The queen and her coven

Black Maria
(Aunt Maria in the USA)
by Diana Wynne Jones,
illustrated by Paul Hess.
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2000 (1991)

But it’s no good thinking happy endings just happen. — Chapter 11

Mig Laker, her brother Chris and her mother have been persuaded to spend a spring break with her father’s Aunt Maria in Cranbury-on-Sea. But pretty soon they find themselves skivvying for the old lady, whose helpless, defenceless appearance belies her ability to get her own way, and it looks as though they mayn’t be able to leave.

And there are mysteries: Mig’s estranged father is missing, believed drowned in his car, but Mig and Chris think they have spotted the vehicle in the town. And why are the town’s inhabitants so weird? Aunt Maria’s cloying coterie of female friends (the several “Mrs Urs” is the collective term Mig gives them) seem to be forever spying on the trio; the men seem very distant, almost zombie-like, and keep to themselves, while the children Mig sees she finds chillingly clone-like.

This may be one of Diana Wynne Jones’s creepiest novels but, leavened with her mischievous humour, it also raises important questions about gender roles, the respect one owes to one’s elders, and the nature of invidious control.

Continue reading “The queen and her coven”

St Lucy’s Day

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

Towards the end of Joan Aiken’s alternative history fantasy Midwinter Nightingale we are reminded that events are approaching St Lucy’s Day.

This feast, dedicated to an early virgin martyr whose name derives from Latin lux, ‘light’, is celebrated each year on 13th December, and marks the culmination of the novel’s action after a few jam-packed days.

Traditionally the feast day marked the winter solstice, when there are the fewest hours of daylight and the hours of darkness are the longest of the year. But nowadays the solstice tends to fluctuate between 21st and 22nd December, so somehow we appear to be nine days adrift. How to explain?

In this discussion of the chronology of Midwinter Nightingale I shall start with considering A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day, Being the Shortest Day by John Donne — specifically referenced in the novel — and then go on to my TWITE theory concerning the Wolves Chronicles, also known as the Time Wobbles In This Era hypothesis.

Continue reading “St Lucy’s Day”

Mysterious and mesmeric

Photo image © C A Lovegrove

After Me Comes the Flood
by Sarah Perry.
Serpent’s Tale 2017 (2014)

Sarah Perry’s debut novel is a mesmeric tour de force, mysterious but detailed, mythic but realistic, filled with distinctive characters who we nevertheless view as though through fingers. Set near the coast somewhere in East Anglia, perhaps in Thetford Forest on the divide between Suffolk and Norfolk, we could imagine ourselves in the long dry July of 2013 when the temperature averaged around 30°C.

And in this kind of sustained heat, when it’s hard to think, John Coles decides to shut up his London bookshop and head to the Norfolk coast and his brother’s family. When his car breaks down in the depths of a pine forest he comes across a dwelling, and in true fairytale style he is welcomed as a long-awaited visitor, though he knows no-one. Although he wants to correct their mistaken impression his overheated condition continually delays him, drawing him into the mystery of who they think he is, who the residents are, and what they are all doing there.

The novel’s dreamlike structure and atmospheric writing create the illusion of magic realism, heightened by underlying themes drawn from Anglo-Saxon literature, classical myth and the Old Testament, to which is added a sense that almost everything encountered is symbolic. The reader who’s unalert to these undercurrents may well be bamboozled by what they’re presented with and therefore liable to dismiss the novel as incomprehensible; but that would be a mistake.

Continue reading “Mysterious and mesmeric”

Witching hour

We’re just over a week away from All Saints or All Hallows Eve, in case it had somehow slipped your mind in our modern commercialised world.

In the pagan Celtic period it was the start of Samhain in Ireland and Scotland, and in Wales Hallowe’en is Noson Galan Gaeaf, ‘the eve of the first day of winter’. When the start of winter was christianised in the 8th century the feast of All Saints was transferred here from the Pentecost period; no doubt this was due to ancestor worship traditionally being marked on the cusp of winter — with guising and offerings of food and drink at the graveside by the descendants of the deceased to appease their spirits — and therefore an apt time to honour all the saints and other souls who had gone before.

