Walls closing in

Winter on the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Black Sheep by Susan Hill.
Vintage Books 2014 (2015)

Whenever he clambered down the steep track home he felt the walls closing in on him and his spirit shrivel and darken.

Chapter 11

Unremittingly bleak, Susan Hill’s novella set in a fictional pit village focuses on the Howker family, sometime in the 1930s. Villages built up around collieries exist only for the colliery’s needs, with the miners’ day based on the progression of shift, meal, sleep and return to work, the chapel or the weekend dance at the Institute bringing some scant variety, and the woman’s role confined purely to servicing the requirements of their menfolk’s work.

Life beyond the pit village of Mount of Zeal can scarcely be imagined by its inhabitants, but at least two and maybe three of the Howker family dream of escaping the misery of the daily treadmill. When they make the attempt, one to try his hand at sheep farming, say, or another to marry outside of the workforce, they run the risk of being regarded as the black sheep of the family.

Will they make their own way in life or will circumstances force them to return to the fold?

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The music of the senses

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Something of His Art:
Walking to Lübeck with J S Bach
by Horatio Clare,
Little Toller Books 2019 (2018).

October 1705. Bach, at just 20 years a church organist in Arnstadt, applies to his superiors for a month’s leave to hear the music of Dietrich Buxtehude in Lübeck, 250 miles (400 km) to the north. His purpose, he told them, was “to comprehend one thing and another about his [Buxtehude’s] art”.

One autumn three centuries later the writer Horatio Clare followed some of Bach’s footsteps for a BBC Radio 3 series called Bach Walks (first broadcast as five programmes in 2017), this time to “learn something” of Bach, the man and his art. In company with a producer director and a sound recordist he attempted to catch a flavour of what it must have like for the energetic and ambitious young composer travelling on foot up the Old Salt Road, moving from south of the Harz Mountains northwards to near the Baltic Sea.

Two artists, then, one taking as close as was possible to the other’s path from one rather conservative culture to a more cosmopolitan environment: would it be possible for Clare to learn something more than the bald facts of Bach’s going and for the listener (and, now, reader) to learn from the writer’s experience?

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Psychological puzzle

Paris

Maigret Defends Himself
by Georges Simenon.
Translated by Howard Curtis (2019).
Penguin Classics 2019 (1964).

Another way to translate Simenon’s Maigret se défend is ‘Maigret on the defensive’: as a title it’s slightly more indicative of the Detective Chief Inspector’s state of mind, I think, than the more legalistic or pugilistic stance suggested by the version offered in Howard Curtis’s new translation. Because this policier is about two related psychologies — Maigret’s, and that of the unknown person who is trying to tarnish Maigret’s reputation and career — the resulting conflict does rather put him on the defensive.

When Maigret and his physician friend Dr Pardon discuss whether the policeman has ever come across a ‘truly wicked’ and spiteful criminal they are not to know that Maigret will soon feel such a person could exist when Maigret is deliberately placed in a compromising position, threatening to lead to his enforced early retirement.

But his usual patient detecting methods which eventually lead to criminal perpetrators being identified may have met their match when he comes up against entrenched privilege and influence; are he and Mme Maigret facing an uneventful sequestered life in Meung-sur-Loire in place of the metropolitan bustle they’ve become used to? Or will he go against his superiors’ express orders to get to the bottom of matter?

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Thicker than water

Mother and Child: lithograph by Henry Moore

Clara’s Daughter
by Meike Ziervogel.
Salt Publishing 2014.

Sometimes we’re never so alone as when we’re with other people; and yet even in solitude we can find it next to impossible to form a relationship with our inner selves. Meike Ziervogel’s novella cleverly plays with the disconnect between the several roles we play—as parents, partners, professionals, siblings, children—and our authentic selves.

The title hints at that disconnect. So too does the narrative, told now in third-, now in first-person, conveying immediacy in its consistent use of present tense but disorientating with some scenes told out of chronological sequence. And as we flit from observing the points of view of one character and then another we find them adrift in emotional seas, the distances between them widening as they float further apart.

Described as a ‘psychological thriller’ — though there aren’t any major shocks, I feel, nor are we confronted with individuals who are psychologically complex — this is really a family tragedy with an ending that, retrospectively, feels almost inevitable. That incipient inevitability doesn’t however stop one engaging with the narrative as it unfolds.

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#Narniathon21 begins

#Narniathon21 image after Pauline Baynes

On this, the last Friday of the month (and three days short of C S Lewis‘s birthday on 29th November) the start of #Narniathon21 is officially announced: the wardrobe door is now open!

