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?