Myself, I don’t go for the partying or the trick-or-treating or the churchgoing, but I’m happy to mark the occasion online by offering a few words about Hallowmas on this post.

Continue reading “Witching hour”

An abyss next to you

Image: WordPress Free Photo Library

Serpentine
by Philip Pullman,
illustrated by Tom Duxbury.
Penguin Books 2020

“That horrible endless bottomless— It must be like having an abyss right next to you every moment, knowing it’s there all the time . . . Just horrible.”

A year after the events in Lyra’s Oxford, but well before the action described in The Secret Commonwealth, Lyra and Pantalaimon are off on an archaeological dig organised by Jordan College, investigating a settlement of the Proto-Fisher people in the Trollesund region of Arctic Norroway.

While there they take the opportunity to visit Dr Lanselius, consul to the witch clans of the north, whom the pair want to ask about the separation that the witches can achieve with their dæmons. But Lanselius already knows about Lyra and Pan’s ability to separate, the result of the trauma that took place when Pan couldn’t follow Lyra to the Land of the Dead in The Amber Spyglass.

When Pan and Lanselius’s serpent dæmon go out of the room to converse, not only does Lyra know the consul has the same ability but she is also able to discuss the other separation that has taken place since they came back together, one which has meant their former easy familiarity is not only strained but is resulting in a growing alienation she finds most distressing.

Continue reading “An abyss next to you”

Three legs bad

An Alpine acalanche

The White Mountains
by John Christopher.
The Tripods trilogy I.
Collier Books / Macmillan Publishing 1988 (1967)

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’

There’s nothing like a dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel to take your mind off current ills, providing that what’s described doesn’t approach too closely to reality. That’s the case with the first of Christopher’s Tripods trilogy, which seems to describe a time which may be in the 2060s, roughly a century after when the novel was first published. There are echoes of H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) along with aspects of medievalism which are reminiscent of Keith Roberts’ alternative history novel Pavane (published a year after The White Mountains) and Peter Dickinson’s dystopia in The Weathermonger (also 1968), but Christopher’s novel has a quality all of its own.

Will is thirteen years old, living in the village of Wherton somewhere in Hampshire, not far from Winchester. He has not yet been Capped by the Tripods but his friend Jack is about to be, in what is evidently a coming of age ritual. He has anxieties about how this will change him, a state that is compounded by conversations with a mad-seeming Vagrant, who spouts bits of Shakespeare and Shelley — he calls himself Ozymandias and sings fragments of songs like Tom O’ Bedlam — but informs Will of resistance to the Tripods in what is known as the White Mountains.

Will determines to escape the conformity that has been imposed on those Capped by the Tripods, but is encumbered by Henry, his bullying cousin, who discovers his plan and insists on accompanying him. And so begins a journey to the White Mountains that involves a sea journey, a traverse of an abandoned French capital, a horse-drawn journey by chemin de fer and a spell in a French château. All the while there is the menace of the Tripods and the fear that the cousins and their new companion Beanpole are being tracked.

Continue reading “Three legs bad”

This other Eden

‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’: illustration by Henry Justice Ford in The Blue Fairy Book

This is planned as the first (and probably ‘final’) discussion post on Philip Pullman’s The Amber Spyglass following my earlier review. What I want to do is pick up on a few random themes and thoughts which don’t necessarily or frequently appear in commentaries and reviews.

So there won’t be discussion on anticlericalism and religion; nor do I wish to discuss the science of Dust or lodestone resonators, the multiverse or quantum entanglement. But I do wish to make some observations about John Parry, Asriel and Marissa Coulter; about the broad structure of His Dark Materials; about one or two of the beings in the trilogy which I haven’t yet discussed; and a couple of other matters.

Above all, I want to point to His Dark Materials and in particular The Amber Spyglass as examples of Pullman’s skill at novelistic collage.

Continue reading “This other Eden”

Errant

Bastardised shop sign from Hereford (?)

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
— from An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope.

You may have noticed I’ve become a little bit obsessive in recent months: loads of books read — blog posts appearing every two days — reviews getting longer and wordier — strident statements occasionally appearing… If you’d wondered (if indeed you’ve happened to notice) then I think the time has come for a little bit of self-reflection on my part and an attempt at an explanation.

