Unputdownable

Angel niche
Rhiannon Lassiter Ghost of a Chance Oxford University Press 2011

This, if it’s not too contradictory a description for a ghost-cum-detective story, is a delightful novel, often deeply satisfying and always captivating. The narrative is set within the span of a month, from April Fool’s Day to May Eve, and features the ghost of young Eva, who has to act as a kind of detective to uncover the details of her own murder. Good detective stories include a cast of suspects and a shoal of red herrings, and we get plenty of both here. Ghost stories, by definition, must offer us a closetful of skeletons, spooks and denizens of the spirit world and there are enough here too for all the proverbial hairs on your neck. Particularly memorable are the maid Maggie, the Witch and, most chilling of all, the Stalker, who feeds off other ghosts.

What I like about this book is the various levels at which the intelligent reader can connect with it. Continue reading “Unputdownable”

Disturbing visions

gatehouse

Neil Gaiman:
Coraline and Other Stories
Bloomsbury Publishing 2009

This is a collection of eleven Gaiman short stories (and one poem) repackaged for the young reader market. The novella Coraline is added to Bloomsbury’s earlier Gaiman collection M for Magic, while M for Magic was itself a throwing together of disparate tales, some from the adult collection Smoke and Mirrors, some from other publications, all deemed suitable to send a chill down pre-teen, teen and, of course, adult readers. So the moral is, if you already have these titles in your library you may want to pass on this ‘new’ title.

Or then again, you might not. This is a good place to include the almost flawless Coraline together with the other chillers about the fears and bogeys that haunt the childish and not so childish imagination, deliciously presented in a volume with pages that are black-edged and including Dave McKean’s original nightmarish illustrations for Coraline. This story about a girl (don’t call her ‘Caroline’) who finds a way into a parallel house where her mother has been replaced by a sinister figure with buttons for eyes is both a terrifying and yet satisfying modern equivalent of all those Grimm fairytales, such as Hansel and Gretel, with their bewitching and unspeakable devouring figures.

Outstanding are the pieces that bring horror (and sometimes humour) rather too close to home; Troll Bridge, Don’t Ask Jack, Chivalry, The Price and The Witch’s Headstone, whether set in the UK or the States, all remind the reader that the veil separating reality and the supernatural may be awfully thin. Less engaging but just as skilfully written are the more alien, fantastic or futuristic stories such as How to Sell the Ponti Bridge and Sunbird; these are more for those who have leanings towards genre fiction, but they are still rooted in a rich Western cultural heritage.

Gaiman is a master at bringing the unexpected to the seemingly banal; don’t read this if you don’t ever want to have his disturbing visions floating up to your consciousness unbidden.

A critical yet teasing tone

Jane Austen?
A putative Jane Austen portrait

Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice Everyman 1993

To my deep shame I have never before now read this classic (and I’m not counting skimming pages, nor watching the TV and film versions). I’m not sure whether it was false pride or male prejudice that stopped me (the label ‘romance’ would have been enough to put me off when I was younger) or simply laziness (most probably this), but I now know what I’ve been missing: a witty but perspicacious novel, not as hard to comprehend as parodies suggested, and, though set in a period of history I’m not over-familiar with, a primary social document on manners and presumptions in the Napoleonic era. Continue reading “A critical yet teasing tone”

A perfect black comedy

autoroutePascal Garnier The A26
Gallic Books 2013
Melanie Florence, translator

Roads. Railway lines. Lives.
Where do they begin and end?
But end they must. Dead.

It’s the early nineties and a motorway is carving its way through the northeast French countryside. The construction of the A26 (the autoroute des Anglais as it now known) in its impersonal way inevitably affects the communities in its vicinity, disrupting lives in unforeseen ways and, in this novella, becoming an unexpected harbinger of death. Continue reading “A perfect black comedy”

A heady brew

compass roseStuart McHardy On the Trail of the Holy Grail
Luath Press Ltd 2006

Another of this author’s Arthurian titles (his 2001 The Quest for Arthur was also published by Luath Press) takes him on a quest from the pages of medieval writers to places in the Scottish landscape, and from the early medieval period back into the mists of time. Along the way he encounters folklore and legend, Dark Age warriors and Goddess worship, Pictish symbol stones and natural wonders. It’s all a bit contentious, especially his insistence that every crucial aspect of the Arthurian legend, from Arthur himself to the location of Avalon, is to be firmly set in Scotland, and McHardy flits in a gossipy style from one discipline to another, taking a nugget from one or another scholar and linking it indiscriminately to antiquarian speculation. In fact, despite describing himself as a ‘cultural ecologist’ McHardy is actually a typical speculative antiquarian, mixing fact and fancy in a heady brew that leaves you with a hangover. Continue reading “A heady brew”

A grail like no other

Hildesheim portable altar, V&A Museum
Hildesheim portable altar, V&A Museum

G Ronald Murphy Gemstone of Paradise:
the Holy Grail in Wolfram’s
Parzival

Oxford University Press 2010

Who has not heard of the grail? Who does not have an image of it, perhaps as a cup or some other receptable? Who has not gathered that there is some mystery concerning it, such as it being the chalice of the Last Supper, or the bloodline of Christ, or even some angelic or alien artefact? And who has not gathered that it is something many search for but few, if any, find? What is it, where did it come from and what is its significance? Does anyone really know?

It may be best to go back to basics. Continue reading “A grail like no other”

A well-rounded world

door

Trudi Canavan The Novice Orbit 2010

The novice of the title is the young Sonea whom we met in the first volume of this trilogy, The Magicians’ Guild. She has overcome her anxiety about joining the Guild following an exhausting search for her when her burgeoning powers threatened to endanger both herself and the inhabitants of Kyralia’s capital Imardin. Having been reluctantly accepted into the Guild by the magicians she is then subjected to concerted bullying by a cohort of students led by Regin who are persuaded that, as a former inhabitant of the city’s slums, she is fair game for victimisation. But as her magical potential continues to grow a close interest is taken in her by Akkarin, the enigmatic High Lord of the Guild, with consequences that nobody in the Guild could have foreseen; and as the story unfolds the High Lord’s dark secret becomes increasingly obvious to the attentive reader.

A trilogy’s middle novel is potentially difficult in terms of lack of resolution and loose ends. Canavan largely gets round this by having a central theme, namely bullying. Continue reading “A well-rounded world”