As previously noted, we’ll be reading all seven titles of The Chronicles of Narnia in publication order, beginning with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950). You will have a month to read each title at your own speed, in your own time, until the last Friday of the corresponding month when you’ll be invited to comment. Here’s the schedule:

  • December. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
  • January. Prince Caspian.
  • February. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
  • March. The Silver Chair.
  • April. The Horse and His Boy.
  • May. The Magician’s Nephew.
  • June. The Last Battle.
  • July. Optional read: From Spare Oom to War Drobe by Katherine Langrish.

At the end of the month you’ll be invited to join a conversation here — and also on Twitter — about that month’s instalment. If you find yourself at a loss as to where to begin, I’ll pose three general questions which you can either respond to or ignore, as you wish—this readalong is designed to be an enjoyable experience, not an examination! (But in the meantime feel free to add initial thoughts below.)

Two more points: as the last Friday in December happens to be New Year’s Eve (when you may have other things on your mind!) that month’s summative post will be on Thursday 30th December.

Secondly, roughly midway through each month I shall aim to post (or repost) a review of a related title or discuss a topic which touches on an aspect of that month’s selected title. As always the tag #Narniathon21, with or without the hash, may alert you to that post, principally on Twitter if you don’t already follow this blog.

And now all that remains is to remind you how it all started so innocuously:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy.

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The end of the line

Joan Aiken 1924-2004

The Witch of Clatteringshaws
by Joan Aiken.
Red Fox 2006 (2005).

Malise is the District Witch of Clatteringshaws, sometime in the 1840s of a Caledonia not of this world. She almost held the key to who was to be the monarch after the death of King Richard IV, if only she hadn’t been distracted by a tune composed by Dido Twite’s father. And if that last piece of a puzzle isn’t recovered, Dido’s friend Simon won’t be fully convinced he need not be King any longer.

This, then, is one facet of the final instalment of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, a series which ran to a dozen or more titles and which this novella, even in its seemingly truncated form, attempts more or less successfully to bring to a satisfactory conclusion.

But, as with each and every episode, the story is like a intricate mosaic: seen in a cursory way from a distance it presents a strong image with a narrative, but when examined closely its tesellated pieces give hints of different materials and unexpected relationships.

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Whispers of Dust

The third and final series of the BBC/HBO adaptation of Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials is due to air some time in 2022. If you’re a fan of the screen version you’ll be familiar with Scottish composer Lorne Balfe’s striking title music, especially its distinctive ‘Scotch snap’ in the opening theme (perhaps an echo of the rhythm in the name Lyra Silvertongue).

The middle section of the credits sequence includes a sung chorus, the largely indistinguishable words later confirmed in a tweet by the composer as being in Latin. The mystical-sounding words have since been translated in various ways but I favour an interpretation which whispers about Dust, about great cycles of Time, and about the part to be played by seemingly insignificant individuals.

But the murmurings and whispers also convey to me the promise of the third and final volume of Pullman’s The Book of Dust, the title of which we don’t yet know (the author has reportedly suggested The Garden of Roses or Roses from the South as possibilities) and which this summer he was still in the middle of writing. Still, I’m going to speculate a little on what it might contain, so expect several spoilers in this rather meandering post.

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Tempered by mercy

Inspector Chopra & the Million Dollar Motor Car
by Vaseem Khan.
Mulholland Books/Hodder.

This was Mumbai, after all, the city that not only never slept, but also kept all the neighbours awake by playing loud music all night.

The premise of this locked room mystery is that an expensive vintage racing car has been stolen from a prestige motor showroom in Mumbai and the manager, an Englishman called Jon Carter, calls in retired Inspector Ashwin Chopra to discover its whereabouts as a matter of urgency. Why urgent? Because bloody murders may result from its not being found.

Chopra’s task seems insurmountable, as he has just hours to solve the case with all leads arriving at dead ends. But it’s good fortune that he has a baby elephant in tow, an unexpected gift from a relative, and, with the help of this pachyderm (called, aptly, Ganesha) and the familiar flashes of insight that fictional detectives customarily get, Chopra inches towards the solution.

So, justice will be done, as suits the inspector’s virtuous instincts. But will it be justice tempered by mercy or will a metaphorical pound of flesh be the price to pay for the commission of the crime?

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Saga’s ending

Joan Aiken 1924-2004

Next year it will be sixty years since what is now regarded as a modern classic was published; as well as being a delightful children’s novel The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) unexpectedly proved to be the start of a series of instalments set in an alternative world of the early 19th century.

