeling is stirred up over a tragedy that took place over 300 years earlier.

    Merrily's position within the community causes her to feel some anxiety. As an incomer (albeit one with local credentials) she must tread carefully. At the same time, she must establish - and maintain - a degree of spiritual authority in the village. She quickly finds herself having to make decisions which will bring her into opposition with leading local figures, at the same time as she is confronting her own fears. Worries about Jane only add to her burden.

    The Wine of Angels is the first of a nice long series of what have been described as "spiritual thrillers", and if you like this one you'll be happy, because there is no falling off as the series continues. If anything, they get scarier. The frights depend on your involvement with the characters - and perhaps, on your fear of the dark: expect cold chills rather than ravening demons. Merrily and Jane are complex and interesting people; though occasionally you want to give one or other of them a good shake, they have a strong moral sense that can be lacking in contemporary fiction. There's a good cast of locals, too, both lovely and unlovely, much as you would find in a real community. And although Ledwardine itself isn't real, the legends, history and literature of Herefordshire are - they combine to provide a rich canvas and are well worth investigating in their own right.

    I usually recommend, at this point, settling down with a nice cup of tea to enjoy the book, but in this case it should be the brew for which it is named, cider - but don't forget, the real stuff is very potent!

    This was a selection for the RIP VI Challenge.

    Sunday, 2 October 2011

    RIP VI: Fragile Things group read - week 4

    Last week the reactions to "Keepsakes and Treasures" varied widely, with some people absolutely loathing the story because it was really very nasty and perverse while others agreed that the subject matter was unpleasant but thought that it worked as a story. Some really thoughtful posts provoked an excellent discussion, not just of this story but of the very unsettling "Other People", and about whether the fantasy elements really added to "Bitter Grounds", or whether it would have worked better without them.

    I suspect that this week's responses will be more positive - I certainly enjoyed our reading, and am dying to know what everyone else thought.

    "Good Boys Deserve Favour"
    I don't really have much to say about this one - quite a nice insight into the workings of a young boy's mind, all that sitting in a music room with a book and not practising (that must be why my school had a glass panel in the door of the practice room!), and I liked the explanation about the double bass really being a bass viol, which is why it has such wonderful sonority...not new, but Gaiman's so good at introducing those little details which enrich his stories. In similar fashion, I like to know that it was inspired by a sculpture.

    "Strange Little Girls"
    Very short stories have rather taken off since the advent of Twitter and, by those standards, the stories here are quite epic! I like "Heart of Gold" - Mobius again, and rather clever. "Bonnie's Mother" and "Monday's Child" compress a huge amount of narrative into a tiny space - the latter reminded me of Gus van Sant's film Elephant which took 81 minutes to convey the same message (admittedly extremely effectively!).

    "Harlequin Valentine"
     Alas, poor Harlequin, to have the tables so neatly turned on him. But the harlequinade is a story that is constantly remade - the commedia dell'arte has been with us for hundreds of years (and I doubt if it sprang new-made into classical theatre where its roots lie) and transformation is part of the story. This is another that could very easily belong in the American Gods world. And on Etsy I found a Lisa Snellings carousel rabbit that I lost my heart to.
    "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch"
    Grumble, grumble, grumble, I had to buy a copy of Smoke and Mirrors to read this, because of the differences between the US and UK editions of Fragile Things, but then I found that S&M (oh boy, only just noticed that!) contains possibly my favourite Gaiman poem, "Reading the Entrails", especially as I am so caught up in reading the stories and our discussion that I couldn't bear to miss one. Anyway, to "Miss Finch" - if this turned out to be the only story I liked in S&M it would have been worth the purchase - what a wonderful piece of writing! For a start, there's a sort of companionableness about it, you really feel as if Neil is telling it directly to you. The inclusion of two real friends adds to the effect - perhaps not so much Jane, as she's less-known, but here in the UK Jonathan Ross is more famous than Gaiman, a person liked or loathed (depending to some extent on your sense of humour), an instantly recognisable face and (undisguisable) voice. Miss Finch's continual lecturing is funny and plausible (I know people who would never eat sushi), as is her determination not to enjoy herself. The cavernous spaces where the circus takes place are superbly evoked (indeed, such a setting was used for a scary circus performance in an episode of Sherlock quite recently - and I saw the Cirque du Soleil myself at Battersea Power Station, which perversely I found much more satisfying than the alternative location of the Albert Hall). I'd love to hear Neil read this one aloud, and if my dad, who genuinely did run away to join the circus as a boy, had still been alive, I'd have given him it to read. I'm not sure that we are ever going to get Kristen m's "bright and beautiful" from Gaiman, but here we got close to perfection. Didn't we?