I think this flurry of activity comes as much from displacement activity as it does from genuine bookish pleasure. The reasons for that displacement aren’t hard to divine: the pandemic for one, which affects everyone; the crisis arising from global heating, which should be concerning everyone; and the nightmare political situation in too many countries which, closely bound up with the first two reasons, has divided everyone almost as much as any physical wall.

And because of all this I’ve alighted on the usually sage sayings of Alexander Pope.

Continue reading “Errant”

A dangerous bunch

Bookshop interior

The Left-handed Booksellers of London
by Garth Nix,
Gollancz 2020

At one point in Garth Nix’s novel — Chapter Six in fact — we join two of the protagonists as they enter The New Bookshop premises somewhere off London’s Curzon Street. (Despite its name it only sells old books.) Susan spots Shakespeare, Scott, Austen, Brontë, Blake and T E Lawrence among the titles, then some childhood favourites:

“There was John Masefield’s The Box of Delights; and the C S Lewis Narnia books; and Patricia Lynch’s The Turf-Cutter’s Donkey; The Winter of Enchantment by Victoria Walker; Black Hearts in Battersea by Joan Aiken…”

And so it goes on, with books published before 1983 by Rosemary Sutcliff, Diana Wynne Jones, Alan Garner, and Edith Nesbit. As a roll call of her childhood reading it’s impressive; as books they’re indicative of the undercurrents swirling around in this enchanting thriller, and when I say enchanting I mean full-on fizzing and popping magic.

Continue reading “A dangerous bunch”

Two brothers

Haworth Church and Parsonage

Ashworth by Charlotte Brontë,
in Unfinished Novels.
Introduction by Dr Tom Winnifrith,
Alan Sutton Publishing 1993

“When Edward and I were in penury, kept chained together by want, and abhorring each other for the very compulsion of our union, I used to endure worse torments than those of hell. Edward overwhelmed by his strength and bulk. He used his power coarsely, for he had a coarse mind, and scenes have taken place between us [of] which remembrance to this day, when it rushes upon my mind, pierces every nerve with a thrill of bitter pain no words can express.”
— Sir William Percy, in Charlotte Brontë’s ‘The Duke of Zamorna’ (1838)

In discussing Ashworth, one of the four items in Tom Winnifrith’s collection of Charlotte Brontë’s uncompleted tales, I want to focus on a motif that she kept returning to in her novels, that of two brothers in conflict, a motif which only disappeared with Villette, her last finished work (published in 1853, a couple of years before her death).

One brother, who may be called Edward, was often (as with Sir Edward Percy) described as having a “savage, hard, calculating barbarity” while his younger sibling, frequently named William, was altogether more gentle and sensitive. In varying degrees of intensity that fraternal rivalry was pursued in narratives for roughly two decades until her writing tailed off before her tragic death.

I’ve already discussed this aspect in a review of The Story of Willie Ellin (1854) but in outlining Ashworth I want to consider how the unfinished fragment forms a link between Charlotte’s juvenilia and her later work and speculate about why her Two Brothers theme seems to be a continuing obsession.

Continue reading “Two brothers”

Going Gothick

A quick reminder that Witch Week begins in roughly three weeks time. This runs from Hallowe’en to Bonfire Night, an event first begun by Lory Hess on The Emerald City Book Review, and is an annual series of guest posts.

Inspired by a fantasy by Diana Wynne Jones (called, naturally, Witch Week) this year’s event features Gothick as a theme, the perfect choice for this season.

This year my co-curator Lizzie Ross is hosting (I hosted last year) and I will be pointing you to her blog LizzieRossWriter.com for the posts: here’s her advance notice of what’s to come. Offerings lined up cover a range of literary areas, including a group read of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, but there’s much, much more!


In other news, this arrived in the post this morning, a Certificate of Higher Education in Creative Writing Studies from Aberystwyth University

Wouldst thou read riddles?