Six years ago I began a reread of all of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles (as her daughter Lizza dubbed them) with a view to thoroughly exploring through reviews and discussion posts the alternative history world she’d created. (Incidentally, these posts can be read in chronological order via this link or in reverse order using the tag Wolves Chronicles.)

I’ve now, after a dozen or so titles, started on the last ever of these chronicles, The Witch of Clatteringshaws which was published in 2005, a year after her untimely death: Aiken, who was born nearly a century ago on 4th September 1924, in Rye, East Sussex, passed away on 4th January 2004, in Petworth, West Sussex, but not before completing the final instalment in novella form.

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From reader to author

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The Chronicles of Narmo
by Caitlin Moran.
Corgi Books 2013 (1992).

The French title of this novella — Comment je suis devenue célèbre en restant chez moi! — misses the punning of the original English by omitting the anagram of the author’s surname and the clear reference to The Chronicles of Narnia. And yet it accurately describes how the fledgling journalist drew almost exclusively on her home circumstances while still in her early to mid-teens to win prizes and awards (such as The Observer’s young reporter competition) as well as penning this comedic family portrait, published when she was still 16.

She slims down the chaos of being the eldest of homeschooled siblings by reducing the number from an actual eight to a fictional five — Morag, Lily, Aggy, Josh and Poppy — but, one suspects, only marginally exaggerating incidents with witty hyperbole.

Twelve chapters purport to chronicle life in the Wolverhampton family from one Christmas to the next but the conceit is followed very loosely, with random incidents reported and threads reappearing now and again. I have to be honest here and say it became a bit tedious towards the end but as a tour de force by a young author the whole is extraordinary.

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A comedy of terrors

Londres, le Parlement. Trouée de soleil dans le brouillard, Claude Monet (1904), Musée d’Orsay

Symposium by Muriel Spark.
Introduction by Ian Rankin.
Virago Modern Classics 2006 (1990)

When I say this is a delicious story I mean this: that there are several figurative flavours to savour as well as it being centred on a dinner party held in a London residence at the end of the Thatcher years.

The first flavour consists of the main characters, nominally ten but drawing in many acquaintances so that a mental sociogram is required to relate them all to each other. The second flavour — sharper, more piquant — is made up of undertones of violence and criminality, and menace and death.

But the strongest flavour the author serves us is down to the sauce, laced of wry humour and mordant commentary, which permeates every page of this longish novella and which had me virtually smacking my lips. What a feast she has prepared for the reader, one she prefigures in her epitaphs from Lucian and Plato which refer to certain symposia that either ended up in the shedding of blood or acknowledged that the genius of comedy was the same as that for tragedy.

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Godforsaken paths

The third temptation of Christ: Christ and the devil on a pinnacle of the temple.’ Coloured chromolithograph after John Martin. Wellcome Collection.  (CC BY 4.0)

One Billion Years to the End of the World
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky,
translated by Antonina W Bouis (1978).
Penguin Classics Science Fiction 2020 (1977).

“I was told that this road
would take me to the ocean of death,
and turned back halfway.
Since then crooked, roundabout, godforsaken paths stretch out before me.”

Yosano Akiko (attributed)

A physicist, a biologist, an engineer, an orientalist and a mathematician walk into an astrophysicist’s apartment. No, it’s not the start of a joke but essentially the main action of this immersive novella by the Strugatsky brothers, also translated as Definitely Maybe: A Manuscript Discovered Under Unusual Circumstances.

Set in 1970s St Petersburg, then known as Leningrad, most of the action takes place in astrophysicist Dmitri Malianov’s apartment while his wife and son escape the city’s hot and humid July oppressiveness in Odessa on the Black Sea. Here he seems to be on the brink of discovering a link between stars and interstellar matter which he dubs ‘Malianov cavities’.

But he is constantly being interrupted, by phone calls, a delivery from the deli, even a visit from one of his wife Irina’s schoolfriends. And he is not the only specialist who isn’t able to settle to achieving a breakthrough — which is where the physicist, biologist, engineer, orientalist and mathematician come in. What is there to link their inability to progress their work, and who or what is causing it?

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Ring cycles

© C A Lovegrove

As I proceed on my journey through Frodo’s Middle-earth — currently well into The Two Towers — it’s time to take up the metaphorical pen again as part of my #TalkingTolkien series in this, my sixth reread of The Lord of the Rings. As I approach the halfway mark — the end of Book 3 which signals the midway point of the second volume — a few more things strike me about how Tolkien paces and structures his work.