    Friday, 30 September 2011

    The Corpse Bride

    Well, this is new for me, it's a rarity for me to review anything other than books and I think this is definitely my first ever film review. I usually leave that sort of thing to my sons, who can talk intelligently about camera angles and framing shots and I-don't-know-what's. I'm more comfortable with people standing (or hopping) about on stages. But nothing venture, as they say, and you won't be at all surprised that it's RIP VI that made me take the plunge.

    Anyway, after years of not quite getting round to it despite having recorded it, we finally watched The Corpse Bride. Now, this may be controversial, but I think my expectations had been a bit too high - for a start, you'd think I might have remembered that I'm not a huge Tim Burton fan - but my overall feeling was of slight disappointment. I never felt really involved with it, and OH, who was watching with me, felt much the same. We agreed that there were things we had enjoyed about it, and that it had made an agreeable evening's viewing, but not a standout one.

    What were our criticisms? Well, it wasn't dark enough, it wasn't funny enough (I thought some of the jokes were quite lame) and sadly, it wasn't beautiful enough. The characterisation was too minimal - the most well-rounded character by far was the Bride herself, followed by Scraps the dog, who was admittedly very sweet. OH complained that it was too Disney-ish, me that, despite its cast of voices being largely British, it wasn't European enough (though I doubt if Burton had ever meant it to be that...). We both compared it unfavourably with other films - OH with Miyazaki's Spirited Away (which we loved), me with Coraline and Mirrormask, which we agreed to be both beautiful and dark - and that the use of stop motion in the latter two made it a fairer comparison. We were unanimous that The Curse of the Were Rabbit had been funnier and more engaging, and that we'd both enjoyed that film far more than we'd expected to.

    OH gave some thought to the music, which he described as Gilbert and Sullivan for the living, and jazz for the dead. Was there anything about jazz at all, he wondered, which made it an appropriate choice? I thought that perhaps it tied into an American association of death with mardi gras, where jazz is the music of choice. The use of the piano was nice. I was impressed by the treatment of fabrics, particularly the attention given to the way skirts would slide down a staircase, a severally-repeated trope. OH said that he'd been in love with Helena Bonham-Carter ever since Room With a View, so she couldn't really go wrong for him. We both liked the dog.

    We couldn't entirely agree on whether it was a good thing that the denouement had been clearly flagged so early in the film. OH thought not; I suggested that it had to be seen to be following the proper arc for what is essentially a fairytale. We established that OH hadn't remembered Tim Burton's oeuvre, so he hadn't really known what to expect anyway, and that the way in which Johnny Depp's character grew up throughout the film was quite appealing, if relatively straightforward. We concluded that it had been a perfectly pleasant film, and that we were glad we'd finally got round to it.

    Did I mention that we liked the dog? 

    Monday, 26 September 2011

    RIP VI: Storm Front group read - week 2

     This is emphatically not how I imagine Harry Dresden...

    Storm Front is a very entertaining read, and I shall actually be rather sorry to finish it next week (balance that against how eager I am to be getting on with the story, though). Here are my answers to Carl's questions:

    1.  What are your thoughts on the pop culture references Butcher includes in his work, largely coming from Harry himself?
    Um...gosh...were there? Perhaps, being English, I just failed to recognise them! Shall have to see what other people think...

    2.  As I finished part two of Storm Front I realized that each section of the book thus far feels like a distinct act in a three act story arc. How do you compare the events in this second section of the book with what happened it part one?  Is there a mood or theme or such that you feel is embodied by part two of Harry's adventures?
    This section gets really intense - we reached a real high pitch at the end of chapter nine, with Harry's visit to Bianca, and we've just got to another real cliffhanger, and another death. I don't think it's cheating to say that I looked at the start of the next chapter and the first sentence was "Have you ever known despair?" - which seems exactly right, given Harry's situation. Things are really, really bad, and there's meeting the White Council still to come.