Gormenghast Castle (image: Mark Robertson)

Titus Groan
by Mervyn Peake
(illustrated by the author).
Introduction by Anthony Burgess 1968.
Mandarin 1989 (1946)

So many insightful words have been uttered, printed, and shared about Titus Groan — and indeed about the trilogy as a whole — that it does seem pretentious to add any analysis and critique to what is simultaneously another entry in the long roll call of Gothick novels and a piece of baroque writing so individual it almost feels sui generis.

It is easy enough to attempt timelines, construct genealogies, discuss names or seek parallels with Gormenghast Castle in real-life edifices which the author may have himself experienced — in fact I have already done so — but much harder to do full justice to Peake’s vision of a crumbling structure peopled by inadequate and grotesque individuals who, nevertheless, deserve some sympathy, and to measure the beauty of the language he uses to describe it all.

I shall therefore restrict myself to giving random impressions of the work especially, as having left some time lapse after completing the work — to marinate, I tell myself — I’m finding the clear-cut outlines of the narrative blurring and fading.

Continue reading “Wouldst thou read riddles?”

Honest and very human

Edith Bland (née Nesbit) at work

The Magic World by E Nesbit,
Puffin Classics 1994 (1912)

Not everyone is successful at writing literary fairytales, especially those stories that mix the modern world with traditional wonder tales of magic and enchantment. Joan Aiken was one who mastered this deft conjoining of old and new, as did her predecessor Edith Nesbit. Maybe it takes a special individual, or maybe it requires a female touch — many 19th-century male writers, such as the Brothers Grimm, Charles Kingsley et al, found it hard not to come over all didactic and moral, though some female writers were not averse to these failings. Nesbit slyly parodies these aspects of Victorian literary fairytales at the end of “The Mixed Mine” when she concludes

“There is no moral to this story, except… But no – there is no moral.”

And yet morality lies deeply embedded in most of these dozen stories — the wicked meet their just deserts, or maybe just don’t profit from their wickedness; the meek inherit the earth, or at least don’t lose out. She subverts your expectations, but in a nice way, leaving the reader challenged but also satisfied.

Continue reading “Honest and very human”

Midnight hag

WordPress Free Photo Library

I Shall Wear Midnight
by Terry Pratchett,
illustrated by Paul Kidby.
Corgi Books 2011 (2010)

How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags? What is’t you do?
Macbeth IV/1

Terry Pratchett is full of surprises. Because this, the fourth in the Tiffany Aching series of Discworld novels, is marketed as ‘for younger readers’ one might not anticipate that this is considerably darker than its predecessors, despite the expected humour and wit. And yet, with Tiffany being fifteen going on sixteen, perhaps with her growing maturity a more realistic view of what’s possible in Discworld is inevitable.

Neil Gaiman, in his introduction to Pratchett’s collection A Slip of the Keyboard, noted that “There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing,” and that is more than evident here in the stark opening and much of what follows. Some of that rage may have been tied up with his diagnosis for Alzheimer’s a couple of years before, but he had always been furious about injustices and that comes through very strongly here.

But don’t think I Shall Wear Midnight is a miserable instalment in Tiffany’s story: this is a heart-warming coming-of-age tale, even for a young witch who’s already mature and responsible beyond her years. The interweaving of the traditional folksong Pleasant and Delightful gives — for old folkies like me, born the same year as Pratchett — the story an added piquancy with its themes of love, leave-taking and loss, and may bring a tear or two to the eye.

Continue reading “Midnight hag”

Uneasy lies the head

The so-called Alfred Jewel, part of the aestel now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In this post I shall be discussing a couple of themes remaining to be highlighted from my examination of Joan Aiken’s novel Midwinter Nightingale.

No, don’t switch off, on the basis that you haven’t read this and what possible interest can it have for you: I shall in fact mostly be looking at the institution of monarchy in this alternative history and this will actually start with aspects of real history — you know, the kind of history you and I may have absorbed by osmosis at school, from fiction or the odd TV doc we’ve watched. Antiques Roadshow, for example.

So let’s start with a particular category of antique work, an art object — the aestel. What’s that? you may well ask. Read on … and beware, spoilers lurk.

Continue reading “Uneasy lies the head”