Curious and convoluted

Pendragon design by Nick Bristow / Chris Bristow

Antal Szerb The Pendragon Legend
Pushkin Press 2006

Szerb’s novel is a curious hybrid, a mix of murder mystery and ghost story, romantic comedy and Gothic chiller, social commentary and humour. While the whole is never more than the sum of its parts (the resolution, for example, doesn’t convincingly meld these disparate genres) this is still an impressive first novel, self-assured and wittily expressed.

According to the helpful Afterword, Antal Szerb was a polyglot academic who diverted some of his scholarly interests, along with other more unorthodox delvings, into fiction. He was very well regarded as a scholar until his anti-fascist stance led to an untimely and brutal death in a labour camp in 1944. The Pendragon Legend resulted from a year he spent researching and people watching in Britain, and was published in Hungarian in 1934.

The reluctant hero, Janos Bátky, is a Hungarian Continue reading “Curious and convoluted”

Doom foretold

mars2
Mars, showing one of the polar caps: NASA image via http://internetlooks.com/mars03.gif

Frank Herbert Dune Messiah
New English Library 1972 (1969)

Talk, think, talk, think, talk;
conspiracies in deep space
while billions die.

I must confess my heart sank when I began reading this, the sequel to Dune, to find it seemed to be not just more of the same mind games played between key characters that its predecessor relied on but also relatively devoid of action of any kind. There was the usual psychological power play conversations indulged in by powerful individuals who were either human computers, psychics, drug users with heightened prescient awareness, shapeshifters or revenants, in fact nary an ordinary human being among the lot of them. How would it be possible for the reader to make an empathic connection with beings who are palpably superhuman?

Continue reading “Doom foretold”

The divide of otherness

Winter on the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, Wales
Winter on the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, Wales

Philip K Dick
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
Gollancz 2007 (1968)

andy sheepWhat can be said about this famous novel — ostensibly about a detective chasing dangerous androids — that hasn’t been said before, and better? Rather than a closely argued review, this overview will be about impressions, rather like the 2007 Gollancz cover picture which, to my chagrin, I didn’t immediately realise was a colour dot-matrix image of a sheep. A case, I suppose, of being too close to it in the first place. Anyway, I learnt my lesson, and waited a while before committing some thoughts to electronic page.

First, what this book isn’t. Continue reading “The divide of otherness”

More grit and wit

dogAndrea Camilleri The Terracotta Dog
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Picador 2004 (1996)

It’s hard, having relatively recently come to the Montalbano books after seeing a few of the TV series, not to people the pages with images of screen actors, but while there are some double-take moments (Salvo with hair, Salvo smoking!) it’s refreshing to have confirmed that the films have remained true to the letter as well as the spirit of the novels.

The Terracotta Dog has many attractive ingredients. Continue reading “More grit and wit”

Grit and wit

seashore

Andrea Camilleri The Shape of Water
Translated by Stephen Sartarelli
Picador 2005 (1994)

Truth is like water poured into a vase or a glass, a cup or a bucket: just as water takes its shape from its container, truth can be just as malleable, depending on one’s point of view. Camilleri’s The Shape of Water presents just such a conundrum: a corpse is discovered and though it soon becomes clear the deceased died from natural causes all is not as it seems, with Commissario Montalbano suspecting foul play when circumstantial evidence suggests things don’t add up. Continue reading “Grit and wit”

Destiny’s children

mosaic
Romano-British mosaic fragment, British Museum (2013)

Garth Nix Lirael  Collins 2004 (2001)

Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?

Much of fantasy is founded on the principle of Fate taking a hand in deciding future outcomes. It’s hardly surprising – it shares this principle with fairytale, with mythology, with religion, whether Fate is called a fairy godmother, a god or any other kind of demiurge. With backgrounds such as these the notion of prophecy looms large, even saws and sayings become significant determinants which one defies at peril or at least with little success.

In Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series that sense of predestination is encapsulated in the question “Does the walker choose the path, or the path the walker?” Now while many abhor such casual predetermining of individual or collective futures by Fate (or whatever one chooses to call it) there is no denying that as a plot device in fantasy it can be not only a successful but also satisfying way of ensuring that karma catches up with individuals and justice in all its forms is seen to be done. From fairytales through myth and on to much classic literature we all like a pleasing narrative where good, despite the odds stacked against it, overcomes evil in the end and all deserving souls live, for the foreseeable future, happily ever after.

So it is with Lirael, the second in the series. Continue reading “Destiny’s children”

A Himalayan pilgrimage

Mount Kailas, Wikipedia Commons
Mount Kailas, Wikipedia Commons

Colin Thubron  To a Mountain in Tibet Vintage 2012 (2011)

I came across To a Mountain in Tibet while searching unsuccessfully for Charles Allen’s The Search for Shangri-La: a Journey into Tibetan History (1999) which a while ago I’d had to return to the library before completing. I nevertheless found Thubron’s account of his journey fascinating, all the more inspiring as it was accomplished by a man in his seventies. Despite privations and cold and altitude, most of which he refers to but never with any sense of self-pity, he undertakes a voyage largely on foot up to and around Mount Kailas or Kailash in Tibet, the sacred mountain of Eastern traditions and legendary source of four sacred rivers (the Ganges, the Indus, the Brahmaputra and the Sutlej); and in straightforward but poetic language he describes for us the landscape he sees, the peoples he meets, the traditions that imbue every physical feature he negotiates, in such a way that we feel we are there with him.