    3.  One of many things Jim Butcher demonstrates in Storm Front is a healthy sense of humor.  Share with us your thoughts on one (or more) of the humorous moments in the story thus far.
    You've got to laugh at the shower scene - he's not just naked, he's soapy! And then there's an "accident" with a love potion! (I do hope in the TV series he was at least wearing a towel, I'm getting quite maiden-auntish these days.) I think we can expect that, whenever Bob's involved, things are going to go wrong, probably hilariously so.

    4.  Our hero Harry had disastrous interactions with the women in his life in section two of the book (four by my count). For first time readers, were you surprised by any of these and what are your thoughts?  For those who've read the books before, had you forgotten about any of these?  If so, or even if not, share your thoughts on Harry's luck with women.
    Poor Harry, I'm afraid he's going to turn out to be one of those guys women like to talk to, while they fall in love with someone else. And he's doomed, really - whoever hard of a hard-boiled hero with a comfortable domestic life?

    5.  A few other popular characters have been brought up in the first round of discussion about Storm Front. What books, films, tv shows, etc. does this story/these characters call to mind and why?

    I'm probably a bit short on cultural references here, but I'm not surprised that Firefly came up, because Harry has quite a bit in common with Mal (not being good with women, in particular). But Philip Marlowe's an obvious literary precedent. And I would guess that maybe there's a hint in the series title The Dresden Files that Jim Butcher might have a soft spot for The Rockford Files?

    6.  For new readers, what is your overall assessment of the story thus far?  For re-readers, what have you picked up on this time that you either forgot about or don't remember seeing from  your first trip through the book?
    I'm managed to forget most of the detail, which is great, because I'm enjoying it all over again. I'd especially forgotten how different the vampires are here - it makes them extra threatening, because they seem really alien. I'm curious, too, about where Harry would draw the line at using his power if it weren't for the White Council.

    Sunday, 25 September 2011

    RIP VI Fragile Things - week 3

    I had been going to say that this was a slightly less satisfactory week for me, and that I was going to be reading other people's responses avidly, because I wanted to be persuaded that I was wrong. But, as happened in weeks one and two, the more I thought about the stories, the more I was convinced of their quality and, in the end, there was only one I had real reservations about.

    'Going wodwo'
    I always feel that I should like this poem more than I do: the subject matter is one that I feel most strongly about, having spent many years studying (in a non-formal way) the Green Man and associated legends. It's probably the aspect of British and European mythology closest to my heart, emerging from my childhood love of the Arthurian cycle and legends of the wildwood. Maybe that's why the poem doesn't work for me, because it's simply not intense enough - I feel that if anyone can express that visceral connection with land and forest, then Gaiman ought to be able to. And he does in American Gods, in prose. But sadly, not here, and although I like the final image which juxtaposes silence and language, my main emotion when I read it is disappointment. I shall be very interested to see what other people make of it.

    'Bitter Grounds'
    This could have been one of the incidental stories in American Gods, since it deals, like that novel, with the gods that people brought with them to America. I don't know a great deal about Haitian legends - somehow Vodun didn't get into the Arthur Mee Children's Encyclopaedia stories from other nations pages, and the Larousse World Mythology has an embarrassingly slender section on African legends, with nothing on the Caribbean at all. But it seems to have the right "feel", and it's one you can get your teeth into. The subheadings include quotes from Louis MacNeice and Philip Larkin, too - that's got to be good! As usual with Gaiman's stories, there are question marks - for instance, two men disappear: what happened to them? It's kind of a perfectly-formed mini road narrative, which is very cool indeed. I really like this one.

    'Other People'
    In the Introduction Gaiman calls this a "Mobius" story, which is a good description. It's pretty bleak, and unsettling both because it's about torture and also about all the bad things we don't like to think about: self-deception, the harm we do to other people, and both deliberate and inadvertent wrongdoing. It's effective and well-crafted, but it's never going to go on my list of favourite stories.

    'Keepsakes and Treasures'
    At the Edinburgh Book Festival this year Gaiman was asked about his characters - did they ever dictate the action? He answered that many of them seem to have independent existences which he just looks in on from time to time (this might be a function, I suppose, of writing a longterm graphic novel like The Sandman, or it might be why he was disposed to embark on such a project in the first place). This story is one of those occasions, because it introduces two characters who appear later in 'Monarch of the Glen', which is in turn about Shadow from American Gods...I love that he does this, and I am really hoping that he meant it when he said he planned to write more about Shadow. The two characters here, Smith and Mr Alice, are really very nasty indeed, and it's a dark story full of death, described dispassionately by a very cold-blooded killer.