I’ve talked before about Portals, about Crossing Places and Stopping Places signposting significant points in the narrative. At some stage I want to talk about landscapes in more detail, for example how each book so far includes a mysterious woodland or forest at its heart with its odd denizens: Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in the Old Forest, Galadriel and Celeborn in Lothlórien, and Treebeard in Fangorn.

But right now I want to consider how The Lord of the Rings appears to incorporate a number of so-called basic plots; while the author’s use of interlacing stories offer a kind of covering garment, archetypal plots appear to provide the scaffolding on which the fabric hangs.

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Three’s company

La Parisienne (1874) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (Amgueddfa Cymru, Cardiff, author photo)

Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig.
Brennendes Geheinnis (1913)
translated by Anthea Bell.
Pushkin Press 2017 (2008)

There was dangerous unrest in the air here, covert, hidden, alarmingly mysterious, something moving underground in the woods that might be just to do with the spring season, but it alarmed the distraught child strangely.

Chapter 14, ‘Darkness and Confusion’

In this delicious novella, first published in 1913 but probably set in the 1890s, Stefan Zweig tantalises the reader by gradually shifting our point of view from a would-be seducer to the child of the intended victim. In so doing he reminds us that, as adults, our actions and our words have untold effects on young minds and that playing life games with them may result in unplanned consequences.

The story is mostly set in Semmering, an alpine resort in Austria, with a denouement in Baden bei Wien. Semmering had been made accessible in the 19th century by a spectacular mountain railway, which led to a demand for hotels in the town to accommodate wealthy Viennese tourists; it’s to Semmering that a Baron arrives for a spring break and to scout out likely females for dalliance.

His eyes alight on a woman with a young boy in tow, but she initially plays coy. He decides to befriend the twelve-year-old Edgar who, frail and clearly lonely, seems to be the best route to getting better acquainted with his planned conquest. How will Edgar react when his new grown-up ‘friend’ and his mother then seem to share a ‘burning secret’ to which he isn’t privy?

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#WitchWeek2021: wrap-up and 2022 theme

So, Witch Week 2021 has come to its end — hopefully with a bang and not a whimper! For the last few days we’ve put Treason and Plot under the spotlight as manifested in fantasy fiction, tales of adventure in settings both classical and modern, and in Shakespearean drama. Hosts and guests alike hope you’ve been mightily entertained, perhaps even shaken and stirred!

Co-hosts Lizzie and Chris are grateful for the help of everyone who participated:

  • Lory of Entering the Enchanted Castle, who waxed lyrical about the work of Megan Whalen Turner;
  • Jean of Howling Frog Books, for introducing us to an almost forgotten children’s adventure series written by John Verney;
  • Ola and Piotrek, of Re-Enchantment of the World, whose enthusiasm for the late Roger Zelazny’s Amber Chronicles shines through in their post;
  • I can’t not include Lizzie of Lizzie Ross, Writer herself who has not only shared in preparations and contributed a post but has also edited down our Tempest discussion for posting;
  • Citizens of the social media world, too numerous to mention, who added comments and questions; who may have tweeted/Facebooked/Instragrammed links to our posts; and who included pingbacks, links, and reviews on their own blogs;
  • Readers around the globe who’ve viewed posts or even just ‘liked’ them!

And, finally, once again, a special nod of appreciation to Lory, who seven years ago started this annual celebration of Diana Wynne Jones and fantasy fiction. The first wonderful series of Witch Weeks appeared on Lory’s former blog, the Emerald City Book Review, between 2014 and 2017; since she’s moved to her new website they may be available if you search its archive:

Witch Week 2017: Dreams of Arthur
Witch Week 2016: Made in America
Witch Week 2015: New Tales from Old
Witch Week 2014: Diana Wynne Jones

But she was brave enough to let Lizzie and myself take over, which we’ve now done for *checks records* the last four years. Here are links to our previous posts:

Witch Week 2020: Gothick
Witch Week 2019: Villains
Witch Week 2018: Fantasy & Feminism

Thanks again to all of you for sharing this event with us, and we hope you’ll rejoin us here next year, when our theme will be … Polychromancy.

We can imagine the look of puzzlement on your faces! What’s Polychromancy?! To get an inkling of the basic premise of this theme do have a look at this review of Maria Sachiko Cecire’s Re-Enchanted which investigates the disproportionate dominance of white writers in fantasy; as for what to expect next year, watch this space!


Did you manage to read anything related to our theme during this Witch Week? Feel free to share in the comments below if you did! 🙂