‘Pilgrimage’ is not quite adequate a word for his trek. Continue reading “A Himalayan pilgrimage”

Characters that stick in the memory

Charles Dickens (aged 27 in 1839) by Daniel Maclise Wikipedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery
Charles Dickens (aged 27 in 1839) by Daniel Maclise
Wikipedia Commons / National Portrait Gallery

Charles Dickens Great Expectations
Collins Classic, HarperPress 2010 (1861)

Characters stick in
my memory: Estella,
Joe, Miss H. And yours?

I find it hard to distinguish between the images furnished by my first reading of this and by the BBC serialisation in the 60s. I suspect that the TV version came first and influenced my rather rapid reading of the novel where I omitted all the characterisation, social commentary, landscape descriptions and comedy in favour of rooting out the plain narrative. So, Great Expectations for me then was a mix of two themes, the rags-to-riches story of Pip and the boy-meets-girl-but-it-doesn’t-go-smoothly tale of Pip’s infatuation with Estella, and hang the rich tapestry of life in early 19th-century rural Kent and teeming London which Dickens grew up with.

I’m so glad I gave this a second chance, and that with maturity and experience am able to more fully appreciate the subtleties and nuances of Dickens’ story. Continue reading “Characters that stick in the memory”

Avoiding awkward misunderstandings

 flags

 False Friends: Faux Amis, Book Two Matador 2011

Avoid faux pas! Don’t | be le roi des imbéciles: | la libraire sells this!

If you haven’t already heard of faux amis (‘foe zammy’) then the chances are that you’ve not studied French at school, where the phrase and the concept would have been made very clear to the beginner. As it is, False Friends is really only aimed at those already in command of a reasonable understanding and vocabulary since beginners are given no concessions in terms of supportive pronunciation or grammar.

So, assuming you’ve gone as far as picking up the book knowing what to expect, what are you likely to find in this, the second of a series of books designed to help you “avoid those awkward misunderstandings”? Continue reading “Avoiding awkward misunderstandings”

Many layers of allusion

Mogget's map of the Old Kingdom credit: http://oldkingdomwiki.wikia.com/wiki/Mogget%27s_Map?file=Map.jpg
Mogget’s map of the Old Kingdom
credit: http://oldkingdomwiki.wikia.com/wiki/Mogget%27s_Map?file=Map.jpg

Garth Nix Sabriel
HarperCollins Children’s Books 2003 (1995)

A young woman finds herself thrust into a task that she feels unprepared for, and of course you have to hope that, despite the odds, she succeeds. This being fantasy, first cousin to fairytales and heir to human dreams, you can be almost certain that she will. But, to quote the song, what gets results is not what you do but the way that you do it; and because Garth Nix is a talented writer, with a long track record in publishing and editing, the end result is a very distinguished and impressive first volume in The Old Kingdom series that rarely feels as if it’s peddling clichés.

In some countries the trilogy is named the Abhorsen series, from the title of the gatekeeper between the realms of the living and the dead, a necromancer who communicates with the deceased through the use of a set of bells. Sabriel, the daughter of the current Abhorsen, finds herself in quest of her missing father with only the instruments of his calling and a talking cat called Mogget. This involves a dangerous foray from Ancelstierre into the Old Kingdom where magic is strong; conversely anything mechanical is unable to function. Her search requires her to journey through inimical landscapes, survive a siege, fly in an engineless aircraft called a paperwing and survive numerous brushes with death, vividly described as being an underground river flowing through nine precincts. This is not a laugh-a-minute tale. Continue reading “Many layers of allusion”

A tortured but decent sleuth

Marsh Hall
Audley End, Essex

Kathryn L Ramage Death Among the Marshes:
A Murder Mystery Set in the Twenties
Edited by Ginger Mayerson
Storylandia, The Wapshott Journal of Fiction Issue 10
The Wapshott Press, Summer 2013

The detective with a notebook is a commonplace in murder mysteries, and Death Among the Marshes pays homage to this trope, not once but twice – the investigating police detective brings one out, as does Billy Watkins, the manservant of the main protagonist Frederick Babington. Set in the early twenties, this clever novella also gives specific mentions both to the Sherlock Holmes stories and to the first of the Poirot mysteries by Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920). Set in the fictional Norfolk pile of Marsh Hall, seat of Viscount Marshbourne, by the village of Marshbanks, Death Among the Marshes is Kathryn Ramage’s way of having fun with the country house mystery genre while also acknowledging that living in the aftermath of the Great War was no less difficult for many returning soldiers than surviving the actual conflict.

As with the detective the reader may well resort to a notebook to make sense of the complicated relationships and possible motives of the actors in this story. Continue reading “A tortured but decent sleuth”

Hayley and the Mythosphere

Halley's Comet, 1910

Diana Wynne Jones The Game Puffin Books 2007

virgoThe concept of the mythosphere is a wonderful thing, typical of Diana Wynne Jones and full of creative potential. It is the place we go to in dreams, the realm of the Collective Unconscious, the landscape where mythical archetypes roam and Jungian symbols are to be encountered, collected and treasured.

Young Hayley gets drawn into the mythosphere when she is sent by her grandparents to stay with relatives in Ireland, who have invented a pastime called The Game where they have to fetch back mythical objects against the clock. However, there are repercussions which not only put her in danger but also reveal who she really is and the nature of her large extended family. A clue comes from her name which, as in many of Jones’ books, has a significance beyond it being a girl’s name chosen at random: it is a closet reference to Edmond Halley who identified the periodicity of the comet that bears his name and whose surname is popularly pronounced as in the girl’s forename. Hayley, like the comet, has the capacity to blaze away in the heavens… Continue reading “Hayley and the Mythosphere”