    I just want to add, here, that it's going to be a very busy couple of weeks for me, with lots of travelling and meetings, and I shan't have much time for reading and commenting. I'm enjoying our shared reading very much, though, so I will do my best to read everyone else's posts - it just may take me all week to do it! Fortunately, I'm going to be at home both weekends, so I can always catch up then.

    Friday, 23 September 2011

    Murkmere by Patricia Elliott

    It's really great when something a little different comes along, and this was one of those occasions. I think I had read a review of Murkmere somewhere, though I'm really not certain. Anyway, I was looking for a book swap, and decided to take a chance on it, and I'm really glad I did.

    Murkmere is the story of 15-year-old Aggie, who is summoned to Murkmere Hall from her village to be companion to the Master's ward, Leah. Aggie's mother was once a maid at the Hall, but she doesn't know what to expect when she arrives, and she finds a strange, dilapidated house dominated by the compelling Silas Seed, the crippled Master's steward and right-hand man in everything. Not only is he in charge of all the Master's affairs, he oversees the moral welfare of the servants, ensuring that the dictates of the Ministration are adhered to. At first Aggie is overwhelmed by the charismatic Silas, but gradually, as she tries to meet the challenges posed by her position as companion to the troubled, wayward Leah, she begins to question his actions and, almost despairingly, her own beliefs.

    What lends this book a haunting quality is its setting in the English fenland, and its bird-inspired religion. Although there's not the technology to make it fit into the category, there's a darkly steampunk feel to it nonetheless, perhaps because we don't really know how the world came into being - there's a hint that it might be our world, changed after humans had somehow transformed themselves into the mysterious and reviled avia; the hypocritical Ministration, constantly on the watch for rebellion, certainly have resonances of the post-civil war period in England and the puritan protectorate. And the author makes clear in a brief note at the start: "The superstitions in this novel are found in British folklore", which makes it, for me at any rate, all the more powerful, harking back to first hearing of the story of the Children on Lir, and the hair rising on the back of my neck, because it seemed more like a memory than a new story. Elliott says of writing the book:
    all I had at first was the image of a girl, painstakingly sewing a swanskin back together. I had to find out why. Who was the girl, and why was the swanskin in pieces? 
    The winter fenland, the swans that Leah must be kept away from, the Master's painful yearning after forbidden knowledge, the Ministration's duplicity and decadence - all combine to create a lyrical, wistful novel.

    There is a sequel, Ambergate, which I shall have to read. I'm sort of afraid that I shan't love it as much, because I find the sere countryside of the setting so compelling in the first, and I know that the second moves to the city. But the Ministration is tantalisingly portrayed in Murkmere, something nasty but intriguing, so I have to know more...

    Wednesday, 21 September 2011

    The Hanging Wood by Martin Edwards

    A new Martin Edwards  book is a pleasure to be anticipated keenly, and The Hanging Wood doesn't disappoint. Mind you, I think Martin is setting up himself up as a contender for the "creative rural deaths" award, held until now, of course, by the ridiculously OTT Midsomer Murders TV series, which rarely looks at the harsh realities of country life when camp will do. This series, however, is set in the Lake District, which may look picturesque to  visitors but is inhabited by a local population who are no strangers to the struggle of farming on marginal land and its concomitant high suicide rate (I've often thought that being a farmer ought to carry an automatic ban on owning a shotgun). Because it's a tourist destination with a long pedigree, though, culture sits side by side with poverty, and secondhand bookshops and private libraries plausibly rest alongside holiday parks - and it's these last which provide the setting for The Hanging Wood, when a young woman with a history of alcohol problems contacts Hannah Scarlett's cold case team to demand that her brother's disappearance should be re-investigated. Hannah finds herself once again comparing notes with historian Daniel Kind, who is researching his next book in the desultory way possible to a successful populariser of history, a pursuit which apparently leaves him plenty of time to indulge his curiosity about unexplained deaths. He's interested in Hannah, too,  but they are both feeling a bit battered, and Hannah's ex-partner the bookseller doesn't consider himself out of the picture. Although Marc isn't as central a character as in the previous books, there's still plenty to please the bibliophile (those who read Martin's blog will know his predilections) and there's a nice comment about to-be-read piles guaranteed to make readers smile, rather making up for his incendiary plot device earlier in the series.

    Not surprisingly, given the author's interest in classic and forgotten crime novels, this series is establishing a firm place amongst the best of British crime fiction, nicely but not tortuously plotted, with well-drawn characters and an excellent cast of regulars. Like the golden age classics they appeal to a wide readership, and I think they will wear well.

    This book was reviewed for the R.I.P. VI Challenge.

    Monday, 19 September 2011

    Storm Front group read - week 1

    Last week was week 1 of the group read of Jim Butcher's Storm Front for the RIP VI Challenge. I read some of this fun series, the Dresden Files, a while ago, and then kind of lost the thread, so I'm really happy to start again at the beginning (I'm a great one for starting over). Although I've got some scenes from later books in my head, I really don't remember too much of the plots by now - for instance, I honestly don't remember who makes it through to book 2!

    1. What are your first impressions of our main character, Harry Dresden?

    I like the way he tries to be hard-boiled and never quite succeeds. You know pretty quickly that he’s a really soft touch and doesn’t mind being one, despite all his protestations. But he’ll carry on trying to persuade himself nonetheless. Oh, and you've got to have a good coat to be a hero, and Harry takes his seriously.*

    2. In the first section of the book we are introduced to a large cast of characters. Some in support of our main character and others who are involved in the multiple investigations with agendas unknown to us. Are there any of these characters who stood out to you?

    I’ve fallen for Mister the cat, of course, and Bob the Skull. Bob is a brilliant way of getting round the need for a reliable source of information! But I’m always wary of animal characters – authors too often decide that it’s okay for bad things to happen to them just as you get really attached, and I do hope that’s not going to be the case here. Karrin Murphy is obviously set up to be an important character, too.

    3. Did you ever watch the Syfy channel's Dresden Files TV adaption? If so did it effect how you approached the novel? Were there positive and/or negative differences that stood out to you?

    I’ve got the series on DVD, to watch when I’ve finished reading the books it relates to. I am really hoping that I’ll like it!

    4. Any thoughts on Jim Butcher's magic system, Harry's Watcher, and/or the White Council?

    The magic is very much the old-fashioned kind: the rules aren’t so clearly defined that contradicting them will become an issue, and the reader is not going to get hung up on checking for consistency. At the same time, it’s defined enough so that the author can’t just do anything, there’s got to be an internal logic to it, and I approve of that. The Watcher is obnoxious, but believable, and the White Council fits well with our preconceptions of a world where magic is part of the nature of things. An all-powerful wizard without the constraints of Watcher and Council would get dull to read about, I think.

    5. Lastly, any guess on where Dresden's multiple plot threads will lead and/or any favourite scenes the first section of the book?

    I’m not going to go down the where-will-it-lead route because I’ve read Storm Front before (albeit ages ago, and I really can’t remember that much detail) but I do like the scene with the fairy Toot-toot, with both Harry and the fairy playing their roles to the hilt. And there’s something oddly compelling about the potion-making – is it because I like reading cookery books, I wonder?

    I’m really looking forward to getting on with the story…

    * my son's got Vash the Stampede's duster from Trigun - I'd kill to have one like it, except that I would look ridiculous, it's one of those that you need to be over six foot and incredibly skinny to wear...

    Sunday, 18 September 2011

    RIP VI: Fragile Things week 2

    The second week of the Fragile Things group read has gone really well for me, I'm getting so much more out of the stories by reading them at such a slow pace. I usually rush at collections of stories and it doesn't do me or the book any favours, because I can't step back far enough to see each one as a single entity. This time I've read and re-read, and stopped to consider and, as a result, I have time to see far more in them than I do as a rule.

    'The Hidden Chamber'
    This is a nice little piece that evokes the Bluebeard story effectively, while at the same time lifting it out of the expected gothic realm. We anticipate all the trappings and are instead offered washing machines and other mundane objects (which might nevertheless be rather useful for disposing of unwanted traces). Hidden chambers have developed resonances since Gaiman wrote the story, and we've become more aware that even the most prosaic suburban settings might house hidden horrors. Gaiman's known that all the time, of course, always having seen the skull beneath the skin.

    'Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire'
    My favourite of this week's stories is a real gem - I love the fantastically overwritten sections with their "little" jokes, several of which I'm still chuckling over. This narrative-within-narrative is like a series of Monty Python sketches, always spilling over into farce no matter how hard the young writer tries to avoid it. Meanwhile, the "outer" story, tackling its subject with a subtler humour, reminds me of Thurber's fairytales, and I can think of no higher recommendation:
    Strange, scuttling things gibbered and cheetled in the black drapes at the end of the room, and high in the gloomy oak beams, and behind the wainscoting, but they made no answer. He had expected none.
    I get a frisson of delight from "cheetled"...

    The two threads really flow into each other with the interjection of the raven (and don't you just love the raven?) but the story's construction remains most unusual, with two streams of "reality" which raise all sorts of questions, such as why the families were cursed in the first place, or what the "unusual circumstances" which brought Ethel the maid to the house were. I could happily have read more of this inspired lunacy, but it's a wise author who knows when enough is enough. Apparently, he shortened the title to the one given here...

    'The Flints of Memory Lane'
    I do like the way Gaiman resolutely keeps to something that's not story-shaped. He could have made it much more so but, as it is, it reminds us that we do from time to time see things we can't readily explain - and afterwards we may not even be sure how much of what we've seen is real. Memory is a tricksy thing at best, and if we start to question the detail of what we saw, we may end up questioning the whole experience. In such circumstances it's best not to try to make too much sense out of it, to force it into a story mould.

    'Closing Time'
    I've always liked the stories of M.R. James, even though they do rather fall into the category of "bad things happening for no reason" that I complained about in my last post. It's partly because they also follow the rather successful formula of everyone sitting around (in a club, or after dinner) and one speaker relating a tale, a device also used successfully by Agatha Christie and Robertson Davies - there's something about the gathering of people which draws you into the circle, yet releases you at the end to go out into the crisp, cold night and home to comfort with the other listeners - the stories are made doubly safe by that extra distancing. So this rather nasty little story reaches us at a remove, while following the proper Jamesian conventions of the club setting, the mysterious stranger and the lingering doubt about what exactly has taken place.

    Friday, 16 September 2011

    RIP VI: My musings on scary reading

    In a recent post, Susan at You Can Never Have Too Many Books mused about reading horror stories. The questions she asked herself were picked up by Emily at Telecommuter Talk, and comparing their thoughts on the subject naturally led me to consider my own reasons for reading dark and scary tales. So I too have taken the questions Susan asked as the basis for my own musings on why I embrace RIP every year with such enthusiasm.

    Why do I read scary stories?
    Now, it has to be said right at the start that Susan is way braver than me when it comes to this sort of thing – I can’t really say that I read horror stories, or at least, not very often, and I’m really hopeless at horror films, but nonetheless I enjoy a good dark fantasy. One of my problems with horror is that often the bad things seem to happen for no reason, so a fantasy world in which demons or whatever are part of the fabric is more satisfying to me. I guess for many the breakdown of order in our familiar world is enough of a raison d’être, but I channel my need for this into crime fiction, which usually offers a logic for the eruption of disorder into everyday life (or enough of one for me).

    Do I like being thrilled? 
    Almost all my favourite books from childhood involve magic, with the characters overcoming great obstacles to win through in the end. I graduated early to H.P. Lovecraft, finding one of his collections on my parents’ bookshelf, and to M.R. James. I prefer my thrills Victorian. Or, even better, rooted in the folklore that I began to feel was an essential part of myself. 

    Do I like being scared, safely in the comfort of my home? 
    Yes, and I think it’s immensely important for children to learn about dealing with the sense of fear in these safe circumstances. Why else are our oldest stories full of darkness and threat if not to warn us of the real dangers of the outside world, while at the same time reassuring us that resourcefulness will get us through? (Of course, this is often demonstrably untrue, but if we didn’t believe in ourselves to some extent, we’d never leave the house!) I think A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok is going to address this, and I’m looking forward to seeing how she does so.

    All that being said, I usually used to watch Dr Who from behind the sofa, and once spilt an entire cup of tea over myself when a door was opened to reveal a cyberman and I jumped violently – I knew it was behind the door, but I couldn’t help myself. So I don’t watch anything too frightening (younger son makes the decisions for me) although I have a bit of a soft spot for the sillier end of the Japanese horror spectrum. Said son has nerves of steel, apparently, and can watch the most ghastly things and gleefully murders monsters by the legion (but he was upset for days when he ran over a rabbit).

    Do I like that eerie frisson of chill running over my skin when I read a particularly scary line or scene?
    An early addiction was the passage in T.H. White’s The Queen of Air and Darkness where Morgan le Fay creates a magical spell in order to seduce the young Arthur by cutting the outline of a man from a corpse. I read and re-read it compulsively, with a sense of thrill I’ve rarely found anywhere since. Even then I knew that it didn’t matter whether or not the spell actually worked – what mattered was the sheer evil of doing it, both the will to dominate and the contempt for the dead man. There’s a difference, though, between reading about an evil act in a real-world setting and a supernatural one: the first produces a feeling of revulsion, and perhaps anger or grief, depending on the degree of vicariousness; the second can evoke the delicious chill, because it’s safely distanced, even when we’re deeply involved in the book or film. It’s important that we don’t really believe it can happen – and we all – except, it seems, my younger son – know how genuinely unpleasant it can be when we’ve gone too far, reading alone in the house at night, and find ourselves too frightened to sleep, and jumping at every sound. Where one draws the line is a very individual thing, I suppose: I avoid anything really frightening if I'm alone but, tucked up in bed with a hotwater bottle and secure in the knowledge that my menfolk and dogfolk (though they are even bigger cowards than me)* are to hand, it's remarkable how comforting a bit of a chill can be.

     ...tucked up in bed with a hotwater bottle? 
    (with thanks to Gustave Doré)

    * the dogs, that is, not the chaps.

    Tuesday, 13 September 2011

    Fragile Things - group read

    Sunday saw the end of the first week of the Fragile Things read along. For a variety of reasons I couldn't post that day, and it's taken until today to have the necessary combination of time and an internet connection - I'll do better next week! But here is my brief contribution, for what it's worth.

    'The Fairy Reel' - not much of a poem, says Neil Gaiman, but  I think it's better than he allows himself credit for, because it has  such a wistful, yearning quality - it reminded me of the line from 'The Vicar of Bray', "and this the burden of my song" - burden actually meaning only chorus, but here it's a real burden, a heavy heart, or perhaps, a heavy absence of heart. It carries, too, the haunting tone of my long-favourite fairy poem, Keats's 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'. You can imagine the subject of this poem "alone and palely loitering", in thrall to a wild-eyed elfin love, and the recurring heartstrings/violin strings theme is very strong. Those long lines are effective, too, conveying a sense of relentless and unproductive motion, only broken in the last line, where the caesura signifies the cessation of movement, and release.

    There was one line I pondered over at some length:
    Until one day she'd tire of it, all bored with it and done with it
    I felt that "bored with it" was too modern an expression, and wondered how I would choose to re-word it - but I can't. And the more I think about it, the less I really want to...perhaps because "bored with it and done with it" has a feeling of capriciousness entirely appropriate, somehow foreshadowing "long and cruel and thin" in a way I can't really articulate, except for noticing - somewhat tenuously - the assonant linking of the "o" sound, which runs through the intervening lines.

    This all made me remember, as I brooded on it, of how years ago I had an argument about the usefulness of literary criticism with a friend  - he'd given it up favour of history, I was studying it at the time and struggling slightly to justify the study of a subject solely because it gave me pleasure (I too gave it up, in favour of philosophy, which some would argue was even more useless). Anyway, one of my gripes with lit crit was that the only way, really, to describe a poem is by the poem itself, which says exactly what the author means to say, and Gaiman makes this point precisely and elegantly in his tale 'The Mapmaker', which he tells in the introduction to Fragile Things, and which Carl made a particular point of encouraging us to read.

    We read two other stories this week, and I don't really have time to discuss them here, except to say that the Sherlock Holmes/Cthulhu cross-over works a treat, and that I loved October in the Chair all the more for having read The Graveyard Book  since I first picked up my copy of Fragile Things. Carl talks about all of this week's reading very perceptively on Stainless Steel Droppings and I really can't add anything more, though I would like to second him when he urges us not to read too briskly through the collection, but to savour the stories at leisure.